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  • A Material History of the Bible, England 1200–1553 by Eyal Poleg
  • Matti Peikola

manuscript studies, England, Bible

Eyal Poleg. A Material History of the Bible, England 1200–1553. Oxford: for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2020, xxxiv + 227 pp, 44 color illustrations. $90. ISBN: 9780197266717.

As Bonnie Mak observes in How the Page Matters (University of Toronto Press, 2011, 21), “the page is . . . an interface, standing at the centre of the complicated dynamic of intention and reception; it is the material manifestation of an ongoing conversation between designer and reader.” Eyal Poleg’s British Academy Monograph is a richly contextualized and nuanced investigation into designers’ and readers’ contributions to the materiality of the page and the book through Bibles produced for the English market from the early thirteenth century to the end of the reign of Edward VI. The study brings out a wealth of precisely documented material evidence from handwritten and printed Bibles to show how their producers and users engaged with and responded to the ongoing religious and technological changes. A central argument is that such engagements tell a more complex story of the Bible in England during this period than the dominant narratives focusing on dichotomies between tradition vs. reform and orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy. As Poleg puts it, “biblical books were produced by artisans, traders and administrators, whose interests extended from religious piety, through commercial viability and technical capabilities, to political and financial gains. These books were then taken up by readers who were not always sure how to read them, and often did not adhere to the intentions of reformers, priests or monarchs in this matter” (xxiv). For Poleg, “these moments unfold cracks in the grand narratives . . . which are often the most revealing in the history of the Bible; the places where we can see the complex and uncertain course of change” (xxv). [End Page 374]

The book is structured around five main chapters framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction lays out a convincing case for the rationale of the study and describes the methods and primary sources used. Instead of examining the transformation of the biblical text itself, which has been a major topic in earlier histories of the English Bible, Poleg focuses on measurable physical features of the book, elements of the page layout, and various textual and visual “addenda” by producers and users in individual copies or editions. The array of features addressed in the volume is impressive: the physical dimensions and weight of the book; thickness of the writing support; bibliographic format; width of margins; presence and form of chapter numbers and subdivisions, running titles, and rubrics; annotations and manicules; title pages and prefaces; tables of lections and other liturgical navigational aids; script and typography; use of color; and so on. Poleg pays attention to both what is unique or idiosyncratic and what represents a more widespread usage. He highlights the importance of subtle changes, the detection of which is enabled by the close comparative scrutiny adopted throughout the book.

The primary sources consist of a formidable body of English Bibles. The manuscripts surveyed for the study include more than one hundred copies of post- 1200 Latin Bibles made or used in England (ch. 1, “The Late Medieval Bible: Beyond Innovation”) and a considerable number of the more than 250 copies of the Wycliffite Bible, with a focus on the holdings of Cambridge libraries (ch. 2, “Wycliffite Bibles and the Limits of Orthodoxy”). The manuscripts actually cited in the book include eighty- two items (see “Manuscript Index”). For the printed Bibles, Poleg has “surveyed all major and minor reprints of single- volume Bibles in England and/or in English between 1535 and 1553” (xxvii). This includes comparisons between individual extant copies of the key editions discussed in chapter 3 (“The First Printed English Bible(s),” focusing especially on Thomas Berthelet’s Bible from 1535), chapter 4 (“The Great Bible as a Useless Book”), and chapter 5 (“Into Fast Forward: The Bibles of Edward VI”). In addition to single- volume Bibles, the discussion also features New Testaments and other part- Bibles, especially in chapters 2 and 3.

While the five main...


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