The sacred book: close reading and lazy readers


The sacred book: close reading and lazy readers

It’s a fact that more grammars than Bibles were printed in the early modern period but during this period and throughout western Europe the Bible nevertheless was regarded as the supreme book, the book by definition.

Before the Council of Trent limited the circulation of the Bible among ordinary readers, it was one of the most popular of all texts. In the second half of the 15th century no fewer than 337 editions were published, many of them in different vernaculars (German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Catalan and Czech) as well as Latin. Copies of the Bible, (Printing R-evolution 1450-1500: i cinquant’anni che hanno cambiato l’Europa = Fifty years that changed Europe, ed. Cristina Dondi, Venezia: Marsilio, 2018, p. 90).

For these reasons – its availablility in translaton and its moderate cost - it was a text which over many decades was accessible to a much larger readership than a purely professional or specialist one (i.e. among the clergy and the religious orders).

There are four editions of the Bible in the Santa Scolastica collections, all in Latin. One copy, printed in Venice in May 1498 (ib00603000; MEI 02125070), stands out for the remarkable notes which readers over the decades have left on its pages.

1A_Bibbia_manicula 1     1B_Bibbia_manicula

 Biblia latina. Venice, 1498. Subiaco, S. Scolastica II.C.11, maniculae

To start with, there are Latin annotations from at least four different readers. All date from the 16th century (they seem to be contemporary with one another) and, as the content of the annotations shows, were added by people in a religious ambience. They add comments on various passages, use manicules to point to phrases which strike them as significant, correct or supplement the text – and sometimes write their annotations with an artistic flourish.

Between the end of the Book of Revelation and the gathering containing the various indices we find two notes of ownership, placed opposite each other in such a way that they seem to be conversing with each other:

2_Bibbia_nota di Domenico

Biblia latina. Venice, 1498, hh1ov, note of Don Domenico

‘1519 15 Octobris | Hic liber lectus fuit per me presbyterum Dominicum in spatium annorum viginti; ter, per Gratiam Dei omnipotentis, a principio usque in finem’. (f. hh10v)


3_Bibbia_nota di Basilio

 Biblia latina. Venice, 1498, AA1r, note of Basilio

‘1537 die 28 mensis Junii in domo plebea Fannia | Presens liber perlectus fuit per me Basilium Faninum, praesbyterum Tulmetinum Fannae, diuina Prouidentia plebanum, sub praemissis (semel tantum) millesimo, die & mense, quamvis nulla (quasi) glossata Scriptura manu propria appareat, non ignorantia sed potius igniavia [sic] quae mihi tunc inerat et inest, die Jovis hora meridiei’ (f. AA1r)

Both these readers were ordained priests belonging to the secular clergy. On 15 October 1519 a certain don Domenico – we are not given his surname or told where he was from - writes that he has on this day finished reading the Bible from beginning to end, the third such reading he has undertaken over the course of twenty years. Domenico read the text thoroughly and professionally, as is shown by the frequent annotations he adds normally at the bottom of the printed page or occasionally in the margins. His notes consist of suggestions, brief explanations of passages in the text, collations with texts in other sacred books, corrections, short summaries of passages worth memorising. All these notes would also have been useful for subsequent readers of the volume.

Nearly twenty years after don Domenico wrote his notes, on 28 June 1537, we find another reader recording his reading of the book in a note on the following page, the first page of the index of Hebrew names. Basilio Fanini from the town of Tolmezzo (Tulmetinus) near Udine and now a priest in Fanna in Friuli writes that on this date he has finished reading the Bible (he emphasises that it is his first complete reading). Basilio excuses himself for making no annotations as he read through the text; not out of ignorance, he explains, but because of his ‘ignavia’ or the laziness which has always been part of his character.

The identity of these two readers of this 1498 edition of the Bible is unremarkable. What is surprising is the method of ideal reading their contrasting statements imply. It was almost regarded as a duty to leave written traces behind one as a way of recording the hours of study and meditation you had dedicated to your reading of this most important of books, the Holy Bibl

Umberto Eco’s words come to mind: ‘If a book is yours and isn’t worth a lot of money you shouldn’t hesitate to write in it. Pay no heed to those people who say books should be respected. You show respect to books by using them not by keeping them on a shelf […] But you need to add your underlinings with due care’ (Umberto Eco, Come si fa una tesi di laurea. Milano: Bompiani, 1977). We should add an important rider to Eco’s words: his words refer to individual readers and their books but centuries ago they applied to the collective reading of a volume.

Marginal notes or other kind of marks left by readers, if they are the fruit of those readers’ reflections, add to the legacy of knowledge a printed book conveys – to be handed on to its future readers.