Palmesel from Lower Franconia 15th century. Source: Wikipedia

Approaching the Bible in Medieval England

We are used to think of the Bible as a book. However, in the Late Middle Ages, the Bible came in many disguises: performed as liturgy, music or plays; or mediated through sermons, images or ceremonial objects

The Bible’s primary quality is its character as a collection of histories of all sorts reaching from Adam and Eve to the Ascension and the life in the very first Christian communities. Although it holds several texts of a different character – law texts, proverbs and prophecies – its main character is that of historical writing telling the stories about how people imagined they had met the living God.

A recent book by Eyal Poleg has asked how medieval people experienced these stories: In what way did lay people interact with the Bible? And how was this interaction organised and sometimes even policed by the clergy? By approaching these questions from an overall holistic perspective, we are presented with a series of fascinating stories of the role played by the Bible as a material object – present in the form of an impressive array of forms: processions, church murals, chronicles, psalters, music and other liturgical texts we get a sense of how the stories were turned into manifest and lived reminiscences built around acute concrete experiences (in which for instance the city of York could be transformed into Jerusalem).

Further, he tells how this handling was helped along by developing a specific type of bibles, the pandects, which were used by preachers when sermonising to the people. These pandects were designed for ease of reference through the uniformity in their paratexts – rubrics, illuminations, glossaries and other mnemonic acts). For any teacher or preacher, it was important to find your way through the Bible, when working on mediating the overall message to the laity. But Poleg also tells the story of how the bibles as a manifest objects played a very distinct role in two important medieval rituals: Oath-taking and the celebration of Mass.

This book is a valuable introduction to the practice of religion in Late Medieval England. But it is also an essential book in terms of its creative employment of the theories behind the new kind of Material Cultural History currently being introduced into Medieval History in general.

Karen Schousboe

Approaching the Bible in Medieval England
By Eyal Poleg
Series: Manchester Medieval Studies
Manchester University Press 2013
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8954-1


How did people learn their Bibles in the Middle Ages? Did church murals, biblical manuscripts, sermons or liturgical processions transmit the Bible in the same way?

This book unveils the dynamics of biblical knowledge and dissemination in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England. An extensive and interdisciplinary survey of biblical manuscripts and visual images, sermons and chants, reveals how the unique qualities of each medium became part of the way the Bible was known and recalled; how oral, textual, performative and visual means of transmission joined to present a surprisingly complex biblical worldview. This study of liturgy and preaching, manuscript culture and talismanic use introduces the concept of biblical mediation, a new way to explore Scriptures and society. It challenges the lay-clerical divide by demonstrating that biblical exegesis was presented to the laity in non-textual means, while the ‘naked text’ of the Bible remained elusive even for the educated clergy.



  1. The Bible and liturgy: Palm Sunday processions
  2. The Bible as talisman: textus and oath-books
  3. Paratext and meaning in Late Medieval Bibles
  4. Preaching the Bible: three Advent Sunday sermons


Appendix: A survey of Late Medieval Bibles





Eyal Poleg is a Lecturer in Material History, 1200-1700, at Queen Mary University of London