Things I read in the Bible

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. It wasn’t a frivolous visit; I was preparing for the discussion about religion and power that you could have heard as part of this evening’s Radio 3 Free Thinking.

It is a lavish and expansive exhibition. Potentially overwhelming when you approach it, as I did, with the intent of looking at and absorbing as much detail as possible.

Talking about it earlier today, I focused on the Ruthwell Cross, which startled me with its multilingualism–not because I thought the Anglo-Saxon era monolingual, but I’d not encountered a cross so clearly preserved, let alone with commentary inscribed in two languages. One that sought to speak directly with text, as well as with image–and with a strong set of women-focused images too.

As every visitor must surely be, I was also drawn to the Codex Amiatinus. I held my forearm up against the case as a rough measure. Perhaps 10 inches deep? Who is such a large bible for, I asked myself? Bibles are libraries, collections of books. Before the printing era, it was logically more efficient to copy it out in parts, enabling different people to consult the separate volumes at the same time. What is the point in a bible so huge that one person could scarcely wrap their arms around it? (You can make your guess, or you can listen to Prof. Michelle Brown explain; and hear me draw some sixteenth-century comparisons.)

Those two objects stood out for me.

But there was something else I’d have liked to talk about too: manumission records. Manumission is the technical term for freeing enslaved people. I imagine I learned it around the time I learnt Latin. The Cambridge Latin course makes much of the liberation of an enslaved man (Latin: servus) in return for his loyalty in a time of crisis; so slavery is very much part of the mental landscape when I think of the Roman Empire. But I confess that my mental landscape of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had no particular space for enslaved people. As I paused in front of a manumission record, I felt that perhaps that mental gap was of-a-piece with wider cultural unwillingness to think of Britain as an enslaving country.

The attentive visitor will meet manumission records more than once in the exhibition. The most prominent case concerns a blank page in the middle of a religious text–a bible, I think. This page, we discover, once held a series of manumission certificates–but they had been erased, rendered all but invisible until modern imagining techniques revealed them again.

Why were they erased? This is an unanswerable question, in the sense that we cannot know. But my intuition is that, for a later generation, they were in the way, noise, not part of the text proper. I intuit that because it is only very recently that scholars have taken a proper interest in the marks of ownership that adorn texts, and because these records reminded me of how blank spaces became occupied in early modern bibles,

The image below comes from an early seventeenth-century printed bible. It too is a record, a secular record, a record of a loan.

In the 17th century as in the Anglo-Saxon era, writing materials were a more scarce resource than now. (The same Geneva Bible contains various experiments in handwriting as well as preachers’ notes.) A bible was also a safe place to keep an important record.

So I am not fully convinced that we should link every record of liberation that happens to have borrowed space from a religious text with a religion that has done at least as much to support slavery as against it. But I’ll be interested to know what others think.

(Detail from an annotated Geneva Bible in the University of Sheffield’s Special Collections, formerly owned by Alan Saxby. Photograph mine.)

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