Medieval Hebrew Inscriptions: a European Database
While a corpus of Jewish inscriptions from Antiquity exists since 1936, the absence of a similar research instrument for the subsequent period is widely deplored by medievalists. The long-term goal of this project is a collectively edited, openly accessible and interactive database of all known Hebrew stone inscriptions in the time frame of 700-1520. We are dealing with an estimated total of about 5,000 relevant inscriptions or fragments from about two hundred medieval sites, distributed over twenty countries of present-day Europe, besides some isolated items from six Asian and three African countries. The corpus mainly consists of tombstone inscriptions, alongside few but significant synagogue dedications and graffiti. A relatively small number of medieval Jewish tombstones are conserved in situ on the ancient cemeteries of Frankfurt, Worms, Prague, Venice, and a few other places; the vast majority of the surviving specimens were retrieved from secondary use as building materials. Scientifically organized corpora of these documentary finds exist for France, Spain, Hungary, and Poland; elsewhere the inscriptions are at best reported in dispersed local publications. Hundreds of inscriptions remain inedited; many others are now destroyed, but were formerly copied and can be retrieved from the Hebraist or historical literature of past centuries.
Scattered and often fragmentary as these texts are, only a far-ranging comparative study can turn them from isolated curiosities into valuable sources for social, religious and cultural history, for Hebrew linguistics, paleography and literature. Though short and formulaic, tombstone inscriptions have the advantages of being precisely situated in time and space, of documenting both genders equally, and of revealing an intersection of intellectual and material culture. Due to their formal conservatism, they allow tracing slow shifts in religious mentality; and by their manifold small variations of the traditional wording, they depict regional and local identities. The spread of epigraphic conventions across Europe often can give surprising clues for the study of continental communications.
The project has presently concluded its startup phase, dedicated to documentation work, the compilation of a representative sample, the structural conception of the database and preparations in view of its technical realization and long-term funding.