Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2012
When the period that we call ‘medieval’ opened, the Bible – a canon of authoritative texts embodying the venerable traditions of Israel and the chronicles of the young Christian church – was already firmly established with all its complexities. Its subsequent developments were interwoven with both the religious and the secular history of the Mediterranean, the Near East and transalpine Europe. The medieval period was a long one, characterised by bewildering changes, at the end of which the shape of what is now identified as the modern world may be discerned. In 600, Christendom still enjoyed a broad measure of political and spiritual unity, and Islam was yet to appear. Byzantium was the leading Christian society in the East, while the evangelisation of the West continued apace, with much of northern and western Europe still in the process of conversion, though that would not take long. By 900, the unity of Christendom had gone and the schism between Constantinople and Rome, political at first and then doctrinal, too, had become one of its defining characteristics. The church of the East remained essentially Greek, in contrast to an increasingly confident Latin West, secure in its notions of papal authority and powered especially by the Carolingian empire. The challenge of Islam had by now been felt in the East and was encroaching ever westwards. By 1450, this threat had been contained and the schism between Rome and Constantinople had become irrelevant, for the Greek empire had dissolved. The western church had experienced its own disruptions and divisions, and papal authority, ever in a stand-off with princely powers, was now under serious threat from within. The agenda of the Reformation had been set.
In its myriad manifestations, the Bible was, by the end of our period, available to a wider (and more critical) audience than ever before. Early changes in script and in parchment preparation had enabled the production of more and cheaper volumes, and there had been a move from the monastic scriptorium to secular, ‘professional’ workshops. But if it had become cheaper and easier to produce manuscript Bibles, nevertheless the patronage of rulers and the wealthy aristocracy was still of enduring importance. The de luxe, iconic volumes which survive disproportionately were often gestures of political or doctrinal will; the Bible was both a symbol and a tool of power.