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59 The Bible as talisman: textus and oath-books 2 Introduction: Bibles on the fringe The previous chapter followed the Bible as it was chanted and re-enacted by churchyard crosses and city gates. Liturgical texts endowed biblical narratives with a new meaning, while emulating the Bible in word and genre. In the course of the procession, however, another facet of the­ medieval Bible was put into play. Among the array of liturgical paraphernalia carried by the secondary procession in imitation of Christ and his entourage was a Gospel book. This book, much like the relics and the cross, was seen to represent Christ. Its symbolic value had been asserted already by the tenth century, when Pseudo-Alcuin’s Liber de divinis oficiis described it as: ‘sanctum evangelium, quod intelligitur Christus’.1 Its later use retained this sense. Analysis of the medieval procession reveals that the Gospel book was not put into practical use: the only Gospel lesson of the procession (Mt 21:1–9) was read at the beginning of the first station prior to the arrival of the secondary procession. The Gospel book carried by the secondary procession was therefore a symbolic object,a prop in the liturgical re-enactment of the biblical narrative. Such use of Bibles, one that employed sacred books as icons, and put aside readability in favour of sacrality, is at the core of this chapter. This chapter follows Bibles as they were employed as talismans in the most mundane rituals, both civic and ecclesiastical, and questions how the Bible was put to use as a sacred object. This exploration of the material culture of the medieval Bible reveals the interaction between appearance and function, between religion and society. But first, a short survey of the uses biblical books were put into will help contextualise this investigation and identify the unexpected books that were employed in churches and courts, as amulets and in graves. MUP_Poleg_BibleMedievalEngland.indd 59 10/07/2013 16:25 60 approaching the bible in medieval england Talismanic use of Scripture predates the Middle Ages. The Bible, or part of it,was employed talismanically in customs that date back to biblical times (e.g. Dt 6:8–9). Archaeological findings have unearthed biblical verses that were used as amulets, such as the minute, seventh-century BC silver scrolls of the priestly blessing (Nm 6:24–6) or the more common phylacteries, with evidence for their use ranging from the Second Temple to the present.2 The emerging Christian communities of Late Antiquity were not oblivious to the matter of their Bibles. They made use of the codex – the technological avant-garde of their time – and saw the move away from scrolls as a tangible manifestation of the new message recorded in their sacred books.3 Much like their Graeco-Roman and Jewish neighbours , Christians also employed sacred scriptures as talismans: Coptic communities placed Gospel books and psalters in graves to accompany the dead, while Jerome reproached ‘superstitious little women’ for carrying small Gospel books on their bodies.4 Both uses, as evident in Jerome’s derogatory language,preferred the symbolic to the functional and assumed little or no actual reading of these sacred texts. In the Middle Ages the Bible was employed time and again as talisman, extending far beyond the incantations and divinations that existed on the outskirts of licit practice. When the Venerable Bede described how Irish codiceswereputtouseagainstsnakebites,scrapedandimmersedinwater, their symbolic function superseded (and even prevented) their legibility.5 Irish book-shrines (Cumdach) provided a luxurious repository for Gospel books and Psalters; they were venerated and recorded as performing miracles, much like reliquaries. And much like reliquaries, Cumdach were sealed off and their books were never to be read again.6 In medieval England,a corner stone was laid for the construction of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey of Peterborough in 1272.The Prior,William Paris,instigated the construction and laid the cornerstone with his own hands. As he placed underneath it numerous ‘Gospels’ (probably quires), he used the book in a clear echo of Acts 4:11 (‘This (Christ) is the stone which was rejected by you the builders, which is become the head of the corner.’), with the Gospels standing in for Christ.7 The entombed Gospels were, once more, employed for their symbolic value, with any possibility of readership as remote as for those buried in Coptic graves. Another sacred book – the textus (i.e. Gospel book, examined at length below) of St Mildred – miraculously led...


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