The Bible in Medieval Libraries: What Do We Know?
While the study of the Bible in the Middle Ages is fairly well known, our knowledge of the actual book and its availability to the medieval reader is, surprisingly, still somewhat of a blind spot. What kind of Bibles did a medieval library have; how did people have access to the Bible? With the Bible being a “sacred library”, rather than one book, did they have access to all books of the canon; how would medieval readers get to know the biblical text? How much do we know; what are our sources; what is still extant, what is lost?
Very little reserach has been done on this; according to Petitmengin (Le Moyen Âge et la Bible, 1984), partly because of the very ubiquity of the Bible in medieval books collections. Still: can come up with surprising results that challenge the notion of a unified tradition. The Bible in the Middle Ages could have a variety of shapes; be a variety of things, and be used for a variety of purposes: communal reading, private study, school teaching, private devotion; but it could also have great symbolic value as a gift; to what extend were these gifts actually used? (Smith 1996).
Some evidence can come from researching medieval book inventories, or book lists. Still, here are some difficulties for the reseracher: there are hardly any book catalogs from before the eleventh century. Extant book lists give us an incomplete idea of medieval book possession, and often they are are not really catalogs, but more “packing lists” than user catalogs. But sometimes, medieval book lists can yield interesting information, especially when they are combined with carefully reserached book history. Medieval book lists can become more precise if we actually can identify books from book lists with the actual books that are still extant; shelf marks can help us identify book possession from medieval libraries. Tis kind of research is proposed in this paper, and some examples and surprising outcomes will be presented here.