Jacob d’Ancona (a real person or a fictional character)
“The City of Light — the Travels of Jacob d’Ancona 1270-73” is translated and edited by David Selbourne, and was published in 1997 in hardback edition in the UK by Little, Brown and Company. (Paperback edition was published in the UK in 1998 by Abacus). It has since been translated and sold in other editions in other languages — including Chinese. The US branch of Little Brown and Company however then refused to publish it. This was because of concerns by some US scholars that this purported account of Jacob d’Ancona could be a forgery. Their opinions were expressed in several scholarly journals published in the USA. Their opinions were also expressed in an article published by the Israeli daily newspaper “The Jerusalem Post”
In the 18th century a minor Scottish poet was responsible for forgery of a so-called original Celtic epic. He deceived a number of European scholars for some years. This is the so-called Ossian controversy. Its consequences have reverberated down to our own time.
Scholars today have every right to be cautious or sceptical about the provenance of a document that none of them have ever seen. This is especially so where (as in the case of the Jacob d’Ancona document), the manuscript is not available for forensic scrutiny, and maybe it never will.
David Selbourne has provided an explanation of how he came to see the manuscript. David Selbourne has also explained why the owner of the manuscript has refused to let anyone else see it.
I am prepared to accept David Selbourne’s explanation. My acceptance is based on what I understand are David Selbourne’s prior credentials as a scholar and as a person.
However I also accept other people do have the right to dispute the credibility of what David Selbourne has said. I also accept they have the right to say that the story of Jacob d’Ancona is a forgery.
But if the story of Jacob d’Ancona is a forgery, then it has to be an historical novel. Moreover it has to be the most brilliant historical novel I have ever encountered.
It is difficult to write good historical fiction that accurately reflects the social -cultural-religious psychology of a previous historical era.
If your novel has a central character navigating themselves through 13thItaly and 13thcentury China you would have to have two qualifications. You would have to be a top rate historical scholar, and also a top rate novelist. But, if your novel also includes approximately a dozen countries between Italy and China, you would have to be a genius — as a scholar and as a novelist.
Most historical novels “bomb out” when it comes to authenticity. Most historical novels carry mid 20thcentury or late 20thcentury Western secularist baggage. These novels have modern character actors acting their parts. These novels also have appropriate historical wallpaper to indicate the back of the stage.
Jacob d’Ancona comprises a mix of pious bigotry and openhearted generosity. He also exhibits flashes of wisdom. These flashes of wisdom leave you (the modern reader) open mouthed with amazement.
The tension between Jacob d’Ancona and one of his female servants — the Italian Christian woman Bertoni — adds to the authenticity of this story. The reason that Bertoni is one of Jacob’s two female servants is so that she can be a chaperone for her younger kinswoman Buccazuppo. Buccazuppo is Jacob’s other female servant. She has particular responsibility as Jacob’s washerwoman to make sure he has a regular supply of fresh clean clothes. But Bertoni is the opposite of a good chaperone. Instead she encourages her younger kinswoman Buccazuppo in the latter’s various sexual escapades. And when Buccazuppo becomes pregnant, Bertoni administers a poison to procure an abortion.
Thus it is Jacob (a middle aged Jewish merchant) who has to become the moral guardian to this young Christian woman — Buccazuppo. This is because Bertoni (Buccazuppo’s older kinswoman) is morally unfit to carry out her intended role. Jacob also has to use his medical skills to tend to the young woman at a time when she is at risk of dying as a result of the abortion.
There is another difficulty. When Jacob reaches his destination in China he spends a long time there in discussions with Chinese merchants and scholars. In the course of these discussions he has the assistance of a young man who is part Chinese and part European, who acts as Jacob’s translator. However Jacob finds out that this young man has fallen in love with Buccazuppo, and she with him. When the time comes for Jacob and his crew to leave China to return to Italy, Buccazuppo wants to stay with this young man whom she has fallen in love with. It is with the greatest tact that Jacob manages to persuade her to leave her young man behind. As a reward for her in making the return voyage, Jacob promises to teach her to read and write.
And at the journey’s end when they have all safely reached their home port of Ancona, he gives a pair of pearl earrings to the young woman Buccazuppo. We are never told why Jacob gave her the pearl earrings. It is an incredibly generous present for a young female servant to receive. Jacob in an aside asks God’s forgiveness for being so overly generous to her. But you (the modern reader) are left wondering what the real motive is. Perhaps Jacob’s overly generous action is a gesture, which shows how relieved he is. Maybe it is because Jacob is relieved to have got the young woman Buccazuppo back home to Italy, and that she is physically and emotionally well and she has her public moral reputation intact.
Behind this is another story that you (the modern reader) are never told.
If you were one of the original intended audiences for this story, you would not need to be told this story.
If you were a 13th century Jewish person in Ancona in Italy you would know something that a typical modern reader would not know. A 13th century Jewish person would know that if the younger Italian Christian woman Buccazuppo fails to return to Italy, or if Buccazuppo returns to Italy in a morally fallen state, it will be Jacob (rather than Bertoni) who will be held responsible.
Relations between Christians and Jews in 13th century Europe were always very fragile. The least incident (imagined or real) could spark violence against Jewish communities. Jacob is aware that rogue Christian groups in Europe had triggered massacres of communities of Jews with much flimsier excuse than this.
If this story of Jacob’s travels from Italy to China in the 13th century is fiction, then it is brilliant fiction. The extract below illustrates this. The extract tells about Jacob’s journey along the west coast of India on route to China. Jacob speaks:
“It befell, having set in order my affairs in Cambaetta and having given instructions to Beniamino as to his duties, that on the second day after sailing from that place Buccazuppo was taken in the morning with a great flux of blood, and in the hold a grey and stinking mildew was found, God forbid, which covered the corrupted victuals. The Saracens and the Christians held these things to be evil omens, thinking that blood of the girl and the stinking mould to be two effects of the same cause, or the action of the Evil One. But I declared to them that the girl’s flux was surely brought on by a beverage given to her by Bertoni, and that the mould was surely brought on by a strong poison set in the fodder of the horses at Cormosa by him, may a pestilence take his body, who sold them to Armentuzio.
But this they would by no means accept, Bertoni denying upon her life and the cross of her redeemer that she had administered any harmful thing to the girl, and Armentuzio declaring upon the head of his son and his holy ghost, God forbid, that the seller of the horses was an honest man.
The flux of the girl I sought to arrest with a drink of microbalans boiled in water, together with a paste of salt and cubebs, and, thereafter, when the flux diminished, for her strength and delight some dates mixed with honey, since she wept greatly. Thereafter, I gave her twice daily the medicine asarun, since her mind and her body became much disturbed. Nor did I enquire with whom she had lain, yet reproached her for her loose acts with men, counselling her that she think well for the salvation of her soul according to Christian teaching. But she, in the disturbance of her mind, turned her head from me, crying out that I leave her, that neither God or man had love for her but only the evil woman Bertoni, and that God attended upon the wishes only of those who are well favoured, may God have mercy upon her for such blasphemy.
While I thus entreated her, the mariners threw the corrupted provisions into the sea, the Saracens and Christians, each according to their own fashion, praying that the evil eye should not look upon them. For my part I was much stricken that a pious man such as I should have fallen in such an unclean state upon the eve of the Sabbath Vayetze, for my hands were touched with a woman’s flux and my very ears were tainted with words which no man should hear. In my heart there was therefore much grief, being separated by the seas not only from my [wife] Sara but from my brothers Vivo, Eliezer, Lazzaro and the great Aaron, although I could see their vessels close at hand. I therefore washed myself and put on fresh clothes, lit the Sabbath candles and said the kiddush, doing all according to my duties, God be praised for sparing me to do Him honour. Yet there was little joy in my heart, may God forgive me that I should have greeted His holy day in such a fashion.
Thus, in order that I might make amends for my impious condition upon the sea, I asked that my lamp be taken away by Armentuzio, I not wishing that Bertoni should approach me, and sat the whole night in darkness. In this way I prayed and studied not from my book but in my heart, nor the next day, which was the eighth day of Kislev, nor did I seek out the fleas, as was my custom on other days. For is it not forbidden by our strictest sages, peace upon them, for a man to search for fleas in his clothes upon the Sabbath ? And is it not also forbidden for a pious man to read by lamplight, lest, unwitting of the Sabbath he so forget himself as to move the lamp so that the oil flow more abundantly ? Yet if, by the action of the sea, the lamp is thus moved it is permitted.
In this way in the darkness of the night and upon the next day, remaining alone, I recovered my knowledge of God and took heart, may God be thanked. The learned declare that since all things are moved by a moving power, which in turn moved by another moving power, each superior thing in the hierarchy of creation moves that which is below it. And since, they say, there cannot be a number of movers which is infinite, we must therefore reach the prime mover, which is God, blessed be He. But I do not find God in such proofs, but in the beauties of the material world, in its seas and mountains, its leaping fish and its singing birds, and all the other moving beings of the terrestrial world which God in his bounty has given to us. For the earth is full of every living perfection, and although the mind of God was the first mover, a man may also talk too secretly of the beginning and end of things, or of the alpha and omega of the created world. Yet the light of the understanding is truly the divine light also, and in this light, which is eternal, all things have their splendour.
But the nature of the world is also given to us to know by our acts in the world as men endowed with reason, which reason is the gift of God. Moreover, a man must take his place upon the great sea of being, whether the light of God shine upon him or not and whether he be Christian, Saracen or Jew. Thus it appeared to me in my thoughts, may God be praised. “