Washington Haggadah.jpg

Jewish women’s head coverings. Joel Ben Simeon, The Washington Haggadah, 1478, image 42. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018757799/. Public domain.

Item quatuor cambas unius orali

During the later middle ages, the city of Arles, like many of its sister cities across southeastern France, was home to a large and vibrant community of Jews whose doings are documented in the region’s extensive notarial archives. Louis Stouff, the great modern historian of Arles, collected a number of Arlesian inventories, including inventories of Jewish households, and analyzed them in his pioneering contributions to food history. This month’s featured object comes from the first of what we hope will be a number of inventories from Arles published in DALME.

The inventory of the late Mosse Bona Fe was compiled in October of 1435 by his widow, Astrugona, during a procedure naming her as guardian for the couple’s three young children, Bonafossius, Josse, and Raphaella. The record is interesting on a number of levels. The preamble describes how the judge of the court of Arles came personally to Astrugona’s house, where he chose one of the benches in her household for the symbolic seat of his tribunal. The procedure confirming her guardianship subsequently unfolded in this makeshift tribunal. Evidently, Astrugona had already compiled the inventory, presumably in Occitan, because the notary indicated that she simply handed over a list of the things written out on a sheet of paper (in quadam papiri cedula) dated to the day before, having first authenticated the inventory by means of an unusual gesture.

Mosse’s house was located in the parish of Saint-Martin in Arles. The goods belonging to him and his wife appear to have been relatively rudimentary, consisting of two beds, table linens, furniture (much of which was made of pine), several articles of clothing, and five books written in Hebrew. Very little was found in the way of kitchen items or dining utensils. The second part of the inventory lists some miscellaneous items that had almost certainly been left as pledges for loans, including iron tools, barrels, clothing, a helmet, and other items. The reading and analysis of the inventory is complicated by the fact that the notary of the court seems not to have been able to translate into Latin a number of the Occitan words found on Astrugona's list, and the meanings of several of these words have yet to be determined by lexicographers.

The featured object, known in Occitan as an oralh, was a type of head covering or wimple worn by Jewish women. According to Elisheva Baumgarten, rabbinic authorities were generally uninterested in women’s head coverings, although married Jewish women, like their Christians counterparts, probably did wear head coverings in the normal course of affairs. Oralhs appear in about half of the Jewish inventories from nearby Marseille, suggesting that the head covering was relatively common in Jewish households. Pinchas Roth has discovered a reference to the oralh in a commentary on Alfasi's code made by Jonathan ben David of Lunel (b. c. 1130). In his discussion of Mishnah Ketubot 5, 8, Jonathan described the cap that appears in the passage as "a scarf that is called oral."

Since the reference to the oralh appears in the first part of the inventory, that is, the area where the household’s possessions appear to have been grouped, it is likely that this was Astrugona’s own head covering. What makes the entry referring to Astrugona’s oralh particularly interesting is the reference to the stays or struts, known as cambas or “legs,” which gave structure to the oralh. In point of fact, the entry refers only to the struts: in translation, the phrase reads "Next, four struts belonging to an oralh." It is possible that the oralh could be worn both with and without struts. In this scenario, the oralh itself might not have been listed in the inventory because Astrugona had been wearing it, without the struts, at the time that she compiled the inventory.