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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Written Commentary and the Development of the University Lecture

The theological reference-books developed by the friars were the culmination of a lengthy process. Scholars after the patristic period did not lose sight of the importance of study of the Bible and here a new pattern began to emerge, of ‘written’ commentary, which could be studied by monks together with the old sermons. Indeed, it consisted partly of extracts from such sermons, conveniently arranged alongside the text.

A leading exponent of this new trend was Bede. He was supplied with sources brought from the first Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in southern Italy by the travelling scholar Benedict Biscop. He seems to have had some perception of the need future generations would have for study-aids, and those he provided were strongly focused on scripture. He wrote commentaries of his own, beginning to fill some of the gaps in the authorities he had access to, and drawing upon extracts from those authorities so as to put together a tapestry of quotations.

By permission of the British Library.

This mode of Bible study persisted in monastic and later in cathedral schools. These differed in that the monastic schools of the west, all still Benedictine until the twelfth century, were normatively ‘enclosed’. Exchange of books for copying and of letters went on between them, and the occasional scholarly traveller might bring new ideas. But in general such schools were only as good as the best teachers in the monastery at any given time. Bec in the time of Anselm (late eleventh century) was exceptional in that, it was said, Anselm could make ‘seeming-philosophers’ even out of ‘rustics’.

The Dean & Chapter of Worcester.

The cathedral schools were much more open to scholarly exchange and could become centres of controversy, as did Laon at the end of the eleventh century. At Laon in particular—though other cathedral schools were actively involved—there were attempts to fill gaps in the existing coverage of commentaries available on the books of the Bible, so as to create a complete ‘gloss’ or ‘commentary’ on the whole of scripture. The Bible had always been studied—and indeed often thought of—as a series of books, rather than as the ‘Bible’. Its sheer size meant that it was practical and convenient to bind it in individual books. Certain of these books were much more used than others. Accordingly, there had always been a certain patchiness in commentary. During the twelfth century almost every lecturer who commented on the Bible at all would do so on the Pauline epistles and the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and most especially the Psalms. Some of the prophets might remain untouched decade after decade in the schools, although some lecturers would take up themes within the Old Testament, as Hugh of St Victor did with Noah's Ark; Richard of St Victor with the vexed question how the Temple in Ezekiel could possibly stand up, with its given dimensions; Alan of Lille with the ‘six wings of the cherubim’ in Isaiah.

The unevenness of coverage now had to be repaired, because there was a new density of demand. The twelfth century saw the rise of schools which were to grow into the first universities, and pressure of student requirements for a syllabus and systematic instruction. A Glossa ordinaria or standard gloss came into being by the second half of the century, formed partly out of old work, partly out of new, so that a student could in principle obtain guidance on any portion of scripture he needed to study.

But students outside the continuing monastic tradition were not reading on their own. They ‘read’ a text with a master, who ‘lectured’ upon it to them. That meant taking a short portion of the text and expounding it. The lemmata were given complete by some masters (for example, Gilbert of Poitiers), so that it would be possible to reconstruct the text from them if it had been otherwise unavailable. This was a concession to the problem that students were unlikely to have the full text before them as they listened. (This practical difficulty of the expense and availability of books was addressed in the thirteenth-century universities by pragmatic booksellers, who would rent the relevant fascicules to students as the lecture-course proceeded.)

Mary Evans Picture Library.

In the earliest commentaries we have, from the Carolingian period, the tendency is to concentrate at a fairly elementary level upon the difficult words. The trend thereafter was more and more to address the ideas in the text, and to try to deal with seeming contradictions piecemeal. Then came the need to tackle larger and larger theological problems to which portions of the text pointed. An example is a passage in Peter Abelard's commentary on Romans in the middle of the twelfth century. He found himself dealing with the question why God became man. He rehearsed all the arguments then currently fashionable, including that of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, in order to reject them, then advanced his own, which was that Christ's primary purpose was to set an example of the way to live a perfect human life. But this excursus is extremely lengthy, and it was becoming a problem that the sequence of the lecture could be badly disrupted by such large pieces of ‘commentary’.

It should be emphasized that it was not only scripture which was lectured on in this way. The method of instruction on any set text was exactly the same, and although the Bible was always far and away the most important, the method of approach to it was pedagogically standard for its time.

Because of the difficulty about the interruption of long asides, a new pattern of study was developing during the twelfth century out of this ‘reading’ (lectio) of a text of scripture with a commentary before an audience of students. These first ‘lectures’ led to the first ‘disputations’. Some books of the Bible had more than one ancient commentary and the commentators did not always agree. So when he got to a given passage a lecturer might have to pause and give his view of the right answer. Thus ‘topics’ became isolated, and there survive from the school at Laon in this period a series of ‘Sentences’ on such themes. ‘Sentences’ are sententiae or ‘opinions’.

In the course of the next century these ‘topics’ began to swell to a size which made them disruptive of the sequence of the lecture, and it is clear from surviving lectures that students would interrupt with questions. So the disputed passage or theme would be set aside for special consideration later in the day at a disputatio. These, too, grew, until it became an essential part of a scholar's training that he learn to handle disputed questions in a formal way, first posing the problem, then assembling all the arguments on one side and on the other, and finally deciding or ‘determining’ the matter. A higher degree in the later medieval universities (Master or Doctor) was a warrant that a scholar had reached a level where he could lead such disputationes and thus be a university teacher himself.

The most-used textbook of theology in the Middle Ages was a product of this development. Peter Lombard wrote his Sentences in the second half of the twelfth century to try to put the perplexing proliferation of topics into a logical order and thus provide a reference-book for students.

The Master & Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

These sessions of pitting arguments against one another included the use not only of authorities from scripture itself and from the Fathers commenting upon it, but also from secular classical philosophical sources. Here, and in the increasing focus on disputed questions, was a trend which led students in medieval universities away from the sequential study of the scriptures and made it appear perhaps less central, although there was never a time when scripture ceased to be the primary authority.

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