Navigating Biblical Manuscripts 2: Breviarium

John Zachariah Shuster studies reception history of the Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is the second of a series of three posts exploring the tools built into biblical manuscripts to help their medieval users find their way around. 

In my last post, I wrote about the Eusebian Canons in the Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod. Guelf. 84.3 Aug. 2°. Unfortunately, most of us would not find the Eusebian Canons particularly helpful in navigating the manuscript.

But not all is lost. On the bottom of fol. 15v., the scribe begins a breviarium (summary) of Matthew:

Breviarium page 1, fol. 15v
The breviarium begins on fol. 15v, right after the prologue to Matthew.

Once again, we see our old friend: Roman numerals in the margin. These numerals are notably larger than the marginal Eusebian numerals. They sit next to bright red initials. The short paragraphs accompanying each numeral gives a summary of a passage in Matthew. For example, the first line in the paragraph by “II” reads, “Regressio Iesus ex aegypto in nazareth,” or “Jesus returns out of Egypt into Nazareth.”

To find the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth, we can start at the beginning of Matthew (fol. 19v) and flip forward until we find a “II” written in the margin (fol. 22v):

Breviarium page 2, fol. 22v
Fol. 22v.

Following the “II,” the text reads: “Defuncto autem Herode, ecce angelus domini, apparuit in somnis ioseph in aegypto dicens, Surge et accipe puerum et matrem eius,” or: “But when Herod was dead, behold! an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise and take the boy and his mother.’” This begins the story of Jesus’ return from Egypt to Israel. The numerals and their accompanying summaries in the breviarium correspond to the larger marginal numerals in the text.

We’d be wasting our time if we tried to match the numerals with chapters in a handy-dandy modern copy of the Bible. The chapters we use today date to Stephen Langton’s system, developed in the early 13th century. This manuscript is a 10th-century manuscript, which means that it couldn’t possibly follow modern chapters. The Roman numeral “II” starts at Matthew 2:19—not in line with our familiar system of chapters.

Nevertheless, we have in the breviarium an aid which can help us find the story we began looking for in my last post (Matthew 15:32-39). If we read through the breviarium, we’ll eventually come to “XI” on fol. 16v:

Breviarium page 3, fol. 16v XI
Fol. 16v, containing our breviarium entry of interest.

This entry tells us the story we are looking for: “De septem panibus et paucis piscibus quattuor milia hominum,” or: “On the seven loaves and four little fishes [which fed] four thousand men.” So, all we have to do is start at the beginning of Matthew (fol. 19v) and flip to the text with “XI” in the margin, right?

Sadly, we would find ourselves in the wrong spot. The text marked “XI” reads: “Et factum est cum consummasset Iesus praecipiens duodecim discipulis suis…” and the text goes on to tell about Jesus’ communications with the imprisoned John the Baptist. This is Matthew 11, not Matthew 15. We, like sheep, have been led astray because the scribe made a counting error. (A pity, considering St. Matthew’s original occupation.) If we flip around in the breviarium, we might notice that the scribe began a mistake in his counting on fol. 16r. Instead of counting up from “VIIII” to “X,” he wrote “VIIII” followed by “V.”

Breviarium page 4, fol. 16r
Fol. 16r, where the counting error began.

What’s more, his error persisted uncorrected through the end of fol. 17r, where he finally fixed his numbering by furtively adding five to the count.

Our entry in the breviarium for “XI” lies on fol. 16v, within the range of error (from fols. 16r to 17r). In other words, “XI” ought to be read as “XVI.” Aware of the scribal error, we can start all over at fol. 19v and flip through Matthew until we find “XVI” written in the margin (fol. 50v):

Breviarium page 6, fol. 50v
Fol. 50v.

At this point, we read, “Iesus autem convocatis discipulis suis, dixit, ‘Misereor turbae, quia iam triduo perseverant mecum, et non habent quod manducent, et dimittere eos ieiunos nolo, ne deficiant in via,’” or: “And Jesus called together his disciples, and said, ‘I pity the crowd, because now they for three days continue with me, and do not have anything to eat, and I do not wish to send them away fasting, lest they falter in the way.’” Here is Matthew 19:32 in the Vulgate; we have, at long last, found our place. More importantly, we now know how to use the navigation tools in the manuscript, complete with its scribal mistakes.

Navigating medieval manuscripts presents a host of difficulties. Large manuscripts written in an unfamiliar language or hand can overwhelm the modern reader. But it is our challenge to crack the internal order of the manuscripts we encounter. Once we have done so, we can save ourselves many hours finding our place by using the same navigation system the manuscripts provided their first readers—that is, until machines learn to read manuscripts for us.

John Zachariah Shuster, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

License information:

Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel Terms of Use (CC BY-SA)

Digitized at the Bodleian

Digital.Bodleian Terms of Use (CC-BY-NC 4.0)

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