The Other Averroism: The Maimonidean Controversy and The Copenhagen Maimonides

Copenhagen Maimonides f7, Introduction of translator Samuel ibn Tibbon

Copenhagen Maimonides f7, Introduction of translator Samuel ibn Tibbon

As a diasporic civilization, Judaism is a moveable world in itself. Heinrich Heine famously quipped that the Torah is a portable homeland, and so Jewish culture provides us with an excellent example of how texts, artifacts, and ideas travel and are transformed in different contexts.

The case of the Copenhagen Maimonides is exemplary of this condition. While the grand narrative of the movement of Aristotelian thought in Europe focuses on the Parisian Averroist controversy of the thirteenth century, the dissemination of Aristotelian thought in the Jewish communities of Spain and France provides a fascinating complement with which to nuance or enrich the story of Averroism in the Latin West.

Just as the Andalusi thinker Muhammad ibn Rushd worked to reconcile the natural philosophy of Aristotle with Islamic revelation, so too did his near-contemporary, the Andalusi Jew Musa ibn Maimun, known to European Jewry as Moshe ben Maimon and to the Latin West as Maimonides, for the Jewish world. His groundbreaking writings on the relationship between Greek philosophy and Torah ignited a centuries-long controversy in Europe’s Jewish communities that in some ways has never ended.

The Copenhagen Maimonides is textual and material witness to this culture war between Maimonideans and traditionalist Jewish scholars who vied for influence and power during the Middle Ages. The fourteenth-century Catalan manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed is illuminated by the atélier of Ferrer Bassa, a fourteenth-century Catalan Christian artist, no doubt well familiar to our colleagues in Art History, whose cv includes works such as Maria of Navarre’s Book of Hours, and the Anglo Catalan Psalter. This material and aesthetic enmeshment of Jewish and Christian material culture is emblematic of the threat Maimonidean Aristotelian thought posed to more traditional approaches to Jewish revelation that sought to isolate, or protect (depending on your position) Jewish thought from the intellectual and social culture of the dominant Christian majority.

This manuscript is an emblem of the cultural moment of the Jewish elites in southern France and Spain in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in that it brings together the questions of internal divisions within Jewish communities as well as their relationship with the dominant Christian majority and the extent to which Jews shared cultural values with their Christian neighbors.

Ibn Rushd aka Averroes

Fresco of Averroes by Andrea de Bonaiuto

Fresco of Averroes by Andrea de Bonaiuto (14th c.) (source:

Muhammad ibn Rushd lived in al-Andalus in the twelfth century, during the Almohad period. He was a judge for the Almohad Caliph and was responsible for a number of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, that had been circulating in Arabic for some two hundred years by his time. His major achievement was to reconcile Aristotle’s natural philosophy with Islamic doctrine. He argued that philosophy was not only permissible within the framework of Islam, but necessary to knowing God’s creation and God’s will. He drew criticism both from neoplatonists and from those opposed to the study of natural philosophy, but perhaps due to the variety of acceptable approaches to Islamic law, did not suffer persecution for his more unpopular ideas.
Ibn Rushd’s natural philosophy was very influential in the Latin West, where translated a number of his works into Latin in during the thirteenth century. Scholars of these works attracted criticism. While Rome did not consider Aristotle’s works in principle to be heretical, some of the conclusions Ibn Rushd drew, particularly those regarding the nature of the relationship between the individual and God, were condemned.

Musa ibn Maimun aka Rambam aka Maimonides

Statue of Maimonides in his hometown, Cordova

Statue of Maimonides in his hometown, Cordova (source:

The most influential interpreter of Aristotelian natural philosophy in Jewish world was Musa ibn Maimun, known in Hebrew as Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, by his Hebrew acronym RAMBAM, or as Maimonides in Latin. Maimonides was born in Cordova during the so-called Tafia period that followed the disintegration of the Andalusi Umayyad Caliphate but later fled persecution at the hands of the Almohads to North Africa where he lived for some time. Eventually he made his way to Fustat where he served as nagid or leader of the Jewish community as well as court physician to the Ayyubid Sultan, Saladin. He wrote revolutionary works in a number of fields, but is best known for his works of biblical and talmudic commentary characterized by his signature rationalist approach to interpreting Torah. His most influential works are the Kitab al-Siraj, Sefer ha-Mishnayot in Hebrew, a commentary on the Mishna; the Mishne Torah, a comprehensive codification of Jewish law, and the Dalálat al-Ha’irin, Moreh Nebukhim, or Guide for the Perplexed, his synthesis of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Jewish doctrine. It is the Royal Library’s fourteenth-century copy of the Guide that concerns us today, but a bit about Maimonides’ other influential works will help to set the stage for the scope of his influence in Jewish civilization in general.

The Maimonidean Controversy

The work of Maimonides had been very influential in Jewish thought on the Iberian Peninsula since his lifetime. His works were at the center of the curriculum for Jewish elites in Castile and Aragon. French Jews who were at a further distance from Maimonidean thought and who had not adopted a rationalist approach to the study of Jewish revelation found his works and interpretations of his works more problematic. At the core of the debate is a struggle between philosophy and theosophy. Rationalists under the banner of Maimonides argued that philosophy, and the exercise of God-given human reason was the best way to know God, by observing his creation and arriving at logical conclusions regarding the nature of the divine and of the relationship between the human and the divine. Traditionalists rejected philosophical approaches to revelation as heretical in favor of a theosophical approach by which all knowledge is a product of divine revelation, and that everything that is permissible can be learned by study of the Torah and its commentaries. This debate will seem familiar to many; it is the great-great-grandparent of current debates regarding creation, and the role of revelation in the organization of society.

Banned in Montpellier

Portrait of Maimonides with banned symbol covering his face


It’s important to remember that the backlash against some of the interpreters of Maimonides was directed not against the work or person of Maimonides himself, but rather against later interpretations of the Guide that were understood to threaten traditional doctrine in Maimonides’ name. Even the most ardent opponents of Maimonideanism did not object to Maimonides as an authority, or even to many of his propositions that were certainly provocative to more conservative interpreters of Jewish tradition. Eventually these concerns gave rise to two groups of Rabbis spread across Provence, Aragon, and Castile, who advocated for or against these later interpretations of Maimonides’ natural philosophy.

In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Rabbi Solomon ben Avraham of Montpellier and his students were concerned that interpreters of Maimonides were abrogating Jewish law for their own purposes, all the while hiding behind Maimonides’ authority (Silver 150–51). In 1232 he promulgated a ban on Maimonides’ Guide. In so doing he ignited a controversy. Another group of Maimonists formed not far away in Lunel, enlisting influential rabbis in Castile and Aragon for support. In the same year, they issued a ban on anyone interfering with the teaching of philosophy. Jewish communities in Aragon signed on to it, and a line was drawn in the sand (Silver 151). Each side enlisted the greatest minds of their generations to support their cause. The Catalan Rabbi Nahmanides, who would later debate the Dominican Friar Paul before King Jaume I himself, tried to reconicle the two sides, but was not successful (Silver 165).

In Aragon in particular, the Controversy mapped onto tension between religious and secular leadership (Silver 166), with the Mamonists coming down on the side of secular leadership and the anti-maimonists on the side of the rabbinate. As the controversy developed, the nexus between religious and temporal issues remained at its center.

Diagram of kabbalistic sefirot or divine emanations

Diagram of kabbalistic sefirot (divine emanations) (source:

The Maimoideans eventually prevailed, while the traditionalists dedicated themselves to the study of Kabablah or Jewish mystical theosophy, developing important centers of its study in Provence, Aragon, and Castile. Traditionalists continued to agitate against philosophy, especially in Provence., where Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret wrote a ban against Provençal Maimonists in 1305 on the grounds that their allegorical interpretation of the Bible violated Jewish tradition (Forcano 94).

The Copenhagen Maimonides in its cultural context

Fourteenth-century Castile and Aragon saw a good deal of cultural commonality between Jewish and Christian élites. Jews spoke the same languages as their Christian neighbors, and Jewish élites, dependent as they were on good graces of their king, were avid consumers and producers of many of the cultural practices of the court. Typically, the closer individual Jews were to court, the more assimilated they were to the culture of the dominant majority in matters other than religion.

An iconic cosmopolitanism

Photo of cosmopolitan cocktail


However, despite the very real philosophical and doctrinal debates that surrounded interpretations of the Guide, the book itself became iconic of Jewish cosmopolitanism and a willingness to engage with the non-Jewish world. Just as their detractors painted Maimonists as free-thinkers and assimilationists who favored secular leadership over the rabbinate, so too did cosmopolitan Jewish elites look to the Guide not only as an important source of information, but also as a symbol of their role as mediators between temporal power and the Jewish communities. For them, it was natural that the Rabbi who brought together Greek science and Torah should be an icon of their own cultural position between the Christian court and the Jewish community. It is in this light that we must understand the Copenhagen Guide. It signaled cosmopolitanism and sophistication. As a tangible artifact illuminated by a Christian artisan, it was an emblem of the Jewish notable’s role in the political economy of the times.

The Cophenhagen Maimoinides

The manuscript is richly illuminated and bound with the introduction of the translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, as well as the translator’s glossary of Aristotelian terms in Hebrew. It contains a number of marginal illuminations as well as some larger historiated illuminations, all of which are clearly identifiable as the work of the atelier of Ferrer Bassa, a Christian Catalan artist who also illuminated the Anglo-Catalan Psalter, the Book of Hours of Maria of Navarre, and the Catalan Micrography Mahzor (NLI MS Heb 8º6527), a prayer book for the Jewish high holidays. In Castile and Aragon at this time, Jewish artisans sometimes worked on Christian art and in some cases, Christian artisans produced works of Jewish art. The Copenhagen Guide is one of these examples.

A new Maimonides?

Folio 227v of the Copenhagen Maimonides held by the Danish Royal Library. Maimonides is pictured seated before four students with his hand pointing toward the work's title

Copenhagen Maimonides, Danish Royal Library Cod Heb 37, f227v

The manuscript’s patron was Menahem Betzalel, a Jewish physician in the service of Peter IV of ‘the Ceremonious’ of Aragon. The king also patronized works by the atélier of Ferrer Bassa, and so Betzalel’s commission of the Guide reinforced his relationship to the king and the culture of the court. As a royal physician himself, Betzalel may have imagined himself a new Maimonides, and his possession of the deluxe manuscript of the Guide may have signaled this identity to members of the Jewish community of Barcelona.

Evangelist Remix

The symbols of the four evangelists, Matthew is an angel, Mark a winged lion, Luke a winged bull, and John an eagle, are placed at the four corners of the Hebrew word for introduction, 'hakdamah'

Reuse of traditional symbols of Evangelists to illustrate discussion of Ezekiel’s vision (Cod Heb 37 f. 403v)

However, it in the redeployment of Christian iconography that this manuscript is remarkable and perhaps unique among Hebrew illuminated manuscripts of the time. In the Guide, Maimonides discusses the vision of Ezekiel described in chapter 1, verses 4-28. In the Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, the animals that form this fantastic beast are imagined as representing the four evangelists Matthew is an angel, Mark a winged lion, Luke a winged bull, and John an eagle. Ezekiel, however, does not name specific animals in his vision. This allegory of the evangelists was a common image in medieval Christian iconography. In the Maimonides Guide, the illuminator uses a historiated miniature of the Christian icons to illustrate Maimonides’ discussion of the vision of Ezekiel. Chapman points out that Bassa had previously used this illumination in both the Anglo-Catalan Psalter and the Hours of Maria of Navarre, but replaced the banners featuring the names of the Christian saints traditionally associated with the animals (drawn from the Revelations) with the Hebrew word Hakdamah, or “introduction.” Its use in a Jewish manuscript demonstrates for Chapman the manuscript’s cultural ambivalence, but for me it is suggests a kind of openness or self-confidence in adapting materials across confessional groups provided they are not in direct conflict with religious doctrine. While it would be problematic for a Jewish manuscript to attribute sainthood to followers of Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with drawing a fanciful version of the vision of Ezekiel to make the ideas of the Torah more real for Jewish readers; this is simply exegesis, and midrash is full of these kinds of gestures.

In closing, the Copenhagen Maimonides tells two interrelated stories. The first is that of the Movable World, in this case, the journey of Aristotelian natural philosophy from Athens to Baghdad to Cordova to Barcelona. The second is that of the medieval Iberian Jewish communities who adapted and transformed Aristotle’s ideas through the lens of their own experience. For them, the controversy stirred by Ibn Rushd’s and Maimonides’ interpretations of Aristotelian natural philosophy were embedded in broader issues facing the communities: the brittle relationship with the Church and the preaching orders, the social implications of conflicting schools of exegesis, the balance of power between secular and rabbinic leadership within the Jewish community, and, for the elites, the challenge of living as a powerful member of a religious minority negotiating between the royal court and the kahal, or Jewish community.


  • Brown, Stephen. “The Intellectual Context of Later Medieval Philosophy: Universities, Aristotle, Arts, Theology.” Routledge History of Philosophy Volume III: Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, Routledge, 2003, pp. 188–203.
  • Chapman, Katherine Woodson. Image and Identity : Re-Reading the Illustrations of the Copenhagen Maimonides. S.M.U, 2009.
  • Forcano, Manuel. “La lletra apologètica de Jedàia ha-Peniní de Bésiers.” Anuari de filologia. Secció E. Estudis hebreus i arameus, vol. 6, 1996, pp. 93–104.
  • Kogman-Appel, Katrin. Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain. Brill, 2005.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Averroës and His Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Sánchez, Tomás Jesús Urrutia. “Saber de sabios y saber de profetas: la controversia maimonideana y Sem Tob Ibn Falaquera.” Revista española de filosofía medieval, no. 16, 2009, pp. 57–68.
  • Silver, Daniel Jeremy. Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy, 1180-1240. EJBrill, 1965.

This post is a version of a conference paper I gave at the 2019 meeting of the Centre for Medieval Literature, “Shared Worlds,” held in Copenhagen at the David Collection and the Danish Royal Library. My thanks to the Centre for their invitation to participate.

The Pen versus the Sword: What a difference a diaspora makes

[This post includes material later revised and expanded in Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production before and after 1492 (Indiana University Press, 2015)]

The debate over the relative roles of military force and political rhetoric in governance is very, very old. And while the familiar dictum “the pen is mightier than the sword” may now be received wisdom, for hundreds of years it was a site of contention. In Spain during the 12th-14th centuries, authors wrote version after version of the literary debate between the pen and the sword in Arabic and Hebrew.

Students of European literatures are familiar with later debates on the subject of arms and letters. The Arms vs. Letters debate was well-covered territory during the Renaissance and on into Modernity. Baldassare Castiglione includes one in the first part of of The Book of the Courtier (1528), and Miguel de Cervantes has Don Quijote argue vigorously for the superiority of arms over letters in the first part of Don Quixote (ch. 38).

The relative merits of the sword and the pen were frequent subjects of Classical Arab poets during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, but it was not until the 11th century in Spain when the Pen and Sword come forward to speak for themselves as protagonists in a literary debate. Ahmad ibn Burd the Younger wrote the first such debate as part of a panegyric (a poem written in praise of an individual) dedicated to King Mujahid al-Muwaffaq of Denia around the year 1040.

Ibn Burd, a Muslim writing for a king (who as a monarch would probably identify with the sword to some degree, even if he were a bookish kind of king), came to a safe conclusion: the Pen and the Sword are both worthy instruments, and both occupy an honored place at court. In his version, the two instruments trade barbs but eventually work out a downright Utopian love-fest of an ending in which each recognizes the value of the other’s contributions:

What a beautiful mantle we don, and what excellent sandals! How straight the path we walk and how pure the spring from which we drink! A friendship, the train of whose garment we let drag [i.e. ‘in which we luxuriate’] and a fellowship whose fruits we pick and whose wine we taste. We have left the regions of sin a wasteland and its workmanship in ruins, we have wiped out every trace of hatred and returned sleep to the eyelids!

At the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century, the Sephardic writer Judah al-Harizi adapted Ibn Burd’s debate in chapter 40 of Tahkemoni, a collection of rhyming prose narratives. Al-Harizi wrote in Hebrew for a Jewish patron who, unlike Ibn Burd’s patron King Mujahid, was not a military leader and whose relationship to sovereign political power was that of a minority courtier, a member of a diasporic culture. Al-Harizi is writing some 50 years before Todros Abulafia penned his troubadouresque verses at the court of Alfonso X. His prose, like that of all Hebrew authors of his time, is shot through with words, images, and set phrases lifted directly from the Hebrew bible.

Jews in 13th-century Toledo did not fight in wars. They provided financial and logistical support for wars, but they were not marching into battle. So, what does a sword mean to a writer who belongs to a community that does not wage war but that is dependent upon the monarch who does?

It should not, therefore, surprise that Al-Harizi’s debate looks a bit different from that of Ibn Burd. He is writing for an audience that typically does not bear arms themselves and who have suffered violence at the hands of the majority time after time. The massacres of Jews in Granada in 1066, in France and Germany in 1096, and the periodic violence against Jews in Christian Iberia were very real reminders that swords were not just something to write about.

Accordingly, the Pen comes up winner in al-Harizi’s version. This is not surprising – in Latin debates between clerks and knights (written by clerks), the winners were always the clerks. But before ceding the field, the sword reminds the pen:

The king reigns through my power: I shout, his enemies cower, leap, and pull down turret and tower. I am my monarch’s shield against all foes: my fear precedes him where’er he goes. His rivals I efface, their camps erase without a trace. All tremble at my blade’s command, before me who can stand?

The Pen counters the he not only provides right guidance for those in power, but is also the instrument of Divine Will and of religion:

My words bind monarch’s heads with light,
my proverbs, the heart with joy.
I cover the earth with the mantle of Law
and no evil stains that cloak;
Through me, God hewed the Tables Two
at Sinai for His folk.

Al-Harizi’s narrator is won over by the pen, who he describes with sword-like attributes:

When I had heard this well-honed story, this sharp-edged allegory, I inscribed his words on my heart with iron pen, that never they might part.

Al-Harizi here reworks Ibn Burd’s debate in a diasporic key. The Jewish community, a class of administrators, financiers, scholars, and merchants, lives by the pen, yet sometimes dies by the sword despite a (usually) privileged relationship to sovereign political power.

Jacob Ben Elazar, writing in Toledo some years after al-Harizi, takes this diasporic interpretation of the debate a step further. His debate is more than a competition for superiority, it is a moral manifesto for a time of intellectual and religious decadence.  His pen not only wins the debate, it serves as the moral compass for what Ben Elazar describes as a “generation of fools.”

The debate begins like the others, with each instrument bad-mouthing the other and pointing up their respective weaknesses and faults. The sword calls the pen weak, empty, and inconsequential, while describing himself as the “glory of kings.” The pen tells the sword to “get back into your sheath and calm down,” reminding him that he is abusive and unjust, he spills innocent blood and undermines justice. He holds that he has power that far transcends the temporal powers of the sword. The pen, he explains, can form reality, teach history, morals, and law:

My mouth (i.e. the split opening of my quill where the ink flows) will cause you to know what has happened in the past, the history of princes, kings, and priests who came before us, to the point that you will feel you have been friends with every one of them. Its mouth will speak to your mouth and will inform you about their justice and loyalty, their perversity and their sins. From my mouth you will learn doctrine and wisdom and it will teach you mysteries and deep knowledge.

Moses ben Maimon aka Maimonides aka The Rambam

But then the pen changes the rules of the game. He explains that what is at issue is not whether the pen is better than the sword, but whether humans can live righteously according to God’s law. Both pen and sword are mere instruments, and that neither intelligence nor might are of lasting value. He then launches into a sort of Aristotelian sermon on the unity of God dense will allusions to Sephardic scholarship and worthy of Maimonides, the Spanish-born Rabbi and physician who changed Jewish life forever by continuing the work of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in reconciling Jewish religion and Greek philosophy:

The principles of all the unities are Eight,
but only of he in whom there is no plurality
you may proclaim that he is truly One, and is the only true God,
who is a refuge since times gone by;
He is not found in any place, only in the thoughts
of the wise man and in the forge of Reason….

Here Ben Elazar is weighing in on a philosophical debate that was causing a serious political rift in the Jewish communities of Castile in the mid-13th century: the Maimonidean Controversy. This debate divided Jewish communities in Spain and Southern France into two camps: those who favored a Judaism that could adapt to the advances in science and philosophy made possible by the translations of Aristotle’s works into Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin (Maimonideans), and those who preferred a more traditional interpretation of Jewish law that shunned any reconciliation with Greek philosphy (Traditionalists).

Creationism, Evolution, or Lunch?

In broad strokes, this is a debate that should be familiar to those of us living in the US (and other countries) in the 21st century. Many communities are simliarly torn today by debates between believers of Creationism and Evolution, and more generally between various bands of Fundamentalists and Rationalists.

Ben Elazar continues to expound on the unity of God, and his insistence in following this line makes me think that he is circling back to yet another meaning of the Pen versus the Sword, one particularly suited to a diasporic Jewish audience living under Christian rule:

The Almighty truly must be called One
you cannot divide him into pieces, nor can you join him
all of him is that is called One
is indivisible once it is united.
The One that cannot be divided remains
eternally, but the unity that is created, perishes.

Why, in the context of a debate between Pen and Sword, this insistence on God’s essential unity? It doesn’t seem to make sense for either of the interpretations we have so far discussed. The question of God’s unity seems irrelevant to the traditional interpretation by which the Pen represents letters and the Sword arms. Even when the Pen represents Maimonideans (science) and the Sword traditionalists (fundamentalism), it doesn’t add up: neither side is advocating for a plural God.

It is almost as if Ben Elazar here is suggesting a third interpretation: the Pen is the diasporic Jewish community, and the Sword Christian sovereignty, a double-edged sword (pun intended) that presents both a theological threat in the form of the Trinity (the division of God into parts), and a political threat in the form of the ever-present possibility of violence, perhaps violence in the name of same Trinity.


Photo credits:

This post was made possible with the support of the Oregon Humanities Center, where I am currently Ernest G. Moll Faculty Fellow in Literary Studies. It grows out of my current book project, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature 1200-1600.