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Canadian Library Acquires Rare Medieval Travelogue

February 5, 2017.  A Latin translation of the 12th century medieval travelogue, The Travels of Benjamin Tudela, captured the imagination of scores of 16th century readers with its tales of exotic lands and detailed descriptions of ancient cities. This fall the McMaster University Library’s William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections had the opportunity to acquire this rare and significant text for the benefit of medieval scholarship in Canada.

Thrilled about the acquisition, Myron Groover, Archives and Rare Books Librarian at McMaster University Library, commented that the text is a “fantastic humanist artifact,” and says it complements McMaster’s strong collection of books from the renaissance period, as well as the Division’s growing collection of Judaic texts.

“As far as we know, it’s the only one held by a public institution in Canada. We are so pleased that we were able to acquire this book and that we can now share it with the scholarly community and the public,” continued Groover.

Lesser known, but perhaps contributing a more important history, the chronicles of Benjamin of Tudela’s travels predated Marco Polo’s by about 100 years. Benjamin was a talented ethnographer who captured the ethos of over two hundred, 12th century, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian cities during the span of his journey. Though the date of his original departure from Zaragoza is in dispute, historians place it somewhere between 1159 and 1163 CE. He returned in 1172 after over 10 years of travel.

Not much is known about the personal life of Benjamin or what ignited his decision to cross hundreds of miles of land and water to complete his trek. Some historians speculate that he was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, others that he was building mercantile connections throughout the region.

We do know that he was a Jewish layman with a deep interest in Jewish scholarship. Much of his writings document the prominent rabbinical scholars met through his travels, as well as documenting the lives, professions and population of the Jewish communities within the towns and cities he visited.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Benjamin’s “accounts of intellectual life in Provence and Baghdad are especially important, as is his characterization of the organization of synagogue life in Egypt.

Sects, too, engaged his attention, not only the Samaritans in Palestine, but also in Constantinople and a heretical sect in Cyprus, which he relates, observed the Sabbath from dawn to dawn.

His characterizations of non-Jewish life are vivid. His somewhat highly- colored account of the Assassins of Lebanon and of the Ghuzz Turks are primary historical sources, and he is said to be the first European of modern times to mention China by the present name.”

Considered an important historical source text by medieval historians, Benjamin’s travelogue includes many of the same cities and towns as Marco Polo’s, but because it was written 100 years before Polo’s travels, the text captures the life of the citizenry in many places that were destroyed prior to Polo’s visit. For example, the text contains some of the last recorded descriptions of Constantinople and Baghdad as Constantinople- the center of the Byzantine Empire- was burned to the ground in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and Baghdad- the cultural capital of the Muslim world- was sacked by the Mongols within 100 years of Benjamin’s narrative.

Though generally considered to be a historically accurate first hand account of most of the places that Benjamin visited, there is some speculation about the accuracy of his recording as he traveled further east.  “It’s a bit hard to assess what he says about his eastward journey,” says Groover. “His descriptions of Persia, China, southwestern India and Sri Lanka become increasingly fantastic, but they still serve as a valuable source on how these fabled lands seemed to the imaginations of people living in 12th-century Europe.”

Originally written in Hebrew, a Jesuit priest, Arias Montanus, later translated the book into Latin in 1575. The Travels of Benjamin Tudela became an immediate best seller. As Groover reported, “[The travelogue] went through several print runs in reasonably rapid succession. People were very keen to read this– most people knew of Marco Polo’s chronicle, but this was written much earlier and is, in many cases, more accurate.”

“It’s a significant travelogue — it’s the accuracy of the detail that really makes this stand out,” concludes Myron Groover.

Images: Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara, in the XIIth century (Engraving by Dumouza, XIXst century, Wikimedia; Map of Assyria, The Catholic encyclopedia,

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