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.)

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

LDNA in Studia Neophilologica

In mid-June, Studia Neophilologica published online the first peer-reviewed article from the Linguistic DNA project:

Linguistic DNA: Investigating Conceptual Change in
Early Modern Discourse
Susan Fitzmaurice, Justyna A. Robinson, Marc Alexander,
Iona C. Hine, Seth Mehl, and Fraser Dallachy. Continue reading LDNA in Studia Neophilologica

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

Under the surface: SHARP, LDNA and sundry sources

When I drafted my abstract for SHARP, I recall a keen sense that my doctoral work was very closely tied to the conference theme, and that—being then in an early stage of the Linguistic DNA project—it was harder to anticipate what LDNA outputs might best speak to the 2016 theme “Languages of the Book”. As others will recognise, a 20-minute conference paper often skims over details of process in favour of content. In this post then I want to reflect on how I brought together LDNA with my own prior research. Continue reading Under the surface: SHARP, LDNA and sundry sources

Friendship by correspondence

As you may or may not know, I’m an old fashioned, traditional kind of guy who rejects not only 1990s culture, but also that of most of the twentieth century with discernible vehemence–my use of letters and telegrams rather than telephones, quill pens and ink instead of biros or word processors, and my incessant ramblings pertaining to how things were when everything was fields and you could hang your key outside your front door without a single worry–those were the days!

[M.F.E. Bruce. From a letter postmarked 3 August 1997; in response to my writing ‘having just read a Jane Austen novel’.] Continue reading Friendship by correspondence

Sheffield’s Brexit, Hard Evidence and Anecdotes

Vote remain: placard on window sill

For weeks I’ve been feeling an inarticulate kind of anger. No one cared to canvas in the former heartlands.

The current post is prompted specifically by the “anecdotal evidence” in Charles Pattie’s contribution to The Conversation. In the footnotes to what follows, you will find some additional information Sheffield’s demographic extremes. The main post provides direct anecdotal evidence from someone who works for the University of Sheffield (like Pattie), but lives on the city’s north eastern fringes.

Continue reading Sheffield’s Brexit, Hard Evidence and Anecdotes

Towards a doctorate

The early days of my doctoral research were quickly disrupted: I arrived in the Department of Biblical Studies just as the University announced its intent to close it. That step was forestalled, and I had a small role in shaping what became the new Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS). Continue reading Towards a doctorate