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.
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.
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.
I am not one for the scientific explanation of miracles. Other do. Some of their suggestions I find more plausible (temporary blindness and medieval diet), others less (algae, volcanic eruption and the Ten Plagues). It is simply not my way.
That’s why, when recently asked at a paper in Dunfermline whether I thought St Margaret’s Gospel Book (click HERE for images, which I am reluctant to imbed for copyright reasons) had been the object of a miracle, I had to take a moment to think. The medieval account tells that while was the book was transported to facilitate an oath, it fell into a river. The book then laid open on the riverbed, the water playing with its leaves. It was later recovered and miraculously survived intact.
A few months ago I much enjoyed examining the manuscript in person at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. After looking at a few medieval Gospel Books, I was surprised to see how clean this one was. Not only showing no marks of submersion, but also lacking the staining typical of continuous use in oath-rituals (as in the York Gospels). In my eyes three options can explain the state of the book:
1. This is a miracle. Not an option I can take as an historian. But one I did raise at the paper, saying that if the book had emerged in this pristine condition after being fully submerged, this is probably a mircale.
2. The book was thoroughly cleaned during its time in Oxford. This was suggested to me by Richard Gameson (whose article ‘The Gospels of Margaret of Scotland and the Literacy of an Early Medieval Queen’, in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor [London, 1996], pp. 149-71, is a treat), and can explain the nineteenth-century evidence for the cockling of leaves, no longer evident today.
3. However, one part of the story kept bothering me. The leaves turning in the water. Why did the narrator choose to expand upon this peculiar feature? Why was it important to mention that the water reached individual leaves. One explanation is that they might have not. That is – to think of a Scottish Cumdach. These Irish book-shrines (see HERE) are ornate boxes, in which Gospel Books and Missals were often kept. Much like reliquaries, they became a container for sacred objects; and like reliquaries, they limited access to the book itself.
Could it be that the Irish influence on Scotland extended to this custom as well? That St Margaret’s Gospel Book was kept in a shrine, hence surviving its water ordeal and preventing further signs of use? There is no indication for this in our sources. The lack of sources from medieval Scotland, primarily of sacrists records, does not assist in validating this hypothesis. However (having just finished a chapter on sacred books and their bindings in medieval England), our modern reckoning of book binding does not apply to many medieval Gospel Books. Numerous examples from across Europe tell of bindings of gold and precious stones. We even know that Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, adorned her sacred books with gold and jewels as a sign of his love.
There is much to do before any authoritative claim could be made. But I suspect there’s more than meet the eye in this story.
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.
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.