The Material Gospel Conference: A Brief Overview

What do Gospel books have in common with collections of medical recipes? What do practices of erasure and destruction tell us about early Christian identity? Can we tell biographies of books?

Early Christians materialized Gospel literature in diverse formats and technologies. As material objects, these instantiations of “the Gospel” participated in ritual, political, economic, and readerly contexts. Gospel books were powerful. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short excerpts enabled users to access the protective power of the material Gospel. The Gospel codex sometimes represented Christian identity, as Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. Yet Gospel books might also be erased or destroyed for apparently more mundane reasons, as various kinds of recycling attest. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. Early Christian readers developed novel strategies to facilitate knowledge, navigation, and use of Gospel literature. In each of these contexts, the materiality of Gospel literature plays a decisive role.

To address this theme, David Lincicum and I organized a conference on The Material Gospel at Notre Dame on 31 May 2019. The conference was generously sponsored by the Medieval Institute, the Institute for the Study of the Liberal Arts, and the Department of Theology. It brought together a number of scholars of Gospel literature and material culture to discuss the Gospel as a material object in the early Christian centuries. The day-long conference involved six papers and extended discussion between speakers and audience members.

To begin the day, Clare Rothschild (Lewis University) offered a paper on “Galen’s De indolentia and the Early Christian Codex.” The codex, a book format with pages and covers, quickly became a marker of Christian practices — to such an extent that scholars have suggested that the codex format became a marker of Christian identity, perhaps even chosen because of its visual distinctiveness. Rothschild intervenes in this conversation, emphasizing that the early Christian preference for a codex format was not only about visual distinctiveness or the perceived value of the texts, but also about the utility of the codex format. Comparison with the second-century physician Galen (129–ca. 216 CE) offers one window into second-century use of the codex. Rothschild offers a close reading of a passage where Galen describes the loss of parchment codices with medical recipes and of his own medical treatises. Similar genres appear in both formats. Galen describes the codices of recipes as having enormous intellectual and pecuniary value, but one of his own treatises, written on a scroll, was even more precious. But if the codex format was neither a bibliographic marker of genre or an indication of value, then why might Galen have used it? And why might Christians have adopted this technology? Rothschild argues that the codex affords durability, accessibility, expandability, and portability. These practical possibilities make it appropriate and convenient for Galen’s collections of medical recipes. Similarly, the codex format is practical for early Christian practices of study, liturgy, and travel in ways that exceed the possibilities of the bookroll. Conversations about the early Christian adoption of the codex for Gospels and other texts must, therefore, attend to the utility of the codex.

In a paper on “Navigating the Gospel: Nonlinear Access and Practical Use,” Jeremiah Coogan (Notre Dame) expands the conversation about the materiality of early Christian Gospel reading beyond the issue of codex format. Coogan argues that technologies for finding, dividing, and referencing illuminate late ancient Gospel reading, revealing how readers use Gospel books as objects. Coogan compares the modes of access invited by Gospel books with other practical texts in classical and late antiquity. Gospel books share visual features and practical affordances of access with recipe collections (like Galen’s or Scribonius Largus’), ritual (“magical”) anthologies (like PGM IV), and agricultural handbooks (like that of Columella). Paratextual interventions facilitate and expect Gospel access in various nonlinear ways — for liturgy, for divination, for moral instruction, for study. The late ancient Gospel book as an object frequently functions more like a recipe book than a linear text (such as the Iliad). Here, as in Rothschild’s paper, the focus is on the modes of use to which Gospel books as objects are suited. At the same time, the conversation must move beyond the codex as such, since Gospel books participate in material and paratextual conventions that facilitate access but that are not native to the codex. Coogan offers enlarged frames of comparison for the physicality and use of late ancient Gospel books.

Practices of reading and access are embedded in larger discourses. In his paper on “The Gospel Read, Sliced, and Burned: The Material Gospel and the Construction of Christian Identity,” Chris Keith (St. Mary’s Twickenham) argues that the use of the Gospel as a material object becomes part of early Christian identity. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Jan Assman , Keith argues that the early Christian book functioned as a material locus of memory and tradition. Far from being secondary or peripheral, textual objects become part of the visualization of literary memory. Practices of Gospel reading shape Christian understandings of the Gospel book as object. Christians read Gospel books in ways that are strikingly similar to how Jewish communities read Scriptures. However, there is a conceptual replacement of Torah with “Gospel” in (some) early Christian reading practices. Through practices of public reading, the book becomes a cult object. As a result, early Christians think in decidedly literal (and yet metaphorical) terms about textual change. Early Christians imagined Marcion of Sinope’s textual editing as gnawing, slicing amputation. Textual change is construed as an assault upon physical objects themselves. Finally, the centrality of the Christian book as object becomes a key issue in persecution under the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century. In seeking to destroy the Christian book, Rome attests its central significance as material object. For Eusebius, to destroy either churches or material texts is an attack upon Christianity. The construction of Christian identity is about what one does with the material Gospel.

Practices of book destruction, however, are not always violent or polemical. In her paper on “Erasing the Gospels: Insights from the Sinai Syriac Gospel Palimpsest,” Angela Zautcke (Notre Dame) analyzes the palimpsesting (erasing and rewriting) of late ancient Gospel books. Focusing on Syriac manuscripts, especially those held at St Catherine’s Monastery (Sinai, Egypt) and the British Library (many also from Sinai). Zautcke focuses on the potential role of erasure as intentional destruction, and concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that obsolete textual traditions like the Old Syriac Gospels were more likely to be palimpsested than other kinds of texts. Rather, parchment Gospel books often circulated for some four centuries before being recycled for other texts. The preponderance of palimpsested texts in the extant monastery collections have various scriptural texts (not always Gospels) as the undertext, reflecting the predominance of these texts in the existing collections available for palimpsesting. Zautcke demonstrates the need for further study of palimpsesting in material and social histories of early Christian texts, but concludes that the destruction of Gospel books by erasure is part of the life- cycle of the Gospel as object. The medium often continues past the text itself.

Returning to the issues of codex and roll, Sofía Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago) discussed the opposite case in a paper on “Resisting the Codex: Christian Rolls in Late Antiquity.” While modern scholarly imaginations associate early Christian book culture with the emergence of the codex, Torallas Tovar demonstrates that scrolls continue to function in a range of contexts. While the codex becomes a standard format for some kinds of Christian literature, the media ecology of Christian texts also includes the continued use of scrolls — for episcopal letters, for texts like Didache and Jubilees, and for day-to-day letters and documents. Both the codex and the roll belong in a wider landscape of late ancient Christian material texts.

Finally, Matthew Larsen (Princeton) offered a paper on “Codex Bobiensis: A Real-and-Imagined Biography of One Gospel Manuscript.” Applying a model of “real-and-imagined” history from the work of Heather Blair, Larsen narrated the biography of the Latin Gospel manuscript known as Codex Bobiensis (Turin National University Library, G.VII.15), from its production in Roman North Africa to its current dismembered state in Turin. This manuscript offers an unusual — and often ignored — Gospel text and an even more unusual hybridized epitomized form, combining Mark and Matthew. It takes its common name from Bobbio Abbey, where it was preserved in part because of a remembered association with the Irish missionary Columbanus (ca. 540–615 CE). The story of this object ends (for now) in Turin, where the manuscript exists as a collection of dismounted folios. Larsen’s paper offers new lenses with which to examine the continued and changing materiality of Gospel texts as objects.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Making Sense of Supplications in the Late Middle Ages

BnF MS Francais 2644

In my most recent post, I discussed some conflicting issues between different types of quantitative source material on late medieval confession and confessors.  There I argued that historians of late medieval religious life have mischaracterized the popularity and volume of confessional manuals as a denunciation of the capabilities and efficacy of late medieval confessors. As an alternative, I offered the huge number of requests, known as supplications, to the papacy for new confessors in the fifteenth century. These supplications show popular enthusiasm by the laity across all Western Christendom for personal confessors.

While there are almost 14,000 surviving supplications to the papacy for a new confessor, these requests were not distributed evenly. From my previous post, one can see that supplications from France account for over 50 percent of the source material. If we examine the supplications categorized by those historians as “French”, we see another interesting numerical imbalance:

Burgundian Total (Reg. Mat. Div. 1-41)[i] 1442
1409-1411 15
Eugenius IV, (1431-1447) 181
Nicholas V, 1447-1455) N/A
Calixtus III (1455-1458) 227
Pius II (1458-1464) 233
Paul II (1464-1471) 364
Sixtus 1471-1484 319
Innocent VIII (1484-1492) 118

The supplications from late medieval Burgundy, categorized as French due to current geographical boundaries by modern historians, account for 20.2 percent of French entries.

When we consider population estimates, a notoriously difficult issue to tackle, the proportion of Burgundian supplications proves even more striking. In 1450, the estimated population of French lands, including late medieval Burgundy, was around twelve million people.[ii] The estimated population of Burgundy, according to tax data collected from the same period, was 1.4 million people.[iii] Some quick math tells us that the Burgundian population made up about 11.6 percent of the larger French population.

As we can see by comparing the discrepancy in Burgundian-French supplications to the Burgundian-French population, there is a net difference of 8.6 percent between the two categories. Based on this information, we see that the people of late medieval Burgundy were more likely to request a personal confessor than population estimates would suggest. Indeed, Burgundian supplications make up a little more than 12 percent of all supplications to the papacy in the fifteenth century, although they account for around 4 percent of the population of Western Europe at the time.

BL MS Royal 18 E I f. 165v

The sheer amount of supplications coming from Burgundian lands begs the question as to why the people of Burgundy had such a disproportionate enthusiasm for the personal confessor. One potential explanation comes from the political realities of late medieval Burgundy, specifically the idea of representation by the more well-to-do citizens of Flemish cities.

The Flemish cities were, by far, the most populous lands within Burgundy, and had a long history of fighting and revolting against the Dukes of Burgundy for political representation and rights.[iv] These revolts happened so frequently that historians have gathered them into a distinct category called the fourth period of Flemish urban rebellions (1379-1453). Within this period, the people of Gent revolted at least eleven times in the fifteenth century, with the longest and most bitter revolt occurring from 1449 to 1453.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, the revolt of 1449-53 was followed by the largest spike in supplications to the papacy for new confessors both from dioceses in which the revolts occurred, as well as the Burgundian lands in general.[v] In the years that followed the revolt of 1449-53, Burgundian supplications to the penitentiary exploded to 267 requests in a five-year span. Before 1449, there are only 191 requests extant from the entirety of Burgundian dioceses in the first half of the fifteenth century, with 181 of those coming during the sixteen-year papacy of Eugenius IV (1431-1447).

Later revolts in Gent of 1467 and 1487 also saw large upticks in supplications to the papacy, especially the revolt of 1467 against Duke Charles the Bold. 1469 had the highest number of requests for a new confessor out of any year in the fifteenth century with 82.

These Flemish revolts do not conclusively explain the proclivity of the people in Burgundy to seek a new confessor. But they do give us a window into the wider political and social currents, which help to explain Burgundian enthusiasm in these requests, as well as the various upticks in those same requests in the fifteenth century.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[i] Based upon my own research in the archives of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

[ii] J. C. Russell, “Population in Europe,” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, ed. Carlo M. Cipolla, (Glasgow : Collins/Fontana, 1972), 25-71.

[iii] Norman J. G. Pounds, “Population and Settlement in the Low Countries and Northern France in the Later Middle Ages,” Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, vol. 49, fasc. 2, 1971. Histoire (depuis l’Antiquité) — Geschiedenis (sedert de Oudheid), 369-402.

[iv] Jan Dumolyn & Jelle Haemers, “Patterns of urban rebellion in medieval Flanders,” Journal of Medieval History, 31:4, (2005), 369-393.

[v] The registers of supplications in the Apostolic Penitentiary are fragmentary or lost for the first quarter of the fifteenth century, so it is unclear if this pattern holds true for the early revolts.

An Axe among the Scepters: Who’s Who in Canterbury’s West Window?

In the West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, ranged below the arms of Richard II and assorted depictions of saints and prophets, is an apparently incomplete series of portraits of English kings whose identities have become confused or forgotten over the centuries. Current attempts to identify these kings rely in part upon the eighteenth-century testimony of English historian William Gostling, who could apparently see in the window more than is visible today:

In the uppermost range of the large compartments are seven large figures of our kings, standing under gothic niches very highly wrought. They are bearded, have open crowns on their heads and swords or sceptres in their right hands. They have suffered, and been patched up again, and each had his name under him in the old black letter: of which there are very little remains. These seven are Canute, under whom remains Can. Edward the Confessor holding a book, under him remains Ed. Then Harold. William I holding his sceptre in his right hand, and resting it transversely on his left shoulder, under him remains …mus Conquestor Rex. Then William II. Henry I. Stephen. The tops of the canopies are all that are left of the fourteen niches of which the two next stages consist: if these were filled in the same manner, the series of kings would finish with Richard III.[1]

Tracery Lights and Upper Range of the West Window in Canterbury Cathedral. I have labeled the position of the kings A-G for ease of reference. All images of the West Window courtesy of Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK.
“Edward” in the West Window

Gostling’s descriptions have proved difficult to match up with the window as we now have it. Any lettering visible in the eighteenth century has disappeared, and at least some portraits are not in the order they once were. According to Gostling’s account, the fourth king (D) should be holding a scepter in his right hand and resting it on his left shoulder: he does not. Nor can the king in position B today be imagined as “holding a book.” So William I (once D) and Edward the Confessor, at least, must have moved between Gostling’s time and now.

B holds a sword in his right hand, which he rests on his left shoulder–this may be Gostling’s William I. If D made a simple swap with B, it would follow, as some scholars have assumed, that today’s D is Edward the Confessor. But the king who now stands in that position holds an emblem not elsewhere associated with Edward: a prominent axe.[2] Instead, Edward might be more usually imagined as here in the famous Wilton Diptych, where he stands alongside Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist in support of Richard II, who commissioned the West Window. Interestingly, scholars have noted similarities between the styling of Edward in the diptych and the king in position A on the West Window, accepted since Gostling’s time as Cnut the Great, the Scandinavian king of Anglo-Saxon England. Despite detailing the similarities between the two, including their forked beards and long sleeves,[3] no one has suggested that this might be Edward himself rather than an Edward-inspired Cnut.

Edward the Confessor in the Wilton Diptych. National Gallery [Public Domain]
“Cnut” in the West Window

But why not? The king of the “Cnut” window (position A) might seem from afar to be holding a book-like object in his left hand (upon closer inspection it is part of his clothing). This may, nevertheless, be the otherwise-unidentified “book” to which Gostling refers in his description of Edward. Besides the marked similarities between the Edward of the Wilton Diptych and the “Cnut” of the Canterbury window is the problem of the inexplicable axe or halberd found in “Edward’s” hand. In fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman art, likely under the influence of contemporary depictions on altar frontals, glass, and panel screens of fellow Scandinavian king St. Olaf of Norway, Cnut was the only king of England imagined as carrying an impressive axe!

Cnut in British Library Royal 14 B VI, membrane 4. Image courtesy of the British Library.

In a recent Alumni Spotlight on the Medieval Institute website, Notre Dame alumna Rachel Koopmans estimates that one in three of the glass narratives of the miracles of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral are misattributed. I wonder if here we have another case of mistaken identity in the Cathedral’s glass, this time of kings! If we are ready to accept that at least some of the portraits of English kings have shifted places since Gostling’s time, why should we be bound to accept that Cnut has not moved from position A since the late eighteenth century? The iconographic evidence surely supports a different conclusion.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] It is unclear how Gostling identifies Harold, William II, Henry I, and Stephen. Are they labeled with the “old black letter”? Or do they simply fill the pattern in the series of fourteen kings from Cnut to Richard III that Gostling envisions? William Gostling, A Walk in and about the City of Canterbury, New ed. with considerable additions (Canterbury: William Blackley, 1825), 343–44.

[2] “The position of his left hand, slanting in front of him, is such that it may have appeared mistakenly to Gostling as ‘holding a book’; his halberd however remains unexplained if he is to be identified as the Confessor.” Bernard Rackham, The ancient glass of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Lund, Humphries, 1949), 129.

[3] Richard II, who ordered the window, had a great devotion to Edward and is supported by English kings Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in the famous Wilton Diptych.