Art, text, performance and faith from medieval Bible study until now

Professor Peter Judge

Professor Peter Judge lectures on Bibles and Bible reading in the Middle Ages. Photo by Briana Brown

On Tuesday February 24 at 7 p.m. there was a lecture on the Bible in the Middle Ages in Dina’s Place. The title of the lecture was “Bibles and Bible Reading in the Middle Ages: Art, Text, Performance, and Faith,” and it was presented by Professor Peter Judge.

Professor Judge started by saying that “it’s very easy for us to think of the Bible as a single bound text.” He said that when people look at the modern Bible, they find it hard to believe that it wasn’t always held together. He downplayed this belief by noting that in the Middle Ages the Bible was “a set of texts” that were separate, and that it was rare to have a complete text.

He then gave a history of the Bible in the Middle Ages. He said that one of the early texts were dyed in purple and written in golden ink. He also articulated that in that time period the Bible was a part of everyday life, and not just restricted to one day of the week, Sunday, like today. “People’s lives were permeated with living text,” he said. There was a life of constant prayer such that people meditated on the Bible. He talked about the liturgical year, which divided the year according to the life of Christ. It included the observation of times such as Lent, Easter and Christmas. Professor Judge said that this liturgical year symbolized the “cycle of life” for the Medieval Christians.

To further cement his point, he quoted part of an important scripture from Thessalonians which says “pray without ceasing” and said that this summarizes how the people in the Middle Ages approached the Bible. He added that prayer for them included a daily prayer timetable starting with the Morning Matin, which was done as early as 2-3 in the morning, and then followed by some other prayers that included the Terce and Vespers.

He talked about how even architecture spread biblical scripture. He showed pictures of medieval architecture which had biblical stories engraved in them as a form of art. He said there was even theatre based on the Bible, such as the plays of the innocents, passion plays and morality plays. He said these plays may still be seen in some small towns in Germany.

For the final part of his presentation he talked about interpretation of scripture in the Middle Ages. These were the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. To illustrate this idea, he talked about the city Jerusalem. He said that in the literal sense, it represents a physical city in Judea; in the allegorical sense it represents the church; in the moral sense it represents the faithful soul; and finally in the anagogical sense it represents Heaven, or the Church as depicted in Revelations 21.

He said that this complex idea proves that people as far back as the Middle Ages were also grappling with the problems of interpretation of scripture, much like they do today.

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