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.

Lollardy in Medieval Scotland?

Ploughing through the marginal annotations of the Bible from the country house (promising this will be the last post on this MS for the time being), I was struck by a short comment affixed to Ezekiel 33:6-7.  It was truncated by the modern binder, and currently reads:

no[ta] con[tra] lolla|

no[n] p[o]p[u]l[u]s t[erre sed]|


This is only a [revised with a suggestion from Laura Light] tentative transcription.  Abbreviations and truncation render expansions indecisive.   Other options are possible, and suggestions most welcome.

The biblical location is also of importance.  Ezekiel 33:6-7 discusses the watchman, who neglects to warn the people in the face of a looming threat.

I’m still working to fill in the gaps – both on the palaeography and the use of these verses in anti-Lollard polemics.  More to come soon.

Taking Off the Gloves & the Pacman Ghost

On another chilly morning I found myself in the library of the country house.  This time round the milder weather, a small heater and the running around of Joe (one of the family’s dogs) brought much comfort to the investigation.  But the frozen landscape still made for a scenic walk from Innerleithen.

In-depth investigation of the manuscript turned out most revealing (and a nice support to the project’s rationale of inferring from the manuscript evidence on medieval Scotland).

Following the arrival of the Bible to Culross, notes in several hands were made.  A fifteenth-century hand added the opening words of 1 Sam 25 (‘mortuus est autem Samuel’), which are lacking in the original.  This is a testimony to an active reading of the biblical text at Culross, and to the existence of an additional Bible in the Monastery.  Such a discovery is not a complete surprise, given the known activities at Culross.  However, the lack of any library record makes any discovery of importance.

Several corrections to chapter divisions likewise support this hypothesis.  As I’m growing quite anal about chapter divisions and their fluctuation (with thanks to Paul Saenger, the fons et origo of this obsession), it was good to see the attention given by medieval readers to these divisions, in an image of Exodus 16.  

A keen interest in the hymns and poetry of the Bible is also a mark of this Bible.  This

can be traced to the original scribe, as in the previous image, in which the Song of the Sea (Shirat haYam, Ex 15) was written  in alternating red and blue initials.  This layout is usually reserved for the Psalms, and only rarely applied to other biblical hymns.  The poetry of the Bible, and its role in the liturgy, continued to be a source of interest to subsequent readers of the this Bible.  One such reader added a list of the Gallican Canticles at the end of 2 Paralipomenon.  This list (I thank Laura Light for her assistance in its identification) employs an interesting reference system, one that makes use of book, chapter and page identification.

Lastly, a symbol which I like to call ‘The Pacman Ghost’ appears at the very end of 2 Paralipomenon.  It identifies the place of the apocryphal Prayer of Manasses

(oratio Manasses) which is supplied in full at the very last folio of the manuscripts.  Such feature appears at times in Late Medieval Bibles, as in Huntington Library, HM 51, fol. 376v.  But you must agree that the similarity between the manuscript and the computer game cannot be easily dismissed!

The Medieval Bible Roadshow

In the last few weeks I went into small silence.  The holidays were followed by the design of a biblical database, and I assumed that these will be of less interest for readers.  If you are, however, keen about using FileMaker Pro scripts in the analysis of manuscript collation (or in family pictures from the Christmas market) – feel free to drop a line in the comments.

For the time being I thought of sending word that the medieval Bible is taking to the road.  As part of the Carnegie project, I’ll be travelling between partner institutions and using local manuscript collections, wherever available, to discuss the unique features of the Late Medieval Bible, the challenges and merits of its digital analysis.  The schedule at the moment is:

  • Aberdeen 1 March, 14:00. Special Collections Centre Seminar Room, Lower Ground Floor, University Library
  • St Andrews 14 March, 14:15
  • Glasgow 16 March, 14:30. The level 12 Henry Heaney Seminar Room, University Library

The Aberdeen and Glasgow sessions will take place in Special Collections, using their medieval manuscripts.  Edinburgh will not be neglected for long – I am putting together  an extended workshop which will bring scholars from further afield to examine its biblical manuscripts.

More soon.


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.