contributor.author: Beth Crachiolo

title.none: Morey, Book and Verse (Crachiolo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.008 01.02.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Beth Crachiolo , Berea College, beth_crachiolo@berea.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide To Middle English Biblical Literature. Illinois Medieval Studies. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 428. $34.95. ISBN: 0-252-02507-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.08

Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide To Middle English Biblical Literature. Illinois Medieval Studies. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 428. $34.95. ISBN: 0-252-02507-5.

Reviewed by:

Beth Crachiolo
Berea College
beth_crachiolo@berea.edu

"In the Middle Ages," writes James H. Morey, "the Vulgate was the Bible, but the Bible was not necessarily the Vulgate" (7). Morey's Book and Verse argues that paraphrases of biblical narratives made those narratives available to those who had no access to the Latin Bible, and that they did so before Wyclif. Book and Verse has two purposes: "to explode the myth that lay people had no access to the Bible before the Reformation and to provide a guide to the variety and extent of biblical literature in England, exclusive of Wyclif, from the twelfth into the fifteenth century." (1) Morey accomplishes the first purpose in the introductory chapters and the second purpose with the comprehensive guide (exclusive of drama) that follows.

In his Introduction, Morey notes what he calls a "curious paradox" (1): that the assumption that lay people had little or no knowledge of the Bible cannot account for the widespread "biblical allusions and models and large-scale appropriations of biblical narratives" in medieval literature. The popularity of biblical narratives apparent in Old English poetry continued after the Conquest and, in fact, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries "saw a proliferation" (2) of literature containing biblical material aimed at both lay and ecclesiastical audiences. This body of literature, Morey writes, "constitutes the Middle English vernacular 'Bible' in the centuries before Wyclif". (2)

As his first chapter, "The Medieval Idea of the Bible", makes clear, Morey is not claiming that a deliberate program existed to render the Bible into the vernacular before Wyclif. He argues instead that the literature of biblical paraphrase made available to audiences those biblical narratives thought important by the Church ("even the canon has a canon," Morey observes). His argument is a convincing one, in part because of the important distinction he makes between the vernacular tradition with which his book is concerned and the Wycliffite tradition. Though he calls Wyclif "the heir to this vernacular tradition" (11), Morey emphasizes the difference between it and Wycliffite efforts: "The Lollards produced a straight prose translation, devoid of commentary, while biblical paraphrasers freely adapted selected passages with frequent glosses, moralizations, and apocryphal digressions." (11) Biblical paraphrasers thus not only made specific biblical narratives available, but they also suggested the proper ways to understand the material.

This does not mean, however, that Middle English biblical narratives are "mere biblical paraphrase" (12) with little grounding in biblical texts. Rather, they represent a method of close reading. Citing Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica as "a precedent for annexing texts and traditions pertinent to biblical history" (13), Morey argues "for a kind of continuum from Scripture through the Fathers to these twelfth-century productions". (17) What he calls "the base text" (18), however, is the Bible itself: "the main points of the biblical stories are faithfully reproduced, but extraordinary in these works are the highly imaginative commentaries, moralizations, and figures used to illumine the biblical significances." (18)

Morey's second chapter, "The Official Reception of Biblical Literature," traces the Church's responses, both in England and on the Continent, to vernacular renderings of biblical material, and he finds that English official reception of biblical paraphrase contrasts rather sharply with Continental reception. Extending the arguments of Eamon Duffy and Nicholas Watson about the role of popular religion in the lives of lay people, Morey argues that "this same population was not obstructed in its access to Scripture" (25) in England because "before Wyclif, vernacular treatments of Scripture were not considered unorthodox, much less heretical". (25) The difference between official reception of the paraphrase literature with which Morey's book is concerned and later biblical translations is "precisely between translating Scripture verbatim, with no glosses, and selectively paraphrasing and rearranging Scripture, usually, but not always, with traditional exegesis and apocryphal additions". (26) Morey makes productive use of the unfortunately sparse textual evidence from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries "to argue for the continuity and strength of the tradition of biblical literature and for the accessibility of major portions of the Bible in English". (26) He traces the development, through official letters and decrees, of negative Continental responses to biblical translation, and demonstrates that England's official response developed differently: "The official restrictions progress from the archbishops' ban on preaching (1384) to the bans in the patent letters and in the statute on making books (1388 and 1401) to Arundel's specific prohibition of vernacular Scriptures (1408)." (39) Arundel's prohibition extends even to reading vernacular Scriptures and, Morey points out, it is the first such ban in England. The fifteenth century saw the culmination of a "change in climate" (39) in England, more in response to the Lollard controversy than to the previous tradition of biblical paraphrase.

In chapter 3, "The Place of English in Post-Conquest England", Morey provides what he calls "two snapshots" (49) from the period in which English is said to have been in decline to make the point that vernacular preaching existed side-by-side with Latin preaching, and probably did so as a multilingual phenomenon: "Perhaps the English sermon followed the Latin in toto, but I think it more likely that some kind of simultaneous translation took place." (49) Alongside vernacular preaching, vernacular writing continued in this period as well (Morey's "snapshots" are taken at the beginning of the period, 1187, and at the end, 1340). Translation is always a complicated issue, and Morey outlines objections on the part of the Church as "at least fourfold" (53): that even a translation attempting to be "literal" constitutes an interpretation; that unorthodox material can be--and often is-- included in translation attempts; that vernacular translations make the Bible accessible to those not thought qualified by the Church to interpret Scripture, and those interpretations could be "dangerous opinions" (53); and that those lay religious who were "founding their own religious movements were usurping ecclesiastical authority". (53) This last objection threatens established Church authority and was, Morey asserts, "at least as objectionable as any corruption of doctrine" (53). English was, as Morey characterizes it, "a medium of lay piety" (53), but threats to Church authority generated negative reactions: "The official clergy's perception of a threat and their willingness to be tolerant were inversely proportional." (53)

In chapter 4, "Genre, Audience, and Self-Representation," Morey discusses "what the introductory material to works of biblical literature reveals about why and for whom they were produced". (56) He characterizes the "rationale of production" (56) of biblical narratives this way: "they present themselves as broadly conceived works of popular literature for the entertainment, edification, and salvation of the Anglophone audience". (56) The commonplace appeal of these works to a "lewed" audience appears so often that it becomes a convention and, therefore, a way of situating the work in question within a specific--and specifically popular--genre. Morey presents a discussion of terms that signalled a work's popular intentions, as well as who its intended audience was, and he provides examples not only from biblical and instructional narratives, but from popular romances as well, though he focuses most closely on the Ormulum as his "representative example" (80) of works that attempt to gain the interest of and teach "lewed" audiences. Morey does not go so far as to say that the Ormulum and similar works constitute an organized didactic program, but he does argue for the possibility that attentive audience members would have been able to gain a fairly wide knowledge of biblical stories.

Morey notes in his Conclusion that "[i]ronically, the shadow cast by the Wycliffite Bible over Middle English biblical paraphrase is comparable to the eclipse of Wyclif himself by Reformation translators and even the eclipse of Tyndale by the Authorized Version." (85) It is nonetheless true that Middle English biblical paraphrase is important because its production "did as much, if not more, to spread the Word in medieval England as did Wyclif and his circle". (85) Morey concludes that "[t]hese works of biblical literature were also responsible for shaping the narratives, verses, and set pieces that, even today, people carry around in their heads as a kind of provisional 'Bible'." (85) The "primary biblical resource of the English Middle Ages" (86) was, in fact, made up of the works intended to spread the Word among English speakers.

This book will be invaluable to scholars of Middle English because of its guide to Middle English biblical literature. Morey's intention with the guide's entries is to answer two questions: "how much of what parts of the Bible appear in Middle English, and where can this biblical material be found?" (87) The sources for the answers to these questions are the Manual of Writings in Middle English, the Index of Middle English Verse, the Index of Middle English Verse Supplement, and the Index of Middle English Prose. In Book and Verse, Morey has gathered the information and rendered it into a format that is easy to read, understand, and use. The entries each follow a sensible format: title, standard references (Index of Middle English Verse number or Index of Printed Middle English Prose number, and citation from Manual of Writings in Middle English), list of MSS, editions, facsimiles, studies concerning the work's biblical content, discussion of the work as biblical literature, and a summary of the work's content. (The studies that Morey lists for each work are not intended to be a comprehensive bibliograpy.) The guide is divided into categories: Comprehensive Old and New Testament Works; Primarily Old Testament Works, in Approximate Vulgate Order; The Psalter; Canticles and Hymns; Miscellaneous Old Testament Pieces; Primarily New Testament Works, in Approximate Vulgate Order; Temporale Narratives; Passion Narratives; Miscellaneous New Testament Pieces; Lectionaries; Prose Gospel Commentaries and Lives of Christ; Epistles; Versions of Revelation.

Book and Verse does not constitute a definitive study of Middle English biblical literature, nor is that its intent. Rather, Morey's work is a first step toward recognizing the existence of a vernacular "Bible" in Middle English, and Book and Verse's guide to that literature is a much- needed reference source.