Heart-shaped books (and angels riding Segways)

In the spirit of the recent Valentine’s Day, here are some bibliobonbons to celebrate our love of books. Heart-shaped books seem to have been a craze in the 15th and 16th century. Below are a couple of beautiful examples, an illuminated music book and a prayer book (the shape symbolizing a heart open to God). There were also blank heart-shaped books that the owner could use to collect favourite love ballads. You can see an example of this and others at Ludmila’s livejournal page.

Chansonnier cordiforme de Jean de Montchenu
(N.B. The angel on a Segway is actually Fate riding the Wheel of Fortune.)

Heures d'Amiens

Livre d’heures à l’usage d’Amiens

Digitization of oldest complete Bible begins with New Testament

The British Library recently digitized the New Testament of the Codex Alexandrinus, the oldest complete Bible in existence. Because the modern binding was too stiff to allow the pages to be safely opened enough for photography, the book first had to be disassembled and rebound. I can’t imagine what it must be like to work on a book made in the 5th century. Whether or not you believe in its contents, the sheer antiquity of it is thrilling. Not only it is an old object, it comes out of the tradition that made the book the dominant technology for transmitting knowledge nearly 2000 years ago and which we still use today. Long live the book!

Digitizing the Codex Alexandrinus

If you’d like to know more about the history of the Bible as a book (and by extension, all books), I highly recommend Christopher de Hamel’s “The Book.”

British Library seeks to acquire Europe’s oldest book

The British Library is trying to raise £9M to acquire what is thought to be Europe’s oldest intact book, the Anglo-Saxon St. Cuthbert Gospel. The late 7th century book still has its original red leather cover, and contains the Gospel of John. The binding is beautifully decorated and the calligraphy is as clear and beautiful as it was when it was written 1300 years ago. You can get a look at it in the video below, and contribute to the acquisition fund at the British Library website.

via @Melwyk

Codex Aureus

The ever-fascinating BibliOdyssey has posted a simply gorgeous 9th century manuscript Gospel, the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram. The book has many spectacular full-page illuminations, but what really attracts me is the beautiful uncial writing of the text pages.

Codex Aureus p. 44

See more at BibliOdyssey, which has links to the full online version and background information.

Medieval Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

I found a great little book at the thrift store last week: The Medieval Woman: an illuminated Book of Days. It’s a hardcover datebook packed with vibrant illuminations of women doing all sorts of work. This includes traditional occupations such as textile work (from cultivating silk worms to tailoring), farm work, cooking, nursing, and midwifery, to nontraditional work such as trade (often alongside their husbands), painting, sculpture, musical performance, and even masonry, smithing, mining, and castle defense. I’ve scanned a few of the more bookish women to present here.

Medieval Woman
Christine de Pisan, Writing

Collected Works of Christine de Pisan,
MS. Harley 4431, f. 4

French, fifteenth century
British Library, London

Medieval Woman

Giovanni Boccacio. Le livre des femmes nobles et renommées.
MS. Fr. 598, f. 43r

French, fifteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Medieval Woman
Woman Teaching

Giovanni Boccaccio. Le livre des femmes nobles et renommées.
MS. Fr. 598, f. 71v

French, fifteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

I particularly enjoy the scholar with her multiple book stands. Perhaps if she were working today she’d have multiple monitors. I also must find out more about Christine de Pisan. According to the book she is the earliest known French female author. There is one illustration in the book of two fine ladies building a city wall from a work called “Cité des Dames” by Christine de Pisan. Could it be a fifteenth century feminist utopia? I must find out!

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Photo Marc WathieuThis is a Kuka industrial robot that has been programmed to “write” Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible on huge scrolls of paper as part of an art exhibit (click image for more photos). When I first saw this image on Book Patrol I was horrified. I find it profoundly disturbing to see a machine taking the place of a biblical scribe. This robot can have no relationship to the text being reproduced, and no relationship with the people who will be reading it (not that anyone will be reading those unwieldy scrolls). To have such a deeply human book “written” by a completely unfeeling thing just seems wrong to me. It should be no surprise that the resulting text looks perfect, and dead.

Contrast this with the Saint John’s Bible, which is being written entirely by hand, or more precisely, by a group of hands. Every book is different, depending on the scribe, and every letter is unique, with different flourishes depending on its location in the word and the line. The text is alive, written by people for people, overseen and supported spiritually and materially by a strong community of faith.

Such a human endeavour is naturally open to mistakes. If they are minor, or caught right away, the surface layers of parchment can be scraped away and the correct text inserted. Large omissions that are not noticed until the page is proofread require more creative solutions. I’ve seen a few of these in the 5 volumes of the Saint John’s Bible that have been completed so far, but here is a particularly charming one from the Wisdom Books.

Saint John's Bible, Wisdom 7

No robot, if it could make a mistake, would be capable of such humour and imagination in fixing it. I’ll take creative human imperfection over lifeless robot perfection any day.

The Bible Business

Yes, I’m afraid it’s another Bible post. What can I say, it’s Lent. I found this interesting article via Book Patrol about the business of publishing Bibles. Here’s an excerpt:

The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, forty-seven per cent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers manage to sell twenty-five million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has.

—Daniel Radosh, The Good Book Business [The New Yorker]

Someone should tell James Cameron that he might make more money going the Mel Gibson route! But I digress…

I’ve certainly been a good Bible customer, with six NRSVs (the seventh is on the way), a complete parallel Bible (four translations), an NRSV parallel Gospels, and a bilingual (Spanish-English) NIV, not to mention two concordances and a whopping big commentary. This is really backwards to how things used to be in monasteries in the middle ages. According to The Book, commentaries by “Church Fathers” such as Jerome and Augustine far outnumbered Bibles in old monastic libraries. Monks and nuns heard readings from Scripture several times a day in chapel and during meals, but it was the commentaries that they studied in detail. Over time the two texts came together in what are called glossed Bibles (see below), with excerpts from the great commentaries written on the same page with the biblical text. This tradition continues today with annotated (“study”) Bibles, except that now the comments are written by scholars drawing on two thousand years of thought and research. It’s a wonder that a book so old can keep getting better and better.

Mid-12th century glossed Bible

Saint John’s Bible: Prophets

Speaking of the NRSV, the latest gorgeous volume of the Saint John’s Bible was released earlier this month. Prophets is the fourth of seven volumes to be published, coming after Pentateuch, Psalms, and Gospels and Acts.  The illuminations are darker than in the previous volumes, with what look to me like references to the Shoah (Holocaust), but these are balanced by frequently recurring rainbows, which recall God’s covenant with the Earth (Genesis 9:13).

If you are particularly well-heeled, you can now sign up to buy one of the limited edition, full-size, high quality facsimiles of the original manuscripts. Only 360 copies of the “Heritage Edition” of the Saint John’s Bible will be produced. I believe Canada’s Museum of Civilization has ordered a copy, which makes me happy. Oh, the price? A mere $115,000 US. It’s worth every penny I’m sure.

Saint John's Bible: Prophets

In other NRSV news, the third, augmented edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible is being released next week. I didn’t even know there had been a second edition so I am quite pleased about this. I’ve been reading my now ancient first edition NOAB and am amazed by what a thorough job both the NRSV translators and the Oxford editors have done at explaining these ancient texts in a concise and scholarly manner. If the third edition is even better then I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher de HamelI’ve also been enjoying The Book: A History of the Bible by illuminated manuscript scholar Christopher de Hamel. The Book is about the history of the Bible as a book, or collection of books, and answers many questions (and puts to rest many suspicions) about how it has developed over time in various traditions and languages. De Hamel’s book is published by Phaidon which means that it is drop-dead gorgeous, beautifully printed on heavy paper with colour illustrations on nearly every page. I think it’s going to be one of those books I wish would never end.