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!


Rabbits and Roman Law in St Andrews

Last week the travelling workshop was held at St Andrews.  Although the lack of local manuscripts had led me to amend the ‘show and tell’ part of the roadshow, I left the City with many questions and ideas.

Rabbits.  Robert Bartlett and Kathryn Rudy discussed the nature of the parchment used in Late Medieval Bibles.  Called ‘uterine vellum’, but without any proper grounding, this parchment is of exquisitely thin, parallel to a modern-day tissue paper but much more resilient.  It is also very clear and easily employed by scribes.  This ‘super-parchment’ befits the Late Medieval Bible perfectly, making possible the creation of a pocket book.  Its exact nature is still unknown, and suggestions have been made supporting the use of small animals, such as rabbits or even cats in its creation.  Thanks to Marlene Hennessy I now have a substantial bibliography on the topic (as well as on the joys of flaying), which I hope to cover soon.

Roman Law.  Looking at how the Bible was quoted I advocated the importance of the thirteenth century and the introduction of chapter numbers on biblical mnemonics.  The major exception is the Book of Psalms.  Psalms continued (for a very very long time) to be identified not by a numerical value, but rather by their opening line.  Robert and Chris Given-Wilson offered an interesting parallel from Roman law, in which textual elements were identified by incipit long after the introduction of numerical divisions.

This is just the tip of an iceberg of quotation practices in the Middle Ages.  It is also an indication to the rarely addressed similarity between liturgy and law – two complex fields, governed by trained professionals and a set of highly structured rituals.  Both are, likewise, all-but-inaccessible to the modern novice.

In the Mishna it is said that whoever brings a saying in the name of its speaker it is as if he brings salvation to the world.  I’ll be happy with accuracy.

Book Archaeology, or The Number of the Beast in Aberdeen

This week I set out to Aberdeen for the project’s first manuscript examination and workshop.  It was a delight.  A surprising sunshine over the Granite City was matched by the kindness of the library staff.  Of the several Bibles of note in the library one stood out in its compilation and reception.

MS 217 exemplifies the wealth of information encoded in the pages of a Late Medieval Bible: a variety of uses and reading strategies, generations of readers who engaged with the biblical text and with one another.  A sample excavation reveals:

The foundational layer of the Bible as it left the stationer’s shop demonstrates an early sample, from c. 1230 England.  Its chapter divisions are not yet firmly set, but served as a bone of contention between scribe and rubricator (the latter trying to rectify the former’s division by setting new chapter divisions and where no space for initials was provided).  Such dating is confirmed by  pricking, marginal chapter nos. and a five-colum layout for the Interpretations of Hebrew Names.

Then, in (relatively) quick succession, three layers are discernible.  They show how one

Bible was used across the medieval spectrum of reading strategies:


Exegesis.  Only few notes survive preserving medieval glosses.  Often short in nature, one of the lengthier explains the complexity of Revelation 13:18 (‘This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666’), in the image below.



Preaching.  On the other side of the exegetical coin is its dissemination.  Some marginal annotations would have been extremely useful for medieval preachers.  A note accompanying Proverbs 14, expands upon the word fear (timor, 14:26-7).

Although barely legible without a UV light, the three distinct levels in which its accompanying words are preserved are indicative of the medieval distinctiones and the aesthetics of late medieval sermons.  Such sermons employed major and minor divisions as means of amplifying a biblical nucleus, at times a single word.




Liturgy. The last side of this over-elaborate coin in the use of this Bible in public recitation.  Throughout the biblical text there are indications for such reading strategy – specifically aimed at facilitating refectory readings.

Thus, next to Jeremiah ch. 51 the letters S[ecundus] and T[ertius] appear, dividing reading portions.  They are accompanied by an indication of the liturgical occasion: the fourth day in the octave (feria) of Easter.


The last layer was added at the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century.  It demonstrates a deep engagement with the biblical text – re-writing incipits or giving titles to key parts.  It also provides arabic numerals to replace the Roman numerals for some numerical descriptions, such as those found at the beginning of the Book of Numbers.  And – my personal suspicion – that reader is also responsible for erasing most of the notes made by previous readers, evident throughout the Bible.  Hard to qualify and substantiate, I suspect such a deep engagement with the biblical text left little space for previous generations of readers and their very medieval understanding of the Bible.