14.04.35, Linde, How to Correct the Sacra Scriptura?

Main Article Content

Conor O'Brien

The Medieval Review 14.04.35

Linde, Cornelia. How to Correct the Sacra Scriptura? Textual Criticism of the Bible Between the Twelfth and Fifteenth Century. Medium Ævum Monographs XXIX. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2011. Pp. xii, 309. ISBN: 978-0-907570-22-6.

Reviewed by:
Conor O'Brien
The Queen's College, Oxford

The history of the text of the Latin Bible is a complicated one and has attracted much distinguished scholarly labour. Cornelia Linde's book deals with some of the earliest examples of this, studying how scholars in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance understood the Latin Bible and thought about correcting its text. The result is a vast quantity of fascinating material and much insight into this fundamental issue, though it has not always been presented in the fashion most likely to assist the reader.

The first two sections of the work are comparatively brief, providing important introductory material. Part I sets out some of the essential terminology which medieval textual critics used when talking about the different versions of the Bible. Septuaginta could refer either to the Greek Old Testament or to its Latin translation (the Vetus Latina)--in practice one and same text for medieval scholars. Confusingly for the modern historian, vulgata usually referred to this text also. That was how Jerome spoke of what had been the most widely-used version of the Bible in his period and over time the term petrified into a proper name for the Septuagint. Linde contends that hebraica veritas was consistently used by most authors in the Middle Ages to refer only to the original Hebrew, and not also to Jerome's Latin (Vulgate) translation from it. In practice, however, it can be difficult to tell whether medieval writers always intended so clear-cut a distinction.

Part II sketches out a history of the Vulgate text's development and its fortunes through the Middle Ages. Before the Council of Trent the Vulgate never had any official position of dominance, nor did any other biblical text--in practice then, there was no standard text. Although most medieval scholars gave to Jerome's translation a special status, few seem to have considered it to have been inspired or ineffable. Anglo-Saxonists might note with regret that Linde's quick progress through early medieval editions of the Bible has no mention of the Codex Amiatinus and the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow's attempt to produce an edition of Jerome's text. Considering the Codex's important historical role in the editing of the modern Vulgate text, its probable relationship with Cassiodorus's Bibles and Richard Marsden's detailed study of the processes which went into piecing together its Old Testament, it seems a pity that Alcuin's editorial work is the earliest to get any substantial mention. Part II ends with a survey of changing attitudes to St. Jerome, whose cult only really seems to have taken off in the fourteenth century.

The bulk of the book comes in the second two sections and it is here that Linde really gets to grip with the content of her primary sources. These mainly consist of those works from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries which constitute textual criticism (a somewhat problematic term to apply to the period), dealing wholly or in part with the emendation of Latin Scripture and the theory surrounding such work. A helpful appendix provides bio-bibliographical information on each of the authors addressed in the text. The result, however, is that one is likely to end up reading the monograph like a reference book, flicking between the appendix and the central chapters where little context or background is given on the authors and their writings. This is somewhat unfortunate as, while some of the names in question are famous, such as Roger Bacon and Lorenzo Valla, many others are little known. Linde ably compensates for the fact that many of the texts are only available in old critical editions (or indeed no critical editions at all) by quoting the Latin extensively in the text and footnotes and generally providing a bulging apparatus.

Part III examines the opinions of medieval textual critics on what version of the Bible had come down to them in the manuscripts and how it had been transmitted. Linde's evidence reveals that these scholars had a sophisticated view of the Bible's textual history. Most did not believe that they had Jerome's translation available in the manuscripts from which they worked; rather they assumed (not inaccurately) that their texts consisted of an amalgamation of different versions of the sacred text. They were aware of how easily scribal error introduced corruptions into the manuscript tradition and wary of the assumption that longer texts must necessarily be more correct than shorter ones. Belief in the importance of going back to the original language sources seems to have been widespread, as was a faith (inherited from Augustine and Jerome) in the superiority of older manuscripts. The author suggests that the engagement with variant readings seen in thirteenth-century correctoria represents "a serious attempt to grapple with the multitude of manuscripts and with the different textual traditions of the Bible" (127). But the purpose of the correctoria remains unknown and may in fact have been exegetical rather than text critical.

Part IV begins with an interesting discussion of how medieval textual critics weighed up the rival claims of consuetudo and veritas when it came to correcting Latin scripture. (In more recent times a similar debate has been seen over the new English translation of the Latin liturgy and the difficulty with which some congregations have adapted to it.) Augustine and Jerome were very sensitive to the need not to offend consuetudo and medieval scholars, while frequently very bullish in theory about the importance of not abandoning the truth of Holy Writ, tended to err on the side of caution when it came to correcting traditional forms of the Latin text. This section is rather complicated, however, by the fact that the terms in which the author has framed it were used in quite different senses by some of the authors studied. While conseutudo and usus frequently referred to what was customary, some authors used them to speak about the contemporary Latin usages to fall in line with which some scribes might amend the Bible. The two meanings are obviously in direct opposition as are the problems they describe: on the one hand scribes could be too traditional and refuse to change the Latin text to bring it closer to the veritas of the original language, on the other scribes could be too interventionist, distorting the Bible to keep it up-to- date with every passing linguistic fad.

Part IV concludes with the question of whether the grammar of the Bible could be corrected. Linde disagrees with the traditional belief that in the Middle Ages scripture was deemed to be exempt from the rules of grammar. Instead textual critics from the twelfth century onwards seem to have been happy to correct the Latin holy text; at first Late Antique grammarians provided the standard which the Bible should reach, later, for the early humanists, Virgil and the classics were the model to which even scripture must conform. This chapter really ties together an argument which Linde has been building throughout the book: for the pre-Tridentine Middle Ages, there was no unquestionably authoritative version of the Latin Bible. Scholars could correct old translations and do their own new ones; Jerome's work was respected, indeed frequently believed to have an official approval which it had never actually received, but rarely considered divinely inspired. "Latin Scripture was not treated as a static and untouchable construct, but rather as a flexible tool" (247).

Linde is careful to temper this conclusion by acknowledging that her work has studied only a relatively small number of scholars who may not be representative of the wider culture of their day. At the same time as the early humanists were asserting the importance of returning to the truth of the original language and the oldest manuscripts, the Carthusians of the fifteenth century were trying to standardise the Bible text used by their order according to a model held at their mother house. The evidence of other manuscripts and other languages was irrelevant, the grammatical eccentricities of this Carthusian version were accepted--all that mattered was that all manuscripts of the Latin text matched that held that the Grande Chartreuse. Some more of this kind of comparison would have been interesting and have helped to set the textual critics studied within their wider context.

But this book makes no claims to have answered all the questions outstanding about the medieval Latin Bible and how it was understood. It highlights some areas where more work is needed, it presents some possible interpretations of the evidence, but most importantly it brings together a large amount of evidence and sets it out in some detail, providing a helpful springboard for further research. Despite some issues with its presentation and analysis, this is an interesting and valuable study.

Article Details

Author Biography

Conor O'Brien

The Queen's College, Oxford