Honour Where Honour is Due

In 1757, the Amsterdam physician of Ashkenazi Jewish descent Michael Jacobus de Vries submitted a dissertation to obtain the title Doctor of Medicine (De Vries 1757). In this dissertation, De Vries treats a then-widespread disease known as ‘phrenitis,’ which is nowadays considered a lost ailment (Schlesinger, in: Horstmanshoff-Schlesinger-Hartog in press). What is particularly interesting for our purposes, however, is not the medical ramifications of De Vries’s work, but the inclusion of an auctori encomium, or ‘laudatory poem to the author,’ at the end of the work. This encomium has been composed in Biblical Hebrew and could best be considered an amalgam of scriptural verses, larded with citations from the broader tradition of Jewish literature. In translation, the encomium reads as follows (taken from Hartog in prep.).

How beautiful are thy feet! I shall bless and glorify your name.
To goodness your feet shall run and evil shall not dwell in your tent.
Your soul faints for medicine – crying: “Grace, grace!”
In the evening you do not lay down your hands from persisting in your study.
In the morning you sow your seed, your wisdom is within you.
Intelligent and wise and honoured like you there is no one within a great congregation.
By day and night you meditate and not one time did you do differently.
My prayer is to the Ruler of All, in whose hand it is to support everything.
He shall be nearby in your counsel and shall send healing in your medicine.
10 In every undertaking of your hands, his righteous right hand shall support thee.
11 He shall prolong thy days and thy years and he shall fulfill all your wishes.
12 Glory and honour they shall give thy name, and your brothers shall bow down for you.
13 Thus are my word, my hope, my expectation, and my wish.

In citing Scripture and the rabbinic tradition, the composer of De Vries’s panegyric displays several interpretative attitudes towards the Hebrew Bible. I shall illustrate two of these attitudes and techniques by paying attention to (1) the application of biblical verses in a more profane context and (2) the splitting up of a biblical verse, thus constituting an intelligent inclusio.


(1) Biblical verses in the profane context of the encomium

A major difference between Scripture and the Renaissance encomium dedicated to Michael J. de Vries is that the first tends to deal with the greatness of God, while the second aims at pointing out the particular qualities of the young doctor. In light of this different setting of the two works, it should be surprising to find biblical verses cited in the encomium, which become detached from their original God-orientated meaning, and are applied to enhance the fame of the Amsterdam scholar. A first example of this interpretative tendency may be found in the second line of the panegyric, where the biblical expression ‘to dwell in someone’s tent,’ which occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 15:1 and 61:5) and in both instances expresses the intimate relationship between God and humans, is applied to express the non-existing relationship between the doctor and evil. In other words: a biblical expression of God’s dealing with human beings is transformed into an expression of the just way of life of one particular human being, in which God does not play a role anymore.

Another example of this interpretative technique employed by the composer of the encomium is found in the third line of the poem, where it says: ‘your soul faints for medicine.’ This phrase is clearly based on Psalms 84:3, where Scripture reads: ‘my soul longs, nay faints for the courts of the Lord.’ By altering the pronominal suffix (‘my soul’ becomes ‘your soul’) in this verse, the encomium applies this verse to the young doctor. What is, however, more of importance is the move which leaves out entirely the ‘courts of the Lord.’ These are replaced by the reason for the fame brought to the encomium‘s honorand, e.g., his dedication to medicine. Lastly, the treatment of Psalms 40:9 in line 5 of the poem may be referred to. Here, Scripture reads: ‘your law (tôrâ) is within you.’ This phrase is cited literally in the b-colon of line 5, but there it is translated: ‘your wisdom is within you.’ This has to do with a semantic shift the word tôrâ underwent in this, and other, encomia. Where the word would refer to a God-given law or teaching in Scripture, a more profane meaning is attested in Renaissance laudatory poems, where tôrâ came to indicate the quality bringing about the honour received by the honorand, e.g., ‘wisdom.’ In the exact same meaning, the word is used in, for instance, the encomia by Drusius (1609).


(2) Psalms 1:2 employed as an inclusio

From both a formal and a semantic perspective, it is clear that line 6 stands at the exact centre of the encomium. This line is the only one exhibiting the form of a tricolon, even though it is a dicolon, just as all other lines, and sets apart the phrase kamôkā ‘like you.’ Furthermore, the contents of this line, reading: ‘intelligent and wise and honoured like you there is no one within a great congregation’ could and should be conceived of as a summary or the pointe of the entire poem. These observations, defining line 6 as the central line of the panegyric, go to suggest that the lines embracing it, e.g., lines 5 and 7, should also constitute a thematic similarity, resulting in the A-X-A’ poetic scheme, which is so current in Hebrew poetry. And indeed, the phrases ‘in the morning you sow your seed’ and ‘by day and night you meditate’ seem to suggest at least a thematic relationship between these two verses, which both mention the activities of the young doctor at the specific times of day and night.

Yet another, more intricate and, therefore, more intelligent, technique is employed by the composer of De Vries’s encomium in order to illustrate the close relationship between lines 5 and 7. In the a-colon of line 7, Psalms 1:2, which, in Scripture, reads: ‘he shall meditate his law (tôrâ) by day and night,’ is cited literally, the encomium employing the exact same Hebrew words as Scripture does. However, one element which is extant in the biblical reading of Psalms 1:2 is absent from line 7 of the encomium, e.g., the tôrâ or ‘law,’ which is meditated upon. A solution to this problem is, however, found in line 5, where the b-colon, as we have already seen, reads: ‘your wisdom (tôrâ) is within you,’ thus providing the missing link in the citation from Psalms 1:2 in line 7, and, thus, establishing the close relationship between lines 5 and 7, which have to be read together in order to constitute a complete scriptural citation.


Some last remarks

Some of the interpretative moves employed by the composer of the encomium in honour of M.J. de Vries have been discussed above. Even though our discussion has been limited and, for instance, has not treated issues of Renaissance encomium writing generally or Christian vs. Jewish Hebrew encomia, it may safely be concluded from the above that Hebrew Renaissance encomia provide an interesting and oft surprising field of study, and are by no means to be considered simple and ill-conceived collections of biblical phrases, but, rather, are to be valued as exponents of creativity in their own right, in which various forms of rereading, reinterpreting, and reformulation of Scripture could be detected.



  • Johannes Drusius, Lachrymae Johannis Drusii junioris, tribus carminum generibus expressae, in obitum Josephi Scaligeri, Julii Caesaris à Burden filii (Franeker: s.n., 1609)
  • P.B. Hartog, “Honour Where Honour is Due: A Hebrew Encomium from an 18th-century Medical Dissertation” (in prep.)
  • H.F.J. Horstmanshoff, F.G. Schlesinger, and P.B. Hartog, Michael Jacobus de Vries, “Over Phrenitis” (tentative title; Leiden: s.n., in press)
  • Michael Jacobus de Vries, Dissertatio media inauguralis de Phrenitide (Utrecht: Joannes Broedelet, 1757)

~ by pbhartog on August 22, 2011.

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