The curious case of a terminus ad quem

James A. Landau <> JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Sat May 14 00:17:37 UTC 2011

Etymological dating scores a sucess!

There exists a book called _The City of Light_ (English translation by David Selbourne) which claims to be a translation manuscript by a Jewish traveller named Jacopo of Ancona to China in 1271 (4 years before Marco Polo).  The original manuscript has never been shown in public.  Is _The City of Light_ authentic?  A hoax?  What?

Etymology steps in.  According to an article "Jacobo Spurioso" by Bernard Wasserstein and David Wasserstein (unfortunately the pdf I have of the article is missing the journal title):

...the traveler [Jacopo] arrives at the Persian Gulf city, the modern name of which is Brandar Abbas.  Here, we are informed, Jacopo visited the Jews in their "mellah".  Selbourne, in his learned Glossary, defines this word as "[Arabic] Jewish quarter of a town."  "Mellah" is indeed an Arabic word for the Jewish quarter of a town.  But it is used exclusively in the Maghreb, not in the Middle East.  Moreover, its hitherto-earliest known usage is in the fifteenth century.  Against this, it might plausibly be suggested that Jacopo, a seasoned traveller around the mediterranean, had picked up the word on an earlier trip to Morocco.  As for the problem of date, it might be maintained that Jacopo's usage, far from casting doubt on his authenticity, simply shows that the word is older than previously thought.
      Inconveniently, however, this cannot possibly be so.  For the origin of the word "mellah" is precisely known and dated.  It comes from a root meaning "salt".  It was first used in the sense mentioned by Selbourne in 1418, when a specific are of salt marsh in the city of Fez was set aside for use as a Jewish quarter.  Later, the usage spread to other towns in Morocco.  It is therefore imossible that it appeared in this sense in Jacopo's manuscript, which Selbourne argues was probably written "in the early 1280s".  Selbourne surmises that the manuscript may not be in Jacopo's own hand and may be a fourteenth-century copy.  But that dating does not dispose of the difficulty of the use, or rather the misuse, of a fifteenth-century word.  It is as if Shakespeare or Sheridan discussed shareware or shopaholism.  On this ground alone, we must conclude that the manuscript (it it were ever produced) could only be a forgery.

    - James A. Landau
thanks to my daughter Rachel for sending me the article

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