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

Working Groups in Progress (2018-2019): Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE

Medieval manuscripts create the conditions for much of our knowledge of the past. The working group on “Jewish and Christian Books in the First Millennium CE” engages Jewish and Christian texts from Late Antiquity to the early modern period, focusing on how material texts and the history of reading enrich our understanding of these texts and their readers. By illuminating the ways in which textual knowledge was—and continues to be—produced, accessed, and preserved, the study of material texts is fundamental to the study of both Judaism and Christianity.

A central emphasis for our working group is the ways that Christian and Jewish communities have oriented themselves around books and reading. For our first meeting of the year, we discussed David Stern’s The Jewish Bible: A Material History(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017). Stern argues that Jewish books have often been adapted in response to the book technologies of neighboring cultures, but are also marked as Jewish through their physical form.

A recurring theme in the working group is how both physical technologies and cultural practices facilitate the creation of textual knowledge. The production of texts builds on complex interaction between spoken language, written text, and habits of reading. In November, Tzvi Novick introduced us to a particular example of this complexity by presenting his work on “Orality, Writing, and Language Choice in Early Roman Palestine.” In our next meeting (1 March), Hildegund Müller will discuss the medieval manuscript transmission of Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos. Her work engages the ways that medieval manuscripts, their scribes, and their readers have preserved and changed Augustine’s oeuvre.

Scribes and readers also curate texts for the benefit of subsequent readers. One way to do this is by providing paratexts, that is, features like tables of contents, section divisions, or explanatory notes that guide the reader and structure the text. In October, Jeremiah Coogan presented his research on the Eusebian apparatus, a set of Gospel cross-references that occurs in late ancient and medieval manuscripts from Ireland to Ethiopia. He argued that the Eusebian apparatus creates new possibilities for reading the Gospels, which we can see at work in a number of examples from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. On 12 April, Paul Wheatley will present a paper titled “Behind the Veil of Translation: Onomastics, Interpretation, and Revelation.” Paul will discuss onomastic lists, which often appear in biblical manuscripts and explain the names of biblical people and places. Like the Eusebian apparatus, these manuscript features shape how readers encounter sacred text on the page.

Because such paratexts are added by certain readers for the benefit of other readers, they enable us to glimpse medieval reading in action. Another way that we can observe the history of reading is by attending to what readers write. In our February meeting, Andrew King demonstrated how digital analysis can be applied to ancient texts. Andrew’s paper on “The Big Data of Intertextuality and the Book of Deuteronomy” offers an approach to “distance reading” that illuminates trends in the citation of biblical texts by various authors over time.

Modern practices of collection and conservation likewise generate particular bodies of knowledge to be studied. In our January 2019 meeting, the working group looked at Brent Nongbri’s recent monograph, God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Focusing on late ancient manuscripts from Egypt, Nongbri shows how nineteenth- and twentieth-century archeologists, dealers, and collectors shaped the manuscript collections that modern scholars study and what we know about them. Nongbri’s work also engages the physical features of early Christian books and the challenges of historically contextualizing them.

Physical books are always situated in economic, ritual, and readerly contexts. On 31 May, we will host a conference on “The Material Gospel” to discuss the Gospels as material artifacts. Gospel books were powerful objects. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short Gospel excerpts were used for protective power. The Gospel in codex format represented Christian identity. Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. The conference will explore these and similar questions from the first five centuries CE. This conference will serve as a fitting conclusion to this year’s working group, drawing together a wide range of conversations about books and reading.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Katharina Tucher Uses the Bible (Part 2)

Don't forget to read Part 1 of this post here.

The collection of books that Nuremberg widow Katharina Tucher donated to her new convent around 1440 offer a stunning snapshot of one woman’s religious literary interests. Tucher’s books included the sorts of works one would expect to see in the library of a wealthy fifteenth-century reader: prayer books, Henry Suso’s Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit, hagiographies of popular female saints. One particularly noteworthy feature of her collection, however, transcends any one text or genre: the sheer amount of biblical and biblically-derived material.

Her most straightforwardly biblical books, mentioned in the previous post, are also distinguished by their utility: one text meant for use at Mass, a second turned into such, a book for praying. But we also find the reverse situation—texts from popular genres have a Scripture-based parallel in Tucher’s collection. She owned prophecies of the Sibyl and Birgitta of Sweden—and a collection gathered from the Old Testament. Of the devotional poem Christus und die minnende Seele, which scholars have demonstrated had a deep influence on the Offenbarungen, what accompanied Tucher to St. Katherine’s was an excerpt glossing the Book of Esther. [12] For moral instruction, she had treatises on the traditional categories of virtue and vice like Von der Keuschenheit—but also two copies of Marquard’s treatise on the increasingly popular way to structure moral teaching instead, the Ten Commandments. [13]

Perhaps most intriguing of all is Tucher’s portion of MS Strasbourg, Bibliotheque Nationale et Universitaire, cod. 2195. She herself wrote 104v and 138v-148v. Of these, 139r-142r and 147r-148v match the contents of an unrelated manuscript in the Nuremberg city library. These folios contain a smattering of spiritual advice attributed to authors like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, along with some German prose versions of hymns like Veni spiritus sancti. [14]

104v and 142v-146v, however, were either added by Tucher when she copied an exemplar, or subtracted by the other scribe when they copied hers. The texts that Tucher felt were necessary to include, that the other author did not? From 104v, an excerpt from the letter to the Colossians (Col 3:1-4). From 142v-146v, a short text attributed to Bernard, and three more hymns modified into German prose. Those hymns were the Magnificat from Luke and two passages of the praise of Wisdom from Sirach. [15]

As with the examples in other genres, the Bible-based hymn variations that Tucher included in cod. 2195 matched non-biblical material in her library, in this case, in the same manuscript. They stand out not in their message but in their origin.

There are two key points here. First, the biblical material in Tucher’s personal library was useful. From a historiated Bible marked out for reference according to use in the liturgy to framing her sins and successes with the Ten Commandment, Scripture was present as a means rather than an end. Second, much of the Bible’s shadow over her book collection is in fact “biblical material,” rather than full Bibles or narrative equivalents. The distinction of these texts from their non-biblical partners was clear in the Middle Ages as today—the nuns of St. Katherine’s, for example, categorized didactic texts based on the Ten Commandments and other biblical structures (B) immediately after Bibles (A). [16] Biblical material did not necessarily add new teachings to the devotional life of its readers. It did, however, offer a different foundation for those teachings. And as the rising prominence of the Decalogue in moral teaching shows, this particular foundation was more and more important as the fifteenth century progressed.

Recent scholarship has finally grown more comfortable discussing the perfectly orthodox presence of vernacular Scripture in the fifteenth century, including in lay readers’ hands. The “Holy Writ and Lay Readers” project, although it does not at present cover southern Germany, has proven especially helpful in emphasizing the different formats that the “Bible” could take. Leaders Sandra Corbellini, Mart van Duijn, Suzan Folkerts, and Margriet Hoogvliet write:

The focus on the “completeness” of the text does not take into account the specific practice of diffusion of the biblical text…often delivered…in the form of passages and pericopes. Moreover, the stress on “complete Bibles” does not fully acknowledge the importance of the connection with the liturgy in the approach of lay people to the biblical text. In fact, the participation in the liturgy and the reading of biblical pericopes following the liturgical calendar…offer the most important and valuable means of access to the Scriptures.

The selection of biblical texts and liturgical rearrangements should be taken as…an indication of a specific use and approach, determined by the needs and the interests of the readers. [17]

To frame lay reading of the Bible as “functional,” as Corbellini et al. describe with respect to liturgical use, indicates an active and conscious engagement with peri-biblical text as Scripture. In this light, Katharina Tucher’s book collection suggests that our understanding of “the vernacular Bible” in the fifteenth century might be broadened even further. The pericope and marked-up historiated Bible in her library were useful. So were her Psalter, moral instruction organized according to the Ten Commandments, and biblical hymns presented as prayer. These texts, in their functionality, also represent an active and conscious engagement with the Bible.

Only by studying the many forms of the Bible’s presence in Tucher’s library, therefore, can we begin to understand its place in her spiritual life. I have described her reading interests as “comprehensively typical,” but at the same time, she added biblical material to a miscellany where another scribe omitted it. How “typical,” then, was she? By casting the same wider gaze over biblical material in fifteenth-century literary culture, we can better understand how a lay person interacted with the religious world of their day—a pressing question for Tucher’s era in particular. And indeed, only by accounting for all dimensions of biblical material can we grasp the changing place of the Bible in fifteenth-century religious culture.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[12] On Tucher’s use of Christus und die minnende Seele, see most comprehensively Amy Gebauer, ‘Christus und die minnende Seele’: An Analysis of Circulation, Text and Iconography (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2010).

[13] On the Decalogue’s gradual replacement of the seven deadly sins as the foremost means to teach morality, see Robert Bast, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of a Patriarchal Ideology in Germany, 1400-1600 (Leiden: Brill, 1997); John Bossy, “Seven Sins into Ten Commandments,” in Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe, ed. Edmund Leites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 214-234.

[14] Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Introduction,” 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ehrenschwendtner, 126.

[17] Corbellini et al., 177-178.