University acquires rare medieval Bible
Just months after it opened its Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, the University of South Carolina has acquired a rare medieval Bible, the first complete Bible of its kind in South Carolina.
Small enough for monks and friars to tote around, the new Bible is rare because it was written in Oxford, England, around 1240 and is in pristine condition. It was purchased for $77,000 with support from New York’s B. H. Breslauer Foundation and joins other valuable medieval holdings in the library’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
“This Bible is exceptionally fine,” says Dr. Scott Gwara, a USC medievalist who recommended the acquisition and secured the outside funding. “Even though it’s written in Latin, the 1,000-page manuscript is from England, produced around 1240.”
Gwara says most medieval Bibles in the United States -- fewer than 100 in number -- are from France or Italy. The Bible acquired by USC is the only English pocket Bible in the Southeast, making it particularly valuable for research and study.
“Most Bibles from this period originated in Paris, so an English Bible like this one is very rare. It was probably made in Oxford,” Gwara says. “It looks as pristine as the day it was copied, more than 750 years ago.”
Dean of Libraries Tom McNally says the Bible will enhance teaching and understanding of medieval history and manuscripts. The library has the largest collection of medieval manuscripts in the state.
“As we continue to build our teaching collection of medieval manuscripts, this was both a major acquisition and a statement of our commitment to the medieval collection,” McNally says. “In our region, only Chapel Hill, Duke, Emory and UVA have complete medieval Bibles, and none is of English origin.”
Gwara says USC acquired the Bible for several reasons.
“Simply put, the Bible is the most important book in the Western world,” Gwara said. “This one happens to be a fabulous teaching aid. Pocket Bibles are innovative. First produced around 1200, they enabled clergy to have the Bible in a single, portable volume. In England, traveling friars, from either the Dominican or Franciscan orders, would likely have carried a Bible such as this.”
Gwara says the medieval pocket Bible isn’t dissimilar from Bibles today.
“It still resembles our own modern Bible: thin pages like tissue paper, tiny handwriting and comprehensive chapter numbers,” Gwara says. “This English pocket Bible is an important, early, complete and unstudied manuscript. What’s more, it joins other excellent examples of early printed Bibles in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, which provide greater context and understanding.”
USC’s new Bible is about 7 inches tall by 5 ½ wide. The English vellum, a parchment made from animal skin, has a delicate suede-like feel to the touch. Dozens of intricately decorated initials, written with a reed pen in blue with white zigzags, open each book. The text is penned at a size comparable to a four-point type today, which is roughly half the size of newspaper print.
While the ornate lettering is eye-catching, Gwara says the true beauty in the Bible is in its texts.
“It’s nothing like the Paris Bibles of the period,” he says. “Generally, these 13th-century Bibles included prefaces to each book. This Bible has far more prefaces than normal and features a pastor’s notes and proofreading marks in its margins. It also includes a text called the ‘Interpretation of Hebrew Names,’ which translates the Hebrew names in the whole Bible. It is remarkable, and I cannot wait to share this book with our students.”
The pocket Bible is the second acquisition of a medieval manuscript to the university on behalf of the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, established by the estate of the late Bernard H. Breslauer, a renowned book dealer and scholar, to support acquisition of rare books and manuscripts by U.S. libraries and institutions.
In 2007, with $46,000 from the foundation, University Libraries acquired a rare medieval manuscript, a preacher’s manual dating back to 1269. That same year, Gwara cataloged the state’s medieval holdings from more than eight institutions and worked with USC library staff to organize an exhibit of the treasures.
Gwara says there are fewer opportunities to acquire medieval manuscripts through auctions because most manuscripts have already been acquired by libraries, museums and private collectors.
“The market for medieval holdings is finite, and it’s drying up,” he says.
Gwara says a complete Missal (book of the order of the Mass) and complete Breviary (book of prayers and hymns), two essential manuscripts at a cost of approximately $7,500 each, would enhance USC’s teaching collection.
The English pocket Bible will be featured in an exhibit that will open in the spring at the Hollings Library. Titled “The English Bible: An Exhibition for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, 1611, the exhibit will be on display March through June.
For more information and images of USC’s medieval manuscript collections, visit the website: www.pagesfromthepast.org.
University of South Carolina Libraries
University Libraries is the only member of the Association of Research Libraries in the state of South Carolina and is ranked among the top 40 public research libraries in the United States by the organization. The Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library consists of the South Carolina Political Collections, Digital Collections and the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections acquires, preserves and makes available rare books, manuscripts and specialized research collections from a range of historical periods to students, faculty and others around the world. The department’s holdings have grown seven fold in the past 25 years to 150,000 volumes.
Dr. Scott Gwara
Scott Gwara earned his doctoral degree in medieval studies from the University of Toronto in 1993. He also earned degrees from Yale University, Cambridge University and Hamilton College. Gwara has published widely on Old English, medieval Latin and medieval manuscripts. He teaches medieval English language and literature at the University of South Carolina.
A biblical acquisition
- What: Bible, created around the year 1240
- Who: USC medievalist Scott Gwara organized the acquisition and secured the outside funding
- Where: New Bible to join university's other medieval holdings in Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections