Jinty Nelson and Damien Kempf eds. Reading the Bible in the Middle Ages. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
People use the Bible in very different ways. Some meditate on individual verses, others read whole chapters or books at a time, while others just use their Bibles to beat each other over the head with. Living in our post-Christian world, it is tempting to think that the lives of Christians in ages past were more deeply shaped by their relationships with Scripture. The revival of Benedictine practices such as lectio divina encourage that sort of view of the Middle Ages, but as the contributors to this volume argue, when medieval Christians picked up their Bibles they did so in ways that were just as diverse and as petty as ours. Just as some people today have their favourite books and ignore most of the others, Christians in the Middle Ages also read their Bibles very selectively. As the editors remind us, “the Bible was very seldom available as a whole but far more often in parts – the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Gospels – and, as far as laypeople were concerned, in memorized sound-bites in the liturgy, in chants and hymns, or in sermons, or in legal records of gifts to churches. A single-volume Bible might belong to an episcopal church, or a big monastery, carried and shown as a sacred ritual object in processions, or revered on the altar from afar. Lay Bible-owners were extremely few, and almost all were high-born. For private purposes, clergy, monks, laypeople alike, if literate, were far more likely to read a psalter (central to monastic prayer), or a ‘brief collection; (breviary, or Book of Hours) consisting of select psalms augmented by prayers and hymns.”
One thing that might surprise many people is that there wasn’t a set “Bible” during the Middle Ages, with 66 books that everyone agreed on. The first time the Western Church issued a formal decree establishing the canon was at the Council of Florence, in 1442. Of course, by this stage Christians had been treating roughly the same books that we do as Scripture for over 1,000 years. The councils of Rome (382) and Carthage (397) had made it pretty clear what did and didn’t belong in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t disagreement. Jerome (347-420) used books like Tobit and Judith a lot, but didn’t think of them as canonical. Augustine (354-430), on the other hand, had a much bigger Bible. He was happy to include Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, 1-2 Edras, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus. Cornelia Linde’s chapter explores twelfth century discussions of which books belonged in the Bible, focusing in particular on Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) and Robert of Melun (1100-1167). Hugh was one of the most influential theologians of his day, and he decided that the writings of the Church Fathers should also go in the Bible. Almost everyone ignored him. Robert, on the other hand, tried to find a compromise between Jerome and Augustine, and did so based on which books gave him nice round numbers, like four Gospels for the four cardinal virtues and seven Catholic Epistles for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. This was rocket science at its best.
Nineteenth century Liberals were not the first to talk about the Bible as literature. The Ostrogothic politician, Cassiodorus (485-585) analysed the Psalms in detail because he thought that they were a better model of rhetoric and oratory than anything Cicero had ever written. Cassiodorus also used his commentaries on the Psalms to make political arguments. Psalm 73, for example, is a song of lament that medieval Christians usually applied to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Cassiodorus used it to discuss the character of the Romans who had destroyed the city, noting that they weren’t particularly good people – at least, they weren’t as holy as the Ostrogoths who sacked Rome in 546. Using Biblical passages to subtly comment on current events is something that only the most erudite of scholars could do. In his Epitaphium Arsenii, for example, Paschasius Radbertus (c.790-c.860) frequently compared his mentor Wala to the prophet Jeremiah. As Mayke de Jong skillfully shows, however, he also compared him to Job by using phrases from the book of Job whenever he was talking about Wala. Only people who knew Job inside out would have picked up on this, but maybe Radbertus thought his subliminal messages would be enough.
Eventually someone realized that if you wanted to win an argument this sort of subtlety wouldn’t fly, so they started with more obvious tactics. When you’re arguing with theologians you can use complicated, allegorical interpretations of Bible verses like Luke 22:38 (“The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied), which was usually used to say that society should be ruled by two swords: the king’s secular sword and the Pope’s spiritual sword. Jinty Nelson shows that actually quite a few lay people were reading the Bible by the ninth century and were even quoting it in their letters. With more people having access to the Bible, in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085) needed clearer Bible verses to support his claim to be allowed to use violence so he found Jeremiah 48:10: “Cursed by he who keepeth back his sword from blood.” Unfortunately for him, his opponents found even clearer verses that they too ripped out of context to explain why the pope wasn’t allowed to build his own army.
Not everyone always understood everything they read, and Julie Barrau’s chapter explores the notes that an anonymous reader from twelfth century England wrote while he was reading his Bible. She thinks he might have been a former student of Peter Comestor, or maybe Andrew of St Victor, but like every student his notes didn’t always perfectly reflect his teacher’s lessons. He was obsessed with magic, and tried to reinterpret every mention of magic in the Bible. He also used “internal exegesis” to identify unknown characters in the Bible. He decided that the false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah from Jeremiah 29:21-22 were the same elders who falsely accused Susannah in the apocryphal thirteenth chapter of Daniel, then added details from Jerome’s commentary about them telling young people that they were the ancestors of the Messiah. Finally, he often put two interpretations of a passage next to one another before explaining which one he liked best, which was a typical way of reasoning in the twelfth century. The world that all of these people were living in was very different to our own, so it shouldn’t surprise us that they also read their Bibles differently. But it’s a good reminder that all of us are all too human when it comes to reading sacred Scriptures.
Pictures courtesy of Twitter: @DamienKempf