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  • Reading the Bible in the Middle Agesed. by Jinty Nelson and Damien Kempf
  • Franklin T. Harkins
Reading the Bible in the Middle Ages. Edited by Jinty Nelson and Damien Kempf. [ Studies in Early Medieval History.] (London: Bloomsbury Academic. 2015. Pp. viii, 284. $42.95 hardcover; $35.96 paperback. ISBN 978-1-350-03628-4.)

This collection of essays originated in a day-conference at the University of Liverpool in 2011 entitled, "Bibles: Reading Scriptures from Medieval to Early Modern," at which, as the editors note in their introduction, "[s]peakers conveyed [End Page 573]impressions on Bible reading/hearing in particular times and places" (p. 1). More specifically, the eight contributors—who hail from England, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States—treat a wide range of themes related to scriptural reading throughout western Christendom in the sixth through twelfth centuries. From Gerda Heydemann's consideration of Cassiodorus as a reader of the Psalms and Jinty Nelson's study of lay readers of the Bible in the Carolingian era, to Henry Parkes's essay on biblical readings for the night office in eleventh-century Germany and Claire Weeda's treatment of how the Bible aided the construction of political power in twelfth-century France and Germany, this volume will be of interest to a wide range of medievalists, scholars and students alike. Nelson and Kempf warn their readers at the outset, however, concerning what may be perceived as a lack of thematic unity among the essays: "Light-touch editors have steered a course between excessive concern for coherence, that might have cabined and confined plentiful original insights that occurred serendipitously, and a fundamentally unified agenda and approach" (p. 2).

Though some readers may worry that the volume could be more internally coherent, the quality of the essays gathered here is generally good; indeed, on the whole they are well-conceived, clearly written, informative, and interesting. For example, in "Sibyls, Tanners and Leper Kings: Taking Notes from and about the Bible in Twelfth-Century England," Julie Barrau opens a fascinating window onto how one anonymous English student in the schools of the twelfth century read, heard, and glossed the scriptural account of Israel's history. These biblical glosses, which have come down to us in Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 288 (hereafter: CCCC 288), give witness to the student's strict adherence to literal interpretations, his wide-ranging reading, and, at times, his idiosyncratic patterns of thought. Concerning the latter, the glossator writes, for instance, that "Plato went to Egypt, translated the books of Moses from the Egyptian language into Greek and carried them [home] with him" (p. 123). Although we cannot know with certainty how such a gloss came to be, Barrau conjectures that this basic idea can be traced to Ambrose, who, in commenting on Psalm 118, maintained that in Egypt Plato had heard "the prophecies of the law of Moses" and somehow made use of them in his "dialogue on virtue" (pp. 123-24). Barrau observes that such an over-simplification, even garbling, of Ambrose as that found in CCCC 288 is not necessarily to be attributed (solely) to the student who wrote these notes; rather, it might (also) be the consequence of "an enthusiastic, authoritative but unorthodox teacher" in the twelfth-century school who delivered the Old Testament lectures to which this glossator listened (p. 144).

Among the volume's many strengths, one weakness is that some essays fail to engage more recent scholarship on the topic under consideration. In "Twelfth-Century Notions of the Canon of the Bible," for example, Cornelia Linde considers the understandings of the canon of Hugh of St. Victor and Robert of Melun. She seems particularly interested in Hugh's teaching that the Fathers ( patres) constitute the third ordoof the New Testament, following the Gospels and the Apostles (pp. 11–13). Linde concludes by noting how her study highlights "several [End Page 574]remarkable facets of late medieval perceptions of the Bible," the first and most important being that "the canon was not yet closed, but was still open, beyond the twelfth century" (p. 17). Some readers—particularly those less familiar with the greater fluidity and elasticity...


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