14.10.23, Poleg, Approaching the Bible in Medieval England

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James H. Morey

The Medieval Review 14.10.23

Poleg, Eyal. Approaching the Bible in Medieval England. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 263. ISBN: 9780719089541 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
James H. Morey
Emory University

Each of the four parts of Poleg's book covers a well-researched field: the liturgy, Bible as book/talisman, biblical paratext and layout, and preaching. The contribution here lies in the combination of each field in a unified study, and at its best the book provides a guide to the variety and nuanced idiosyncrasies of "how the Bible was mediated and known across the social and cultural boundaries of literacy and piety" (1). The major figures in this scholarly conversation are Margaret Deanesly (whose name suffers a common misspelling), Brian Stock, Paul Ricoeur, Miri Rubin, Eamon Duffy, Richard and Mary Rouse, and Christopher de Hamel, among others.

The first chapter analyzes the practices and visual representations of the Palm Sunday liturgical procession. Poleg's readings are detailed and attentive, especially when he links the liturgy to Psalm texts, antitypes, and iconography (such as the gates of Jerusalem). There is a tendency to overcomplicate, however. Some practices are simply customary, not "hegemonic" (18), and what he calls the variations we see everywhere are not signs of "confusion" (27) or "departures," "breaks" or otherwise "foreign" modes (24). They are, as Poleg later states quite rightly, the "extensions," "complement[s]," and "crucial interpretive layer[s]" (32) that are the hallmarks of biblical mediation. Poleg makes much of the "social tension" (25) in play when the clergy would carry real palms and the congregation would carry indigenous substitutes (cf. the "mixed reality" for lay and clergy on 205). Any such tension is doubtful, since if the faithful could be relied upon to imagine themselves in a tableau vivant as Jews entering Jerusalem, they could likewise--without resentment--make the metaphoric leap from yew branch to palm frond. William Durand's Rationale divinorum officiorum is a major text in the liturgical commentary tradition, and Poleg makes frequent reference to it. The CCCM edition by Anselmus Davril and T. M. Thibodeau is hard to find in the bibliography (under "G" among printed sources), and a few words in the main text about Durand and his achievement would be very helpful. Likewise, I wished for more attention to the Latin and vernacular dramatic tradition (V. A. Kolve's work is not cited).

Chapter 2 features the Bible as textus, the Gospel book itself as used ritually, including in oath-taking. Poleg provides a very good discussion of the materiality of the book, and of how precious objects can trump texts by virtue of their deluxe covers, clasps, illuminations, and sacred associations. Poleg extends the discussion to legal proceedings, to Lollard controversies on swearing on the Bible, and also to Jewish ritual practices, but the "extremely scant" (93) evidence inhibits the conclusions that can be drawn. The chapter finishes with an apt comparison to President Obama's use of the Lincoln Bible at his first inauguration. The psychological power of the heft and associations of objects, especially of books, is clearly important and Poleg endeavors to reimagine ourselves into medieval ceremonial moments insofar as modern scholarship allows.

Chapter 3 is based on a set of fifty-six "randomly chosen" manuscripts that Poleg describes in an appendix (211). The amount of codicological work here is impressive, and Poleg demonstrates both the large-scale uniformity of layout along with the smaller scale variation within the category he calls "late medieval Bibles." The term is not very satisfactory, and does not improve on the usual term "Paris Bibles" used to name Bibles produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and associated with the Paris schools that dominated biblical production in France, England and Italy. The chapter also provides the most important and original work of the book in its analysis of Jerome's Interpretations of Hebrew Names (Liber Interpretationis), the allegorical set of associations for biblical names that appears in many manuscripts, and which is usually skipped by scholars or mined selectively. Poleg gives an eye-opening overview of the three versions (Adam, Aaron, Aaz) and notes that the Aaz version became most successful, perhaps because it contains the most entries. The Liber Interpretationis is exactly the kind of paratext that scholars need to study, and Poleg's knowledge of Hebrew sheds light on a difficult subject. The chapter also examines the superscriptions (in the Hebrew tradition) that head each psalm, along with the tituli (the Christian substitutions for and additions to the superscriptions, usually with an allegorical dimension). Once again Poleg foregrounds paratextual material that everyone sees but few study. This chapter contains some careless phrasing when Poleg refers to the "unique features of the Psalm's layout (evident in the transition from the common layout of the book of Job in three columns, and that of the Psalms in the right-most column)" (132). The Psalms are copied with different protocols (e.g. no running titles or chapter numbers), but a glance at plate five, which reproduces the manuscript in question, reveals that we simply have a verso-recto spread in which two columns from Job appear on the verso, with the recto showing the last column of Job and the first column (beginning Beatus vir) of Psalms. The columns have nothing to do with any Psalmic individuation.

The last chapter, on preaching, covers well-trodden ground and frequently builds upon the work of H. L. Spencer in his English Preaching in the Late Middle Ages (Oxford, 1993). Poleg reviews the structure of three Advent sermons on Matthew 21:1-9, one of which is macaronic (Latin/English). The most important insights from Poleg again employ Jerome's Liber Interpretationis to show how place names on the way to Jerusalem linguistically mirror the salvific journey. There is also a brilliant exposition of mouth imagery in one of John Waldeby's sermons that links the kiss of peace to Mary's womb and the Song of Songs via the name Bethphage (168). In general, whereas homilies concentrate on narrative these so-called modern sermons feature the "textual essence" (188) of Scripture. Various finding aids and tools of biblical navigation--along with inspired free-association--ensured that the medieval Bible became increasingly intra- and extra-referential.

It is inevitable that a book treating such capacious and diverse critical subjects should occasionally show signs of strain. The treatment of Anglo-Saxon Bibles is necessarily compressed and sketchy (there is nothing "legal or illegal" [6], as far as we know, about the transport of Gospel books to the continent during the Anglo-Saxon missions). Likewise, the brief examples from Piers Plowman (46, 200), the Man of Law's Tale and the Shipman's Tale (81-82) do not work well, probably because Langland and Chaucer are master-chefs in their own kitchens. The notes are dense and reflect years of hard bibliographic work. The volume itself is handsomely produced. Poleg demonstrates that close attention to physical artefacts provides evidence for the lived experience of worship and biblical exegesis. In that sense, the word "approaching" in the book's title should be read both literally and metaphorically.

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James H. Morey

Emory University