Sacred Texts  Bible  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, [1937], at

p. 75


The Bible under Medievalism

THE MISSIONARIES went forth to Christianize the Northern barbarians with the Bible in their hands. As later with the American Indians, its simple touching stories of piety and suffering won the hearts of the rude tribesmen as could no other appeal. Without the Bible, the medieval Church would have been powerless to accomplish its enormous task of bringing a thousand warring nations and subnations, of divergent stock and traditions, into some kind of spiritual unity. That the whole of Europe came at last to accept, not merely nominally but actually, the same religion, with the same general code of moral obligations for all, was a testimony primarily to the enduring efficacy of the Bible.

In the beginning, vernacular renderings of the Bible were encouraged, and wherever this occurred its fecundating influence was soon apparent. Especially was this the case in England where, aside from Beowulf and a few fragments, Anglo-Saxon

p. 76

literature began with paraphrases and translations of the Bible.

For the English-speaking peoples special interest attaches to these early Anglo-Saxon undertakings. Like the prophetical books of the Bible, they were born of men's need in time of turmoil and distress, when the few Christians in the British Isles stood in danger of being wiped out by the Danish invaders even as the Hebrews had been environed by the hostile Assyrians and Babylonians. Being special objects of attack from the looting Danes, the little centers of learning in the monasteries founded by the missionaries, such as those at Ely, Wearmouth, and Yarrow, on the isle of Lindisfarne, and at Lastingham in the North Riding, were one and all decimated by the great plague of 664 which took particularly heavy toll in the congested quarters of the monks. It was in this period of terror and in the exposed Yorkshire town of Streonshalh (later to be sacked by the Danes and renamed Whitby) that the work of Biblical translation was begun, calmly and serenely, in the Benedictine monastery founded by Saint Hilda.

The moving tale is told by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of how an illiterate cowherd named Caedmon, attached to the monastery,

Characteristic page from the Gutenberg Bible (1450–55)
Click to enlarge

Characteristic page from the Gutenberg Bible (1450–55)

p. 77

Title page of the Coverdale Bible (1535)
Click to enlarge

Title page of the Coverdale Bible (1535)

was discovered to possess such a native power of putting into verse the Biblical stories which he heard that the Abbess Hilda took him into the order and had him instructed until he was able to paraphrase in Anglo-Saxon verse a large part of the Vulgate as it was translated for him by the other monks. Of his work but a single manuscript remains, containing parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, together with original poems on the fall of the Angels and the temptation of Man. These fragments show Saint Hilda's cowherd to have well deserved her patronage.

The literary movement thus begun was continued in the religious poetry of the Northumbrian Cynewulf in the eighth century, during which England also produced one of the foremost scholars of the day in the person of the great Alcuin (Ealhwine in Anglo-Saxon). Invited to France by Charlemagne, Alcuin as abbot of Tours became the center of a new religio-literary movement in that country.

Charlemagne was an impatient Christian. When the continental Saxons scoffed at his religion, he gave them the choice of baptism or death, justifying his intolerance, as Augustine had done, by Christ's words, "Constrain them to come in" (Luke xiv. 23) in his parable of the slighted invitation.

p. 78

[paragraph continues] Once the Saxons had accepted baptism, however, he sent them missionaries who taught so successfully that within a few years Saxon literature produced the long Christian epic of the Heliand.

In truth, Charlemagne was more enlightened than the official leaders of the Church at Rome. The text of Jerome's Vulgate, through incessant copying and recopying, had already become much corrupted, and Charlemagne, at the beginning of the ninth century, undertook the task of revision which the Church itself postponed until the sixteenth century. He sent for scholars from all over Europe, who under the leadership of Alcuin made one revision; then Theodulf, bishop of Orleans, dissatisfied with this, made, singlehanded, another; it was in one or the other of these revisions that the Vulgate was henceforth known in northern Europe.

Charlemagne considered himself the head of both Church and State. Not approving of the Papacy's attitude toward the worship of images and pictures, he composed, with Alcuin's assistance, a treatise on the subject. As he knew both Latin and Greek and had mastered the learning of the period, he was no mean polemicist. His legal code was fashioned on the Biblical model, with laws prohibiting

p. 79

the taking of interest on loans (Deuteronomy xxiii. 19) and enforcing observance of the Sabbath and the payment of tithes. In the church services he required the priests to translate the sermons and the readings from the Bible into the vernacular for the benefit of the common people.

Inspired by Charlemagne's cultural example, Alfred the Great of England endeavored to go still further in the way of familiarizing his people with the Scriptures and with later Christian literature. At the head of his legal code he placed the Ten Commandments, translated by him from the Book of Exodus, and he also found time amidst the cares of state to translate the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great, the History of the World by Orosius, and the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Finally, he gathered about him the ablest scholars of the realm to carry on this work of translation, in the magnificent hope that "all the freeborn youth of my people . . . may persevere in learning . . . until they can perfectly read the English Scriptures."

Under the stimulus of Alfred's influence and example, the writers of his and subsequent reigns produced an abundance of Christian literature. Aelfric the Grammarian, in addition to numerous religious homilies, made a paraphrase of the first

p. 80

seven books of the Old Testament known as "Aelfric's Heptateuch." Aldheim, Abbot of Malmesbury, and Guthrac, a hermit of Croyland, produced versions of the Psalms. Completed in this period, though begun earlier, were the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Rushworth Gospels, both of them glosses—that is, literal word-by-word translations without regard to sentence structure. By the time of the Norman Conquest there were also in existence translations of the Books of Kings, Esther, Job, Judith, and the Maccabees. In other words, the English people already possessed, in one form or another, most of the Bible in their own language, and only awaited some great Anglo-Saxon Jerome to make the complete translation.

The Norman Conquest eliminated all possibility of his coming. The Norman-French, at first imposed by the conquerors upon the language of the conquered and later assimilated with it, produced a new composite language so that the old Anglo-Saxon literature was no longer intelligible. By the twelfth century it was evident that new versions of the Bible were needed. But these did not appear, for the attitude of the Church toward the use of the vernacular had gradually changed.

To understand the indifference and even hostility

p. 81

of the medieval Church toward the popular reading of the Bible, a number of points must be borne in mind. The leaders of the Church considered the unification of Europe to be their all-important task, and they were not eager to foster national literatures to develop the spirit of local independence. Among a people too ignorant to understand the Scriptures correctly, the reading of them, it was thought, would merely lead to heresies and schisms. Far better to let the knowledge of them come through the priests who could tell as much or as little as the individual case required. Was it not better to give the people concrete help through the confessional and indulgences, through the exhibition of relics to heal their sicknesses, and through rich ceremonials appealing to their senses? So the Church was easily able to justify a course that gave it greater and greater power over the people.

The medieval period was torn as perhaps no other between the demands of the spirit and the flesh. To the former, the monks were specially consecrated, and after the great monastic revival of the sixth century under Saint Benedict learning and education were left primarily in their care. Well the Benedictines wrought in their early years;

p. 82

theirs was the leading part in the Christianization of Europe; in a world made up largely of robber barons and their serfs the monasteries were little islands of fraternity and peace in whose libraries the monks labored over their illuminated manuscripts and from which they went forth to carry their messages of human brotherhood. But they could not escape the fate that makes the spirit's triumph transient and breeds failure from success. They mingled with the world too much, too much with politics; their monasteries became too powerful to preserve their simple rules of life. By 1354 it is estimated that the order had acquired thirty-seven thousand monasteries and had numbered among its members twenty emperors, ten empresses, forty-seven kings and fifty queens, twenty-four popes, two hundred cardinals, more than one thousand canonized saints, seven thousand archbishops, and fifteen thousand bishops. No order could fail to be corrupted by such a superfluity of worldly glory.

As the system of feudalism developed, all care for the cultural development of the common people was abandoned. Popular reverence for the Bible was excessive, popular knowledge of its contents was abysmally small. More and more it was devoted

p. 83

to magical purposes, a practice that went back to the Roman Empire. One of the first uses to which parchment was put when it began to supplant papyrus in the fifth century was to furnish little strips, inscribed with verses from the Bible, to be fastened on chair backs or around the necks of babies as charms to keep away the demons. The Lord's Prayer and various Psalms were regarded as particularly efficacious spells. The Roman custom of consulting the Virgilian lots, that is, of opening the Aeneid and taking the first verse on which the eye lighted as a prophecy of the outcome of some contemplated enterprise was succeeded by a similar superstitious use of the Bible during the Middle Ages.

The worship of relics led to organized pilgrimages to famous shrines, such as that described by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales; of these, the most highly regarded was the difficult pilgrimage to the traditional Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Those who had accomplished it were known as palmers and enjoyed on their return double honors as specially sanctified beings and as explorers of strange lands who brought back marvelous tales with no possible check upon their stories. Only if one bears in mind the romantic place of the Holy Land in

p. 84

medieval imagination can one understand the two hundred years’ fanaticism of the Crusades.

Mohammedanism had been more successful than Christianity in civilizing the nations who accepted it. True, the religion of Islam had a somewhat easier task. Its peoples were all more nearly of the same stock, its lands were nearer to the sources of classical civilization, and its sacred book, the Koran, taught a more familiar ethics. Through these and perhaps other causes, the Moorish kingdom in Spain and the Saracen cities of the East had attained a higher level of learning and culture than existed at that time anywhere in Christendom. After the victory of Poitiers in 7 32 when Charles Martel turned back the Mohammedan invasion of the West, Christianity had felt secure. But in the eleventh century, its old foe, immensely wealthier and more powerful, menaced it from the East. Constantinople was endangered, and in 1095 Pope Urban II preached what was to be the first of seven Crusades for the rescue of the Eastern capital and the recovery of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

All the contradictions of medieval Christianity came to the front in the Crusades. A war in honor of the Prince of Peace, begun to tumultuous cries of "God Wills It!" was conducted in a manner that

Title page of Tyndale's New Testament (1535)
Click to enlarge

Title page of Tyndale's New Testament (1535)

p. 85

Title page of the Matthew Bible (1537)
Click to enlarge

Title page of the Matthew Bible (1537)

would have shamed the heathen races in the Old Testament. The Crusaders, wearing the Cross on their breasts, soon lost the memory of their original purpose in an indiscriminate bloodlust. Every successive Crusade was marked by horror and disaster.

Before the First Crusade could be properly organized, the common people, roused to frenzy by the preaching of Peter the Hermit and others, set out in undisciplined hordes, murdering and looting as they went, to be destroyed by the Christian Magyars, Slays, and Greeks before they ever reached the Turks. After the knightly armies that followed had captured Jerusalem, all the Jews in the city were burned alive in the synagogue and the rest of the population, estimated at seventy thousand, was massacred. Then the Crusaders returned home burdened with loot but left so small a force to defend Jerusalem that it was soon again endangered, when a Second Crusade was preached to secure the gains of the first. It failed utterly after two great armies had been defeated and the nobility had fled by sea, leaving the common soldiers to be slaughtered. Jerusalem was taken by the Saracens, and the Third Crusade was preached. It too failed: the death of one hundred thousand soldiers in the victory at

p. 86

[paragraph continues] Acre was made useless by the subsequent quarrels between the leaders, Philip Augustus and Richard Coeur-de-Lion. The Fourth Crusade was diverted through the intrigues of Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice, to an attack on Christian Constantinople, which was sacked and burned. Then came the two pathetic Children's Crusades—"armies" of twenty and thirty thousand children, led by shepherd boys: one group dissolved after terrible losses in the frozen Alps, and the other, more luckless, persisted until the children reached Egypt where they were sold into slavery. In the Fifth Crusade, the wily politician, Frederick II, succeeded in recovering Jerusalem by treaty instead of by force of arms, but his achievement, widely condemned for its un-knightly character, was of no permanent significance as the city was soon retaken by the Moslems. In the Sixth Crusade, Saint Louis, king of France, was captured with his entire army in Egypt, and it taxed the resources of the French realm to pay the enormous ransom that was demanded. The Seventh and last Crusade, led by the same Saint Louis, ended ignominiously in Tunis when the king fell ill and died.

What had all this record of savagery and failure

p. 87

to do with our immediate theme of the Bible? A great deal.

The Crusaders, always in want of money and provisions, early adopted the practice of sacking the Jewish quarters of the towns through which they passed. The anti-Semitism from which Europe has suffered, to a greater or less extent, ever since, definitely began with the Crusades. Before that time the Jews had been generally tolerated; it was recognized that they at least held sacred the older half of the Bible, which was still the source of their ritual and the object of their constant study; there was hence a kind of distant relationship between them and the Christians. But after the Crusades, the Christians were reluctant to admit any kind of connection with the Jews. The unpleasant fact that all the Christian Sacred Scriptures had actually been written by the Jews could not be denied, but it could be ignored if men would but refrain from investigating origins at all. Any historical study of the Bible was therefore unwelcome and was delayed by this obscurantist attitude until well into the nineteenth century.

There was, it is true, another side to the Jewish persecutions. The book of Deuteronomy had brought

p. 88

about a strange situation in the medieval world. In accordance with its provisions, Christians were forbidden to take interest on loans. The Jews, on the other hand, were permitted to exact interest from foreigners. Enjoying a monopoly of money-lending, they often yielded to the temptation to raise the rates of interest to usurious heights. It is perhaps not surprising that the exasperated Christians often retaliated by seizing the wealth of those whose special privileges in the money market seemed to them so unfair.

But the spirit of persecution once aroused is rarely limited to its initial victims. The Jews were not the only victims of the revival of intolerance which accompanied the Crusades. Christians also suffered. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Papacy declared a crusade against the large Albigensian sect in southern France, accused of Manichaean tendencies because of their pacifistic ethics, and in the campaigns that ensued whole cities were exterminated. The stage was already set for the persecutions of the Protestants three centuries later.

A contemporary movement often confused with the Albigensian was that of the Waldensians, the followers of Peter Waldo. This man, a prosperous

p. 89

merchant of Lyons, suddenly decided in 1176 to take literally the injunction of Jesus, "Sell all that thou hast and distribute unto the poor" (Luke xviii. 22). He carried out his resolution and formed a sect, known as "the Poor Men of Lyons," who, like the Albigensians, were complete pacifists, refused to take oaths, and held aloof from civic life. If this was what came from the reading of the Bible, Pope Innocent III determined to cut off the evil at its source; he forbade laymen henceforth even to touch the Bible, much less read it. But the Waldensians managed to survive the Albigensian persecution, became Protestants during the Reformation, and continue to exist in small numbers even to this day.

Not unsimilar in aim was the movement initiated by Francis of Assisi which, being conducted more judiciously, found shelter within the bosom of the Church. His monastic order, with its triple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, was founded, like the Waldensian heresy, on strict observance of the Scriptures. To Francis the reading of the Bible was a religious ecstasy. He meditated so intently on the history of the Lord's passion that the signs of the stigmata appeared on his own body. His most difficult act of almsgiving occurred when he parted with his sole possession, the New Testament,

p. 90

to a poor widow. Dying, he had the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John read to him, so that the last words he heard on earth were those in which Jesus foretold his own death.

These various movements, alike in their care for the common people and in their reliance on the Bible, testified to a new spirit abroad in the land. Something was happening to the feudal system.

Emerson, in his poem "Uriel," introduces a young seraph who shocks the angels with his heretical proclamation:

In vain produced, all rays return
Evil will bless, and ice will burn

[paragraph continues] An apparent illustration of Uriel's philosophy may be seen in the further effects of the Crusades. In the amount of needless suffering and horror produced, few greater evils have befallen Europe than the Crusades. And yet without the Crusades, the glorious thirteenth century which marked the culmination of all that was best in medievalism could never have occurred. Acquaintance with Arabic philosophy, and through it a closer acquaintance with the Greek philosophy on which it was based, fitted in with the broader outlook on the world induced by

p. 91

foreign travel to stimulate a zeal for learning which found expression in the establishment of universities throughout western Europe and in the development of the incipient Scholastic movement in philosophy, until this produced, in the persons of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, with others only a little less eminent, thinkers almost on a par with the greatest of antiquity. And this, the intellectual aspect of the new age, was superficial in comparison with the fundamental changes that were going on in the whole social order.

The Crusaders, in order to finance their expeditions, had been forced to borrow heavily from the towns and cities so that there grew up a creditor class of merchants and burghers with a whip hand over the nobility. The latter were further weakened by the death of so many turbulent barons in or on the way to Palestine. For the moment, the decrease in the strength of the first estate, the nobility, benefited the second estate, the Church, which effected an alliance with the rising power of the cities, now well on the way to form a significant third estate. The new regime meant a vast enlargement of human opportunity. And as usually happens, enlargement

p. 92

of opportunity brought a rebirth of literature and art. By way of literature and art, its ancient friends, the Bible began to come back into its own.

A Biblical history, the Historia Scholastica, was written by Petrus Comestor for the use of scholars. For the unlettered was circulated the Biblia Pauperum, a kind of Biblical picture book showing famous scenes from the Bible. The greatest familiarity with the Bible, however, was to come through drama.

Modern drama, like the classical drama, developed out of religious liturgy. As early as the tenth century, the Benedictine nun, Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, had vaguely sensed the possibilities of religious drama, and in order to wean the nuns from reading the profane works of Plautus and Terence had written six Latin comedies with highly moral implications. But she was on the wrong track. The future lay not in imitation of the classics but in the use of elements much nearer at hand. The elaborate ceremonies of the medieval Church already possessed a wealth of dramatic material in the processionals, the changes of persons and costumes during the service, the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, the representations of the manger at Christmas and of the tomb at Easter.

p. 93

[paragraph continues] Gradually, the Christmas and Easter celebrations took on more and more of an explicitly dramatic character: additional personages were introduced, such as Roman soldiers, the Magi and the shepherds, the women at the tomb, and angels, with rhymed dialogues written for all of them; finally, laymen were allowed to participate in the role of evil characters like Herod, Judas, and the impenitent thief. Thus, during the twelfth century, well-rounded Christmas and Easter plays were presented by the clergy in the churches and churchyards all over western Europe. Essentially the same everywhere, they were known by different names: miracle plays in England, mysteries in France, ludi in Germany, autos in Spain.

The popularity of the plays brought great crowds to see them, rude and boisterous crowds whose conduct was often indecorous, yet for whose benefit the writers began to introduce numerous scenes, such as a quarrel between Noah and his wife, which shocked the sensibilities of stricter clerics. So in 1210, Pope Innocent III, the same who preached the Albigensian Crusade and forced Frederick II to go unwillingly to Jerusalem, forbade the clergy to take any further part in the development of popular drama.

p. 94

The plays, transferred to the market place and taken over by the guilds, were greatly enlarged after they fell into the hands of the laity until they came to represent the entire cycle of Biblical events from the creation to the resurrection. There they were halted by the nature of Christian dogma; unlike the Greek myths which could be handled freely by the Athenian dramatists to the extent of completely changing both plots and characters, the Christian stories could not be fundamentally altered without impiety. The creative genius of dramatic writers sought relief through the introduction of allegorical figures who gradually came to swamp the stage. From this resulted the new type of morality play, wholly allegorical in character, and this in turn, with the coming of the Reformation, was easily transformed into the satirical interlude, usually directed against the Catholic Church. Forced into the realm of the abstract in order to gain freedom, the drama came back to the concrete through satire, and in Protestant England there resulted the great period of purely secular Elizabethan drama which culminated in Shakespeare. The religious origin of the drama, however, still directly influenced the great plays of Calderon in Spain and can be seen, indeed, as late as the

p. 95

seventeenth century in the Esther and Athalie of the Catholic Racine.

If the Church early relinquished its part in the development of drama, the same thing did not happen in the realm of architecture. The noblest expression of the medieval spirit in its uttermost reach of aspiration was found in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Gothic architecture which was fostered equally by church and town. Rising high above the market place, the houses, and all other public buildings, the cathedrals in their erection gave employment to thousands of the common people, enlisted the support of the guilds, afforded sanctuary for the tombs of the nobility, enshrined the legends of the Bible and the saints in their multicolored windows of stained glass, and presented religion in a guise of beauty which yet did not obscure its austerity. Rather, in them, austerity itself became beautiful. Each cathedral was the pride of its city. As far its lofty towers could be seen, men were comforted by its presence.

Gothic architecture was an embodiment of a final combined effort of the three estates of feudalism before they fell apart forever. Sculpture and painting, beginning as an adjunct of architecture, were, on the other hand, to reach their highest development

p. 96

during the more individualistic period that followed when the merchant princes of Italy erected their little separate courts and vied with one another in patronizing the arts and also the new learning that was brought from Greece after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Sculpture and painting reflected the general movement of culture in their choice of themes. During the medieval period these were drawn mainly from the lives of the saints, or from events in the Bible, both alike interpreted according to the medieval standards of asceticism; very gradually, the meager limbs and wrinkled faces of the anchoritic ideal were supplanted by the more well-rounded bodies and ruddier faces of the Renaissance. The painters, originally often monks, eventually became a professional class dependent upon private patrons rather than the Church; mythological themes tended to replace the Biblical; and the artists at last became entirely cynical, taking their mistresses as models for either a Venus or a Madonna, whichever happened to be called for. The deeply religious Michelangelo, to be sure, infused a prophetic spirit into his work, and in his statues of David and Moses, as well as in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, he achieved a marvelous harmony of the

p. 97

Biblical, the medieval, and the pagan; but of his two most gifted contemporaries, Raphael contentedly painted the courtesan La Fornarina as the Virgin Mother, and Leonardo used the same model for both his Bacchus and his John the Baptist. The later Venetian School still affected Scriptural subjects, but the interest was no longer in any kind of characterization, Christian or pagan, but in the sheer beauty of the flesh, the texture of garments, the overwhelming joy of deep, rich colors. Venice, whose commercial prosperity after the Crusades was the first harbinger of the decay of medievalism, was also the first to announce that medievalism was dead, through the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Giorgione, who had lost even the memory of the long medieval centuries that preceded them.

In all this art, interest in the Bible was ultimately swallowed up in broader, if less lofty, interests, but till the end the Biblical aspects of art continued to keep alive the Scriptural stories. Through the miracle plays and the religious paintings, during the centuries when the Bible itself could not be generally read, even when this was permitted, since to the great majority Latin had become an unknown tongue, the common people

p. 98

came to know, at least vaguely, the old legends that still after fifteen hundred years retained the power of religious inspiration. The popular demand for translations in the vernacular which the Protestant reformers were to meet and satisfy arose in no small part from the but half-gratified curiosity of the later Middle Ages.

Next: Five. The Great Translations