Medieval Writing
The Bible
The fundamental literature of medieval Christianity was the Bible, the Old Testament comprising the books of the history of the Jewish people in the period before Christ's birth and the New Testament telling the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent works of the apostles and early converts. Until around the 4th century AD, the Bible was the only formal liturgical book in use in the Christian church.
A Biblical scene depicted in stained glass in the church of All Saints, Pavement, York. The apostles watch Christ ascend to heaven, his feet dangling from the sky while his footprints remain on the hill top. It is included here simply because I like it so much.
A resource for the history of the Bible texts can be found on the Bible Research web site. The history of the Bible as a book, rather than the early history of the texts, can be read in De Hamel 1984 and De Hamel 2001.
The general form and content of the Bible had been established in the early centuries of Christianity. The medieval Bible of the Western or Roman church was in Latin, the Vulgate version as translated and revised by St Jerome in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. As various Latin versions of the Bible had been in circulation, Jerome translated his versions anew. The Gospels were translated from Greek sources, while the complete Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew. (See Biblia Sacra Vulgata)
Until around the 12th century there were few complete Bibles. Various segments of the Bible were reproduced as separate volumes. Some of the most famous early manuscripts are Gospels, containing only the accounts of the life of Christ, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Very famous early gospel books include the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Section of a page from an early 8th century Gospel, probably written at Lindsifarne (British Library, Royal 1 B VII, f.56), by permission of the British Library.
The above example was probably more of a working service book and less of a display volume than the more famous Lindisfarne Gospels.
Other segments produced individually included the Acts of the Apostles and the Psalms. The Book of Revelations, when produced on its own as a volume, was termed an Apocalypse. The wild imagery from the Book of Revelations lent itself to depiction in amazing miniatures.
Apocalyptic visions from an early 13th century volume (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS R 16.2, f.14). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)       The woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of stars, who travailed and brought forth a man child, is one of the visual wonders of Revelations depicted in the windows of St Michael Spurriergate church in York.
The various books of the Old Testament were produced individually, or several together. The first five books of the Bible in a single volume, for example, was known as the Pentateuch.
Bible Historiale Various books of the Bible had been produced in Old English in late Anglo-Saxon England, but the use of Latin was restored under the combined effects of 10th century reforms and the Norman Conquest. Paraphrases or metrical verse versions of certain books of the Bible were produced in the vernacular, in French or English, from the 13th century.
Segment from a French Bible Historiale of the early 14th century (British Library, Royal MS I A xx, f.66). (From New Palaeographical Society 1907)
In the 14th century the so-called Wycliffite translations into English appeared in the form of a plain translation which was comprehensible to the laity. In an imposition of church authority against the Lollard heresy, the use of these was forbidden in the early 15th century. As the majority of the population was not competent in Latin, the original source material of Christian teaching was only truly accessible to the educated clergy, who interpreted it for the people through preaching and lessons.

Wycliff Bible

Section from a Wycliffite Bible.

Up into the 12th century Bibles, or the components thereof, were large and imposing volumes, often grandly decorated, designed for liturgical use. They sat on a lectern and were used for readings in church, as objects of public performance. The reproduction of these works by manual copying was undertaken in monastic scriptoria. Sometimes the basic text had an accompanying commentary, known as a gloss, built into the design of each page. Such weighty works were often divided into several volumes.

A leaf from an early 12th century glossed New Testament from Switzerland is displayed by the Wallace Library, University of Rochester.

In the 13th century there was a great proliferation of small, portable Bibles produced by commercial manuscript copyists rather than by monks. These were the first Bibles to be systematically set out with books in a standard format and with the text divided into numbered chapters. The Gothic script of these volumes was tiny, simplified and neat.

A leaf from an early 13th century French Bible is displayed by the Wallace Library, University of Rochester.

13th century Bible The minute compressed script of a 13th century Bible (British Library, Burney MS 3). (From Thompson 1912)
A script sample and paleography exercise for a 13th century French Bible of this type can be found on this website here.
In the 14th and 15th centuries these were overtaken in production again by large Bibles designed for public use in church; weighty and significant ritual objects in their own right. By the late 15th century these could be reproduced by the printing process and were one of the first works in production.

A 15th century German Bible, still in manuscript form, is displayed by the Wallace Library, University of Rochester. Project Gutenberg Digital shows a complete early printed Bible.

Early Bibles and Gospels

Great Big Bibles

Little Tiny Bibles

Vernacular Bibles

Categories of Works

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 10/12/2009.