To hold and to cherish… a medieval book

As discussed in a previous post, there are many ways to hold a book in the Middle Ages. The collection of Romanesque sculpture at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse offers an interesting take on the subject of fashionably holding a book in the early 12th century.

Let’s start on familiar ground (below). There is nothing wrong with crossing one’s legs if (and only if) the book one’s holding is a quarto format, conveniently held with one hand, while the other is pointing to some important text therein. This may be called the single-author ad-pose: “please read my book”, it seems to say, “there’s only one but it will change your life, especially this passage on folio 40 recto”.

Sharing is good, but co-authoring is better. It’s easier to collaborate on a roll than on a codex (obviously, as Google Docs tells us), and when you’re happy with the results, there’s nothing wrong in showing it. One word of advice, though: don’t forget to acknowledge your colleague. This may be done by patting him or her on the back. Touching the colleague’s shoulder, however, may be construed as an acknowledgment of inferiority. He or she may have done most of the work, but don’t be so self-effacing. Even limestone gets a certain luster with time.

You might think of going to the other extreme. There is room for two authors in the world of medieval letters, you know. No need to be so dismissive of your rival. And remember: a closed book is no way inferior to an open one. If anything, it might be more mysterious and might sell better (or simply get copied more) than one which has nothing to hide. On the other hand, if you offered to help with the proofs but were turned down, you may certainly show your contempt with the right hand. Or you may end up in a book-holding beauty pageant. If you do, then make sure you cross your legs (or at least bend a knee), oil your beard and smile.

There’s always the thorny question of which one is better, the codex or the roll. If you ask Peter of Poitiers, he will tell you it’s the roll, and everyone at the Exchequer would approve. Everyone else, however, would be of the opinion that a rolling roll gathers a great deal of moss in the library cupboards and is becomes useless. If we’re looking at the problem in terms of tablets vs soundbite-phylacteries, however, then we might find room for both. The medievals were a lot more postmodern that we give them credit for.

Nota benissime: The above photos are copyright Daniel Martin of I took photos of my own when I was in Toulouse in January 2018, but they’re nothing compared to these. Also, the sculptures may be dated to 1120-1140 AD, but the artist remains unknown.


Where did Dante’s Empyrean come from?

Image result for dante empyrean

Perhaps the most artistically and textually advanced passage in Dante’s Commedia is the description of the Empyrean, a place which doesn’t exist materially, beyond space and time. The Dante Encyclopedia defines it as follows:

The tenth and highest heaven, encompassing all creation (< Greek empyrios, fiery). Unlike the other nine heavens, or moving celestial spheres, the Empyrean is immaterial, the ninth heaven or Primum Mobile being the maggior corpo, the “greatest body”. The Empyrean is pure (intellectual) light, love, and joy; the divine mind itself; and the abode of God, angels, and the blessed.’

Immaterial and uncreated, the Empyrean doesn’t exist in time and space. It is immobile, it lacks nothing, and is the place where the medieval metaphysics of light finds expression: God as self-radiant; Creation as the reflection of divine light; light bridging matter and spirit, the common substantial form of everything; the human intellect as active and radiant. The Empyrean is the Divine Mind, the ground of being (not being a sphere like the other heavens, it is the splendor of God’s mind); it does not determine identity, but instead it is the reality within which the determination of identify occurs. The most luminous heaven, it suffers nothing to be outside itself, except God’s ‘uninflected verb ‘to be’. Critically relevant to humanity, it is the ‘place’ where the ‘transhumanizing’ (Dante’s word is transumanare) or the ‘inGoding’ (indiare) of the human individual is accomplished. In the Commedia, the pilgrim’s arrival in the Empyrean amounts to an existential explosion, a luminous supernova which dissolves being, feeling and text. It is the end of the journey, the end of the poem.

How did the Empyrean develop into the concept that Dante inherited and transformed in his poem? The Dante scholar Christian Moevs writes:

The doctrine of the Empyrean gained currency only in the twelfth century, when the widely diffused Glossa ordinaria explain the first verse of Genesis (In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram) by saying, “Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.” Echoed by Peter Lombard in the Sentences (2.2.4), the Glossa ordinaria’s definition of the Empyrean was absorbed into Scholastic philosophy, albeit as a more or less malleable concept based, as Aquinas remarks in the Summa theologiae (1a.61.4), on theological tradition rather than on scriptural authority.

With the sudden infusion of Greco-Arabic learning into Christian thought at the end of the twelfth century (Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Greek in Sicily in 1160, and from Arabic by Gherardo da Cremona in 1175; the Liber de motus celorum of Alpetragius [al-Bitruji], which defended the original Aristotelian system, was translated by Michael Scot in 1217), the seven heavens (air, ether, olympus, spacium igneum, firmament, acqueous [crystalline] heaven, and Empyrean or heaven of angels) common in pre-Scholastic cosmologies were replaced by the ten known to Dante: the nine mobile heavens of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system, plus the Empyrean.

For all its magnitude and splendor, the Empyrean has humble beginnings: it emerges as a gloss on Genesis. I have been looking at glossed Bibles recently (see my article on the British Library medieval manuscripts blog and the one on this website), and my eyes fell on the ‘birth-certificate’ gloss on the Empyrean. Glossed Bibles developed during the 12th century as a convenient way to set the text of the Bible and a commentary on the same page in the manuscript. It evolved from a few explanations to a running commentary, almost eclipsing the text of the Scripture. The Empyrean belongs to the early phase of glossing, when the theologian Anselm of Laon (1050-1117) and his collaborators compiled a set of explanations on the text of different books of the Bible drawn from the works of the Church fathers, but also including their own exegesis. Most glosses were linked to their respective sources, so for example, there were comments from St Augustine, St Jerome or Bede. Their names were added alongside their glosses, and therefore a system similar to modern footnotes was developed. The gloss about the Empyrean, however, was not linked to a name, which suggests that it was Anselm’s (or one of his biblical scholar colleagues’ from Laon cathedral) own reflection. The gloss explains the first verse from the book of Genesis:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth). The gloss goes on to explain the passage:

Celum non visibile firmamentum sed empiraeum id est igneum vel intellectuale quod non ab ardore sed a splendore dicitur quod statim repletum est angelis. 

Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.

The gloss also gives a justification for the word ‘Empyrean’ in the form of a compiled quotation from the Old Testament book of Job (38:7):

Unde in Iob:  « Ubi eras cum me laudarent astra matutina, etc.

Whence in Job: ‘Where were you when the morning stars praised me together, etc

The key to this passage follows immediately:

Et nota tria hic commemorari elementa. Nomine celi aerem intelligimus. Nomine terrae ipsam et ignem qui in ea latet.

And note that three elements are here remembered: by the word ‘heaven’ we mean the air; by the word ‘earth’ [we mean] the earth itself and the fire which is hidden within it.

‘Empyrean comes from the Greek word empyrios, meaning fiery, as mentioned above. As the ‘fire’ that the gloss mentions is not referenced in the quote from the book of Job, it is unlikely that the Laon theologians coined the word ‘Empyrean’. It appears, however, the Latin word ’empiraeum’ was first used (and perhaps coined) by the Neoplatonist writer Martianus Capella (360-428), to refer to a luminous “Empyrean realm of pure understanding” beyond the borders of the sensible world. It also appears that the word ’empiraeum’ lay dormant from the 5th to the 12th centuries until the Laon gloss established it as a canonical interpretative key to the first sentence from Genesis.

In a manuscript from the Abbey of St Victor in Paris (now Paris, BNF, Latin 14399), the gloss is aligned with the beautiful initial ‘I’ of the words ‘In principio’ of the Genesis verse.

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v

Heavily abbreviated otherwise, the gloss contains the word ’empireum’ in unabbreviated form (highlighting is mine):

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v (in focus)

On the existential subjunctive mood

My students find it hard to grasp the need for the Latin subjunctive. This also means they cannot accept uncertainty. They are young, why should they? Why should they accept the undeterminedness of life, the unreliability of existence? The human predicament is the only predication on the indicative mode. Everything else is subjunctive, and these young, flowering minds should not bother themselves with the modals: what ought to be, what could, or should, or must be, even what shall be? These are questions for later; let these youth bathe in the simple paratax, devoid of periods, subordinates, subordination and submission, under the Olympian sovereignty of the active voice and personal verbs . There’s nothing pluperfect, more than perfect about the subjunctive, so why bother? Let these young masters rule for the moment, let them be the force in their own lives and in the language they are. All is good, but then an hour passes and the students start asking questions about if clauses – si aliter fecissem, if I had done it differently. And then they graduate into tedium.

Pier della Vigna’s real confession

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, c. 1824–7. William Blake, Tate. A scene from the Divine Comedy: Dante and Virgil discover Pietro’s body encased in a tree.

Ingiusto fece me contra me giusto. My deed made me unjust against my own just self. I am the one who wrote this, or am I the one who did this? Who cares? I am both actor and observer, and you, reader, are not in a position to tell. You never will be. They keep marvelling over the beauty of my words. Or do they admire my courage? After all, I was master of my own will. Yes, I am where you think I am, but I am proud of it. They speak of paranoia, and circularity, and lovelessness, but, goodness, how did I love the silence at the end of so much noise. How could it be lovelessness when I loved it so much? Despair? Perhaps, but also justification. Did I hear you say self-justification? Perhaps you’re right, but since you weren’t there, what do you really know? I hope you’re not judging me. Hopelessness? I don’t think so. Have you looked closely at my words? Did you notice anything odd? They’ve judged me most severely. They said: ‘Pier della Vigna was a talker, a sophist, a master of words but a lord over nothing, not even over himself. Look again, what do you see? Ingiusto, giusto, me, me. Are you starting to see it? They call it a chiasmus, my words shaped like the letter X, those know-nothings, those scholars. To them it’s the confession of my guilt, but to me it’s redemption. I have hope, you know. They’ve allowed me, through high decree, to utter these words and pass them on to you. Why do you think this is? It’s my cross, don’t you think? io fei gibetto a me de le mie case, I made, of my own house, my gallows place. That wasn’t me. Someone else said this, but they added it to my own record. These know-nothings were right, though. The X, the cross of my words was the gibbet of my self-sacrifice. How can I be where you think I am, when my body has been turned, not into a tree to be plucked by harpies, but into a wooden cross, to bleed to Judgement Day. Do you remember the Dream of the Rood, the confession of that other tree who was before me? It wasn’t much different, was it? They ask why Statius, a suicide like me, is out there, while I am here below. But am I really? How can I be, when you’re already starting to feel pity for me, to caress my branches, to water my roots and chase the harpies away? In thinking I lost myself, I was found, and I can already see the first blossom in my bloodied bough.

Medieval hypertext award

Have you ever wondered how many cross-referenced texts can fit on the same medieval manuscript page? Having given this question a fair amount of thought – half an hour – I conclude that the winner of the ‘medieval hypertext award’ is, without a doubt, the ‘Canterbury Psalter’ also known as ‘Eadwin’s Psalter’ (now Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.17.1), copied by the monk Eadwine in the mid twelfth century – with six texts.

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Do not be fooled by the simplicity of this designation. The Canterbury Psalter is a glossed book. It contains the text of the psalms, but with the following twist:

  • instead of one text of the psalms, there are three (from left to right, columns 1,2 and 4): the ‘Hebrew’ version (translated by St Jerome from Hebrew); the Roman version (translated from the Greek Septuagint) and the Gallican version (that used for Mass);
  • the Hebrew version has an interlinear gloss in Old French; the Roman version has an interlinear gloss in Old English;
  • Anselm of Laon’s commentary to the Psalms (c. 1100–1130), known as ‘glosa parva‘ (the little gloss) is added alongside the Gallican version of the psalms, to the right margin (fifth column from the left) and between the Gallican and the Roman texts (third column from the left);
  • There are also short interlinear glosses in the third text (the Gallican version)
  • An illustration explaining each psalm is given at the beginning of the text.

The Old French and Old English glosses are interlinear (word-for-word), but they may be read as a continuous text. Anselm’s gloss is also a continuous text and was referred to as ‘glosa continua’.

All in all, there are six texts distributed over five columns, all related and keyed to each other. The interlinear glosses are arranged vertically, the marginal horizontally. The narrative image may also be thought of as a seventh text, but let’s not push it.

The oldest fragment of the Vulgate Gospels

The earliest surviving copy of St Jerome’s Vulgate version of the Gospels is a manuscript produced in Italy (perhaps in Verona) in about 410-420 AD, now in St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395.

The following leaf contains the text of John 16:30 – 17:8.


Of this fragment, M.B. Parkes says:

“The oldest known method of presenting a text, found as early as the second century B.C. was to deploy features of layout to indicate the basic units of paragraph and capitulum, which represent the principal stages of an argument or narrative.

This method was employed here in an early codex copied in scriptio continua  [unpunctuated writing with no word division] in Half-Uncial script.” [1]

The text is divided according to a system known as per cola et commata. A colon (pl. cola) was often used to indicate a major medial pause, or disjunction of sense, at the end of the colon. A comma (pl. commata) was a division of a colon, followed by a minor disjunction of the sense where it may be necessary to pause. Applied together, the cola et commata meant that the text was divided according to meaning in order to facilitate reading. Each meaningful element is laid out on a new line. The passage in the image above begins: “In hoc credidimus qui [pause] a deo existi [pause] Respondit eis iesus modo [pause]…..” (By this we believe that [pause] you have come from God [pause] Jesus answered them [pause]….”. The word ‘respondit’ (answered) does not follow ‘existi’ (you have come), but is entered on a new line to mark a new semantic element.

In his prologue to the book of Ezekiel, Jerome writes that ‘which is written per cola et commata conveys more obvious sense to the readers’, adding, elsewhere, that he encountered this system in copies of the speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero.

Parkes continues:

“[The text was] annotated by a scribe contemporary with the text, who has been plausibly identified with St Jerome himself. Each capitulum (as it is called by the annotator) begins on a new line with a littera notabilior set out to the left in the margin. Grammatical and sense elements within the boundaries of a capitulum are not identified, and such pauses as may be necessary were left to the discretion of a reader.

The numerals in the margins are to facilitate the use of the text with canon tables which indicate parallel passages in the other Gospels.” [1]

[1] M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect. An introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992), p. 161.


Ten medieval ways to hold a book

The good thing with illuminated manuscripts of books of the Old Testament is that there is great scope for depicting scribes, books, scrolls, pens, desks, and other elements of the medieval culture of writing and book-making. Manuscript Engelberg 76, produced in the mid 12th century at the Benedictine Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland , one of the highest-altitude monasteries of Western Europe (1,020 m ASL), offers a visual catalogue of authors holding their books. These are ten out of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament (Micah and Haggai are missing, while Jonah is surely hiding his book behind parts of the initial). The images are below.

The fashion of holding a book never quite went out of fashion. The book may be held with the right (Hosea) as well as with the left hand (Amos), or with both (Malachi) – some medieval volumes were too heavy for a human, and some, such as giant Bibles, were even bigger than toddlers; some may be held closer to the body (Nahum), or away from it (Amos); some may be held while protecting the covers with one’s tunic (Obadiah) or in a contorted fashion in one hand, while the other admonishes the crowd (Zephaniah). One may also brandish a club while holding a book (Amos), though oratorical and pacific stances are more common.

Contrary to popular opinion (and common sense), books may sometimes be held ostentatiously in order to highlight how their covers match one’s outfit (Obadiah), or occasionally even for contrast (Hosea).

There can be no doubt that the most fashionable way to hold a medieval book is in such a way that one’s beard strokes the book’s leaves, as Malachi aptly demonstrates.

Joel, f. 23r
Amos, f. 32r
Obadiah, f. 48r
Jonah, f. 51r
Nahum, f. 89r
Habakkuk, f. 75r
Zephaniah, f. 82r
Zechariah, f. 94r
Malachi, f. 118r.