Taming the Beast: A Study of Late Medieval Bibles

Latin Bibles written c. 1230-1450 are a peculiar breed.  Highly uniform and mass-produced, they survive nowadays in hundreds of remarkably uniform manuscripts.  In many ways they transformed the way we read the Bible – but this is a part of a book I’m working on, and is not the topic of the current blog.

The sheer number of manuscripts and the amount of textual and paratextual information in them appear to have prevented their investigation.  There are only a handful of articles on their evolution and use (with an edited volume hopefully coming out next year!) and no efficient means for their classification and analysis beyond a group of Bibles linked to Paris.

The similarity of manuscripts is evident if you compare, for example, this page from Edinburgh University Library MS 4, to the Bible from the country house in the previous blog.  Yet, key to the current project is the analysis of such manuscripts held in Scottish institutions.

Here the problem of current catalogues as means of taming the beast is evident.  I have every respect and admiration for Anatole France’s fictive cademict-turn-detective Sylvestre Bonnard, and his mantra that ‘when in doubt consult a library catalogue’ has guided me for a very long time.  Yet in this case library catalogues – medieval or modern – are of little use.  They often describe these manuscripts as ‘Bibles, French/English mid-thirteenth century’, note illuminations and possibly the texts preceding each biblical books (the Prologues).

For Bibles, and possibly for other texts produced in large quantities (comments and suggestions welcome), there is a need to provide genre-specific information, elements that are unique to this type of manuscript and would assist in its classification. Just like ways in which the complexity of the biblical text influenced its portrayal in visual images, liturgy or preaching, so it can assist in the study of its manuscript culture.  Thus, for example, the layout of specific biblical books, minor variations in rubrics or in textual divisions (as the ones currently examined by Paul Saenger), in select texts, or in selected addenda (such as the Summarium Biblie [explored by Lucie Dolezalova] or the Interpretations of Hebrew Names [which I’m currently examining]), are all immensely useful for the study of the LMB.

The medium, nature and usefulness of this information is something we’re going to play with this year.  Probably starting off as a database, it should hopefully become something that will grown in time to expand beyond the Scottish evidence (fascinating and under-explored as it is).

Gloved Manuscripts

On a cold winter morning Stephen Holmes (who’s looking at late medieval and early modern liturgical books at New College, Edinburgh) and myself braved the mildly snowy roads of the Borders to examine some manuscripts at a country house.  Stephen, who took up driving and provided wonderful companionship, was interested in a thirteenth-century Psalter, while I was drawn to a Bible linked with Culross Abbey.  We were not disappointed.  The Lady of the house has generously allowed us to examine the manuscripts and take digital images.  The beautiful eighteenth-century library, where we worked, was a delightful place of scholarship.  It did, however, made manuscript examination a bit different, with no heating on a snowy day.

The view from the window was exquisite, with the snow over the maze and the distant hills.  The manuscripts were likewise well worth their gloved investigation.

The Bible is a good example of the type of portable Bible produced by professional scribes and artists in Paris and Southern England c. 1250.  It is, like many other Bibles of its time, written in minute script in dense two columns, with running titles and chapter divisions of blue and red, making it a most useful reference book.  It is most unique, however, in its later medieval provenance.  Only three pandects (as far my survey has shown, although I’ll be happy to learn otherwise) can be firmly attributed to medieval Scotland, this Bible being one of them.  In a blank folio between the end of Revelation and the Interpretation of Hebrew Names, a neat fourteenth century hand added:  Liber sancte marie de Culros in scotia prope monasterium de Dunferml’ – The book of St Mary of Culross in Scotland, near the monastery of Dunfermline.  

It is therefore most beneficial to examine its marginal annotations and the way the Bible has been used by generations of subsequent readers.   Some pages were added at a later date to supplement missing folios and prayers were inscribed  following the Interpretation of Hebrew Names.  Also, as seen below, numbers were added to Exodus Chapter 20 – ennumerating the ten commandments, first in Roman numerals and then in Arabic.

The examination of the manuscript was a delight, but ended only halfway.  As dusk was falling the fading light made us close our manuscripts and begin thinking of the way back home.  A howling dog added to the Victorian feel of the day, and with a bottle of the House’s celebrated Bear Ale bought as a present, we headed back to Edinburgh, looking forward to another opportunity to continue the investigation.

Calendars and the DIY Manuscript

Scotland, being not the most bustling hub of manuscript production for most of the Middle Ages, relied much on import.  It seems that the centers of import changed from England and France in the late twelfth and thirteenth century to the Low Countries in the fourteenth and fifteenth, in tandem with changed in tandem with the shift in national production and the move from religious to lay, form Psalters to Books of Hours.  What is interesting in both cases, however, is the rise of the DIY manuscript and the personalisation offered by the book trade.

That manuscripts left the stationers’ shop incomplete is a phenomenon that was replicated by early printers.  From the manuscripts surveyed so far, calendars appear to be a point of interest, and one that greatly interested me and Kate Rudy from St Andrews in a joint (and very joyous) examination of manuscripts at the NLS last week.  We were struck by calendars in Scottish MSS, either very blank, or affixed at a later date.  Such strategy would have enabled booksellers to produce manuscripts only rudimentarily customized to a local market, expecting patrons to fill in the gaps on their own.  This can be seen in calendars from the c.1200 Iona Psalter, in the dominant whiteness of the Inchmahome Psalter, and in the c. 1440 Aberdeen Psalter.  The Perth Psalter (from the last decades of the fifteenth century) is a product of West Flanders; its  calendar appear to be of English origins.

Such production strategy explains the nature of these books; it also explains the infrequent prominence of English saints – with the possibility that the Scottish market was seen as a sub-category of the English one.  It also raises interesting questions regarding the use of these books.  Calendar entries were not added on, and combined with a paucity of marginal annotations may suggest a certain passivity by successive generations of readers.

No pictures this time round!  The production times offered by the NLS are not very favourable to the (semi-)rapid procession of blogs.  However, next week I’m off to an country house, where a few manuscripts away as well as the possibility to use my camera.  The next blog will therefore be of a more illustrious nature.