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October 04, 2021

Codex Valmadonna I

Codex Valmadonna I had its roots in a community that experienced great turmoil. It was produced within a Jewish community in England in the twelfth century. It is now one of a kind. Jewish communities in medieval England alternated between prosperity and persecution. One of the triggers for persecution was the call to crusade. When word spread across Europe in 1187 that Christian armies had lost control of Jerusalem, anger welled up. This anger was directed not only against Muslims — who were far away — but also against Jews — who were near. A call went forth for a third crusade to retake Jerusalem. Religious fervor spread throughout England just as Richard I, also known as Lionheart, took the throne. One incidence of violent persecution occurred on Richard’s coronation day. Prominent Jews were mobbed and murdered as they attempted to bring the new king gifts. There were other violent persecutions that followed. Perhaps the worst occurred in York. When a fire broke out, indebted noblemen incited a mob to burn down the home of a Jewish family that owned their debt. On the following day, 150 Jews took refuge in York Castle. Facing forced conversion or murder, the Jews took their own lives. It was in this environment that Codex Valmadonna I was created. According to the scribe’s handwriting, it was completed on July 9, 1189, in the very month Richard the Lionheart became king of England. While other Hebrew biblical texts likely perished amid the persecutions, this codex survived. It is the only dated Hebrew Bible manuscript from medieval England known to be in existence.

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