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

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