Here’s an interesting book that I’ve had for some time. It’s in very good condition and I don’t exactly remember how I got it, but it’s an interesting little tid bit of esoterica. It’s called Jewish Legends of the Middle Ages by Wolff Pascheles and Others, Selected and Translated by Claud Field and Illustrated by May Mulliner. It was published in London by Shapiro Vallentine & Co. and was apparently part of a collection of books for Jewish Children
Unfortunately, there is no publishing date in it but from the style of the lettering on the cover and the frontispiece it would seem to be from around the turn of the last century or as late as the 1930s. They are not written with much skill—only in the most serviceable of styles, and the illustrations on closer examination are amateurish, but I find it interesting nonetheless. I’m uncertain of the claim that they are legends of the “Middle Ages.” Some are clearly later, as in the story entitled “The Prisoner of the Inquisition” which begins with, “On a cold night in December, 1660...”(Most historians consider the Middle Ages to be set from roughly AD 500 to 1500)
Most are stories told of brave and selfless deeds and others about the horrors inflicted on Jews throughout the centuries. We have the gruesome story of the “Massacre at Prague” when Good King Wenceslas looked out...for himself and didn’t come to the aid of his Jews when they were in peril, and in shades of Masada, decided on suicide before dishonor.
Then there is “The Pound of Flesh” from 1587, which purports to be the source of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In this version, Shylock owes Count Antonio Zavello one thousand zechines and cannot pay. But the Count would rather have the hand of the fair Jessica Shylock’s daughter. But like a good Jewish girl, she refuses the advances of the Count and sends away his go-between, Portia. Zavello has vowed revenge in a spectacle the next day: “I will give the Romans for their October festival such a spectacle as they never had, even in Diocletian’s time...” to celebrate collecting his lawsuit against the Jew.
In the meantime, the pious Pope Sixtus V is wont to go about Rome dressed as a beggar so he can observe the vile nature of man with his own eyes and overhears the exchange. The day dawns, Sixtus goes amongst the crowds, and discovers from a “fellow” beggar that the Jew is to be flayed at the Bocca della Verita.
“That is certainly extraordinary. (says Sixtus.) Flaying a Jew? You say?” “Yes. (said the beggar.) He borrowed money of Antonio and promised a pound of flesh near his heart in default of payment. It was meant as a jest, doubtless, but Antonio is going to make it in earnest.”
“How much is the debt?” asked Sixtus.
“They say a thousand zechines—certainly a lot of money for a pound of Jew’s flesh, when the best bacon may be had for six bajocchi the pound...”
Of course, the Pope comes to the rescue (didn’t happen very often). The money was collected, but Antonio still wants his pound of flesh instead of the fee. Sixtus sweeps down from the Vatican and delivers this speech: “...This innocent man, whom you are just about to deliver to the knife of the executioner, suffers because you would only remit his debt at the price of his daughter’s shame. You are a graceless scoundrel, and have made yourself liable to the penalty of the law, which punishes with death any attempt to seduce the innocent whether by force or by fraud, especially in the case of a Jewess. You have forfeited your life. Prepare for death...”
And so it happened. Shylock was given the thousand zechines and Antonio was put to death.
A little different from the Shakespeare version, wouldn’t you say?
The other stories included are:
“The Bird that Sang to a Bridegroom”
“Rabbi Rashi’s Companion”
“Mose Maimonides and the Limekiln”
“The Witness of the Fig Tree”
“The Ape and the Gold Pieces”
“Moses Maimonides and His Pupil”
I saw one in similar condition on Alibris.com (actually, mine is in better condition) selling for $64.77. Mine isn’t for sale, however. If someone has any further information on this book, please let me know.