You’re merrily checking through a sefer Torah, one in which the scribe tends to underestimate his lines, and has to stretch at the ends to compensate (lines 1, 2, 6, 7). And you see a chunk (lines 3, 4, 5) of squishied-up writing. Why?

vezot torat hamincha edited

This usually happens when you accidentally leave words out. Calligraphers have various ways of dealing with missing lines; here’s a particularly sweet example from the St John’s Bible, where the missing words are written in the margin and flown into place by a little bird:

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Torah scribes don’t have such luxury. No writing words in the margin for us.

We do, technically, have the option of writing the missing words above the line, but a) that’s Not Done these days b) if there are a lot of words, that’s not going to work.

So what options remain? Either start the sheet over, or erase words from the surrounding text, and make enough space that we can squish the extra words in.

Note that the second item in line 3 is an obligatory space. The space has to be in the middle of a line. I expect he started erasing after the space because repositioning the space would have been even more tiresome than not.

Also, note that the second item in line 6 is a Divine Name. These can’t be erased. So the scribe erased the two-and-a-bit lines of 3, 4, and 5 to write in the proper text, unless he realised his error before he got to the divine name.

So what was his mistake?

From the shadows, I can sort of see where some letters used to be:

vezot torat hamincha 3

But whatever did he write first? I’m stumped by those apparent two kufs. Maybe we’ve got two rounds of erasing to contend with? Certainly that “et” is on a double erasure – maybe it’s actually on a triple erasure?

Real scribal archaeologists have UV lights and all sorts of toys for reading the underneath writing on palimpsests. If this was actually important we could use some of those toys, but it isn’t really – just fun. So – any thoughts?

Mirrored from

This is a 1980 book of essays revising work done during the previous decade. There are five essays: The Spirituality of Regular Canons in the Twelfth Century; The Cistercian Conception of Community; Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?; Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing; Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta; and an epilogue.

In one paragraph - during the twelfth century, the church expanded in both form and function; it built hierarchies and specialisations within itself, and its role expanded to something more pastoral and less exclusively concerned with individual salvation. Consequently, we see more emphasis on themes of one's own role within the church; increased activity among fringe elements qua fringe elements; and an emphasis on the caring, loving aspects of the Christian God, up to the eponymous maternal imagery.


Various things happen in the introduction; in the 12th and 13th centuries there is something of a religious revival; cf our friends in Aragon a little earlier, where we saw the church gaining momentum but being held in check by the kings. The church shakes itself free of the control of local rulers, and develops a control structure and bureaucracy of its own. It starts to take over roles formerly filled by wise folk and the Old Religions and has accordingly more contact with the laity; the roles of cleric and layman become more distinct. Interesting tension between ideal of pious withdrawal from the world on the one hand and its loving service on the other; with the latter comes a focus on Jesus' humanity and accessibility to all - feminine roles - and the tension balances with doctrinal remoteness of God and necessity for clergy as intermediaries and functionaries. (The friars of the thirteenth century dissipate this to some degree by wandering about preaching (world) in a state of poverty and extreme penitence (withdrawal).)

The Spirituality of Regular Canons in the Twelfth Century

I don't really know what the difference between monks and canons is - it seems like canons are sort of hasidim, clerical people who live together under a set of rules, but monks are more like those sorts of uber-religious yeshivish types who spend all their time davening and learning and focusing on getting every detail exactly right. Apparently most of the time there isn't really that much difference, but over the course of the twelfth century the monks stayed focused on goals like Correct Worship, whereas the canons got more into brotherly love and (eventually) kiruv, and by the thirteenth century they'd formed a bridge into the Friars, who went around doing rather aggressive kiruv.

The Cistercian Conception of Community

"Epitomises the tension between denial and affirmation of the world" - ambivalence; partly addressed by moulding ideas about service of one's neighbour into the specific context of the neighbour in the monastery. "Affective spirituality" is apparently an innovation of the time.

Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?

Basically no. Individuals just had more choices within the newly-diversified church hierarchy, so we see more discussion on how individuals should be approaching choice; there's more of a concern for things like brotherly love, so there's more awareness of individuals as beings who need love and have brothers.

Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing

Some people have this rather odd liturgy which pictures God as having a female body, breastfeeding, and giving Loving Discipline as twelfth-century ideal mothers apparently do. Bynum uses it to illustrate basic values among Cistercians; "a need for affectivity in the exercise of authority and in the creation of community, and a complex rhythm of renouncing ties with the world while deepening ties with community and between the soul and God." Note that this imagery of the ideal woman does not tell us anything about how they viewed actual women - bearing in mind that these are celibate, male-only communities. "Female" and "feminine" are not the same; there is minor interest in God as having attributes of the latter and no interest in identifying God as the latter.

Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta

No-one has really yet put women's religiosity into historical context. Through the 12th-14th centuries more women are attracted to the cloister; in particular we see more women than men having mystic experiences (or being billed as Mystics). This is probably not to do with the (traditionally-assumed) inherent fluffiness of women, since it is a new development and women have always been fluffy. The nuns of Helfta were particularly prolific (and, being mostly high-class, particularly literate) and left us a lot of material.

Basically Bynum thinks that women as well as men want to be part of the new roles the church makes available; once women's cloisters become a thing, women are attracted to them because they too want to be part of the church. But clergy are increasingly important in the church (canon law and ecclesiastical bureaucracy become more elaborate; the eucharist becomes more significant), and women can't be clergy, so they're definitively cut off from higher spiritual functions. This finds an outlet in mysticism, particularly the kind in which Jesus grants them visions - the clergy can't argue too hard with visions of Jesus.


Eleventh and early twelfth-century Christianity - "ability to express new spiritual concerns and goals in new rules, insitutions, and styles of life." Twelfth century and later - "ability to complement individual with community, personal growth with service of others, affectivity with authority." Theological equilibrium: God who is simultaneously fierce and loving. Communal equilibrium amongst religious orders, between group and self, erodes; by the fourteenth century the tensions are played out not in balance but in heresies.


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