Divination among Jews in the Middle Ages
Dr. Josefina Rodriguez Arribas has been a member of the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities “Fate, Freedom and Prognostication” at the FAU (October 2014 – September 2015).
She is preparing two books on the role of astrolabes in medieval Jewish culture (texts and instruments), which include critical editions of the Hebrew treatises and a catalogue of the astrolabes with Hebrew script.
Her most recent research at the Consortium “Fate, Freedom and Prognostication” at FAU concerns the textual and material evidence about the practice of divination among Jews in the Middle Ages.
Can you first tell us more about the research field of the Consortium?
The Consortium is a scholarly enterprise in which fellows from any part in the world meet to study any topic related to divination or prophecy in the East and in the West for a period of a few months up to one year.
The background of the fellows is very different and the different approaches and coincidences of these practices and beliefs in China or in the West makes the research an exciting and lively experience for any fellow. The concern with the future and the ways to anticipate what is ahead is a distinctive human activity which is present in cultures of the past and the present all around the world, and some of these practices and theories can be very sophisticated and intriguing in different ways.
Their persistence deserves further attention to understand human culture in general and especially how human beings try to build meaning and knowledge in all kinds of periods and contexts. Whoever comes to the Consortium will always find a wonderful permanent staff, most of them working on these topics (and others), and a different number of fellows who are working on some specific aspects of prophecy or divination with the tools of their respective expertise (philology, history, anthropology, archeology, theology, etc).
Geomancy was one of the most popular forms of prognostication in the Middle Ages
What was your concrete task in the research group?
I contributed to the Consortium with my background on Jewish divination and Jewish cosmology (which are strongly related but not only in Jewish culture of course). During my one-year stay at the Consortium, I have been working on Hebrew sources on geomancy, something which was practically unexplored.
Geomancy, which was introduced by Muslims in the Medieval culture, was together with astrology one of the most popular and widespread forms of prognostication in the Middle Ages. It was a cheap practice, the only tools required were a pencil and paper on which the consultant drew the dots and the subsequent figures obtained by counting and discarding them until only one or two dots were left.
To get specific answers, it was necessary to know the meanings of the 16 geomantic figures but there were several handbooks explaining them and giving practical examples with the most frequent concerns of medieval men and women (Whom should I marry? How many children am I going to have? How long am I going to live? What profession should I chose? Is it safe to start a trip or a business? And so on).
One of these handbooks was written by a Jew in Toledo in 1203 and I have worked on the translation and commentary of this extraordinary literary and historical work, which is extant in sixteen manuscripts. I have also explored the scientific background of this practice (mathematical properties of the geomantic chart) and the scientific interests of its practitioners (some of them were also interested in astronomy and medicine).
How would you describe the interaction between the different researchers?
The stay at the Consortium has been one of the most gratifying experiences I have had as a researcher (and I can tell because I have been a fellow in different parts of Europe, USA, and Israel).
The fellows come from different cultures and languages and the ways we approach each other depend as much on everyone’s culture as on everyone’s personality. However, as we all are here to do our work with a focus on sharing and discussing it in the light of the research that others are conducting on similar topics, and there are activities planned to facilitate this exchange, this interaction is frequently a pleasure and an adventure, and certainly always an experience of discovery and knowledge.
You are a specialist in the history of medieval science and Hebrew language. What sparked your interest in this field?
I studied philosophy at university and my intention was to get a BA in this field. During my studies, I became very interested in Greek thought in general and later in some specific aspects of medieval philosophy. Meanwhile I realised how important the knowledge of languages was to properly understand those texts which most of the discussion in the classroom was about. Then I decided to enter philology and studied Classics and Hebrew.
My interest in the history of science started with Greek cosmology (which I still find fascinating). The middle ages was a period of discovering, discussing and commenting on the ancient sources with the new contributions of the Semitic texts and the cultures of the Near East via Muslims and Jews. So the movement from Antiquity to the Middle Ages took place softly and enriched me, bringing other languages and cultures with it (like Arabic).
Why did you choose FAU as your host institution for your Visiting Fellowship?
The Consortium was the main reason for my stay at FAU. As soon as I knew of its existence, I knew I had to try to be part of this project that is so close to my own interests and research.
When I arrived in Erlangen and got in touch with FAU, I was surprised by the quality of the reception and how they care for making the arrival and integration of the Fellow at the University as easy as possible. My experience with the library has also been wonderful.
What were your first and later impressions of the Erlangen-Nürnberg region?
Knowing before my arrival that FAU is an important university and Erlangen a student town, I was surprised by how cosy and easy-going it is to live in Erlangen. I love the historic quarter and the Schlossgarten.
I felt completely at home
Can you tell us one experience that you will remember for a very long time?
I have been interested since my PhD dissertation in ancient and medieval divinatory practices and the explanations of the world upon which these practices are understood to work. This is a small but intriguing field and frequently a field that is underestimated and somehow relegated to the margins of research.
However divination is a persistent phenomenon in human cultures of any time and place and it deserves something more from scholars than an easy label like superstition or ignorance. When I became part of the Consortium on “Fate, Freedom and Prognostication” at FAU, this specific aspect of my research, which frequently exists on the periphery of something else, was right on target. This was a wonderful experience, I felt completely at home.
Can you reveal your favorite places at FAU or in the region?
I love Bamberg and Nuremberg. I have spent many hours watching the collections of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, it is an amazing place full of surprises!
What advice would you give to students or young researcher when they ask you if they should choose FAU for a study or research stay in a foreign country?
It is a wonderful place to learn and to work and Franconian people are very cordial. In any case, the choice always depends on the topic one is working on or studying and the professors and researchers who want to support the interest of the student/researcher.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I would like to come back to FAU!
About Josefina Rodriguez Arribas:
Josefina Rodríguez Arribas has substantial research experience in the field of the history of medieval science (astronomy and scientific instruments), medieval Hebrew language (the emergence and constitution of technical terminology in medieval Hebrew), and divination (astrology and geomancy).
Her PhD dissertation (2004) focused on the relationships of astronomy and biblical exegesis in Jewish sources. Part of this research was published in a book El cielo de Sefarad, los judíos y los astros (2011). She has been interested in the western religious, scientific, and philosophical traditions since her undergraduate studies, especially in Antiquity and in the Middles Ages. She is especially interested in critical approaches to the definition of pre-modern science, the presence of science in non-scientific texts and contexts, and the relations of textual and material cultures in medieval science.
She also has long experience with medieval manuscripts and museum objects. Since 2009, her research has focused on the relations between the textual and material scientific cultures of Jews, notably the cultural role of astrolabes among Jews in Europe and the Near East between the 12th and 17th centuries.
She has presented over 50 lectures at international congresses in Europe, the USA, Japan, and Israel on topics related to Medieval science, medieval Hebrew, Jewish biblical exegesis, Jewish cosmology, astronomical instruments, and divination and has been a Fellow at Harvard University, Oxford University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Michigan, the University of London, and Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Interview: December 2015