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Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 6r © University of Canterbury (3MB)

  • Single leaf from a friar’s Bible containing Genesis 11:10 - 16:4
  • 13th century; 2 columns of 48 lines each; on vellum (161x110mm)
  • High-grade gothic script. Blue and red pen work. Five decorative initials
  • Click to view MS 6v (4MB)

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Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 7v © University of Canterbury (4MB)

  • Single leaf from a friar’s Bible containing Jeremiah 48-50
  • 13th century; 2 columns of 48 lines each; on vellum (161x110mm)
  • High-grade gothic script. Blue and red pen work. Decorative initials open chapter 49 and 50
  • Click to view MS 7r (3.5MB)

The Old Testament

The origins of the Old Testament lie in Hebrew scriptures. These books, which recount the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God, were first given the order and form we know today c. 100AD. The roots of this material are, however, much older. The content of parts of the Old Testament has much in common with origin myths and stories produced across ancient Mesopotamia.

In the early Middle Ages Bibles often tended to be monumental, multi-volume works. Housed in monasteries or cathedral libraries, such texts were suited to the sedentary scholar.

The 13th century witnessed the emergence of two new monastic orders, the Dominican and the Franciscan friars. Both encouraged their members to live exemplary lives in cities and towns, rather than behind monastery walls. Such itinerant preachers required smaller Bibles they could carry with them. With their text densely packed in two columns and dimensions similar to the pages of a small paperback, these two leaves, which contain text from the Old Testament, were once part of such a Bible. Together with a leaf containing part of the New Testament, they are the oldest items in the Canterbury collection. All three are from a copy of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible made about 1275. 

Both Old Testament leaves feature minimal decoration beyond a little red and blue pen work. Little attempt was made to individualise such texts. This approach reflects the friar’s Bible’s role as a working book. These Bibles were one of many products to be effectively ‘mass produced’ – albeit by hand – by a book trade that was blossoming in the service of Europe’s newly established universities. These otherwise anonymous fragments offer a small window onto both the street theatre and the commercial life of towns and cities towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Further Reading

Christopher de Hamel, The Book: A history of the Bible (London: Phaidon, 2001), chapter 5.

Laura Light, 'The Bible and the Individual: The thirteenth-century Paris Bible', in The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity, ed. by Susan Boynton & Diane J. Reilly (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 228-246.

Anna Milne, 'A Friar's Bible', in Treasures of the University of Canterbury Library, ed. by Chris Jones, Bronwyn Matthews and Jennifer Clement (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2011), pp. 67-68.

Resources @ Canterbury

Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 6. Genesis. Bible leaf c. 1275.

Christchurch, University of Canterbury, MS 7. Jeremiah. Bible leaf c. 1275.