The Bible and the People by Lori Anne Ferrell, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The Bible and the People

The Bible and the People

by Lori Anne Ferrell

In the eleventh century, the Bible was available only in expensive and rare hand-copied manuscripts. Today, millions of people from all walks of life seek guidance, inspiration, entertainment, and answers from their own editions of the Bible. This illustrated book tells the story of what happened to the ancient set of writings we call the Bible during those


In the eleventh century, the Bible was available only in expensive and rare hand-copied manuscripts. Today, millions of people from all walks of life seek guidance, inspiration, entertainment, and answers from their own editions of the Bible. This illustrated book tells the story of what happened to the ancient set of writings we call the Bible during those thousand years. Anchoring the story in material evidence—hundreds of different translations and versions of the Bible—Lori Anne Ferrell discusses how the Bible has been endlessly retailored to meet the changing needs of religion, politics, and the reading public while retaining its special status as a sacred text.

Focusing on the English-speaking world, The Bible and the People charts the extraordinary voyage of the Bible from manuscript Bibles to the Gutenberg volumes, Bibles commissioned by kings and queens, the Eliot Indian Bible, salesmen’s door-to-door Bibles, children’s Bibles, Gideon Bibles, teen magazine Bibles, and more. Ferrell discusses the Bible’s profound impact on readers over the centuries, and, in turn, the mark those readers made upon it. Enjoyable and informative, this book takes a fresh look at the fascinating and little-recognized connections among Christian, political, and book history.

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Rowland

"This unusual and very readable book offers an insight into the reception of the Bible by ordinary people at different times in history. Full of historical gems, this is a fascinating account of the world's most read (and owned), but least understood, book."—Christopher Rowland, University of Oxford


"Impressive scholarship illuminates the interplay between the divine Word and its diversely human readers."—Booklist (starred review)

Virginia Quarterly Review
A brisk and compelling cultural history of the English Bible from the Middle Ages to the present.—Wilson Brissett, Virginia Quarterly Review

— Wilson Brissett

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine
Catholic Historical Review
Engaging . . . Ferrell writes in a breezy fashion, making [her] work more accessible to a mass audience than is the Bible itself.—Charles H. Lippy, Catholic Historical Review

— Charles H. Lippy

Journal of Ecclesiastical History
It succeeds, for it is a fast-paced, accessible and well-illustrated romp through the history of the Bible's impact on people and people's impact on the Bible. . . . Readers who want to be challenged in their assumptions about how the Bible has functioned and continues to function as a text and about the history of its remarkable stability and malleability will find reading The Bible and the People to be a satisfying experience.—Patrick J. O'Banion, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

— Patrick J. O'Banion

Louis Ruprecht

"There are a great many books about books, but by emphasizing the symbiosis that brings people and texts into subtle alignment, Ferrell brings the lives and loves of the Bible's countless readers before us with staggering poignancy. This is an unforgettable book."—Louis Ruprecht, Georgia State University

William H Sherman

'In this lively, learned, and beautifully illustrated book, Lori Anne Ferrell takes us on a guided tour through a millennium of Western history, when the Bible was made and re-made for (and by) an ever-growing body of readers. Always interesting and often entertaining, The Bible and the People has much to teach us about our books, our beliefs, and our selves.'—William H Sherman, University of York

Ben Christensen

"Lori Anne Ferrell's attentive scrutiny to detailed facts and clues about how, why, where and when so many versions of the Bible have existed, carries the reader forward on an intelligent read conveyed in rich flavour and content. It reveals abundant scholarly insights, witty flair and parenthetical asides, all designed to inform and entertain the reader in search of further knowledge about the cultural and historical circumstances of this remarkable book."—Ben Christensen, Professor Emeritus of San Diego State University and Dean of the San Diego School of Christian Studies

Michael Olmert

“In a world beset with religionists of all persuasions, this is a must read. It shows the foundation text of Christianity to be a miracle of revision and interpretation, ever reinvented, ever new. A book to die for.”—Michael Olmert, author of Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella and The Smithsonian Book of Books

Virginia Quarterly Review - Wilson Brissett

"A brisk and compelling cultural history of the English Bible from the Middle Ages to the present."—Wilson Brissett, Virginia Quarterly Review

Catholic Historical Review - Charles H. Lippy

“Engaging . . . Ferrell writes in a breezy fashion, making [her] work more accessible to a mass audience than is the Bible itself.”—Charles H. Lippy, Catholic Historical Review

Journal of Ecclesiastical History - Patrick J. O'Banion

"It succeeds, for it is a fast-paced, accessible and well-illustrated romp through the history of the Bible's impact on people and people's impact on the Bible. . . . Readers who want to be challenged in their assumptions about how the Bible has functioned and continues to function as a text and about the history of its remarkable stability and malleability will find reading The Bible and the People to be a satisfying experience."—Patrick J. O'Banion, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

Publishers Weekly

In this slow-to-get-going but ultimately engaging text, Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University in California, tours the history of the Bible as it has been copied, translated, annotated, dressed up and every which way adapted to changing times for English-speaking readers. From the Latin Vulgate Bible to the contemporary Revolve and RefuelBible-zines for teens, the Bible has remained an object of central importance and more, or less, availability to Christians. Bible translation into the vernacular, whatever the vernacular, has been a way of establishing authority. Ferrell rightly recognizes this text's crucial place in the evolution of Anglo-American Christianity and in the hearts of Christians. (Dec.)

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Library Journal

The Christian Bible is not only a physical object but also a delivery system for spiritual and secular ideas, according to cultural historian Ferrell (early modern history & literature, Claremont Graduate Univ.). Examining the English Bible collection at the Huntington Library, Ferrell discusses these Bibles' historical, political, and social impact on Christian belief and practice in Great Britain and America from the Middle Ages to the present. Beginning with an illustration of a 1000-year-old Gundulf Bible, Ferrell argues against the claim that the Bible was once considered inaccessible to the common people. Instead, she shows how it has been transformed by its makers and its readers as they adapted it to fit the culture of each successive era. Whether used as political propaganda during the reigns of Elizabeth I or Henry VIII or, most famously, as a vehicle to stop the spread of Calvinism among the Puritans (King James Version), the Bible has both "escaped and required the expectations of its readers." Ferrell also poses the question of what makes the Bible a book and includes a fascinating discussion of biblioclasm (cutting and pasting, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson's Bible) and grangerizing (insertion of illustrations, evidenced by the Kitto Bible). For Ferrell, designing Bibles to fit secular culture does not make them secular texts but rather provides evidence of their status as sacred texts. Written for a general audience, this is an engaging and accessible overview of the history of the English Bible. Recommended for all libraries.
—Brian Greene

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2008 Lori Anne Ferrell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11424-9

Chapter One

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER The English Bible, c. 1066-1200

In the monasteries of the medieval age, The Word became Book. Here, in purpose-built rooms called scriptoria, men and women pledged to conduct their lives by counsels of perfection - poverty, chastity, and obedience, to work daily and pray without ceasing - copied the lines of the Christian scripture. The creators of medieval Bibles occasionally embellished this holy script, populating their text with fantastic beasts that clawed at the margins and gilded capital letters that framed lively little narratives in one act. Completed over years of labor, produced for immensely powerful patrons or ecclesiastical foundations, designed to honor apostles, saints, or the Mother of God, the worth of such illustrated manuscripts was just as immense then as it is today. Illuminated Bibles are now considered works of art. They are owned by museums, research libraries, and private families (many of whom eventually sell them for tax reasons to museums and research libraries). The most lavish of these assured and arrestingly lovely books represent only a small fraction of the Bibles once produced by hand in western Christendom. They constitute nearly all of the ones we view todayon public display.

Which may lead us to miscalculate the value and misunderstand the work of the Bible in the Middle Ages.

Pretty is, after all, as pretty does. The Latin Bible was a hardworking text in an age wherein the Christian Church claimed universal jurisdiction over all aspects of society and culture. The language of scripture permeated the world of the medieval West. Its lines formed a basis for theology and literature and created a template for daily liturgies and weekly sermons. Its phrases underpinned basic catechisms, epic poetry, and the investiture of emperors. Gleaming from a rich cathedral dais or humbly unadorned in a shadowy clerical study, a Bible's worth was primarily calculated by how well it did its job of representing the divine, rendered incarnate in vellum and ink.

A modern curator of medieval manuscripts will run a practiced eye, then, not only over a medieval Bible's illustrations but also over its most precious asset: its lines. Are they evenly spaced and neatly penned? Are the letters consistently legible and reliably accurate? Do they reflect the work of one scribe or many? One style of handwriting or many? A well-made Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of well-wrought words on a page.

All manuscripts are handmade: not merely rare but unique. Any consideration of their worth begins, then, with an appraisal of the labor, skill, and artistry that went into their making. These humane values transcend the worth of even the finest materials used in the construction of books - animal hide, colorful inks, gold leaf, precious gems. Vellum, tougher than paper, lasts for ages but the illuminators of medieval manuscripts do not, and usually remain mysterious figures. The work of their hands too often constitutes the sum of their biographies and so we name them after their labors: "Master of the Stammheim Missal," "Master of the Louvain Psalter."

In any case, an infinitesimal number of medieval manuscripts were illuminated by a single genius; most were neither intricately nor ornately illuminated, if at all. The Bible was too long, too complex, too important, and too necessary a text to be produced inefficiently. A monastic team of scribes could work far more quickly. The very best of these collaborators were trained in several formal styles of handwriting and would trade turns on the same book without sacrificing its clarity or uniform appearance.

This is not to say, however, that even a well-made manuscript Bible was a marvel of perfection. (No book, whether hand-copied or printed, ever can be.) Despite their remarkable material durability, every manuscript remains a human artefact: exasperating, poignant testament to the many frailties to which the human is heir. Manuscript Bibles were often inaccurately transcribed. The monks and nuns of the scriptoria were trained in the exacting skills of reproducing text, but not always in the elite art of reading the Latin language. Working from faulty texts, possibly unable to recognize or comprehend the words they copied by rote, scribes routinely transmitted the errors of previous generations and then added flaws of their own fashioning. Vellum being too valuable to toss out or scrape overmuch, the mistakes that were detected had to be corrected, directly and obviously, on the page. Sometimes a subsequent reader undertook the responsibility. Few if any of these otherwise punctilious students felt obliged to match the color of the ink or the style of the original hand.

When we open medieval Bibles, then, we are confronted with a veritable riot of words, images, and additional markings, which can make these books seem as kinetically charged and noisy as a room filled with several generations of loudly busy human beings. This is their glory - and our consequence. The hand-inked pages link centuries of successive readers in an ongoing conversation, of which we are the most recent and least interactive participants. For we no longer correct medieval manuscripts directly on the page (at least not if we wish to exit the research library under our own steam and not in the custody of security guards - and, quite possibly, psychiatrists). Instead we write a polite note to the curator and, if we are wise, think gratefully upon the mistakes and the misreadings that make up the messily believable beauty of the Past. These "flaws" rip the opaque veil that separates us from places and times now out of mind, and an age once lost to us is suddenly and powerfully revealed.

One such time and place is the earlier Middle Ages (c. 800-1100 CE), an era characterized by the extent of the political and religious influence of the papacy. Before the advent of Protestantism shattered the unity of western Christendom, the Christian Bible was in the care of this Church based in Rome, whose primary concern was to protect the faith by expounding it responsibly and preventing its beliefs from degenerating into heresy. This means that only one characteristic of the pre-Reformation "official" Bible was, in a sense, standard: it was supposed to be rendered in Latin, transmitted from scribe to scribe, from generation to generation, out of a fourth-century translation from the Greek made by the North African scholar and churchman Jerome.

Beyond the certainty of finding a text more or less derived from Jerome's translation, not much else in a Bible made before the thirteenth century was standardized. Its books were not always set in a particular order: they could be placed in differing sequences depending on regional norms, local liturgical practice, or peculiar working conditions. Scriptures were unevenly and confusingly formatted; text divisions often went unmarked; individual verses were unnumbered until the later sixteenth century. At least medieval sentences were lightly punctuated, a nicety not observed in the codices of an earlier age. This explains, incidentally, why silent reading was so rare at the time: it is virtually impossible to make sense of an unpunctuated passage without reading it aloud. The fifth-century churchman Ambrose's ability to read a book without moving his lips was seen by some of his contemporaries as nothing short of miraculous (and by others of his acquaintance, no doubt, as a slightly annoying episcopal parlor trick).

These irregularities explain, at least in part, why we find the kinds of decoration we do in a medieval Bible. Far from being shiny add-ons, images and emphasized capitals had useful purpose. In a read-aloud culture, wherein books were generally scarce, literacy always low, and liturgies lengthy, a lector had to be able to find his or her place swiftly. The first letters of the first words of the books of the Bible required signposts; illumination and other decorations marked the reader's way.

They were sorely needed, as were those relatively few expositors and lectors. Like all medieval books, the medieval Bible was an inaccurate and irregular artefact. It was written in a language only a very few people could read, in an age when the language spoken by the people was itself a language only a few could read. It was confusing, unwieldy, expensive, and unlikely to contain many helpful illustrations. Yet it formed the basic script for sacred and secular life in the western Middle Ages, an era best described from our currently secular vantage point as scripturally saturated and biblically aware.

How do we comprehend the impact of this confounding, paradoxical work - both so esoteric, odd, and user-unfriendly and also so essential, well known, and revered - on its own age?

Explanations for the Bible's powerful hold on medieval society and culture in western Christendom most often center on the power of its message or the power of the ecclesiastical institution charged with its protection and dissemination. These are good but incomplete answers. The first can assume too much about the clarity and universal theological appeal of the Christian scriptures and the second can, and usually does, assume the worst about the universal authority claimed by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. There are other ways to account for the Bible's success, and so I will begin with a consideration, not of brightly illuminated pages, but of the gentler light generated by the pages of a deceptively plain scriptural manuscript.

The Biography of a Bible

The manuscript to which we now turn is material proof of the paradoxical fact that, in the age before printing presses, Protestant reformation, and widespread vernacular literacy, the Bible was both a rare luxury item and a widely known, hard-working text in daily use. The oldest book in the holdings of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, is the manuscript known as the "Gundulf Bible." It dates from the second half of the eleventh century. Notes on the first pages of each of its two volumes identify an early owner as Gundulf, who was Bishop of Rochester, in southern England, from 1077 to 1108. This particular book appears in the catalogue of the Rochester Cathedral library for the years 1130 and 1202, information that fixes the book in a place with a documented history and allows us to trace the genealogy of a medieval Bible.

While the English Church described by Bede in 731 was not exactly the moribund institution that the apologists for William the Conqueror would claim after 1066, Rochester Cathedral was no place to go seeking evidence of pre-Norman ecclesiastical vibrancy. Rochester was the oldest and smallest of the bishoprics that effectively functioned as dependencies of the great southeastern archiepiscopal see of Canterbury. Founded in 604, the second-oldest religious foundation in England, Rochester endured the depredations of Mercian and Danish incursions in the seventh and eighth centuries - the unhappy fate of so many Anglo-Saxon foundations erected near Britain's southern coastlines. By the eleventh century, battered by invasion and neglect, the cathedral was worn down and outmoded - as, undoubtedly, were its four remaining priests.

In the late eleventh century, Gundulf, a Norman monk and trained architect who built the Tower of London for William the Conqueror, was named Bishop of Rochester by Lanfranc, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Gundulf took up his post and almost immediately made his name as a man of surpassing energy and ambition. He remade the cathedral into a soaring model of Norman architecture and replaced its residential priests, or "seculars" (so called to distinguish them from priests bound by monastic rule), with a resident order of Benedictine monks like himself. His decision, not only to rebuild the structure but also to redirect the work of the community that it housed, made Rochester Cathedral into an abbey and Bishop Gundulf into an abbot. Gundulf now had charge not only of the secular churches and clergy in his region but also of all monastic communities including, most authoritatively, his own. His decision to install a religious order in the environs of Rochester Cathedral thus placed him in a position of great power and influence.

It was power and influence secondary only to that of his contemporary, England's formidable Archbishop of Canterbury (c. 1005-89). The two had been novice monks together in France, which may explain their collaborative success in reforming religion in the south of England. In medieval terms the word "reformation" always means a unification program: conforming the disparate Christians - whether alienated monks, ignorant priests, or willful laypeople - of the many regions of western Christendom to a set of common beliefs and practices deriving from Rome. Medieval reformations thus were, and still are, judged on how well they accomplished that work of uniformity and that claim of Roman universality, which may surprise those of us more used to thinking of reform as sectarian critique and the word "reformation" as necessarily attached to the modifier "Protestant." Lanfranc's reforms in England included regularizing ecclesiastical law and defending the doctrine of the Eucharist as approved by Rome, but these projects emerged from a deeper ambition: to correct England's many different circulating biblical texts - all Latin, but few Jerome's - to orthodox standards, thus "bringing them," as one scholar points out, "into line with that of eleventh-century Europe."

Four hundred years before the advent of print, the Bibles of the British Isles were a traditionalist's nightmare: not only had they accumulated a mass of textual errors, they could be found in any number of unsanctioned versions reflecting regional practices, preferences, and geographical isolation. A fierce defender of orthodoxy and a stalwart ally of the western papacy, Archbishop Lanfranc reformed English Christianity by building upon foundations laid by his corrections of scriptures and his sponsorship of the production of an official, church-sanctioned version of the Latin Bible in England.

For his part, Gundulf concentrated on translating Lanfranc's large ambitions into the small world of Rochester. The library, like the cathedral fabric itself, was in parlous shape upon his assumption of the episcopate. So, in addition to replacing its priests in 1080 and rebuilding the cathedral in 1082, Gundulf also oversaw the construction of a world-class library: a task that would necessarily include not only commissioning and copying texts from other scriptoria but also training Rochester's monks to become scribes. Here, as seemingly everywhere else, Gundulf 's efforts swiftly bore fruit. The pre-Norman book lists of the cathedral note the presence of only six books; by the 1202 assessment, Rochester housed more than ninety. Most came from Canterbury's scriptorium, either directly or as texts copied by Rochester monks. The Bishop had successfully transformed a moribund institution into a vibrantly bookish one. The worship of God would thereafter proceed in acts of copying and preservation.

The Gundulf Bible

The most noteworthy thing about the Gundulf Bible is not that it is a one-thousand-year-old book (although that simple fact in itself is surely deserving of admiration), but that it has been considered an ancient book for nearly all of that lifespan. On the front flyleaf we find the following note, penciled in a modern hand: "The famous Gundulf Bible/Described as old in the catalogue of the library of Rochester Cathedral in 1202!" Other less exclamatory but still enthusiastic inscriptions can be found on the first folio page of its first volume, unfolding testimony to this Bible's successive owners and the fierce possessiveness that disputed claims can inspire. Here at the upper right hand we find the following warning to would-be thieves, penned thickly in a script that probably dates from the thirteenth century:

First part of the bible, courtesy of Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, of good memory. This book belongs to the cloister of Rochester, and he who may steal it from there, or who may hide it once it has been stolen, or who may erase this ownership note fraudulently, is hereby excommunicated, with the sentence carried out by the afore-mentioned holy bishop, the prior and the individual priests of the chapter of Rochester.


Excerpted from THE BIBLE AND THE PEOPLE by LORI ANNE FERRELL Copyright © 2008 by Lori Anne Ferrell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lori Anne Ferrell is professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University. She lives in Claremont, CA.

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