Eyal Poleg, Approaching the Bible in Medieval England. Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York, 2013. Pp. xxi + 263, with 7 colour plates. £65.00.
How can we begin to recover or understand the the role of the Bible in medieval culture? As Eyal Poleg points out at the start of this study, the Bible was all things to all people: it was sacred scripture and the heart of the liturgy of the Christian church, and at the same time a repository of history and instruction, a source of narratives and symbols, a material book, and the basis of much that people heard and saw around them. Poleg’s study sets out to explore the pervasiveness of the Bible in people's lives. Concentrating on England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, he seeks to uncover the variety of contexts in which the Bible was accessible, and the range of media through which its power was activated.
Processes of mediation are central to the arguments of this book, which explores the striking mystery by which the faith of a largely unlettered Christian community was sustained by a book and its contents. Drawing on the work of Brian Stock and of exponents of theories of médiologie, Poleg is interested not simply in the variety of media by which the scriptures were communicated, but in the concerted ways that these made their effect. The book is thus constructed around sites of mediation, looking in turn at the liturgy, at talismanic uses of the Bible, at material features of the Bibles produced in England or for English use in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and at sermons.
Both separately and in combination these chapters work to provide the integrated view of Biblical mediation which is Poleg’s goal. Each can be read as an illuminating self-contained discussion of a specific context in which the Bible was put to use. Poleg’s exploration of the liturgy of Palm Sunday processions, based on parts of Matthew’s Gospel, gives him the opportunity to consider multi-media experiences in which music, spectacle, place and timing were important aspects of the communication and reception of scripture. On the topic of sermons, in the final chapter of the book, he tracks the same part of Matthew’s Gospel through a variety of preaching contexts, uncovering the kinds of exegetical, rhetorical, and mnemonic strategy by which it was elaborated for delivery and for record. Chapters two and three are fascinating discussions of the material significance of late medieval Bibles, taking on the talismanic functions of the Gospels as they were used in both liturgical and legal settings, and illustrating the features of layout and paratextual apparatus characteristic of the forms of Bible manuscript in use in England during the period covered by this book. These chapters in particular draw on extensive codicological study, the results of which are tabulated in a detailed appendix. Poleg’s work throughout is rich in material for historians of the book, in relation to matters such as mise en page and the ownership and use of Bibles, and he raises a number of questions about the variously positive and complicating potential of digital aids to the modern scholarly investigation of premodern texts.
Approaching the Bible in Medieval England is an absorbing and suggestive book. It is richly interdisciplinary, informed by a breadth of knowledge and scholarship. As well as its productive model for reception history it offers a compelling account of the relationship between texts and practice in the religious culture of later medieval England.
Professor of Medieval Studies
Department of English
Queen Mary, University of London