The Carolingian quest for the correct text of the Bible
The British Library was recently abuzz with the news that Codex Amiatinus — the oldest surviving copy of the complete text of the Latin Vulgate Bible — will be returning temporarily to Britain in 2018 for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Another important early medieval pandect Bible (containing the entire Bible in one volume) has now been digitised as part of the ongoing England and France 700–1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript (Add MS 24142) is a fascinating example of the painstaking efforts to improve the biblical text by Carolingian scholars. It is one of the oldest of the six surviving Theodulf Bibles, so-called after the reviser of the text, Theodulf (b. 750–760, d. 821), the bishop of Orléans and Fleury. Two of the remaining five copies are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (cod. lat. 9380 and cod. lat. 11937). The remaining three reside in the collections of Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart (MS HB. II 16), Le Puy Cathedral, France (Trésor de la Cathédrale, unnumbered), and Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen (MS NKS 1).
A marginal correction at the end of Ezekiel, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, detail of f. 108r
In the 8th century there was an abundance of different versions of the text of the Bible — of varying quality — in use across Europe. During the same period, the realm of the Carolingian dynasty (who took over as kings of the Franks from the Merovingians in 751) gradually expanded. Under Charlemagne (r. 768–814) it reached its greatest size, as an empire covering most of western Continental Europe. Reform and unification of the Church was an important issue for the Carolingian rulers and other elite members of society, and concerns about this variation in Bible provision and its effect on the liturgy grew. Establishing throughout the entire realm a revised text of the Bible, the most essential Christian text, was central to these reform efforts. This is made explicit in the General Admonition of 789, a collection of legislation issued by Charlemagne:
‘Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing …, the songs, the calendar, the grammar …, and the catholic books; because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of faulty books’ (translated by Paul Edward Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd edn., Toronto, 2009).
Theodulf was one of the key figures in Charlemagne’s circle of intellectuals and Church reformers. It was also Theodulf who produced one of the most ambitious efforts to answer Charlemagne’s call to ‘correct carefully’ the Vulgate text. He compared the various versions, using the best exemplars he could acquire. Not content with the first drafts of his work, Theodulf continued to revise the resulting text as new exemplars became available. The six surviving copies of his biblical text all reveal different stages of this continuous revision process with corrections, and sometimes alternate readings, recorded in the margins. In other words, Theodulf’s method was similar to how critical editions of texts are prepared today.
The beginning of the Gospel of St John, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, f. 222r
The resulting manuscript copies were clearly meant for close scholarly reading and reference, rather than for use in the liturgy. This is immediately clear from the rather modest dimensions and plain presentation of Add MS 24142. The Theodulf Bibles were written in a tiny version of Caroline minuscule script (the clear and legible script promoted throughout the Empire by Charlemagne) that was usually only used for marginal glosses.
Check out the digitised Add MS 24142 online to see how the specific function of this rare copy of the biblical text affected its form. Instead of decorated initials or illustrations, the transition between books is made clear to the reader by headings in a slender uncial script (a script originating in the classical world and consisting entirely of capital letters). Only occasionally is a simple rectangular border decoration added to further mark the division. The beginning of St John’s Gospel in the second column, above, is one example of this pragmatic arrangement. The British Library’s copy also stands out since it is arranged in an unusual three-column layout — maximising the amount of text on each manuscript page even further — whereas the four later Theodulf Bibles have the more standard two columns. These features combine to make Add MS 24142 a practical and relatively lightweight pandect Bible in comparison to most surviving medieval pandects, and it can be comfortably handled by one person.
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