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Response to Review of Approaching the Bible in Medieval England

I would like to thank Richard Marsden for his insightful review. As expected, the comments are both illuminating and accurate. It is also a rare delight to see how some of the book’s finer points have come so clearly across. Specific comments regarding translation and production (for which I take full responsibility) may one day find their way into subsequent editions; on others, such as the Late Medieval Bible’s textual and para-textual variations, I hope to write at length. More generally, the review has made me re-think some basic premises, and – in the sprit of Reviews in History – take up the opportunity to continue discussing biblical knowledge and mediation.

The medieval Bible is an ocean, and this book was devised as a series of interrelated dips into its waters, inevitably partial and incomplete. One glaring omission, which was well-noted by Prof. Marsden, is the neglect of Middle English biblical translations and adaptations. I have used vernacular texts, from the speech of Caiphas (whose spelling indeed follows the Sloane MS) to Chaucer and Langland, as auxiliary evidence and refrained from treating the ‘Middle English Bible’ as an equal form of mediation. This was not accidental, but part of the book’s core rationale, and would therefore benefit from further explication. Much of the scholarship on biblical dissemination still stands in the shadow of the Reformation. The assumption that the Bible was heavily guarded in the Middle Ages and restored with Reformation’s vernacular translations and moveable-type print underlies many works; vernacular translations and adaptations are still treated as shining stars in a Latin darkness. Such an approach has two shortcomings, which I tried to address in the current book (and in the one I am currently writing). The first is the omnipresence of biblical mediation, or, in other terms, the futility of using the Reformation’s Sola scriptura and its ‘naked text’ of the Bible as a tool for understanding biblical knowledge and dissemination. The Bible is, and has always been, approached through one form of mediation or the other (and more commonly, one AND the other). The study of biblical paratext (presented in chapter three, and the rationale for the edited volume Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible []) demonstrates that not only the less-latinate laity, but even the clerical elite approached the Bible through a plethora of interpretative mediums.

The second shortcoming is the way discussions of vernacular Bibles have ushered in a flat notion of biblical knowledge and a lay/clerical, Latin/vernacular dichotomy, foreign to the medieval evidence. They have shifted attention away from the complexity of biblical mediation, with its patterns of non-textual knowledge, grey-scales of Latin literacy, and talismanic use of Scripture. The last is a case-in-point. The use of the Bible in oath rituals, liturgical spectacles, or in amulets and incantations (the latter two only very briefly explored in the book), leads me to question the very term ‘Middle English Bible’. Biblical texts were translated into the vernacular throughout the period, and a full English Bible became an early 15th-century bestseller. These supplied lay and clerical audiences with biblical episodes in a familiar language, enabling a more immediate connection with the biblical text. However, were they seen as ‘the Bible’? A tall question. I would argue that they were not. If we think of the Bible as a collection of texts, then one can think of a ‘Middle English Bible’ even before Wyclif. This, however, does not do justice to the complexity of the medieval Bible, with its strata of authority, performance, materiality and language, all quintessentially Latin. (A Latin-centred approach, incidentally, helps explain Morey’s question of the leeway authors undertook in their vernacular biblical compilations.) When used as talisman, for example, the Bible was in the Latin (or in mutilated Hebrew and Greek). This is true of textual amulets (1) and of books that facilitated oaths in ports, courts and offices (explored in chapter two); biblical snippets are also extant in guild books, where their Latinity stood in sharp contrast to their overwhelming vernacularity. Such use of the Latin was far from accidental. The authority of the Bible drew from its remoteness. Like sacred objects, buildings and theories, it was beyond everyday reach. The immediacy of English, which facilitated better understanding, at the very same time rendered it less applicable for such sacral use. Consequently, there is very little evidence for talismanic use of vernacular Scripture, with two possible exceptions: Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, where the archaic nature of the oath-book is ascertained in other means; and the burning of accused Lollards with English Gospels around their necks, best seen as an inverted mirror of the Latin ritual.

The Latin of the Bible was nowhere more present than in the liturgy. A primary channel of biblical transmission, it became synonymous with the way biblical events and texts were known and recalled. Partial knowledge of biblical Latin in its liturgical guise spread across religious and lay communities; the most familiar biblical elements, such as the Psalms or the Gallican Canticles, were commonly recalled and presented in Latin within vernacular texts and Wycliffite Bibles. Long after the Reformation, the conservative nature of the liturgy dictated their appearance in Latin within a predominantly English religious culture (the same powers, which celebrated custom and antiquity, are also evident in the young Professor Marsden’s wonderful example of the use of willows on Palm Sunday.) The conservative nature of the liturgy grew from its archaic language and customs. They made the liturgy a powerful biblical medium. These qualities also demonstrate an affinity between the compilation of the Bible and its mediation (a fact that kept surprising me when writing the book). Archaic language and rituals were embedded into the Bible at the time of its own compilation and canonisation. The Hebrew Bible was canonised at a time when many of its customs – from desert rites to land sovereignty – were irrelevant; the Mishna discusses the minutiae of temple rites at length, although codified at a time when it had been in desolation; much of the New Testament was compiled to accommodate an emergent Jewish sect. These biblical archaisms made biblical mediation a necessity from its inception, a vital bridge between a community and its always-irrelevant sacred Scriptures.

But this is being unfair to Professor Marsden’s suggestion. My reasons for not dedicating a chapter to Middle English accounts was partially due to a wish for ‘affirmative action’ on non-English mediums. But there are also the two axes of the book – materiality and performance, whose intersection, in the liturgy and its use of sacred books/icons, in preaching and its reliance on biblical paratext, served to structure my book. More could be said on the reverberation of these mediums in Middle English literature, as in visual images and exegetical works. The phenomenon of cross-mediation, in which mediums functioned in tandem, influenced and echoed one another, has not been fully explored. It can answer some of Professor Marsden’s specific questions: the way biblical elements (primarily Gospel books) served to ‘instil fear in the hearts of potential perjurers’ is evident in accounts from Thomas of Elmham’s chronicle or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both presenting an ideal oath ritual where a perjurer is punished through the intercession of a sacred book.  These not only evidence reception, but also served to substantiate such rituals. These stories were, in all probability, based on oral traditions, mostly hidden from our sight. A recurring problem in the study of biblical mediation is the randomness of the sources and their preservation. Efficient biblical mediation is nearly invisible, and has left little evidence. Thus, for example, there are interesting similarities between the performance of Caiphas’s speech and of the ‘Boy Bishops’ at that same liturgical moment. However, two centuries separate the two (the former exists in a single manuscript, possibly from early 13nth-century Wells Cathedral; the latter common in 15th- and 16th-century English rites) with little indication as to para-liturgical performances in the interim period. The same could be said for the compilation of ‘bespoke’ Late Medieval Bible, whose production is evident in hundreds of manuscripts, but with little direct testimony of compilation. The scant evidence, as for Alured of Dover’s Bible (pp. 116–17), suggests two possible means of composition; the similarity between specific clusters of addenda (e.g. this same Bible together with CUL, MS Dd.8.12 and BL, Royal MS 1 B.x.30) suggests that some of these addenda were produced in stationers’ shops. Other Bibles demonstrate a continuous engagement, which spun across centuries. The combination between ever-present and mostly hidden evidence constantly underlies the study of biblical mediation. I join Professor Marsden in hoping that this book will serve to raise more questions in this fascinating and challenging field.


  1. Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).Back to (1)