«Provenance research is always an adventure!»

Six questions for Catrina Langenegger

Cat­ri­na Lan­gen­eg­ger is a PhD stu­dent at the Cen­ter for Jewish Stu­dies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Basel. For the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land, she rese­ar­ched a Tal­mud (1578–80/1522–28) from the prin­ting houses Fro­ben (in Basel) and Bom­berg (in Veni­ce). Bar­ba­ra Häne spo­ke with her about her his­to­ri­cal rese­arch, hand­writ­ten scribbles, and the value of old books.

Bar­ba­ra Häne: Dear Cat­ri­na, you are an expert on the Basel Tal­mud. What spar­ked your interest?

Cat­ri­na Lan­gen­eg­ger: As a stu­dent, I spe­cia­li­zed in Jewish histo­ry and the histo­ry of Basel, both of which con­si­der Hebrew and Yid­dish book prin­ting in the 16th cen­tu­ry a key chap­ter. At the time, prin­ting the Basel Tal­mud was an excep­tio­nal­ly ambi­tious pro­ject, and it piqued my inte­rest ear­ly on. When I trai­ned as a rese­arch libra­ri­an, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work on the digi­tiz­a­ti­on of the Basel Tal­mud in the uni­ver­si­ty library’s collec­tion. As part of the «Buxtorf Esta­te,» the libra­ry has a rare, com­ple­te and impec­ca­ble edi­ti­on of the Basel Tal­mud in its collec­tion. Cer­tain excerp­ts are simi­lar to the one on dis­play at the Jewish Museum.

BH: Our copy has pas­sed through many hands. What were you able to find out? 

CL: The paths that books of this age have taken befo­re they end up in a libra­ry or muse­um collec­tion are long, win­dy, and impres­si­ve. Traces reve­al how prints were hand­led in the ear­ly modern peri­od. The books were both objects of pres­ti­ge and of ever­y­day use. Tho­se who could afford one, bought a few prin­ted qui­res or even a who­le volu­me unbound, and eit­her bound the pages by hand or took them to a book­bin­der for more or less ela­bo­ra­te bin­ding. The Tal­mud volu­me in your collec­tion is a good examp­le of this: The edi­ti­on is incom­ple­te; the trac­ta­tes come from dif­fe­rent prin­ting pres­ses and times. Nevertheless, the indi­vi­du­al trac­ta­tes were collec­ted and bound in a sen­si­ble order. My guess is that the for­mer owners wan­ted to pro­du­ce as com­ple­te an edi­ti­on as pos­si­ble with the avail­ab­le resour­ces. By bin­ding them, they pro­tec­ted the texts – but your copy shows that their pro­tec­tion came at a cost. In order to fit the pages into the book covers, the she­ets were trim­med, and some of the texts were even lost. Your volu­me was repai­red several times, which sug­gests that the owners inves­ted in it. They wan­ted future genera­ti­ons to con­ti­nue using it. In my opi­ni­on, this is an indi­ca­ti­on that they did not see the Tal­mud pri­ma­ri­ly as an object of value, but as a book to read.

BH: What was your big­gest challenge?

CL: Pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch is always exci­ting! In this case, I could use the digi­tal ver­si­on of the uni­ver­si­ty library’s Tal­mud to com­pa­re the texts, which was an advan­ta­ge, no ques­ti­on. Nevertheless, it is impos­si­ble to ful­ly deter­mi­ne its many owners over the past four hund­red years.

BH: Why was the Tal­mud prin­ted in Basel in the 16th century? 

CL: Basel was a cen­ter for book prin­ting, espe­cial­ly for non-Latin wri­tings. Froben’s prin­ting house had pre­vious­ly found a mar­ket for beau­ti­ful Hebrew books. Import­ant­ly, the city was open to such pro­jects, but luck also play­ed its part, becau­se the initia­tor, Simon zur Gem­se, had pre­vious­ly tried to print the Tal­mud in other cities.

BH: How and whe­re do you sup­po­se this Tal­mud was used befo­re the 20th century? 

CL: Hand­writ­ten scribbles in the Tal­mud point to Sulz­burg of the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry. It’s pos­si­ble that it was used in a Tal­mud school or by a lear­ned fami­ly to stu­dy. After that, the traces fade.

BH: How would you esti­ma­te the value of this Tal­mud edi­ti­on in terms of its cul­tu­ral history? 

CL: Any print this old is very valu­able! And even more so Hebrai­ca, sin­ce the lar­gest num­ber were fed to the fla­mes as un-Chris­ti­an wri­ting. This book was stu­di­ed for many cen­tu­ries, befo­re wit­nessing World War II. So in a word, high!

BH: Thank you very much for the inter­view, Catrina. 

verfasst am 13.10.2022