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

Penitential Justice in Saint Mary’s College, Cushwa-Leighton Library, Ms. 1

My semester at Notre Dame as the Astrik L. Gabriel Postdoctoral Fellow was fortuitous in several ways. As I began to revise my dissertation into a book, I benefited greatly from the resources of the Medieval Institute, the kind guidance of Notre Dame’s faculty, and the friendship of several graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. During my short tenure, Irish football also went undefeated in the regular season! (Take note deans and future hiring committees.) Last but not least, I discovered a remarkable manuscript at Saint Mary’s College: Cushwa-Leighton Library, Ms. 1.

f. 33v-34r

As David Gura notes in his catalog entry, Ms. 1 was probably copied in Germany in the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century.[1] It contains portions of Peter Lombard’s Sentences and Burchard’s Decretum, as well as minor excerpts from Rather of Verona’s Synodica and Adelgar’s De studio virtutum. When I first came across Ms. 1, I was immediately interested because I had examined many similar copies of Burchard’s Decretum in my dissertation.[2] I was even more excited to discover that Ms. 1 is unknown to historians of canon law![3]

Although there is much work yet to be done, I would like to share some of my initial findings regarding Ms. 1.

In its current form, Ms. 1 consists of two distinct sections. The first section contains the Sentences (ff. 1ra-18vb) while the second section contains Decretum and the other minor texts (ff. 19r-38v). The small hand and two columns of the former section is clearly distinguishable from the larger hand and single column of the latter section. At some point these two sections, originally distinct, must have been bound together.

f. 2r
f. 26r

Burchard’s Decretum and Saint Mary’s Ms. 1

The Decretum was compiled by Burchard, bishop of Worms, between 1012 and 1023, and numbers among the most important canon law collections of the Middle Ages. Divided into twenty books, the Decretum focuses on matters of diocesan administration, including the rights and duties of the bishop, the regulation of clerical (mis)conduct, and the punishment of lay crimes and sins through penance. About 78 complete copies of the Decretum survive today.

As noted by Gura, the Decretum excerpts in Saint Mary’s Ms. 1 mostly come from Book 19. Book 19, which is also known as the Corrector, explains how to judge, assign, and enforce penances.

In recent years, the Corrector has received a great deal of attention from cultural historians due to its strange prescriptions against magic, witchcraft, and sexual deviancy. For example, the Corrector includes one of the earliest known references to werewolves! Consider also this fascinating example:

“Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do? They take a living fish, place it between their legs, and hold it there for a while until it has died. Then, having boiled and roasted the fish, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this so that [their husbands] might become more inflamed in love for them. If you have done this, you should do penance for two years.”

“Fecisti quod quaedam mulieres facere solent? Tollunt piscem unum vivum, et conmittunt eum in puerperium suum, et tamdiu eum ibi tenent, donec mortuus fuerit, et, cocto pisce vel assato, suis maritis ad comedendum tradunt, ideo faciunt hoc, ut plus in amorem earum inardescant? Si fecisti, duos annos poeniteas.”

f. 27v

The Corrector has traditionally been considered a penitential. The penitentials first emerged in Ireland and England in the fifth and sixth centuries and were brought to the Continent by missionary-monks such as Columbanus and Boniface in the seventh and eighth centuries. According to most scholars, the penitentials describe a process of private, voluntary confession distinct from the mandatory public penances of the canon law collections. As such, scholars often claim that the Corrector was used separately from the rest of the Decretum.

According to my analysis, however, Ms. 1 also contains major excerpts from other parts of the Decretum, including books 2, 6, 9, 12, and 17. These books covers topics such as clerical misconduct (Book 2), homicide (Book 6), marriage law (Book 9), perjury (Book 12), and sexual offenses (Book 17). While most of these texts appear after the Corrector material, there is also some overlap. As can be seen below, several canons from Book 6 on homicide, for example, appear on f. 22v near the beginning of the Corrector section.

f. 22v, containing canons 19.31, 6.12, 6.16, 6.34

As I argued in my dissertation, abbreviations such as Saint Mary’s Ms. 1 reveal that medieval readers and users of the Decretum did not see the Corrector as a manual of private confession separable from the Decretum. Rather, they saw it as a practical summary of the Decretum and did not hesitate to combine it with texts taken from other parts of the collection.

An Augsburg Connection?

Based on my work with similar manuscripts from southern Germany, I have found several indications that Ms. 1 (at least the latter section) has some connection to the diocese of Augsburg:

1. On ff. 20r-22r appear excerpts from the De studio virtutum/Admonitio ad Nonsuindam reclusam, which is printed in Migne’s Patrologia Latina vol. 132. Migne attributed the text to a certain Adalger who was supposedly a bishop of Augsburg in the tenth century.

2. On f. 19rv appear excerpts from Rather of Verona’s Synodica. Only four manuscripts of this text survive and one of them belonged to Diessen Abbey in the diocese of Augsburg. This manuscript is now Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 5515 (s. xii).

3. On f. 19v appears a text on the duties of archdeacons which begins “Unuscuiusque christi minister…”. I have located this text only in two Augsburg manuscripts: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 3851 (s. ixex) and 3853 (s. x3/4).

f. 19v

4. In my dissertation, I argued that Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 4570 (completed in 1108) was the Augsburg copy of Burchard’s Decretum. If I am correct, Ms. 1 was probably copied from CLM 4570.

For more information on Ms. 1, please refer to my article which will appear in the December 2019 volume of the Journal of Medieval History. Or you can go see it in person at Saint Mary’s College!

John Burden, PhD
Yale University

[1] David T. Gura, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), 558-61.

[2] John Burden, “Between Crime and Sin: Penitential Justice in Medieval Germany, 900-1200” (Ph.D. Dissertation: Yale University, 2008).

[3] Lotte Kéry, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages (ca. 400-1140) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999).