13 Jun 2017

The Psalms in Hebrew and Latin

As mentioned in the previous post, several volumes in the exhibition are open at the beginning of the book of Psalms, to allow and encourage comparison between them. In this post we will look at a few more.

Perhaps the best illustration of the fact that 13th-century Christian scholars wanted to engage with and study the Hebrew text of the Psalms is shown by this volume:
Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 11
What this image shows is St Jerome’s third translation of the Psalms (from Hebrew into Latin), written in a narrow column towards the right-hand edge, Psalm 1 beginning with a large blue decorated initial “B”. To its left, in much larger script and in a wider column, is the equivalent Hebrew text. Here is a detail:

We can be sure that this book was written for a non-Jewish reader for two reasons. First, the Hebrew is written with “pointing” (i.e. the dots and dashes under the words) to indicate the vowels, which would not have been needed by anyone who could read Hebrew fluently:

Second, even though the overall layout of the page seems to suggest that the Hebrew is the dominant text, and the Latin subsidiary, the text is written so that the pages are turned from right to left (i.e. the reader reads towards the right) instead of the opposite as would be found in a Hebrew book. The first note in the top right corner of the page draws attention to this fact: in Latin it states that the each page is read towards the right in the Latin manner, whereas the individual lines of Hebrew are written and read towards the left according to Hebrew custom:

We can also be sure that the book was indeed studied by 13th-century Christians because of the numerous Latin annotations which occupy much of the four outer margins, as well as the space between the main Hebrew and Latin texts:

Similar in some ways, but printed instead of manuscript, and produced almost 300 years later, is this 1535 edition of the Psalms in Hebrew surrounded by a Latin commentary:
Oxford, Corpus Christi College, CZ.12.11
Although it is open in the exhibition at the beginning of Psalms:

the title-page lists all the Old Testament books it contains: the Prophets, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, etc.:

The 1535 date of publication is in Roman numerals (M. D. XXXV.) at the bottom of the page, and thus it is interesting to note that on the following leaf there is an inscription recording that it was given to Corpus Christi College by the first President, John Claymond (discussed in a previous post):

He died within two years, in 1537, so it is clear that he bought the book very soon after publication.

A curious feature of the decoration of the book is that the printer apparently did not have decorated initials suitable for every book: the initial "B" of Psalms begins with an image of Adam and Eve, a subject more appropriate to Genesis:

Details of the two exhibits discussed above are:

[Proverbs and Psalms]
[England, perhaps Oxford, late 13th century]
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 11

Sebastian M√ľnster (1489–1552), Veteris instrumenti tomus secundus, prophetarum oracula atque hagiographia continens, hoc est, Prophetas maiores & minores, Psalterium …
Basel: Michael Isingrin and Heinrich Petri, 1535
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, CZ.12.11

10 Jun 2017

Translations and Revisions of The Psalms

The first words of Psalm 1 in Middle English
(Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 4)
One of the major themes of the exhibition is the perennial desire to revise and improve the text of the Bible.

Before the printing of the Gutenberg Bible c.1455, all books were written by hand. Every new book was produced by a scribe, who copied from an already-existing copy. (It is notable that even in modern English we refer to individual modern printed volumes as "copies" of a book, even though they were not produced by a process of copying).

This process led to a gradual "corruption" of the text, as follows: a scribe would make a copy of Book A to produce Book B. Being human, he (most scribes were male before the fifteenth century) would almost inevitably introduce some errors. He might then make a different copy of Book A, Book C, with different errors in it, so now A, B, and C are all different. Other scribes would later copy Books B and C to produce Books D and E (and F, G, H, ...) duplicating the errors of the earlier copies, and adding new ones. And so the process would continue, down through the centuries, with each copy's text straying further and further from the text of the original Copy A.

Aware of this problem, St Jerome was commissioned in the 4th century to revise the Latin text of the Bible, which he did by comparing the differing texts in a variety of manuscripts (as discussed in a previous post). He paid particular attention to the book of Psalms, ultimately making three different versions. The first, completed in the year 384, was a revision of the "Old Latin" version that was in current use in Rome, and is known as the "Roman" version. The second was made several years later, based mainly on Greek sources, and because it became firmly rooted in Gaul, is known as the "Gallican" version. Finally, Jerome realised that to achieve the most authentic text he would need to base a translation on manuscripts in Hebrew, and the result (even though it is in Latin) is known as the "Hebrew" version.

Thus, by the year 400, there were three distinct versions of the Psalms in circulation: the Roman, Gallican, and Hebrew (not to mention the many different corrupt variants preserved in older manuscripts). In later centuries, scholars often wanted to compare two or three of these different Latin versions, and they are therefore sometimes found written side-by-side in manuscripts.

One of the most dramatic examples of this desire for side-by-side comparison is in the exhibition, in which we see not only two different Latin versions compared, but also the text in Hebrew:
Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 10, fol.2r
Even without being able to read Latin or Hebrew, you can see that the versions have differences. Here, for example, is a detail of the image above. The initial "Q" marks the beginning of Psalm 2, verse 1, and it is clear that verse 2, starting on the fourth line, begins with the letter "A" (in blue) in the left column, but the letter "C" (in red) in the right column:

Psalm 1, verse 1, of the Latin Psalms begins "Beatus vir ..." (Blessed is the man ...), and the visitor to the exhibition will see several manuscripts and printed books open to the beginning of the Psalms, all beginning with an enlarged initial "B".
[detail -- click to enlarge]
At the very top of this post is a detail from a translation of the Psalms made in the late 14th century, into Middle English. It begins:
"Blissful the man that wente
not a wey in the cou[n]seile of
unpytous ... "
Here it is again with a bit more of the surrounding context, in which we see that the Middle English translation follows an excerpt of the Latin text, underlined in red, and with a large decorated initial "B" for "Beatus vir ... ":

This and other versions of the Psalms will be discussed in the next post.

The two manuscripts reproduced above are:

Psalms, preceded by prefaces
England, perhaps Oxford, second quarter of the 13th century
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 10

Wycliffite Bible, in the earlier version
England, c.1400
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 4