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.

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