The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages

By Brian Murdoch | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

DECEIT MAKES FOR GOOD NARRATIVE, and this explains some of the interest in the Jacob and Joseph stories. But it remains difficult to reconcile that deceit with the presentation of the characters in the context of a medieval popular Bible, especially in the case of Jacob. In consequence, the stories of Jacob and Joseph in the medieval vernacular Bible can appear to be distorted, even in straightforward literal terms. Yes, Joseph is an exemplar of chastity and of faith in God; he is also considerably less interesting than Potiphar's wife, and thus the Genesis narrative and any possible moralising intent may easily become skewed. So too with Jacob, the trickster and deceiver, who is not, however, criticised, even if sensitive issues have to be avoided by selective omission, radical rearrangement of the order of events, or the addition of motifs, not all of which are necessary for explanatory purposes. For the Irish Saltair na Rann to have Rachel in labour when hiding Laban's property might be a necessary explanatory adaptation; for the same text to have Potiphar's wife lure Joseph into the jewel-room is not, though it does make the story far more vivid. Neither point is in the Bible.

Can we say, then, and not only of the Joseph story, whether it really is all there in Chapter 39/ of Genesis? Of course it is not. But the sensus litteralis, the literal gloss, has enormous potential, and we have moved with these stories at the end of Genesis often very clearly from the literal to the literary gloss. The impressive and still standard second volume of the Cambridge History of the Bible, which covers the Middle Ages, whilst containing chapters on medieval iconography (as 'The People's Bible') and on vernacular translations of the Bible, looks only tangentially at vernacular presentations of the Scriptures, and the concept of a 'medieval popular Bible' is one that is not too frequently found in any case. Thus the Cambridge History notes that the Middle English Genesis is 'remote from the biblical text', and that the Middle English Jacob and Joseph replaces doctrinal exposition with human and romantic interest. 1 Of course this is true, but these points are also extremely important in terms of biblical reception. As we examine these medieval texts and others like them more closely, we become aware of the

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1
Lampe, Cambridge History, II, 383. Although there is a chapter on medieval French vernacular Bibles, for example, neither Herman de Valenciennes nor Evrat are even mentioned. There is of course a difference between secular profane literature and religious literature which has aesthetic implications: see the interesting comments by Joerg O. Fichte, 'Der Einfluss der Kirche aus die mittelalterliche Literaturästhetik', Studia Neophilologica xlviii (1976), pp. 3―20; see especially pp. 12f. On Bible illustrations as the popular Bible, see most recently John Williams, ed. Imaging the Early Medieval Bible (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001). Morey, 'Comestor', is one of the few critics to use the term 'medieval popular Bible'.

-175-

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The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Medieval Popular Bible - Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages *
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction: the Popular Bible 1
  • One - Bedevilling Paradise 19
  • Two - What Adam and Eve Did Next 42
  • Three - Lamech and the Other Lamech 70
  • Four - Noah: Navigator and Vintner 96
  • Five - The Tower of Babel and the Courteous Vengeance 127
  • Six - Patriarchal Trickery: Jacob and Joseph 149
  • Conclusion 175
  • Bibliography 177
  • Biblical Index 203
  • General Index 205
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