12.02.27, Edgar, The Vulgate Bible, Vol. II

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Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 12.02.27

Edgar, Swift. The Vulgate Bible, Volume II parts A and B: The Historical Books. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. Part A: 1,168, Pp. Part B: 816. ISBN: 978-0-674-99667-0 (Part A).
ISBN: 978-0-674-06077-7 (Part B).

Reviewed by:

Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado, Boulder

As of 2011, Harvard University Press can boast a century-old tradition of making Greek and Roman literature available to the general reader in translation alongside the original text. With over 500 volumes in print, the Loeb Classical Library (founded in 1911) is universally acknowledged as the most convenient and accessible source for classical texts of all genres for non-specialists who read English. As a graduate student, I hoarded secondhand copies of the small number of Loebs dedicated to Christian authors of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages--Augustine, Jerome, Prudentius, Sidonius Apollinaris, Boethius, and Bede--"those church fathers" whose rather dubious inclusion in the series was allegedly warranted by their "particular use of pagan culture." [1] I never held out hope, however, for a medieval equivalent of the Loeb Classical Library; the sheer multitude of potentially relevant texts, both in Latin and in a dizzying array of vernacular languages, piled too high in my mind to contemplate without a sense of intellectual vertigo. Fortunately, Jan Ziolkowski is made of stronger stuff than I am. With a team of learned editors, Ziolkowski has begun to publish the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (hereafter DOML), an exciting new series of medieval sources with facing page translations in English. [2] At its outset, the DOML will concentrate on premodern texts in Latin, Byzantine Greek and Old English, but hopefully that focus will eventually extend to other vernacular languages as well. The initial offerings of the DOML--there are currently eleven volumes in print with another four expected in the spring of 2012--give a strong sense of the ambition of the series and the lengths to which the editors have gone not only to present little known texts to a new generation of readers, but also to provide fresh perspectives on some of the classics of medieval literature. [3]

The centerpiece of the DOML is the publication of the entire Vulgate-- the Latin Bible prepared by Jerome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries--in six volumes over the next two years. This is by far the most ambitious project of the series. Sadly, the idiosyncratic approach taken to this seminal text represents a serious misstep by the editors. [4] The mission statement of the DOML expresses two fundamental mandates: (a) "it will offer classics of the medieval canon as well as lesser-known gems of literary and cultural value" accompanied by (b) "accessible modern translations based on the latest research." [5] Of all the volumes published in the DOML to date, only those devoted to the Vulgate have ignored these mandates. Let us begin with the translation, for reasons that will become clear further on. The English translation that accompanies the Latin text in these volumes is by no means modern. Rather, it is a revision of the Douay- Rheims translation, an early modern rendering of the Vulgate into English that has a long and complicated history. The Catholic Church undertook the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible in the 1570s as a defense of Catholic traditions in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. [6] The New Testament volume was published in Rheims in 1582; the Old Testament volumes were published somewhat later in Douay in 1609/1610. The story does not end there. The Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate was a ponderous affair, heavy with Latin cognates and laborious to read, and thereby invited the scorn of critics like William Fulke, who compared it unfavorably with Protestant-sponsored English language translations, like the Bishops' Bible published in 1568. For this reason, more than a century later Bishop Richard Challoner revised the Douay-Rheims translation to make it more readable, ironically taking cues from the popular King James Bible (1611). Challoner's revisions appeared in print in 1749/1750.

It is an 1899 printing of Challoner's mid-eighteenth-century revision of the Douay-Rheims translation that appears in the DOML Vulgate. While this translation has its charms, its idiom often falls quite heavily on the modern ear. Here are some examples from the volume under review, which comprise the "historical books" of the Old Testament, namely Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-4 Kings, 1-2 Paralipomenon (= 1-2 Chronicles), 1-2 Ezra, Tobit, Judith and Esther:

1. "And the men of the city that pursued after Joshua, looking back and seeing the smoke of the city rise up to heaven, had no more power to flee this way or that way, especially as they that had counterfeited flight and were going toward the wilderness turned back most valiantly against them that pursued." (Joshua 8:20)

2. "Now his parents knew not that the thing was done by the Lord and that he sought an occasion against the Philistines, for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel." (Judges 14:4).

3. "And the house when it was in building was built of stones hewed and made ready so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house when it was in building." (3 Kings 6:7)

We could debate whether these excerpts are cumbersome or merely quaint, but no one would argue that they are modern or based on "the most recent research." The volume's editor, Swift Edgar, makes the case that "Challoner's English is important to scholars of many disciplines, and it's 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), but I have to disagree. There are very few medievalists who would find Challoner's English important for the simple reason that it is not relevant to the Middle Ages. Rather, I think that most would agree that a modern English translation of the Vulgate couched in a contemporary idiom would have been much more useful to the target audience of the DOML than a reproduction of the Douay-Rheims translation improved by Challoner's revisions.

Now to the Latin. The inexplicable conceit of the DOML Vulgate is the choice of the editors to give primacy to the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible rather than to the Latin text itself. There are several excellent modern editions of the Vulgate, which represent the Latin Bible in various stages of its development throughout the Middle Ages. [7] But the exemplar that served as the source for the Douay-Rheims translation no longer exists. Rather than choosing a near contemporary printing of the Vulgate which may have been at odds in some places with the Douay-Rheims translation, like the late sixteenth-century Sixto-Clementine Bible promulgated by the papacy, the editors of the DOML have opted instead for an "artificial" Vulgate (xxiv), that is, "a reconstructed text of the lost Bible used by the professors at Douay and Rheims" (ix). [8] This is a serious miscalculation, because it severely limits the utility of these volumes for anyone doing scholarly research that depends on the Latin text of the Vulgate. While Edgar concedes that his reconstituted Vulgate "[i]n large part... corresponds to Robert Weber's edition" (xiii), that is, to the fifth edition of the Stuttgart Bible published in 2007, it is neither a medieval text nor a critical edition of one. And although Edgar is correct to point out that medieval Bibles are by nature "heterogeneous [and] cobbled together over centuries" (xxiv), they at least have the virtue of being cultural products of the Middle Ages. The same cannot be said of the DOML Vulgate.

It is disappointing that a series with such promise should miss the mark so widely with a text that is the cornerstone of medieval Christian thought and culture. A reprint of a standard critical edition of the Vulgate accompanied by a modern English translation would have been much more useful to the audience of scholars and general readers who will buy books in this series. As it stands, the DOML Vulgate will find its place as a novelty, rather than a classic. Its artificial Latin text will not replace any modern critical edition of the Vulgate as an authoritative instrument of reference and general readers will likely turn to much less stilted translations of the Bible, irrespective of the historical importance of Challoner's revisions to the Douay-Rheims translation. Fortunately, the DOML Vulgate seems to be an anomaly in a series that has already presented some splendid volume and promises many more. The DOML is the one of the most exciting undertakings in contemporary medieval scholarship and it is sure to broaden the horizons of specialists and non- specialists alike for many years to come.



1. The quotation is from the homepage of the Loeb Classical Library on the Harvard University Press website: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/collection.php?cpk=1031 (accessed on 16 January 2012).

2. Equally promising is Ziolkowski's new series Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Humanities, also published by Harvard University Press, the first volume of which has recently appeared: Michael McCormick, Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land: Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a Mediterranean Church Between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

3. Less well known works in the early volumes of the series include the Latin lyrics of Hugh Primas (vol. 2) and the satires of Sextus Amarcius (vol. 9). The Beowulf poem was among the first volumes published in the series (vol. 3), but it was creatively presented as The Beowulf Manuscript and includes all of the surviving contents of MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv, which allows readers to ruminate on the poem in its manuscript setting.

4. In what follows, I am largely in agreement with Richard Marsden's review of the first volume of the DOML Vulgate published for The Medieval Review on 26 June 2011 at http://hdl.handle.net/2022/13352.

5. These quotations are from the DOML homepage on the website of Harvard University Press: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/collection.php?recid=594 (accessed on 16 January 2012).

6. The translation took place at the English College, an important haven of learning for English-speaking Catholics in northern France. The College was situated in Douay until 1578, when it was moved to Rheims at the outbreak of the Eighty Years' War. It returned to Douay in 1593.

7. Medieval historians tend to favor the Stuttgart edition known as the Biblia sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem, which is based on the earliest Vulgate manuscripts and includes all of the letters written by Jerome that became de facto prologues to the individual books of the Bible in the Middle Ages. The fifth edition appeared in 2007.

8. The Sixto-Clementine edition of the Latin Bible comprised four editions published in 1590, 1592, 1593, and 1598, during the papacies of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) and Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605). This edition postdates the translations of the Vulgate made at Douay and Rheims in the 1570s.

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Author Biography

Scott G. Bruce

University of Colorado, Boulder