Smells English, Sounds Dutch

There is a problem in having some of the best scholars of the medieval Bible sitting around a table.   The nine participants at the workshop on the Late Medieval Bible, which took place this week in Edinburgh, have seen many hundreds of manuscripts between them.  And trying to transmit this lifelong experience was at times frustratingly fascinating.

Having looked at so many manuscripts, analyses often become a second nature.  An instinct.  This has led to comments such as ‘this Bible smells English’, or ‘its parchment sounds Dutch’.  And the rest of us dully smelled and listened, and learned much about medieval Bibles and lifetime passion for manuscripts.

Laura Light, Christopher de Hamel and Paul Saenger examining a biblical manuscript.

The generous support of the Centre for Research Collections, the University of Edinburgh, and the National Library of Scotland has provided biblical manuscripts to put any hypothesis to test.  There were Bibles from Italy, France, England and Germany, including a rare example of a Bible made for a named patron.  The variety of disciplines at the workshop assisted in addressing questions of iconography and use, variations in text and layout, vernacular parallels, paleography and codicology.

In dialogue with all participants we set the goal of the workshop: to create a preliminary set of criteria that would enable the analysis and classification of a Latin Bible, written between 1200 and 1350.

Kate Rudy examines translucency of stains

This constitutes a major step towards a definitive study of this highly uniform class of manuscripts, one of the most popular of the Middle Ages.  We thought of using our joined experience to identify elements of major variation, creating a select set of criteria.  (in a way, a revision of Neil Ker’s standard description.)  We limited the amount of variants, so that a single person would be able to provide an analysis within one day.  Given the uniformity of the Late Medieval Bible, we dug deep into the Bible, and came up with variants in text, in chapter division, patters of ruling, application of  colour, etc.  Some elements follow the standard analysis of manuscripts, while others are unique to the Bible, its texts and complexity.  We hope to be able to share this preliminary list soon.  The work will then be refining and consolidating it, creating an ever increasing repository of information on Late Medieval Bibles, preferably in the form of a controlled-wiki database.