Text, Format, and Reader

Francis Watson

In this project I’m interested in the different ways early scriptural manuscripts were formatted, and in the effects those differences would have had on their readers. The major difference is that in the early centuries there was no “Bible” – that is, no single volume containing a comprehensive collection of scriptural texts of a kind familiar nowadays. What we call “the books of the Bible” mostly circulated originally as physically separate volumes.  A literate early Christian might have owned a selection of these, each roughly resembling a modern paperback, and – again like modern paperbacks – varying in size, shape, layout, and quality. The Chester Beatty biblical manuscript collection in Dublin is an excellent illustration of what an early Christian library from around the 4th century might have looked like.

Comprehensive single volume Bibles began to circulate from around the 12th century, long before the dawn of printing, but the oldest surviving intact example is the Latin Bible known as Codex Amiatinus, named after the San Salvatore monastery on Mount Amiata, Italy, where this enormous book was kept safely for 1000 years or so. It was produced in the “double monastery” of Wearmouth and Jarrow in the early 8th century, during the lifetime of the monastery’s most celebrated scholar, Bede. The Codex was taken to Rome as a gift for the pope and at a later date the original inscription was emended, concealing the book’s origins in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Only in the late 19th century was the true story of its origins uncovered. Codex Amiatinus is now kept in the Laurentian Library in Florence, where I was recently privileged to view it with the kind permission of the Director, Dr Francesca Gallori. I was also able to visit the San Salvatore monastery, where a full size facsimile of the Codex is the centrepiece of the small museum there. Visiting these locations was a reminder that books, like people, each have their own stories.