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

The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages. By BRIAN MURDOCH. Cambridge: Brewer. 2003. ix+209 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]; $85. ISBN 0-85991-776-2 (hbk).

It was Beryl Smalley who in 1941 first shook the academic community into an acute awareness of what had always vaguely been known: that the Bible was so central to medieval cultures that no meaningful work can be done in any sphere of medieval studies without taking account of its influence. But what Bible? In a society with low levels of literacy and limited capacities for text dissemination, it was usually the second-hand Bible which counted, a woolly form of reception in which the authority of Scripture was always asserted in principle, but in practice what was heard was a multi-layered and variable hybrid of text and interpretation, a tradition true to the spirit of the Bible as understood at the time, but seldom fixated on the letter. Eve's stolen apple is a case in point: the forbidden fruit is theologically important, and it is slightly frustrating that Genesis does not say what kind it was. But in the Middle Ages it became an apple, which obviously caught the popular imagination in a lasting way, and if an apple communicated the underlying concept, it was a perfectly acceptable addendum to the canonical account.

The 'medieval popular Bible' is Brian Murdoch's shorthand for this vast and bewildering network of motifs, originating in oral and scribal traditions, and preserved for us in poetic, narrative, and dramatic literatures, motifs which were for the populations of pre-Reformation Europe so intertwined with their biblical knowledge that they neither knew nor cared how much of it was in the strictest sense 'scriptural'. The phrase 'popular Bible' has been used loosely in other contexts, but the coinage here is new and helpful, and deserves to become a standard term. Starting with the apple, Murdoch leads us through the Book of Genesis, telling the liveliest stories as related by dozens of Christian and Jewish writers in a wide variety of genres. Much in the opening chapters on Adam and Eve will seem familiar to readers of his earlier book Adam's Grace (Woodbridge: Brewer, 2000), but in this volume he moves on rapidly through the Bible's primeval and patriarchal history. Abraham and Isaac are surprising omissions, but are compensated by the wealth of material on Noah and the Tower of Babel. Using Latin and vernacular sources from France, Germany, and the British Isles (with a fond eye to the Celtic fringe), and undertaking occasional excursions further south and east, Murdoch draws together the most diverse tales and teases out the mechanisms by which 'popular' elements arise.

For a profoundly academic book, this volume has a remarkably high entertainment value. In part this flows from the inventiveness and exuberance of medieval lore, with Noah's drunken goat, Jacob's courtly love, and Potiphar's ambiguous sexuality providing memorable images, but it also stems from the author's dry humour, which commands the reader's enthusiasm. As a result, this is certainly a study which will be enjoyed by the non-specialist. But with quotations in a dozen medieval vernaculars, it is nevertheless a demanding read, and its importance lies in the clear definition of the 'popular Bible' which gradually crystallizes out of the narratives. Apart from the price, and the fact that in the Hebrew and Yiddish citations the letter resh ([??]) has been rendered as daleth ([??]) throughout, it is hard to find fault with this valuable contribution to our understanding of medieval thought.


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Author:Dunphy, Graeme
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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