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.


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.

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.