Book Review: The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages

In the tradition of Singing News’s long-running book review column, a fixture until their office moved to Nashville, will periodically feature Sunday afternoon book and film reviews. So that the home page can remain focused on Southern Gospel news and commentary, just click the story title or the “more” link to read the review.

The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity is a scholarly collection of academic essays edited by Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly. It offers a multidisciplinary look at the Bible’s impact on Middle Ages culture.

In the introductory essay, the editors immediately make it clear that they have no pretensions of actually believing the Bible—especially what it says about itself. They assume that the Pentateuch was written between 800 B.C. and 400 B.C. and that the Old Testament was written in the 2nd century A.D.; “assume” is used as they offer no attempt at proof. They assume that Solomon did not write Song of Solomon and that the authors credited in New Testament books did not write their books. It is frequently thought-provoking, sometimes fascinating, and occasionally disturbing to observe the thought processes of someone who can know the Bible better than many Christians without actually knowing the One who inspired it.

The opening essays are even more dry and bland than the average academic work. The authors of these essays transcribe enough multi-page lists of orders of service and similar equivalents of medieval church bulletin reprints that one wonders if, amidst their efforts to preserve facts for future reference, they even considered the possibility that the essays might actually be read.

Aside from issues of orthodoxy, one particular section of the book is particularly inappropriate for a family audience. By all appearances, one medieval manuscript had an illustration of a man with what appears to be a significant portion of his anatomy unclothed; not only did they offer the suggestive and apparently accurate interpretation—they also reproduced the illustration. There is also an illustration of Adam and Eve with fig leaves with rather insufficient swags.

Four-tenths of the way through the book, though, things start getting better. Essays shift in focus to topics like “Biblical Exegesis Through the Twelfth Century,” “The Bible in English in the Middle Ages,” and “The Old French Bible: The First Complete Vernacular Bible in Western Europe.” Numerous segments will be fascinating to evangelical Protestants. For example, the shift from from metaphorical to common-sense or literal exegesis started centuries before the Reformers. Though we might think the Roman Catholic church was firmly opposed to Vernacular translations (translations into the language of the common people) throughout the Middle Ages, two essays document fascinating exceptions—French and Spanish translations, in or around the 1200s, which were tolerated by Roman Catholic authorities. There is also a fascinating discussion of an early Middle Ages translation of Psalms 1-50 by the legendary British monarch King Alfred.

While the first 40% of the book has so much of concern to an evangelical audience to hold the book back from any recommendation, the remaining 60% is strong, fascinating, and engaging enough that a book with that portion alone would likely win a recommendation qualified with a few caveats. Though not for everyone, The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages has much to offer to adults firmly grounded in their faith and fascinated with church history.

Disclosure of Material Connection (FTC 16 CFR, Part 255): Review copy provided by publisher. A positive review was not required; opinions expressed are those of the site editor.