BMCR 2008.05.40

Bible Manuscripts: 1400 Years of Scribes and Scripture

, , Bible manuscripts : 1400 years of scribes and scripture. London: British Library, 2007. 160 pages : color illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780712349222 $35.00.

This collection of beautifully reproduced leaves from bible manuscripts in the collection of the British Library seems designed for a non-academic audience — yet one that will be intrigued to get a glimpse of one of the more attractive purviews of academia. It is a book for the amateur in the truest sense of the word.

The introduction engages, in most summary form, such issues as the transition from roll to codex, textual variants, numeration and cross-referencing, large and small format bibles and their purposes, illuminations and theirs. The relative rarity of pandect bibles is compared with the proliferation of gospel books, lectionaries, and other excerptions. The introduction concludes: ‘Such in outline is the distinctive character of the manuscript tradition of the Bible. To illustrate that tradition we have had the great privilege of selecting items from the manuscript holdings of the British Library’ (11).

After that, each page displays a leaf from a bible manuscript, with catalogue details and summary comments. The figures are often conceived as pairs across the double-page spread, inviting comparison. The arrangement of the examples is broadly chronological, though we begin with the éclat of the Golden Canon Tables (sixth/seventh century, figs. 1-2) not with the less photogenic papyrus fragments from the second and third centuries (figs. 3-6).

The majority of the examples are illuminated, but salutary attention is given to non-illuminated manuscripts as well. There tends, however, to be no technical comment on the script or hand, with a few exceptions: fig. 26 refers to the script ‘in a style developed at Tours’, contrasting it with ‘Insular ornament’; fig. 68 even remarks on the form of the ‘e’ in the Beneventan script there displayed. But there is no consistency in this labelling, and so little systematic guidance for the aforementioned amateur.

As for the languages of the bibles here displayed: they are mostly in Latin, but Greek, Old English, Middle English (including a Wycliffe translation, and Rolle’s earlier translation too), Syriac, French, Anglo-Norman, Church Slavonic, Old High German, and Catalan are all represented as well.

Not surprisingly, given the location of the collection, some of the most exciting examples are from the English tradition. Fig. 16 gives us a Latin psalter (in uncial, though the comments don’t tell us that) with a ninth-century interlinear translation into Old English in an Anglo-Saxon minuscule, ‘the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text’. The Old English translation in fig. 37 is signed by the translator (not unfortunately on the leaf illustrated here), ‘Wulfwi me wrat’. Fig. 51 gives us the earliest copy in English of part of the Old Testament — early eleventh century — accompanied by a marvellous image of Adam naming the animals. Fig. 142 shows a page from Henry VIII’s own psalter, with marginal notes in (apparently) the king’s own hand.

To list a few personal favourites: the tenth-century psalter in Tironian shorthand (fig. 38); the double-page spread from the eleventh-century Harley psalter (figs. 45-6), in which almost every verse of the psalms is illustrated with exquisite, animated line drawings; the psalter from the twelfth century which is trilingual in Greek, Latin, and Arabic (fig. 72); the startlingly different sensibility of the Silos Apocalypse from early twelfth-century Spain (fig. 60), with a richness of colour and organized density of iconographic program more reminiscent of biblical manuscripts from the Ethiopic tradition than of anything being produced farther North. Finally, there is the poignant image of Noah releasing the raven and the dove from the Ark in the Holkham Bible Picture Book (fourteenth century; fig. 114): beneath the Ark, hideously exposed in the waves, float the corpses of humans and animals. The raven feeds on a horse’s eyes.

The comments on each illustration are — as I have suggested — rather inconsistent in degree of detail and scholarly content, though each contains something of interest. There is one amusing error at fig. 85, where the plea at the beginning of Psalm 69 is quoted as ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck’ – not ‘soul’, as is conventional, and clearly visible here in both the Greek and the Latin of the parallel text. But the historiated opening ‘S’ does show the waters rising to the petitioner’s ribcage!

The amateur whose interest has been piqued by this volume might move on to the catalogue of the 2007 exhibition at the British Library, ‘Sacred: Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam’; or to the excellent catalogue from the 2006 exhibition at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, ‘In the Beginning: Bibles before the year 1000’. And, although a beautifully-produced book is as satisfying a thing as ever, the web-savvy readers of BMCR may wish to know of the Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts [at the British Library] (Digξμ now being developed on the web. (If your internet connection is fast enough, see also the delightful conceit of ‘Turning the Pages’. Indeed, in this age of digitized images, the web is fast transforming the availability and visibility of these collections: for example, I knew nothing of the remarkable collection of manuscripts at my local library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, until it gained an online presence eighteen months ago. In this arena, the printed book is becoming merely a teaser for the riches available online.