12.04.03, Boynton, The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages

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Thomas McCarthy

The Medieval Review 12.04.03

Boynton, Susan and Diane J. Reilly. The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Pp. 376. ISBN: 978-0-231-14826-9.
ISBN: 978-0-231-14827-6.

Reviewed by:
Thomas McCarthy
New College of Florida

This book is a collection of fifteen essays on the Bible and its multifaceted uses in the Middle Ages. A good indication of its scope is provided by comparing it with volume 2 of the Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation (Cambridge, 1969). Although the two works necessarily cover many of the same topics--the Bible in liturgy, biblical exegesis or vernacular translations, for example--each also reflects the scholarly trends of its time. Thus the Cambridge History of the Bible devotes considerable space to the history of the Vulgate and biblical exegesis with a strong emphasis on textual criticism and philology, whereas The Practice of the Bible focuses more on the different forms of the medieval Bible and how it was used, whether that be in monasteries, by historians, in homiletics or--in the case of the volume's final essay--as "a linguistic and textual space" where the Christians, Jews and Muslims of Iberia "might find intersections of their canonical traditions" (331). This, of course, is only a rough and ready comparison for the purposes of orientation; indeed, to suggest that the one is all text and the other all context would be to do each a disservice.

The collection's broad scope is partially a response to the simultaneous ubiquity and heterogeneousness of the Bible in the Middle Ages. The reader is quickly disabused of the error of seeing the Bible as the monolithic textual institution it has become today. For much of the Middle Ages there were few pandects (complete sequences of all the biblical books) and The Practice of the Bible does an admirable job of showing in what varying forms the medieval cleric and layperson encountered the Bible: in books of extracts collected together to provide the readings used at Mass; personified by monks who "made the Bible alive for everyone to see and learn from" (61); or filtered through the scholastic media of gloss and questio in the thirteenth-century university.

The subject matter of the volume's essays may be grouped into five categories as follows. First, the Bible in and as a catalyst for liturgy (Chapter 2: Susan Boynton, "The Bible and the liturgy"; Chapter 3: Richard Gyug, "Early Medieval Bibles, Biblical Books and the Monastic Liturgy in the Beneventan Region"; and Chapter 4: Isabelle Cochelin, "When the Monks were the Book: The Bible and Monasticism [6th-11th centuries]"). Secondly, the Bible as a source for the writing of history (Chapter 5: Jennifer A. Harris, "The Bible and the Meaning of History in the Middle Ages"). Thirdly, distinct forms of the medieval Bible (Chapter 6: Diane J. Reilly, "Lectern Bibles and Liturgical Reform in the Central Middle Ages"; Chapter 7: Lila Yawn, "The Italian Giant Bibles"; Chapter 11: Laura Light, "The Bible and the Individual: The Thirteenth-Century Paris Bible"; and Chapter 12: Stella Panayotova, "The Illustrated Psalter: Luxury and Practical Use"). Fourthly, the Bible as the focus of exegetical and pastoral theology (Chapter 8: Frans van Liere, "Biblical Exegesis through the Twelfth Century"; Chapter 9: Bert Roest, "Mendicant School Exegesis"; and Chapter 10: Eyal Poleg, "A Ladder Set Up on Earth: The Bible in Medieval Sermons"). Fifthly and finally, aspects of the Bible in translation (Chapter 13: Richard Marsden, "The Bible in English in the Middle Ages"; Chapter 14: C. R. Sneddon, "The Old French Bible: The First Complete Vernacular Bible in Western Europe"; and Chapter 15: Emily C. Francomano, "Castilian Vernacular Bibles in Iberia, c. 1250-1500"). The volume's first chapter is a preliminary "Orientation for the Reader" by Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly. The dominant focus of The Practice of the Bible, therefore, is on questions of materiality: eight of the book's fourteen essays discuss different forms of the medieval Bible and the context of those forms, whereas six discuss the broader impact of the Bible on particular forms of literature, theology or the Christian life.

The Practice of the Bible does not claim to introduce new research. It is very much in the genre of the "companion" volume and thus most of its essays are essentially surveys of particular topics--of English translations of the Bible from the Anglo-Saxon period to the sixteenth century in the case of Richard Marsden's article, or of the defining aspects of Franciscan and Dominican biblical exegesis in that of Bert Roest. Almost inevitably, therefore, material in the book will sometimes cover the same ground as earlier works, as can be seen by comparing Susan Boynton's clear overview of the western liturgy and John Harper's The Forms and Orders of Western liturgy or Jennifer Harris's essay and M. I. Allen's article on universal history in Historiography in the Middle Ages of 2003. [1]

The nature of the volume, however, does not prevent its contributors from making valuable points that suggest new and thought-provoking ways of understanding the Bible and its medieval uses. Isabelle Cochelin, for example, discusses not only how monks used the Bible but also how their lives personified it and offers stimulating thoughts on reorienting our view of certain liturgical rites: building upon the work of Nils Petersen, she suggests that the liturgical and paraliturgical rites of Easter were designed not to "educate the [lay] population" but to "enable the laity and the monks to relive the events that had taken place in the first century" (70). [2] Clive Sneddon's fine essay on the medieval period's first complete vernacular translation of the Bible--an Old French translation dating from the thirteenth century--should make us question the simplistic and all too-prevalent historiography that juxtaposes "progressive" reformers and translators with a "conservative" church. As Sneddon points out, the Old French translation was "doctrinally orthodox, not inspired by heretics and not suppressed by the church authorities" (297). Richard Gyug's study of Beneventan Bibles is more than just a regional case study, for he uses the sources of a single repertory to illuminate wider themes. Thus, for example, he shows how liturgical concerns were a guiding principle in the making and organization of Beneventan Bibles. His conclusions are well supported and the chapter benefits from the provision of relevant tables and figures. Another example of a corpus-based study is Lila Yawn's essay, which in combining historical and art-historical approaches provides an excellent overview of eleventh-century giant Italian Bibles from the perspectives of origin, production, locale, patronage and the eleventh-century reform movement.

One of the challenges of surveying a topic is that of providing an accurate outline while being forced to omit so much material that could be useful; this challenge is even more formidable in addressing a text as fundamental and omnipresent as the Bible. Doubtless, readers will be able to think of areas that could have received more attention, but the volume's editors and authors cannot be held responsible for not covering everything. Nevertheless, The Practice of the Bible does contain occasional omissions or oversimplifications, such as Jennifer Harris's claim that "the end of Carolingian rule ushered in a lengthy period without substantial history writing," (93) which sees her attempt to draw a direct line from Carolingian historical writing to the "twelfth century and the renewal of history." It is unfortunate that this surprising claim overlooks the existence of substantial bodies of eleventh-century historical writing from Germany, Italy and Normandy, which has been ably explored by Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken, David Warner, I. S. Robinson, Patrick Healy, Graham Loud and Elizabeth van Houts among others. [3] This omission is regrettable, for in different ways the Bible plays an important part in the chronicles of Dudo of St-Quentin, Landolfus Sagax, Amatus of Monte Cassino, Herman of Reichenau, Bernold of St Blasien, Hugh of Flavigny, William of Jumi├Ęges, Sigebert of Gembloux and Frutolf of Michelsberg.

One might also question some of the distinctions drawn between the approach of monastery and cathedral school to the Bible in the essays by Cochelin and van Liere. While Cochelin makes the valuable point that monks and secular clerks often approached the Bible differently because they sought different things from it, she over-simplifies matters with the claim that "monks...aspired not to learning but to spirituality" (67). This was indeed true of some monks but not of all, as recent studies have begun to show. [4] Similarly, van Liere sees the progress of biblical exegesis to the twelfth century as a process of transformation "from a mainly meditative practice for monks into a scholarly discipline in the service of a life of ecclesiastical administration and preaching" (173). In essence, these interpretations are based upon the eloquent work of Richard Southern, Jean Leclercq and other eminent historians, which classified monastic theology as fundamentally meditative in contradistinction to the scholastic theology that grew out of the so-called twelfth-century renaissance. This approach presupposes a particular and restrictive definition of what amounts to "learning," and erects a barrier between what is today considered "meditative" or "spiritual" and what is considered "scholarly." [5]

Despite such caveats as these, The Practice of the Bible remains a valuable collection of genuinely interdisciplinary essays. Its straightforward style makes it uniquely suitable for teaching. It would form an excellent textbook and should seriously be considered by anyone contemplating teaching an undergraduate course on the Bible in the Middle Ages.



[1] J. Harper, The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century: A Historical Introduction and Guide for Students and Musicians (Oxford, 1991); and M. I. Allen, "Universal History 300-1000: Origins and Western Developments," in Historiography in the Middle Ages, ed. D. Mauskopf Deliyannis (Leiden, 2003), pp. 17-42.

[2] N. H. Petersen, "The Representational Liturgy of the Regularis concordia," in The White Mantle of Churches: Architecture, Liturgy and Art around the Millenium, ed. N. Hiscock (Turnhout, 2003), esp. pp. 113-14.

[3] A.-D. von den Brincken, Studien zur lateinischen Weltchronistik bis das Zeitalter Ottos von Freising (Dusseldorf, 1957), pp. 141-207; Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, trans. D. A. Warner (Manchester, 2001); Die Chroniken Bertholds von Reichenau und Bernolds von Konstanz, 1054-1100, ed. I. S. Robinson, MGH SSrG NS 14 (Hanover, 2003); Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles (Manchester, 2008); P. Healy, The Chronicle of Hugh of Flavigny: Reform and the Investiture Contest in the Late Eleventh Century (Aldershot, 2006); Amatus of Montecassino: the History of the Normans, ed. G. A. Loud and trans. P. N. Dunbar (Woodbridge, 2004); and Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumi├Ęges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. E. M. C. van Houts, 2 vols (Oxford, 1992-5).

[4] A. S. Cohen, The Uta Codex: Art, Philosophy and Reform in Eleventh-Century Germany (University Park, Pa., 2000); and A. I. Beach, Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria (Cambridge, 2004).

[5] Recent studies have begun to reassess the usefulness of the paradigm of the "twelfth-century renaissance," especially for regions other than northern France. See the works cited in note 4, as well as Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany, ed. A. I. Beach (Turnhout, 2007). See also the recent review (TMR 12.02.14 Warntjes, The Munich Computus) by Professor Contreni, which characterizes early medieval computistical writing as "an important field of medieval intellectual history" possessing "a scientific mentality that valued proof, rigor, and precision well before the twelfth century."

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Thomas McCarthy

New College of Florida