When a Bible Isn't a Bible

Roundup
tags: archaeology, medieval history, material culture

Recently, news broke that British metal detectorists discovered a miniature 15th-century “Bible.” The one-and-a-half centimeter, five-gram, gold bead’s exterior is cast in the form of an open book, and the interior is carefully engraved with images of St. Leonard and St. Margaret. But beyond that, as Luke Skywalker said, almost everything currently published about the newly discovered bead is wrong. Historical facts about late medieval England tell a much different story about this find. Hiding behind these mistakes lurks the myth of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages as poor, dark, and ignorant, which easily lets contemporary culture off the hook by inventing a false sense of cultural “progress.”

We can probably blame the Daily Mail for muffing the story. We expect that. More surprising were the casual own-goals by the BBC, in theory a bastion of careful reporting, and one that has handled medieval finds better in the past. In this piece, Hyperallergic will correct the mistakes of these legacy platforms.

Claim: It is a Bible.

The fact that readers generally have a sense of what “the Bible” is provides no excuse to use the term without cause. There’s no evidence at all that this bead is intended to represent a Bible. English goldsmiths engraved a lot of words into jewelry this size, and would have engraved In principio (the famous “in the beginning” from the Gospel of John), or other well-known scriptural text onto the volume if they had wanted it to be identified as a Bible.

Importantly, saints like Leonard and Margaret don’t appear in the Bible. They do appear in prayerbooks like books of hours, the most popular books of the Middle Ages, that included shorter versions of the daily prayer ritual sung by monks. Books of hours were often lavishly illustrated and customized with a range of prayers to saints. If you prayed to them, saints might pray to God on your behalf, and some saints specialized in specific troubles. Counterintuitively, known for bursting out of a dragon’s stomach, Margaret became a patron saint of childbirth. Leonard, shown on the bead holding the manacles of his imprisonment, was also a saint associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Margaret turns up in books of hours frequently, though Leonard is more rarely painted. It seems likely that, however it was worn or carried, the bead offers an example, like birth girdles, of the common practice of praying to specific saints for intercession to survive pregnancy and delivery.

In short, a book of hours is a much more likely visual reference for this bead than the Bible.

Read entire article at Hyperallergic