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 Anglo-Saxon was 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 the ways 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. Photograph mine.)

Fair Trade & Justice

I don’t recall the first time I heard about Fair Trade. I have second-hand memories of dire instant coffee. Second-hand because I didn’t start drinking coffee till I was an undergraduate. By then the instant stuff had improved, though I’m committed to ground coffee these days.

When I worked at Church House, I became a Fair Trader. Continue reading Fair Trade & Justice

Here I stand: can I do other?

It must be six months or more since I first heard that Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch was coming to Sheffield as a Prokhorov lecturer. I immediately emailed the colleague responsible to reserve a place at the masterclass. Though I doubt he recalls it, MacCulloch was approached as a possible examiner for my PhD thesis and I remain a little bit fanatical about his work on Reformations—so marvellously complex. It is therefore with real sadness that I find myself on the outside of that event.

Masterclass day is day 2 of UCU strikes. Pensions are the official issue, but there’s a wider anger afoot. Zero-hour teaching contracts, a culture of publish or perish, constant criticism from public figures who think they have an idea how we spend our summers.

All this comes as a project I’ve been curating for (coincidentally) at least 6 months felt like it was taking off. And with permission from an organising colleague, we had advertised MacCulloch’s evening lecture under that 500 Reformations umbrella. 500 Reformations had itself revealed to me an unexpected direction of collegiate interest in Luther. I found myself added into a collaborative bid to consider the great reformer’s philosophical legacy. The first event for that collaboration is also taking place on day 2 of the strikes.

As it happens I know through private networks that I’m far from the only person who queried the intention to go ahead with the scheduled events as planned. However, for some colleagues it is apparently less obvious that this kind of collaborative enterprise–whether masterclass or explorative meeting–is part of the labour our union has asked us to withdraw, part of the work the University finds valuable, part of what I’m–we’re–paid to get involved in. (Yes, I know there’s luxury in that.) I wish I were able to reconcile my priorities with such personal convenience, or that we were able to find a workable compromise—to postpone or cancel the planned events and perhaps do something informal, off-campus in their place.

Sadly, that kind of resolution looks increasingly unlikely. So I’ve ploughed my energies into a creative protest, one that harnesses a little of Luther’s language and hopefully achieves a level of provocative kindness.

To the picket line, good people… okay, sinners.

–Inviting others to #jointheconversation.

–And a question for debate, “What would Luther do?”
–And some provocative kindness for those who wish to carry on in and enjoy the Masterclass!


Earlier this month, I made the 6-hour rail journey to Plymouth to participate in the Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts conference, dataAche. I was there to participate in a panel organised by Gabriel Egan, around the theme of “the author’s unseeing eye”. Continue reading dataAche

Choosing the vicar’s wedding dress

Last month, the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, met in York.* Alongside conversion therapy and rites of passage for transgender people, the agenda also included a change to rules on what clergy wear during services, including special occasions like weddings and funerals

At present, all C of E clergy are legally required to wear traditional robes, a mode of dress little changed since the question of suitable clothing was debated in the mid-sixteenth century. The new ruling empowers brides, grooms and mourners to make a decision on the vicar’s dress.** The change is not immediate: as with other national laws, the Queen has to give her royal assent. Continue reading Choosing the vicar’s wedding dress

Religion, evil and forgiveness: some thoughts off air

Sunflower. Photograph (c) Marcin Szala, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sunflower. Photograph (c) Marcin Szala, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Twice in as many weeks, I’ve provided an expert voice to aid discussion on local radio. The first invitation was to talk about Martin Luther and “what he’d ever done for us”. The most recent, to discuss religious notions of evil and forgiveness following the death of an unrepentant serial killer. Continue reading Religion, evil and forgiveness: some thoughts off air

Watching Luther: a prequel to three public talks

On Halloween, 1517, nearly 500 years ago, Luther posted up his debate text on the doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Was Luther’s text inflammatory? Composed in Latin, its direct capacity to inflame was limited to his literate peer group. Continue reading Watching Luther: a prequel to three public talks

Tools for EEBO-TCP & the challenge of reproducibility

After a gap in posts, this is a somewhat epic effort, following up on a “Language and Society” seminar with University of Sheffield History students this morning. Alongside an overarching interest in “reproducibility”, it contains:

  1. A description and tips for EEBO-TCP tools including the main Continue reading Tools for EEBO-TCP & the challenge of reproducibility

Lost books and Archbishop Parker

“Keeping printers busy and rich was a far more effective assurance of loyalty than any regime of censorship. [. . .] To understand the economy of print is not to turn one’s back on the world of ideas. It is a necessary prerequisite to understanding that world.” 1

As the past tense of that first sentence suggests, in this post I’m moving away from contemporary politics and back into the world of book history. Yet reading these words from the close of Pettegree’s “Legion of the Lost”, I found myself translating his remarks to the present. Continue reading Lost books and Archbishop Parker