The History of the Jewish Book in the Islamicate World

Principal Investigators: Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (University of Oxford) and Ronny Vollandt (LMU)

Funded by: DFG and AHRC

Timeframe: 2020–2023


The medieval Islamicate world encompassed the world’s most bookish societies. Hand-copied books were produced in unprecedented numbers, new book materials and techniques emerged, calligraphy and collecting became marks of intellectual refinement and Muslim rulers founded libraries. Book culture in the Islamicate world flourished not only among Muslims, but also among those religious minorities that the Quran so aptly defines as ahl al-kitāb “the people of the book”. Jews (like Christians) partook in the bookish revolution and produced a multitude of manuscripts, and these constitute the primary sources for historical and philological research on Jewish intellectual life of the time. Scholars decipher, contextualise and edit the manuscripts. However, despite their scholarly importance, we often know too little of the modes of their production, their makers, when and where they were produced, their cultural and aesthetic models and the economic and social interactions that led to their making and distribution.
To fill this gap, the proposed project undertakes for the first time a comprehensive and multifaceted study of Jewish books of the Islamicate world. It draws on a large corpus of carefully selected dated and datable manuscripts produced in Egypt and the Near East in the 9th–13th centuries: codices, scrolls and rotuli kept in major world libraries, as well as fragments from the Cairo Genizah and the Firkovitch collections. The project’s overall aim is to examine these manuscripts in terms of their making, including materials, scripts and handwriting; their context of production; and practices of reading. We will investigate to what extent Muslim book production affected the book culture of the Jews, making it depart drastically from antique and late-antique models. We will analyse the impact both on the materiality and aesthetics of Jewish books, as well as on connected intellectual and social aspects, such as the spread of literacy, changing modes of interaction between oral and written transmission, the growth of professional book production, its economic basis and the foundation of Jewish libraries and institutions of learning. The approach is that of the History of the Book, with its multidisciplinary focus on books as objects and as essential actors in the transmission of texts, practices and ideas.
By bringing together the unique expertise of the two PIs in the field of minority book making under Islamic hegemony, this project will not only fundamentally add to our understanding of the history of the Jewish book in one of its most formative periods, but also counteract the prevailing concentration of book historians on pre-modern and modern European contexts. It will produce two innovative publications, a palaeographical guide to Oriental Hebrew script and a Handbook on the History of the Jewish Book in the Islamicate World, which will be linked with an online open-access digital repository of relevant direct and indirect sources.



Fabio Ioppolo M.A.

Prof. Dr. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger

Dr. Blanca Villuendas

Prof. Dr. Ronny Vollandt

Dr. Joseph O'Hara