The medieval universe of the ‘Bible historiale’
When we pick up a book, we expect the story it contains to be the same in every copy, especially if that story is considered sacred.
But this was not the case in the Middle Ages for readers of the bible story, a French translation of the Bible dating back to the 13th century. Each copy was tailored to its aristocratic reader – and could omit entire books or even include some sort of biblical fan fiction.
the historical bible was not the first or only medieval translation of the Bible, but it was the most copied and most used French translation for 200 years. In Making the Bible French: The Historial Bible and the Medieval Lay Reader, Jeanette Patterson, associate professor of French, medieval studies and translation at Binghamton University, explored the book in its many iterations.
Often combined with other translations, the historical bible was written from 1291 to 1295 by Guyart des Moulins, priest, canon and finally dean of his collegiate church in Aire-sur-la-Lys, in what is now northern France between Calais and Lille. His practice of combining translations of the Latin Vulgate Bible with historical commentaries from Peter Comestor’s schoolbook, known as Scholastic History, inspired by similar translations in English, German, Dutch and Romanian.
The French royal family was among the most prominent patrons of the bible story, collection of manuscript copies in the royal libraries; aristocrats in other French-speaking regions, such as the Netherlands and England, also owned copies. At the end of the 15th century, the printing press extended the scope of historical bibleuntil Reformation-era translations began to compete with it.
“It was one of the most copied French texts, period, and the first French Bible to be printed,” Patterson said.
While Latin was the common language of the church in medieval Western Europe, it was only understood by a small minority of literate clergy and other highly educated people. Vernacular languages such as French were used in both preaching and religious education for the benefit of the laity, who would not understand much of the Bible or a Latin Mass without translation assistance, said Patterson.
Outside the church, peasants and workers generally could not read in any language or afford books. However, many secular aristocrats and some members of the middle class could read vernaculars, and the wealthier among them were the main target audience for Bible translations.
Books were expensive and few in number; the majority of those produced were religious works, often considered family heirlooms by those who owned them. However, an increase in literacy among the aristocratic and professional classes spurred demand for vernacular books, including the Bible; trade book workshops sprang up in Paris and other urban centers. Picture books were a hot new commodity and included picture Bibles, verse adaptations of Bible stories and more.
“Although this is not the case with all medieval vernacular Bibles, the historical bible survives mostly in luxury manuscripts that would have been prohibitively expensive for all but the very wealthy,” Patterson said.
Another vision of the Middle Ages
Patterson was first introduced to the historical bible as a graduate student, when she was assigned to work on a manuscript. Its size was intimidating; Patterson described it, ironically, as a “giant two-volume monstrosity” measuring 17.4 by 13 inches. At the time, she felt a bit disappointed to be assigned a translation, thinking that ited meant tedious verse-by-verse comparisons with Latin to find an obscure difference that would interest only the most dedicated scholars.
“I was so wrong! By studying this manuscript – and many other manuscripts – from historical bible completely upended many of my preconceptions about the Middle Ages, about the social, cultural and literary functions of the Bible, and about translation,” she said.
She went through about 20 different versions of the historical bible during his research. Even though she knew each copy was different, she was amazed at how different they were. They had different illustrations, included different books and glosses from other translations, and adapted both text and images for particular purposes: as crusade propaganda, an encyclopedic universal history that highlights the place of the king of France in the world, a commentary on the Hundred Years’ War, a manual for ethical royalty, or a holistic program for Bible study and private religious practice.
Nor did she expect the translator to censor most of the Book of Job, and later compilers to add a complete second Book of Job from another translation – and choose to keep both. Some manuscripts even included medieval “fan fiction”: wildly imaginative apocryphal stories that the translator admitted were probably wrong but included anyway as enjoyable tales.
“The historical bible and its manuscript tradition show how the Bible could mean and do many different things, with each manuscript copy pointing to different interpretations, uses and agendas,” Patterson said. “The translator, then later the compilers, scribes and artists stage a two-century debate about what his target readers wanted and needed from a Bible and how best to communicate its most important lessons such as they applied to lay readers in positions of worldly power. .”
She hopes to instill in her readers the same sense of surprise and wonder she felt when she encountered the Bible Story.
“The French Bible was a living textual tradition whose many iterations give us a window into what medieval readers and rewriters wondered and cared about the world they lived in and what they wanted the Bible to do for them. “, she said.