Monday, 19 October 2009

The chance discovery of a tiny 15th century manuscript nine years ago has changed the direction of Suzanne Wijsman’s research.

Associate Professor Wijsman (pictured right), from the School of Music, has recently spent two months at Oxford University as a visiting scholar, developing her interdisciplinary work in musicology, Jewish studies and art history.

Like the more famous Sarajevo Haggadah—the manuscript which provided the inspiration for Geraldine Brooks’ novel, People of the Book—this small Hebrew prayer book has its own story to tell.

Made in 1471, the manuscript was part of the largest private collection of Hebrew books ever assembled, formerly belonging to the Chief Rabbi of Prague, David Oppenheimer, in the 17th century.

“The collection was held in storage for a long time after Oppenheimer’s death in 1736, because no one in his family
wanted to keep it, and it was eventually sold in 1829 to the Bodleian Library, which means that the collection was kept intact and protected from the kinds of risks to manuscripts that are described in People of the Book,” Dr Wijsman said. She calls the manuscript the Oppenheimer Siddur, after its former owner.

The story began in 2000 when Dr Wijsman and a colleague, Robert Curry, were looking for evidence of Jewish musicians in Central Europe and their possible contribution to the development of the early violin family.

“My colleague and I went to Oxford for another purpose altogether and discovered the contents of this beautiful little manuscript, full of delicate illustrations of musicians, quite by chance.

"Over the years, I returned to Oxford to continue my original research, but I kept going back and visiting the manuscript.

"Its pictures intrigued me. Then three or four years ago, I began to focus on it in my research, placing it in context and
expanding the range of interdisciplinary skills needed to answer questions I had about it. I assumed that I would find
answers to these in books or articles, but found that it had been almost never mentioned in scholarly works.”

Her curiosity about this manuscript and its special features led Dr Wijsman to consult the world’s foremost expert in
medieval Hebrew manuscripts, Professor Malachi Beit-Arié, who is based in Jerusalem. He helped to open doors and new research pathways."

Dr Wijsman feels very lucky to enjoy such support. “He calls me his best ‘distance-learning’ student,” she said.

The recommendation of Professor Beit-Arié, and that of the curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian, Dr Piet van Boxel, led to Dr Wijsman becoming a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Trinity Term this year.

While there, she gave a talk on the manuscript as part of the Centre’s public lecture series and a special seminar for the Hebrew Codicology Course.

Media references

Associate Professor Suzanne Wijsman , Academic Staff (Music)


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