The Medieval Review 11.06.26

Edgar, Swift. The Vulgate Bible vol. 1: The Pentateuch. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 1200. $29.95. 978-0-674-05534-6. . .

Reviewed by:

Richard Marsden
University of Nottingham

The scarcity of students and scholars in the medieval field who have a sufficient command of Latin to be able to read even the comparatively straightforward language of the Vulgate is well known. The consequent problem of how they may nevertheless access the Bible as experienced by medieval writers is a continuing one. The aim of a projected series of five volumes under a new Harvard imprint, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), is to bring the Douay-Rheims English translation together with a Latin version in a parallel edition--the first of its kind, as far as I am aware.

It should be pointed out at once that, according to the dust-jacket blurb, the DOML series is not aimed specifically at medievalists: the object is to make important medieval texts available to a "global audience." This concept was unclear to me, but the wording of a press release about the series suggests that the meaning is "both scholars and the general reader." Whatever the case, it seems like a good idea, and I suspect that the series will find a welcome among a broad range of medievalists. The volume under review is the first, edited by Swift Edgar, containing the Pentateuch. It is handsomely produced, with Latin and English on facing pages, and uses modern punctuation for both texts.

The project prompts many questions, however. To begin with, the idea of what constitutes a "medieval" text is of course being greatly stretched. The starting point for the project is not the Vulgate itself (at whatever stage of development) but, as noted above, the early modern English version known as the "Douay-Rheims" translation, first published in 1582 (Old Testament) and 1609-10 (New Testament). This was subject to much revision by Bishop Challoner in the mid-eighteenth century, and the basis of Edgar's English text is his version (in an 1899 revision). Many of us have long recommended that students who are not competent to use the Vulgate itself should, as a least worst option, quote from Douay- Rheims (hereafter D-R) in their work, rather than from the King James Version (KJV) or other modern translations-- not of course because the D-R is in any way medieval itself (clearly it is not), but because it was made from a version, or versions, of the Latin Vulgate. With D-R as the starting point, Edgar has then attempted to reproduce what no longer exists and may indeed, as he freely admits, never have existed: the form of the hypothetical Latin exemplar or (more likely) exemplars from which the D-R translators worked. Little is known about these sources; Edgar shows that the translators began work just too early to have been able to make use of the Sixto-Clementine edition, in one of its several versions issued in the 1590s (hereafter S-C). But there is little reason to doubt that they used a printed Bible or Bibles--and, almost by definition, the text of a printed Bible is not medieval, whatever its antecedents. While the editor is of course perfectly aware of this anachronism, its significance (for a series of "medieval" texts) is not fully acknowledged.

Edgar uses a major part of the Introduction to deal with the complexities of the D-R, and a fascinating story this is, well told here, and enlightening for me. Basically, Edgar has used Challoner's revision of the original D-R, but has modernised it in terms of spelling and punctuation. Challoner's main efforts were stylistic; he tried to remove as much as possible of the sometimes awkward literal idiom of the D-R translators, surprisingly often using not Latin but Greek and Hebrew sources, and even the KJV, though the extent of his direct use of this is apparently disputed. The textual notes in this edition highlight the major KJV "borrowings", most of them adopted for stylistic reasons. Thus, in Gen. 18:18, the KJV's "a great and mighty nation" replaces the D- R's clunky but accurate "a great and very strong nation" (Vulgate gentem magnam et robustissimam), and in Gen. 45:13, the D- R's appropriate imperative verb, "Report" (Vulgate Nuntiate) is changed to the KJV's "You shall tell" (which is closer to the Hebrew verb). Such changes may give us a more "readable" text, but it should be acknowledged that, cumulatively, they take us ever further from the Vulgate.

Notes to the English text are provided at the back of the volume, not on the relevant pages. Furthermore, the notes are combined in a continuous list with those on the Latin text (discussed below), though they are given between angle brackets, so that they may be distinguished from the latter. In the text itself, the italicizing of words or phrases shows where emendation has been made--i.e., Challoner's alterations of the original D-R version--and prompts us to turn to the back of the volume to see the details. The system turns out to be far from reliable, however. In my very random perusal of this big volume, I have found many instances where words or phrases dealt with as emendations in the notes are not in fact italicised in the text itself, so that the reader is unaware of any issue worth following up. Examples are in Gen. 3:8, 31:8 and 39, 32:7 and 20, 33:14, 34:22, 41:15 and 23, 43:25 and 50:24, Lev. 19:25, and Deut. 1:13. An italicised emendation in Exod. 25:36 is wrongly labelled 24:36 in the notes and is therefore misplaced. Textual notes, if they are to be of any consistent practical use, need to be on the same page as the text, in my view.

As for the Latin text, it is treated more cursorily in the Introduction than the English text. This was not the place for a detailed textual history of the Latin Bible, but some effort to offer a balanced outline, based on recent scholarship, ought to have been made. Some among the "global audience" may be interested. My heart sank when I read this four-sentence summary of 700 years of textual history (my ellipses mark the omission of details irrelevant to the main argument): "The early ninth century brought the stabilization of a recension that was overseen by Alcuin...The so-called Alcuinian Bibles, of which some thirty survive, became the standard text outside Italy during the Carolingian period...In the thirteenth century, the Alcuin Bibles gave way to the so-called Paris Bibles...The text of the Paris Bibles, a direct descendant of the Alcuin Bibles, was in turn closely related to the Sixto- Clementine Bibles of the late sixteenth century" (xiii). It would be futile to analyse these remarkable statements here (or to try to unravel the strange confusion between "Bibles" and "text"). Suffice it to say that all the statements, in varying degrees, are inaccurate. No authority is cited, but an earlier statement on Vulgate history has been sourced to the work of an author who is certainly not a text specialist, and the source here may be the same. Entrenched ideas take years to be changed. It is depressing to think that new audiences may now read and absorb what I had hoped were yesterday's mistakes.

We are told that, "In large part, the DOML text corresponds to Robert Weber's edition (2007)." That is fine, but it most odd that there is no explanation whatever of this edition, nor of what is referred to as the "Quentin edition", the great eighteen-volume Biblia Sacra produced in Rome (completed in 1995), whose founding editor was indeed Henri Quentin. No reader who is not already familiar with the history of the Latin Bible (and I imagine that means most) will have any inkling that the aim of the Rome Biblia Sacra project was to establish as far as possible Jerome's Vulgate text, by stripping away the centuries of post- Hieronymian textual accretion and emendation which had culminated in the S-C text, nor that Weber's is a convenient two-volume edition based on this (in the Old Testament), with some updating.

The procedure in establishing this edition's Latin text--one which corresponds as closely as possible to the modified D-R English translation--is in effect to start with Weber and then to "adjust" where necessary, when his Latin does not fit the English. First recourse in such cases is to an edition of the S-C Vulgate, which often supplies a closer Latin word or phrase; if not, a search is made of the critical apparatus of Weber and the Rome Biblia Sacra. Where all else fails, a theoretical reconstruction is attempted, and Edgar makes the observation that this will often correspond more closely to Septuagint or Old Latin versions than any known Vulgate version. It is a pity that his textual notes seem to ignore such cases: they are intriguing. For instance, in a well known passage in Gen. 1:20, Edgar has not been minded to modify either his Latin, which is Weber's et volatile super terram sub firmamento caeli, or his D-R version of this, "and fowl that may fly over the earth under the firmament of heaven" (my italics), despite the apparent mis-match. We are not told that an identified Old Latin textual tradition, using volatilia volantia, seems to justify (coincidentally or not) the amplification in the D-R English version. Another consequence of this edition's methodology is that the celebrated crux in Gen. 8:7 (which even some general readers might be aware of) is ignored: did the raven return to the ark or not? If we keep an eye on the end- of-volume notes, we will learn that Weber differs from S-C by having revertebatur (which is the original Vulgate reading), not non revertebatur (the reading used here), but nothing is explained.

As Edgar points out, the Latin text which he supplies is an artificial one. (Presumably, no one on the DOML project spotted the contradiction in their dust-jacket claim that the series presents "original Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English texts.") The Latin text is given a fair number of notes, which are merged, as has been stated, with the notes on the English text at the back of the volume. Their most persistent use is to show variation between Weber and S-C, so that we can see which form of Latin has been chosen to parallel the English. Given what are obviously the modest scholarly aims of this volume, it is perhaps odd that so much textual detail is provided; it might have made more sense to list only the variations significant to a translator. For example, the difference between usque and usque ad (e.g., in Deut. 3:10) is of little consequence to a translator; even less so are the variations ne / nec (e.g., in Exod. 10:5) or profiscemini / profiscimini (in Gen. 19:2). For reasons that are not explained, there are no italics in the Latin text to alert us to these variations and send us to the notes for details. If variation is a matter of interest to us, therefore, we must continually and laboriously turn to the back of this volume (with its 1100-plus pages) to find out if there is any in the passage we are reading. It is hard to imagine many readers bothering to do this. I have made no systematic check of the thoroughness of the presentation of Weber/Sixto-Clementine variations, but I did notice that a variation in Gen. 50:16, where Weber omits the Sixto-Clementine's dicentes, is not recorded in the notes.

For all its attractions and potential usefulness, I remain puzzled by this edition. Its purpose seems to be to facilitate access to the medieval Bible, but how is this achieved by supplying a critical edition of a sixteenth/seventeenth-century English translation of the Vulgate, "improved" by recourse to the KJV? These are Edgar's explanations: "With only minor revisions, we use Challoner's edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible because his text preserves the character of the English translation that brings us closest to the end of the medieval period while still being elegant and readable" (xxv). And further: "With its rich and somewhat thorny history, Challoner's English is important to scholars of many disciplines, and its proximity to the literal translation of the most important book of the medieval period--namely, the Latin Bible--makes it invaluable to English-speakers studying the Middle Ages" (xxv). I would like to see a list of those "many disciplines" (my own is rather short), and if "proximity to the literal translation of the Vulgate" is really desired, why not preserve the D-R as it was, before Challoner got to it, rather than use a revision which distances us further from the Vulgate? The original may not be "elegant" but it is not unreadable. But why, anyway, should the D-R version, revised or not, be any more valuable than a completely new close translation by a modern scholar? If DOML decide to produce a parallel edition of Beowulf in this new series, will Kemble's early nineteenth-century English translation be chosen, on the grounds that it, too, brings us "closest to the end of the medieval period" and affords "greater proximity" to the Old English of the poem than a more recent one?

A complete parallel-text Latin-English Bible will be a considerable achievement, but the project seems to me to hover in an awkward no- man's land between scholarly rigour and the more modest needs (and, presumably, reduced expectations) of a general audience. No doubt the editor and the distinguished members of the DOML advisory board thought long and hard about the merits of the various textual options available. The decision having been made, Edgar makes a virtue of necessity by stating that "it may be fitting that the DOML Bible is an artificial one," because all biblical texts, in whatever language, have been and are heterogeneous (xxiv). He has, of course, a very good point, but I still question the usefulness for medievalists (and probably the wider audience, though I cannot speak for them) of what is simply a revised edition of the D-R translation ("improved") with an illustrative parallel Latin text. A far more useful project, to my mind, would have started with an established medieval Latin text--that of Weber (a hypothetical text also, of course, and anachronistic in relation to the later medieval period, but not "artificial")--and then given a close modern English version of this in parallel. A modest apparatus of variations for both texts could have been supplied, showing, for the Latin text, important post-Hieronymian readings (such as that in Gen. 8:7). The English could have been based on Challoner, I suppose, but far better to use twenty-first-century language. Updated early modern English diction, whatever attractions it may have, has no bearing on the medieval Latin Bible, and we delude ourselves (and the global audience) if we imply that it has. Such a modern English version might in itself acquire some authority as the best fall-back text for quotation by students and scholars unable to cope with Latin.