the bible in the middle ages
I've been meaning to say something about a talk that took place here on La Salle's campus a number of weeks ago at this point, but I just haven't had the time. It was a presentation made by E. Ann Matter
, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania
, about the Bible in the middle ages.
Little of the information was entirely new to me, much of it building upon Beryl Smalley's classic 1959 book The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages
(Blackwell). Nevertheless, it was still an interesting talk on a topic I've been trying to think through some in recent years. The basic question is this: What is "the Bible"?
The fact is that what we
encounter as the Bible--a privately owned, printed bound book, in a single volume, organized in a particular way--is not what most Christians encountered as the Bible until the early modern era. This is not merely a matter of largely oral communication of the content of Scripture as opposed to the Bible as a written text (though that is also an important issue, see below). Rather, it is a matter of the nature of the Scriptures precisely as
a written text.
And this has implications for a host of issues: our ontology of what sort of object the Bible is, the ecclesiological use the Scriptures, our reading practices, hermeneutics, the relation of the individual to the Bible, and so on. I suspect that most Christians today have never really even begun to think through how different their relation to the Bible is from that of earlier, pre-modern generations and, indeed, from that of the original recipients for whom the Bible was written and by whom it was received as the Word of God.
To begin quite generally, a book today is a very different sort of thing from a book in the early church or middle ages. The production of a medieval book was an incredibly labor-intensive process, which made for a rather expensive volume. Book production involved the death of animals from whose hides the parchment would be made through a process of curing and scraping. It involved the creation of inks and pens. And it involved the careful copying of texts, often adorned with meaningful illustrations and iconography, all packaged in hand-wrought bindings. The Scriptures, therefore, were quite literally "scriptures"--that is, writings
, copied by hand, rather than printed pages.
As a result, a book was an extremely precious commodity and the care and expertise that went especially into liturgical and biblical texts was tremendous, embodying the value and centrality of those texts in the life of the communities that produced them and used them. While it is a wonderful thing that we can produce texts cheaply and in massive quantities for wide distribution, it does affect how those texts are handled and valued as cultural artifacts. The notion of the "sacra pagina
" (the sacred page) carries different connotations, after all, when that page is not produced and handled as hand-crafted object deserving extreme care and reverence.
With regard to the Bible in particular, the first thing to realize is that there were no "Bibles" in the middle ages in the sense of a single volume containing the whole of the Scriptures. A complete medieval Bible would have required approximately 95 quires, adding up to around 1520 parchment pages. Binding such a tome together in a single volume would produce an unusable text, too heavy to lift, and easily damaged (though the 12th century did see the production of a handful of three-foot high "display Bibles," typically containing only a section from the Scriptures).
Instead, a complete medieval Bible (or "pandecta
") would typically be divided into nine volumes. And such complete Bibles were, actually, exceedingly rare, though we have records (and, in a few cases, extant copies) of such Bibles dating primarily from the 9th and 12th centuries.
More commonly, books of Scripture were circulated in even smaller volumes containing, for example, the writings of Solomon, thereby allowing for a flexible and open-ended ordering of the books within the Bible (the four Gospels, for instance, appeared in various orders, with John often second). Moreover, the biblical text occurred without the kind of "navigational" apparatus to which we are accustomed: chapters and verses (though chapters predate verses). And so, while the text was less readily accessible to organized study, it was also not subject in the same way to the kind of dissection into discrete units that can be then isolated from a larger narrative flow. Thus, a medieval "Bible" was more a continuous circulation of texts that repeatedly came together along certain patterns of interpretation, liturgical juxtaposition, typological resonance, and redemptive narrative.
All of these observations, however, direct us to the larger point that it would be quite rare for a medieval school, monastery, or university to own a complete Bible, even if composed of smaller volumes. This is not to say that the complete text of Scripture would have been unavailable to a medieval school or religious community. Rather, it is to say that the way in which the text would have been available was in a form other than that which we would recognize as a "Bible." The medieval student of the Scriptures thus would have encountered biblical texts in two primary ways: as liturgical texts and as embedded within commentary.
As a liturgical text, medieval Scriptures would be found in the form of Gospel books, lectionaries, sacramentaries, Psalters, missals, and so on (interestingly, Gospels seem to have outnumbered Psalters in medieval England 3-to-1, assuming the extant texts are representative). As such, they were not encountered except within an already existing hermeneutical context and primarily in an oral form, whether spoken or sung.
With regard to the hermeneutical context, the Scriptures were placed within a doxological fabric of liturgy, prayer, festivals, and practices, juxtaposed against other texts. Thus, for instance, the Paschal Vigil would place narratives of the Flood, of the Rea Sea crossing, and so on, alongside one another as mutually interpretative, and against the backdrop of Christian initiation, reaffirmation of baptismal vows, and the death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated in the eucharist, as part of the ongoing story of the church.
Moreover, to primarily relate to a text by hearing
is a different relationship with that text from that of merely reading
it. For one thing, reading is typically a private exercise, while hearing can remain public, God's people listening in common, thereby situating the text in a community of listeners, rather than primarily placing it into the hands and under the eyes of an individual interpreter.
This points further to the differing phenomenologies of reading and hearing. Hearing suggests a posture of attentiveness, a hearkening that is tied to sounds that enter into the mind unwilled and therefore call for reaction and submission, placing the hearer at the text's disposal. Reading, on the other hand, requires a choice to look, a gaze that places the reader above the text, controlling how that text is divided and appropriated, placing the text at the disposal of the reader.
Besides liturgical texts, the other way in which the Bible was typically encountered in the middle ages was as a text embedded within other texts in the form of various commentaries and within the Gloss (glossa ordinaria
). As such the biblical text again was not encountered in these contexts except within an already existing hermeneutical relation, though now primarily in a written form (even if the Gloss was sometimes read aloud in monastic settings).
Medieval commentaries were not designed merely to comment upon the text as an object of study, but rather to inculcate a particular way of reading that functioned more as a spiritual discipline, unfolding the meaning of the text as a site of grace and in a way that confronts and changes the reader (see Peter Leithart's report
on a couple of presentations on de Lubac and medieval exegesis from this year's AAR/SBL).
In the case of the Gloss, there was a combination of marginal and interlinear commentary that marked and surrounded the text itself, physically situating it at the center of a larger textual negotiation. While the interlinear gloss was usually more philological in character, the marginal gloss drew upon centuries of earlier commentaries, assembling snippets of them as an ongoing interpretative tradition. Interestingly, the gloss text itself emerged quickly and was very stable in content while the biblical text it surrounded was often quite variant in its translation from the original languages.
All of these observations about the medieval Bible should be a cause for reflection.
What would a medieval theologian, for instance, have made of the Protestant doctrine of "sola scriptura
"? While I'm convinced that a number of medievals did, in fact, hold to something quite like that doctrine, they did so in a context where it would be far more difficult for it to devolve into an individualistic practice of subjective interpretation. To what degree has the production of modern printed Bibles been complicit in pushing the Protestant doctrine in sometimes strange directions? For that matter, to what degree has such Bible production been complicit in the rise of certain earlier Roman Catholic notions about "tradition" as a distinct deposit of teachings alongside
Looking at the ways that medieval Christians encountered the Bible should also help free us from the illusion that we come to the Scriptures as a "mere text," discovered in its "plain sense," as an "object" to be studied and scrutinized or as something that is designed primarily to speak to "me," the reader. Rather, those ways of approaching the text, however helpful they may sometimes be, are revealed as themselves historically situated and contingent, embedded within certain reading practices that are not the only (nor perhaps the best) ones available. And this lack of awareness of our own hermeneutical assumptions seems often to sidetrack any progress when we find other Christians reading Scripture in a way that is at variance with our own.
I've only barely gestured at some of the significance of the shifts from medieval to modern Bibles, but these shifts do seem to me to be quite important, seldom addressed, and certainly deserving of further reflection.