In her 2008 novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks presents the fictionalized history of a single book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–as seen by Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Alternating between Hanna’s story and glimpses from the Haggadah’s past, Brooks pieces together the book’s history using the clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from it.
Over the next few weeks, I want to provide readers of People of the Book with real-world examples from archives, libraries, and museums across the world. These examples should help you picture what Brooks is describing, contextualizing her novel and providing an introduction to the history of the book.
To start us off, the Haggadah.
The Haggadah is a sacred Jewish book that sets out to fulfill the commandment to “tell your son” of the escape from Egypt. A blueprint for the Seder, or ritual feast at the beginning of Passover, the Haggadah is a very common book, one that can be found in almost every Jewish home. Although most are rather normal-looking, throughout the last eight-hundred years many have been designed with extraordinary attention to detail and a lot of money. Surviving examples in libraries, archives, museums, and private collections present scholars with insight into Medieval manuscript illumination, Jewish and Biblical art, and the history of the book in Europe.
The examples provided below are keeping to the general genre of Brooks’s Haggadah. They are from Medieval Europe, illuminated with human figures, made from expensive materials, and finely decorated by a master.
- Sarajevo Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1350): This real book was the inspiration for Brooks’s fictional one, in name and design. Although it belongs to the National Museum, the Haggadah is currently on display in the main hall at the Sarajevo Parliament in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- The Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1320): Comparable to the Sarajevo Haggadah, both being created in the same area around the same time, the Golden Haggadah is different in two ways. First, although the Sarajevo one is illuminated with copper and some gold, the Golden one lives up to its name: gold covers almost every page of illustration. Second, the Golden Haggadah has almost double the miniature illustrations (56 to Sarajevo’s 34). In content and size, this version of the Haggadah is stunning in its overwhelming luxuriousness. Currently owned by the British Museum, it is available in full online.
- The Birds’ Head Haggadah (South Germany, c. 1300): Quite possibly the oldest Haggadah in existence, the name comes from the bird-like features of the people in this book’s marginal illustrations. This style of drawing skirted the rules against drawing humans by giving them pronounced beaks, and it was very common in Southern German manuscripts of the time. This Haggadah is currently owned by the Israel Museum.
- The Washington Haggadah (South Germany, 1478): Created more than 100 years after the Sarajevo Haggadah in Brooks’s book, the Washington Haggadah has a much clearer provenance (the history of who owned it, when, and where). We know, for example, that it was created by Joel ben Simeon and came into the possession of the Library of Congress as part of a large accession in 1916. Frequently on tour, this version of the Haggadah is one of the most accessible in person, having spent a long time at the Met and available in facsimile through Harvard University Press.
- The Rylands Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1330): Most likely the finest Haggadah in existence, the Rylands Haggadah incorporates a variety of illustrative techniques with the text and includes a 13-page miniature cycle, which details Exodus from the burning bush to the Red Sea. As such, it is a pillar of Judaic and Biblical art and a standout example of the genre. Owned by the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, it was also displayed at the Met and available in facsimile.