Publications – Bibles and Scotland

Research projects tend to have quite a long afterlife.  Publications take their time, to digest, submit and revise.

And when work was actually great fun, as with looking at the array of Scottish manuscripts during the project, returning to these materials for publication is only natural.  So, without further ado, here are a few publications, which came out of the project, either in research or revision:

– “The earliest evidence for anti-Lollard polemics in medieval Scotland”, The Innes Review 64 (2013), pp. 227-234.  {this short piece will be familiar to readers of the blog – it is based on the note first announced in ‘Gloved Manuscripts‘}

– (ed. with Laura Light) Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible, Library of the Written Word: The Manuscript World, Leiden:Brill, 2013.  This is an in-depth exploration of the type of manuscripts explored in the manuscript workshops during the project.  Most of the book is available freely online at:

– Approaching the Bible in Medieval England, Manchester Medieval Studies, Manchester:Manchester University Press, 2013.  This is an approachable study of how people actually got to know their Bibles in the late Middle Ages.



It’s been quite a while – and quite a distance – since the last entry.  A time when academic investigation and life seems to have merged.

The project officially ended on 31 August.  As usual in this business, its spirit lives on, and there’s still much work tying the loose ends of manuscripts.  Currently, I am writing up the essay on Lollardy in medieval Scotland, based on the manuscript note of a few posts back.   Trying to establish how the Bible made its way from Oxford to Culross, I looked at the movement of books between the two places, with the earlier evidence being probably the Iona Psalter (which has recently become a bit of a celebrity in the NLS, printed on coasters, chocolates (!!!) and worktops).

Digital resources seems to have been made specifically for this kind of statistical analysis.  I was delighted to come across a digitised register of the students in the University of Oxford (available here for free, but you may have to email and explain your need).  Identifying Scottish students who studied in Oxford and a bit of number crunching followed.  The result was unexpectedly reassuring, offering a new solution to an ongoing problem – when did the manuscript make its way to Culross.  I suspected that the exlibris was written c. 1400 – and the register supported this.  It seems that the number of Scottish students in Oxford – the most obvious means of bringing manuscripts up north – fell sharply after 1400, corroborating my initial assumption (always a good thing).

©Oriel College

And all this work hits a strong cord with me at the moment, as I started in September a new job as a departmental lecturer in medieval history at Oriel College.   Still between Oxford and Scotland, I look forward to continue the blog as I work through the materials, and there is another article on Scottish Bibles to finish, and a virtual exhibition to finalise.  More to come.

Smells English, Sounds Dutch

There is a problem in having some of the best scholars of the medieval Bible sitting around a table.   The nine participants at the workshop on the Late Medieval Bible, which took place this week in Edinburgh, have seen many hundreds of manuscripts between them.  And trying to transmit this lifelong experience was at times frustratingly fascinating.

Having looked at so many manuscripts, analyses often become a second nature.  An instinct.  This has led to comments such as ‘this Bible smells English’, or ‘its parchment sounds Dutch’.  And the rest of us dully smelled and listened, and learned much about medieval Bibles and lifetime passion for manuscripts.

Laura Light, Christopher de Hamel and Paul Saenger examining a biblical manuscript.

The generous support of the Centre for Research Collections, the University of Edinburgh, and the National Library of Scotland has provided biblical manuscripts to put any hypothesis to test.  There were Bibles from Italy, France, England and Germany, including a rare example of a Bible made for a named patron.  The variety of disciplines at the workshop assisted in addressing questions of iconography and use, variations in text and layout, vernacular parallels, paleography and codicology.

In dialogue with all participants we set the goal of the workshop: to create a preliminary set of criteria that would enable the analysis and classification of a Latin Bible, written between 1200 and 1350.

Kate Rudy examines translucency of stains

This constitutes a major step towards a definitive study of this highly uniform class of manuscripts, one of the most popular of the Middle Ages.  We thought of using our joined experience to identify elements of major variation, creating a select set of criteria.  (in a way, a revision of Neil Ker’s standard description.)  We limited the amount of variants, so that a single person would be able to provide an analysis within one day.  Given the uniformity of the Late Medieval Bible, we dug deep into the Bible, and came up with variants in text, in chapter division, patters of ruling, application of  colour, etc.  Some elements follow the standard analysis of manuscripts, while others are unique to the Bible, its texts and complexity.  We hope to be able to share this preliminary list soon.  The work will then be refining and consolidating it, creating an ever increasing repository of information on Late Medieval Bibles, preferably in the form of a controlled-wiki database.

St Margaret’s Gospel Book: A Book Too Clean? It Might be a Miracle.

I am not one for the scientific explanation of miracles.  Other do.  Some of their suggestions I find more plausible (temporary blindness and medieval diet), others less (algae, volcanic eruption and the Ten Plagues).  It is simply not my way.

That’s why, when recently asked at a paper in Dunfermline whether I thought St Margaret’s Gospel Book (click HERE for images, which I am reluctant to imbed for copyright reasons) had been the object of a miracle, I had to take a moment to think.  The medieval account tells that while was the book was transported to facilitate an oath, it fell into a river.  The book then laid open on the riverbed, the water playing with its leaves.  It was later recovered and miraculously survived intact.

A few months ago I much enjoyed examining the manuscript in person at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  After looking at a few medieval Gospel Books, I  was surprised to see how clean this one was.  Not only showing no marks of submersion, but also lacking the staining typical of continuous use in oath-rituals (as in the York Gospels).  In my eyes three options can explain the state of the book:

1. This is a miracle.  Not an option I can take as an historian.  But one I did raise at the paper, saying that if the book had emerged in this pristine condition after being fully submerged, this is probably a mircale.

2. The book was thoroughly cleaned during its time in Oxford.  This was suggested to me by Richard Gameson (whose article  ‘The Gospels of Margaret of Scotland and the Literacy of an Early Medieval Queen’, in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor [London, 1996], pp. 149-71, is a treat), and can explain the nineteenth-century evidence for the cockling of leaves, no longer evident today.

3. However, one part of the story kept bothering me.  The leaves turning in the water.  Why did the narrator choose to expand upon this peculiar feature?  Why was it important to mention that the water reached individual leaves.  One explanation is that they might have not.  That is – to think of a Scottish Cumdach.  These Irish book-shrines (see HERE) are ornate boxes, in which Gospel Books and Missals were often kept.  Much like reliquaries, they became a container for sacred objects; and like reliquaries, they limited access to the book itself.

Could it be that the Irish influence on Scotland extended to this custom as well?  That St Margaret’s Gospel Book was kept in a shrine, hence surviving its water ordeal and preventing further signs of use?  There is no indication for this in our sources.  The lack of sources from medieval Scotland, primarily of sacrists records, does not assist in validating this hypothesis.  However (having just finished a chapter on sacred books and their bindings in medieval England), our modern reckoning of book binding does not apply to many medieval Gospel Books.  Numerous examples from across Europe tell of bindings of gold and precious stones.  We even know that Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, adorned her sacred books with gold and jewels as a sign of his love.

There is much to do before any authoritative claim could be made.  But I suspect there’s more than meet the eye in this story.

Head’s Up

If you’re interested in seeing the Glasgow Bible for yourself, or hear more about the Bible in Medieval Scotland, you may want to join one (or both) of the coming events next week:

– Thursday, 19 April, 18:00 at Abbot House, Dunfermline (, I’ll be giving a paper on the medieval Bible in Scotland.
– Friday, 20 April, 14:00 at Glasgow University Library, Special Collections (12th Floor), I’ll be running a workshop on the Late Medieval Bible, based on items from GUL’s collection. Highlights to include a Bible from Cambuskenneth Abbey and a Wycliffite New Testament.

When Bibles Go Naughty

With a romanic plot and erotic imagery, the Song of Songs is not your ordinary biblical book.  Why it is in the biblical canon, is not completely clear.  It may be due to the strong allegorical interpretation of its love statements as the connection between God and his people; it may also be (at least for the Jewish side of things) the love felt by a certain rabbi Akiva for his wife, a love that reverberated in one of the most beautiful stories of the Babylonian Talmud.

One way or another, the Song of Songs became an integral part of the medieval Bible, and one of the most fond books among monastic audiences.  Numerous allegorical interpretations expanded upon this Book, seeing the love story as a map of salvation history, the romance between Christ and his church.  In the early Middle Ages these allegorical interpretations were made into short rubrics – known as voices – which were integrated into the biblical page.  Thus, readers of the book were presented not with ‘the naked text’ of the lovers (if you forgive the pun), but with a layout that mediated a specific understanding of the biblical text.

The opening line of the Book ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love [the Latin has ‘breasts’ and not without reason] is better than wine’ was often introduced by a historiated initial.  The letter ‘O’ (for the Latin ‘Osculetur’, let him kiss) provided illuminators with a good opportunity to present a specific understanding of this verse, most commonly in the form of Christ and Mary.  Numerous images depict Mary with Christ the child on her lap, transforming the book into the innocent of a mother and child.

Glasgow University Euing MS 1 is a Latin Bible from thirteenth-century Italy.  One of its early readers took the pains of carefully erasing one (and only) one image – that of the Osculetur.

It is evident that the reader found the picture offensive.  It is also evident that he was careful to remove only the image, not damaging any of the surrounding letter (noticed by the keen eye of Marie-Pierre Gelin).  This was probably not the work of a Reformer.  Other images, of Christ and of the Creation, were left unscathed.  The image is well-sraped, and it is difficult to learn what it was originally (I hope a UV examination next week will shed some light).  However, other parallels might have the answer.  In British Library, Egerton MS 2867, fol. 282v (a Bible 1230-1240 , probably from Canterbury), the proximity between Christ and Mary is stronger than in other images, a closeness that might have seemed slightly inappropriate given the nature of the biblical book.

The understanding of the Song of Songs as a love story between Christ and his church was beyond doubt, especially as a purely literal understanding was unaccepted.  Could it be that a devote Catholic reader found this image too close to the biblical text?

Virtual Exhibition

I recently had a meeting with Richard Bogle, a web designer, for the creation of a digital exhibition for the project.  Circumnavigating the problems of transport, display, security and insurance, we aim at creating a virtual display of biblical manuscripts linked with medieval Scotland. It will probably be biased towards the later Middle Ages.  At its crux will be interactive images, which will be superimposed with layers of information.  Users will be able to examine (zoom, tilt, etc.) the

manuscript and then identify and retrieve comments for specific elements, hyperlinks, images of locations where these Bibles were created or used (just had an excursion to Cambuskenneth Abbeyto take pictures, recommended for picnics in the summer) etc.


The entry page will be a map of Scotland (hopefully this, if we’ll get permission) with a time line.  Sliding on the timeline will reveal manuscript locations on the map according to their dates.  This will enable users to quickly grasp the timeline of Bible use in Scotland (i.e. two surges in the early and later Middle Ages), as well as the uneven distribution of manuscripts in Scotland.

Here is an opportunity for the blog’s readers to leave their mark.   The virtual exhibition is still very much in the planning stage.  I’ll upload a test page once things are more advanced.  But if there are any comments or suggestions, now is the right time.  Richard and I are playing with possibilities and layouts, and we’ll be happy to have more ideas.  The reply box awaits!