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Hebrew manuscripts: History and scope 2

19th century expansion

By the middle of the 19th century, the British Museum's Hebrew collections comprised approximately 300 manuscripts. Half of these were biblical codices and biblical commentaries.

Frontispiece of the Book of Exodus

Frontispiece of the Book of Exodus. Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, copied in southern Germany around 1300. [Add MS 15282, f.75v].

The slow but steady expansion of the Hebrew collections resulted partly from the dispersal of libraries once owned by wealthy English aristocrats. These included those of the Marquess of Lansdowne in 1807, the Earl of Bridgewater in 1829, and in July 1844 that of the Duke of Sussex, King George IV's brother. The latter library yielded six Hebrew manuscripts, one of the finest being the Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch (Add 15282), an illuminated biblical codex copied in southern Germany around 1300.

The scope of the collection was boosted through favourable acquisition policies, particularly during the period when Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden acted as Keepers of Manuscripts. Thanks to Madden's judicious decision, in 1839 the Museum purchased the exquisite North French Miscellany copied around 1280 (Add 11639), and four years later two very finely illuminated Passover liturgies, the Ashkenazi Haggadah (Add 14762) and the Barcelona Haggadah (Add 14761).

Aaron, the High Priest

Aaron, the High Priest, pouring oil in the candlestick. North French Miscellany copied around 1280. [Add MS 11639, f.522v]

Next: History and scope 3: Almanzi Collection