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).

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