2016.06.08 | Frans van Liere, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014 Hardback ISBN: 9780521865784.
Review by Mark W. Elliott, University of St Andrews.
The author seems to wish to address the guild of biblical studies, at least as part of his audience. He is prepared from the outset to contend that the bible cannot be read ‘naively’, as though the history of its interpretation did not exist. He wants the rich tradition of medieval biblical interpretation to be made known to biblical scholars and students, as something relevant for understanding the bible today (p. xii). This is a noble aim.
Indeed, a book written by a historian might be the most useful kind of ‘Bible in the Middle Ages’ for it offers things hitherto beyond the ken of biblical scholars. Who knew just how important the Codex Amiatinus as the oldest extant copy of Jerome’s bible was in the middle ages, as produced in England by Ceolfrid, which would do much to make the Vulgate standard in the Western Church? Or how much the Paris bibles of the high Middle Ages would be held in high respect by the early modern textual critics of the Vatican, as they sought to re-establish the bible at the heart of Catholic theology? In both cases (with the accompanying stories) we are dealing with actual books, material objects. As the author puts it: ‘The first three chapters of this book deal with the Bible in its physical form.’ Interesting, but perhaps not of central interest to biblical scholars or students. Next there is a three-chapter section on the ‘methods of interpretation’ and ‘the social and educational contexts for its interpretation’. And finally there are some chapters on translations and influence. There is a rough diachrony in the book: the bible as bible (Dark Ages towards high Middle Ages), the monastic-scholastic contexts of its interpretation (high Middle Ages), its translation and influence (late Middle Ages.)
To focus in on the central section, it is important to know that there were ‘two canons’ of the OT, one longer, one shorter, just as Chapter Four describes, but perhaps that is something with which one is already familiar. In the Introduction the author already warns: ‘Because there are good overviews of the history of exegesis available…I have refrained from making this chapter into an exhaustive overview of all medieval commentaries ever written…’ (p. 16). This seems an odd non sequitur. If what is missing is something more detailed, why not offer it, even if selectively? Perhaps a sampling and evaluation of the riches of the more significant commentaries? Why not delve into the Smalley-De Lubac debate of who was more representative of medieval exegesis, Andrew of St Victor or Thomas Aquinas? Or work with Gilbert Dahan’s revisionist reading of Medieval Christian biblical scholarship as ‘Judaizing’ in the best sense?
One can understand that a book with Introduction in its title remain ‘introductory’ in its level. But part of introducing something is to make it seem interesting, intellectually exciting. Instead there is a fairly low-level account, interspersed with examples from history: the Golden Psalter given by Charlemagne to Pope Hadrian in 794. ‘Psalters could even be used as literacy primers much like a medieval Dick and Jane’ (p. 30). There was a Tours bible with musical notation written above the text of Lamentations. It is gratifying to see Theodulf of Orléans receive recognition, but it all remains at the level of ‘useful information to know’.
There are two chapters where the biblical scholar might feel especially interested: Medieval hermeneutics and The Commentary Tradition. I found the first of these to be light and a bit predictable. The second did manage to tap into a vein of strong research. Thus, The Bible of the Poor sounds like a worthy testimony to social concern of medieval scholars, except that it was not really for the poor (rather the unlettered well-off) and was not really a bible (illustrations of bible stories with strong contemporary additional detail.) It is of course an attractive piece of multi-media communication with a catchy name, so perhaps not such a bad way to round off the book.
One senses that modern pressures on scholars have not been kind to the history of medieval biblical exegesis, which has not really moved much beyond where Smalley and DeLubac left it, at least not in the English-speaking world. To say one is a bit disappointed with van Liere’s book is in some ways a complement to him and his expertise: the book I was expecting is not the one he has written.
Mark W. Elliott
University of St Andrews
mwe1 [ at ] st-andrews.ac.uk