Scripture Study During the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Glossed medieval manuscript.

Andrew Jones, of Logos Bible Software’s Catholic division, has written an excellent pair of posts about the way Christians of the Middle Ages and Renaissance approached scripture study.

Although medieval Christians were known for striking feats of memory (some of them achieved using techniques I still teach to my own students), Jones points out that rote memorization was not the heart of the way they lived the scripture. Rather, it was the way they integrated the scripture into their very beings and let it change them over time that made their deep experience of the Bible so significant. Their very lives were a dialog with the scripture.

One concrete manifestation of this approach were the illuminated and glossed manuscripts, which were at the cutting edge of technology: kind of the Logos of their day:

There were amazingly intricate mental techniques for memorization, whole mental architectures that were built and refined as they were passed on from master to student. Even the physical form of the Bible was a technology. For example, much of the illumination we see in medieval manuscripts functioned as memory “tags,” giving the reader a visual anchor for the memorized text.

But even more impressive than the illuminations were the glosses that surrounded the Scripture text. As monks and scholars read, they would often jot down little reminders in the margins—anonymous sayings, references to, perhaps, St. Augustine or an early council. These were intended primarily as memory aids, so there were often only a few lines or even a couple words—just enough to evoke the memory. These notes are called glosses. Over the centuries, as Bibles were copied and recopied, traded and loaned, a standard gloss grew up around the text. The construction of this gloss was a process of dialogue across centuries as monks and scholars meditated on and digested the Scriptures and engaged with the ancient authorities and each other.

In his follow-up post on the Renaissance approach to textual studies, Jones makes another important point. The flowering of humanism led people away from the medieval conception of scripture, which was as an integral part of the individual, with each new generation continuing a dialog with the past. The Renaissance, on the other hand, saw the development of a more analytical style of understanding the Bible. Rather than being shaped by the text, they stood aloof from it, attempting to understand it with a more clinical detachment. This isn’t a bad thing, since it helped us get back to original languages and led to a deeper sense of history, context, interpretation, translation, and other issues. The approach continues down to the present time (for both good and ill), taking shape into historical-critical, form criticism, and similar approaches to the Bible.

As Jones observes, Renaissance scholars used the technology of their time (the printing press: still the most important technological revolution in history) to create new tools for Bible study:

Whereas in the Middle Ages, each Bible was the unique manifestation of sometimes centuries of tradition, the printing press could produce thousands of identical copies. This demanded a single text, a fundamental text that could serve as the printers’ source. Such a technological need was directly congruent with the humanist approach to historical texts, and so the humanists set to work producing critical editions, taking into account the various manuscript traditions, reconciling them, sorting out what they deemed to be corruptions from later ages, and finally producing the “text” as they supposed it to have been written. This text was printed, translated, and disseminated as a stand-alone book, without glosses or adornment.

You can read both posts at the Logos blog: The Technology of Scripture Study in the Middle Ages and The Technology of Scripture Study in the Renaissance.