The City of Light is the journal of the travels of Jacob D’Ancona, a 13th century pious Jewish merchant. Readers follow Jacob on a three-year journey, starting from his hometown of Ancona in present-day Italy, overland through Damascus and Baghdad, and then by sea, stopping at various ports and places until he reaches the city of Zaitun, modern-day Quanzhou, where he stays to buy goods and talk to the scholars of the city. It consists of equal parts travelogue/memoir and a philosophical discussion of medieval Jewish and Chinese ideas.
This was a time when Jews had restricted access to jobs or freedom to run their own lives. In medieval Europe, Jews often had to wear physical signals of their faith: yellow stripes or stars. Jews had restricted job and social opportunities: they were often forbidden from interaction with Christians. In Muslim lands, the restrictions for Jews were somewhat more relaxed, but Jews still paid higher taxes than Muslims did — though not as high as those paid by the non-“People of the Book”.
Jacob himself is an interesting exception to many of the typical rules. He travels with both Jews and Christians, and frequently mentions his young female Gentile servants’ romantic lives. Furthermore, Jacob is a jack-of-all-trades, a Renaissance man in pre-Renaissance times. He’s a traveler, a merchant, a scholar, a physician, an authority who is consulted by Jewish and Chinese communities alike. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Nearly everyone who meets him likes him. He’s a bit too good to be true: in modern terms, he’s a pretty big Mary Sue.
But the most compelling parts of the book are not Jacob, but the world he’s seeing for the first time. The descriptions of Chinese life are vivid and lengthy, and the variety and extensiveness of the Chinese market was stunning and often unbelievable to European eyes. Jacob engages in lengthy discussions (through a translator) with Chinese scholars and even spends several weeks stuck in the sordid underworld, full of gambling, prostitutes, and illicit sex.
There’s also political intrigue, and the threat of very real danger: At this time, northern China was under the rule of Kublai Khan and there was a very real threat of invasion by the “Tartars” — for Europeans and the southern Chinese alike. Meanwhile, the Chinese community of scholars was divided itself between old and new ways of thinking.
Jacob finds many points of contact and connection between himself and several of the Chinese scholars, especially a man named Pitaco, who like Jacob was worried about the lack of respect in the younger generation, the stability of the country’s morals, and the justification of trickle-down economics. Perhaps most fittingly for a book about contact and conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, Jacob’s habit of pontificating ends up rubbing many Chinese scholars the wrong way. As the inhabitants of the city get upset about the amount of influence the foreign Jew has in the city, Jacob concludes his business and leaves in a hurry, fearing for his life.
There’s really just one problem with the narrative: Jacob D’Ancona may have never existed.
David Selbourne, compiler and translator of The City of Light, relates the story of discovering the manuscript in the introduction to the book. He was shown a 14th-century manuscript in medieval Italian and some Hebrew: possibly the original text but possibly a copy. His translation of the manuscript was under the conditions of deepest secrecy: the owner was not Jewish and did not want his ownership of the manuscript to be known. There is thus no independent text to check, aside from the excerpts Selbourne includes: the book Selbourne published is in English, a translation he made himself, though he admits he’s not fluent in either medieval Italian or Hebrew.
There is no contemporary record of Jacob, either in Ancona or in China, nor is there any record of people reading his memoirs. Selbourne identifies possible rabbis and locations based on references in the text, but there is no independent, third-party identification of Jacob or anyone he meets, and only rarely does Selbourne use other texts to cross-check Jacob’s findings.
Upon publication, the book was immediately attacked by academics as a fraud and forgery, citing impossibilities, inaccuracies, and an apparently naive perception of China. Western historians asserted that many of the items Jacob reported seeing or purchasing did not exist in China at the time, and that Selbourne’s translation read far more like a critique on 20th-century Britain than an accurate description of 13-century China.
Most damningly, Bernard Wasserstein*, then the director of the Centre of Hebrew Studies in Oxford, wrote an article for the Times Literary supplement called “Jacobo Spurioso”, where he calls the book a “stodgy pastiche” with multiple issues: misrepresentations of Jewish culture and works, incongruities with known historical facts of the depiction of China, and most tellingly, anachronistic language. The smoking gun for Wasserstein was Selbourne’s use of the Arabic word “mellah” to refer to a Jewish ghetto: this word, according to Wasserstein, was not used in this sense until the 15th century in Morocco, the other side of the Arab-speaking world. Because of the poor press, the original American publication was canceled, and was not published in the U.S. until 2001.
(*Full disclosure: I took a class with Bernard Wasserstein at the University of Chicago several years ago. He never mentioned anything relating to this book.)
Interestingly, even as Western scholars found fault in every last detail of Selbourne’s China, Chinese scholars found evidence to overcome all of these issues, leading to an impasse. Chinese scholars found verification for nearly everything Jacob reported seeing or experiencing, from the goods he purchased to the sedan chairs he saw to the types of clothing described. Who was correct?
One of the ways historians approach works is by thinking about the audience. Anything that is written is written for an audience. Everyone who writes thus writes for an audience, and to advance an agenda — whether the agenda is to entertain, to campaign, to promote, to inform, or to blaspheme. A reader can often better suss out the intention of a work by understanding the audience for whom it was written. The Prince changes if we think Machiavelli was being serious or sarcastic. If his intended audience was Lorenzo d’Medici, we have one interpretation: if we think his audience was the people of Florence, we have another.
When reading Jacob D’Ancona’s manuscript, it was very hard for me to figure out his intended audience. Was it written for a singular patron, as books frequently were in medieval times? Was it a private journal? Was it intended for a Jewish or Christian audience? On this last point, Selbourne infers in the introduction that the book must have been “hidden” in the Jewish community for generations, because of Jacob’s frequent critical comments on Christianity. But if so, there’s an awful lot of explanation given for Jewish concepts. My issues aren’t with the clearly marked explanations from Selbourne, but with the actual text itself. Things that would have been perfectly clear to Jews at the time — the teaching of Maimonides, the prohibitions against worshipping graven idols or eating non-kosher food — are spelled out, as though it’s being written for a non-Jewish audience.
One of the biggest issues is Jacob’s usage of both Jewish and Christian dates, using both the Hebrew and the Julian calendar. Usually, Jacob uses Jewish dates: he’ll identify each Shabbat from the Torah portion of the week and usually uses Jewish dates, which argued for a Jewish audience: using the date “the tenth of Tishrei” tells a Jew far more than it would tell a non-Jew who is not familiar with the Hebrew calendar. Selbourne generally footnotes these calendars for the corresponding date in the Julian calendar for the edification of the non-Jewish reader. But scattered throughout the books are Christian dates, also consistent with the Julian calendar. Why would a pious Jewish man, writing for an audience of fellow Jews, use Christian dates?
Speaking of “piety”, Selbourne takes Jacob’s frequently proclaimed piety at face value: a close reading of the text reveals an often mean, petty man, far more concerned with observing the letter of the law than with the spirit. He’s punctilious about observing certain taboos — refusing to record any type of heresy or blasphemy without crossing it out or recording a “May G-d forgive me for saying this” — but seems to have never heard of the prohibitions against lashon hara, or “the evil tongue”. He freely calls both Jews and non-Jews alike mal, or “evil”. He will mention that there are sights not fit for a pious man to see, such as the brothels in the underworld of Zaitun, but then he’ll go ahead and describe said sights in details. At one point, Jacob delays searching for a member of his crew who was feared to be in peril until after Shabbat because he didn’t want to sin by entering a forbidden area: afterwards, he reflects on the principle of pikuach nefesh, the idea that nearly any Jewish law can be broken in order to save a life, and then whines that either way, he had to commit a sin.
These details are hypocrisies that are never explained, and Selbourne does not acknowledge these contradictions in his subject. Selbourne’s response to these issues is that Jacob’s “was not intellectually constrained in the conventional ways that such (Jewish) critics might prefer [...] is a modern scholarly schema which dictates what a man-of-the-past ‘ought’ to have been, and what he ‘ought’ to have known or done, preferable to what he was and knew, and says himself that he did?”
But there are some things that Selbourne can’t defend. One very egregious lapse needs to be pointed out: on the tenth of Tishrei, otherwise known as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Jacob fasts — but records a lengthy digression entirely about food and the terrible slaughtering practices of non-Jews compared to Jews. It’s natural to think about food on a fast day, but it’s not exactly an example of piety. However, the most glaring line in the passage was this:
“…we should have reverence for all life, God be praised, while at the same time having knowledge of man’s need for meat, acting in such a fashion, according to reason, that we do not cause animals to suffer torments, but stun them before they are killed.”
This line is a beautiful sentiment, and it’s very in line with Jewish attitudes toward slaughtering animals. It is also factually wrong. Jews do not stun animals before they are killed. The process of shechita requires that animals are not stunned: as Rabbi David Sedley says in his blog post, animals must be whole and unharmed before slaughter, and stunning involves either pithing the brain of the animal or electrocuting the animal, basically making it brain-dead. In fact, this has recently become a major issue in many European countries, where regulations require animals to be stunned before slaughter. Furthermore, referring to stunning animals at all is likely anachronistic: it didn’t become a widespread practice until the twentieth century.
There are three possible explanations for this. The first is that Italian Jews had perfected some method of stunning which did not harm the animal nor taint the meat that has not survived to the present day, a stretch at best. Somewhat likelier is the possibility Selbourne inaccurately translated this line, and was such a sloppy academic that he never noticed the error. Without the original text that he insists exists, we can’t verify this possibility. But most likely of all is that Selbourne fabricated the entire book and had focused the bulk of his research on getting Chinese details correct — and ignoring or overlooking sources for the Jewish details. And because the issue of stunning animals has only become an issue in the last few years, this could have easily been overlooked by academics. Using Occam’s razor, either the second or the third possibility is real: I lean toward the third.
In his defense of the book, Wang Lianmao, Professor of the History of Overseas Communications and Curator of the Maritime Museum in Quanzhou, wrote that he believed that the manuscript was genuine because of the “familiar flavor of [Jacob's] descriptions of the local traditions… With many forgeries, it is precisely in such accounts of the local cultural characteristics that the forgery is most easily exposed.” He meant this as a defense, yet this is the exact issue I have with the book: both as a Jew and as a person who has studied medieval manuscripts and travelers’ accounts, it doesn’t ring true to me. His focus on his servant girl’s romantic life, which would only have been of interest to a modern audience, his frequent lapses in observance or piety, his incorrect interpretations of basic facts of Jewish life: I cannot believe this work is true.
And it’s really a shame, because the book would have made a great historical novel, and the most powerful part of the book remains a good historical source. So many Chinese scholars have applauded the authenticity of Selbourne’s description of China, and Selbourne himself is justly proud that Chinese scholars are able to prove their superior knowledge of their own history. One of the strengths of the books is the three-dimensionality of the Chinese people in the book: they are not stereotypes or limited, but three-dimensional and occasionally more sympathetic than the hero Jacob. We need more medieval historical works that show a non-Western perspective published in the Western world: however, we need books that aren’t founded on a lie.
Rachel Landau is a graduate student in public policy. She previously worked as a museum security guard. She has lost on Jeopardy!