“And the eyes of them both were opened”: The Moment of Knowing in an Anglo-Saxon Bible

When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, the Book of Genesis tells us, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. In modern editions of the Bible, the verses are divided as follows:

6 … and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.[1]

The pause comes after the eating of the fruit, emphasizing this act. The immediate results of the act—the opening of the eyes, the recognition of nakedness, and the couple’s decision to cover their nakedness with fig leaves—all follow in quick succession. The next verses detail the further consequences of humanity’s fall. But what if the turning point were not so much the act of choosing to disobey God and eat the fruit, but the cognitive effect of doing so, the revelatory moment when human understanding changed? Such is the interpretation created by one eleventh-century manuscript of the Old Testament in Old English.

This manuscript (Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv) was probably created around 1020-1040, and is large and heavily illustrated. It contrasts with another surviving manuscript of the Old Testament, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509, which was likely based on the same exemplar, but which is small and unillustrated. The punctuation differs significantly throughout the two manuscripts. Laud Misc. 509 punctuates Genesis 3:6-7 as follows (the ⁊ symbol is the scribal abbreviation for “and”):

⁊ genam þa of þæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt ⁊ sealde hire were. He æt þa ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode hig oncneowon þa þæt hig nacode wæron ⁊ siwodon fic leaf ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then and the eyes of them both were opened they knew then that they were naked and sewed fig leaves and made themselves clothing]

The passage is a bit of a run-on. Punctuation separates Eve’s act of taking the fruit from her eating it and giving it to her husband, but everything that follows does so without a pause.

Contrast this with the same passage in MS Claudius B.iv:

⁊ genam ða of ðæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt. ⁊ sealde hyre were. He æt ða ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode .·.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate. and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then. and the eyes of them both were opened .·.]

The punctuation mark .·. is the “strongest” punctuation mark in the scribe’s repertoire. Used infrequently compared to the single punctus, it represents the biggest pause. And that is the last line on the page (although there is in fact space for at least a couple more words). The reader must pause here at the moment when the eyes of the first human beings are opened, and lift their own eyes to the top of the next page. This page begins with an image: the naked Eve and Adam, Adam in the act of eating the fruit, the serpent in a tree to the left. The text resumes below it, midway through Genesis 3:7, with a large colored initial that, combined with the previous punctuation and page change, suggests that this should be considered a significant break in the text, and that something new is beginning:

Hi oncneowon ða ðæt hi nacode wæron. ⁊ sywodon him fic leaf. ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[They knew then that they were naked. and sewed themselves fig leaves. and made themselves clothing.]

While the image still suggests the significance of the eating of the fruit, the page layout and strong punctuation invite the reader to pause and reflect at a different point in the narrative: the time when “the eyes of them both were opened” and the knowledge of good and evil was revealed. What did the world look like, in that moment?

Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv, fols. 6 verso and 7 recto. (A twelfth-century annotator has added commentary in Latin at the bottom of the pages and within the borders of the second image.)

Emily Mahan
PhD Student, Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers, The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches, Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

N. Doane and William P. Stoneman, Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B. iv), Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011.

Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

[1] Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, Gen. 3:6-7.

The Temptation and the Agony in Swete Susan’s Five-Stanza Garden

There is something curious and charming about an Old Testament classic receiving a courtly treatment (and not just in poetry, as any medieval tapestry admirer can attest. For a medieval tapestry rendering of Susannah and the Elders, see below).

“Susannah and the Elders” Tapestry from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Ca. 1500, Belgium. Materials: wool, silk. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This semester I was very enchanted by my encounter with The Pistil of Swete Susan. In this fourteenth-century retelling of Susannah and the Elders from the thirteenth chapter of Daniel, a narrative of resolute tenacity emerges, almost startlingly, from beneath a veil of lush alliterative verse. Contributing most notably to an initial and misleading association of Susannah and Joachim with an overindulged and naive version of noblesse and splendor is the speaker’s five-stanza elaboration upon that iconic emblem of courtly wealth and leisure, the garden. This elaboration marks a very substantial and deliberate departure from the one line that communicates the garden in the likely source texts, and it cannot be ignored. Though the significance of this disproportionately elaborate moment in the medieval adaptation has been the source of debate, it is likely that centuries of readers have been captivated with the Edenic association that the garden’s verdant portrait ushers into the Susannah story, and of course, in a narrative that also centrally features the theme of temptation, readers would have recalled the Genesis story. Though scholarship has cast Susannah as the Eve figure in the Genesis story, my research questions whether this might be an unfair association, and explores the idea that medieval audiences may have actually viewed the elders as the Eve figures—and might even have viewed Susannah as a Christological figure—gestures, informed by the garden elaboration, which would radically and fascinatingly contradict rigid gender stereotypes of the time period.

Under the umbrella of this primary topic, I also explore some subtopics. For example, I look at this poem’s version of an ideal medieval woman—for though Susannah is “wlonkest in weede”—or in other words, fashionable—the poem emphasizes her education and intellect more than it emphasizes her stylishness. I also look at The Pistil of Swete Susan’s place in an emerging medieval theme of ageism towards the elderly. For, in fourteenth century medieval literature, no longer is the elderly figure associated with sagacity, but he or she is now deemed deceitful and corrupt. I further discuss how the garden elaboration explicates these subtopics.

For me, though, the centerpiece of the poem is not the lush and flowing treatment of the tangled garden, but a moment of profound and moving straightforwardness that the juxtaposition with the garden serves only to emphasize. It is the moment of exchange between Susannah and Joachim after Susannah has been condemned. This moment is characterized not by a reaction of anger or fear that one would expect from pampered and entitled noblesse, but simply by the humble, and indeed Christological, imagery of hands and feet. As Susannah kisses Joachim’s hand and Joachim gently removes the fetters from Susannah’s feet, husband and wife become Christ for one another, and, in a gesture deeply countercultural to medieval beliefs, marriage becomes a stunningly sanctifying vocation.

Thei toke the feteres of hire feete,
And evere he cussed that swete.
“In other world schul we mete.”
Seide he no mare.

“The Pistel of Swete Susan”: 257-260

from Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse, edited by Russell A. Peck.

Honora Kenney
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame