Bury Bible

What is the Bury Bible?

The Bury Bible is a hand written and illuminated Bible of the type used by the church before the English Reformation. It was originally bound in two great volumes, and is of a great size, compared to books of today. Each page measures 52.5cm by 35 cm and represents just about the largest size page that could be won from a whole calfskin of the time, using a double page per skin. It needed about 350 skins in all. The written space covers 38 cm by 23.5 cm, in two columns of 42 lines.

What remains today is just the first volume of the great book, ending at the Book of Job. The remaining volume is lost, and is assumed to have been destroyed. What we have has been rebound over the years, and at its last re-binding in 1956, the single volume was made into the three volumes that survive today. There are 357 pages in all still remaining, and example pages and the illuminated pages and initials can be seen on this website in the Bury Bible Picture Gallery.

Many of the decorations were done on separate pieces of parchment, glued to the page before painting. Six framed miniatures survive from the original twelve in this volume. Forty-two initials in gold and colour survive from an original forty-four.

Clearly it was always valued as a great work, and is often thought of as being for use at the High Altar. However, a 15th century register refers to it as a Refectory Bible, and it may always have been intended for use at meal times to be read from aloud to the monks and novices whilst eating.

The Bury St Edmunds Bible is similar in form and content to other 12th century English bibles such as the Lambeth Bible and the Winchester Bible. However, while the Bury Bible is dated to around 1135 to 1138, the well known Winchester Bible is dated to between 1160 and 1175. The Winchester Bible is fairly complete, and only missing a few pages, whereas the Bury Bible has about half of it missing.

The order and contents of these Bibles is of a type known as a Vulgate Bible, and allowing for several centuries of adjustment, it is still used by the Roman Catholic Church today.

What is a Vulgate Bible?

Following the Norman Conquest, Lanfranc was made the new Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing with him the idea that all English copies of bible texts should be replaced by a common or 'vulgate' version. The approved new and 'true' version would be based upon texts used in places like Lanfranc's old monastery at Bec, in France.

This idea was far from new. Attempts to produce a standard bible had been going on for centuries. The bible itself was known to be a collection of translations of early manuscripts written originally in Hebrew, some of which had been translated into Greek, and then into Latin. The earliest version of a Vulgate Bible was translated and edited by St Jerome, who lived from c. 341 to 420. In about 382 he was commissioned by Pope Damasus to edit and formalise the New Testament. Fired by this task, he then travelled to Bethlehem in 384 intent upon learning Hebrew and revising all the books of the Old Testament. He became convinced that readers needed some instruction upon each book, and so he wrote a series of Prologues, or Introductions, to each book. These writings were considered to be so important that Jerome's Prologues were included in most , if not all, Vulgate Bibles produced in monastic houses after the 9th century.

In addition to his Prologues, St Jerome had considerable correspondence with other Bible Scholars of his age, including Paulinus of Nola. While he was working in Bethlehem, a pilgrim called Frater Ambrosius, arrived there with a letter from Paulinus. Jerome wrote back to Paulinus from Bethlehem describing these scriptures, and the significance of the various Books that follow. He warned Paulinus that the Bible was full of great mysteries and should not be read without guidance. This letter was later considered so important that it was routinely copied into the opening pages of Vulgate Bibles from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Today this letter is catalogued as Letter 53 of Paulinus.

A summary of this letter comes from the website as follows:
"Jerome urges Paulinus, bishop of Nola, to make a diligent study of the Scriptures and to this end reminds him of the zeal for learning displayed not only by the wisest of the pagans but also by the apostle Paul. Then going through the two Testaments in detail he describes the contents of the several books and the lessons which may be learned from them. He concludes with an appeal to Paulinus to divest himself wholly of his earthly wealth and to devote himself altogether to God. Written in 394 A.D. "

Thus, in the Bury Bible, the opening page includes the note that here begins the words of St Jerome's letter that was addressed to St Paulinus of Nola. The Bury Bible's opening script clearly begins "Frater Ambrosius....." These first few words may be translated as follows, and are taken from the same website:

"Our brother Ambrose along with your little gifts has delivered to me a most charming letter which, though it comes at the beginning of our friendship, gives assurance of tried fidelity and of long continued attachment......"

What is the connection to Bury St Edmunds?

The Abbey of St Edmund was founded as a Benedictine Monastery by King Cnut, or Canute, in 1021. Under Edward the Confessor it became wealthy when he gave the abbot the right to rule the whole of West Suffolk on behalf of the crown, along with the income that such privileges brought. In 1065 the abbey was lucky enough to gain a reforming and energetic Norman-French abbot called Baldwin. It therefore survived the 1066 Conquest unscathed and by 1100 was one of the largest and wealthiest of English religious houses.

An inventory of 1046 listed 51 books in the abbey, and some of them may have been produced on site. After 1065, although Baldwin was a great builder, he does not seem to have given any great priority to book production. By the 1080's Bury had a contingent of monks from Bec, in Normandy, in their community. They may have helped to encourage an expanded scriptorium in the abbey, where texts were not just copied but illustrated anew, but output was not great.

The monk Anselm became Abbot in 1121, and by his death in 1148, it is clear that he was responsible for a major advance in the scriptorium output at Bury. Well over a hundred volumes were copied in this time, and the study of these texts was now thought to be essential in a well run Benedictine house, following continental models. Probably the bulk of the work was produced by some individual monks with a talent for script, but it is known that professional scribes were employed at St Albans, and may well have been used in Bury. In addition there were certain well known individuals renowned for their artistry who may have travelled the countryside to undertake great commissions.

Some books of particular splendour were made at Bury in Anselm's time. The Libellus Vitae Sancti Edmundi, now in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, was made about 1125 at Bury. The artist of these pictures was probably the "Alexis Master", famous for his St Albans Psalter.
The Pembroke College New Testament is dated to about 1150.
The Bury Bible was produced as part of this great artistic flowering in the abbey of St Edmund.

When was it made?

In 1095 the body of St Edmund was translated into a splendid new shrine in a magnificent new stone presbytery. The great abbey was enjoying many new buildings and a massive public following as a pilgrimage goal. In 1121 Abbot Anselm pushed development along further and gave great priority to book production.

The history of the Bury Sacrists, Gesta Sacristarum, states:
"This Hervey, brother of Prior Talbot, met all the expenses for his brother the Prior to have a great Bible written, and he had it incomparably illuminated by Master Hugo. Because he could not find calf skins that suited him in our region, he procured parchment in Scotia."
This probably refers to Scotland, although many scholars have suggested in the past that it refers to Ireland.

From what we know of the dates of Hervey as Sacrist and Talbot as Prior, the Bible should date from between 1125 and 1136. Anselm himself was fond of foreign travel and it may be that the Bible was commissioned during his absence.
Professor Thomson likes to favour a date of c. 1130, but other writers tend to prefer c. 1135. The work probably took about two years.

Who made it?

The Bury Bible has been attributed to Master Hugo by several scholars. Hugo or Hugh was probably a professional artist-craftsman, who moved to wherever the work took him. This does not mean that he wrote and illustrated the whole work himself. Written in latin, the main text is from the hand of a single scribe. The display script seems to be the work of two other scribes, neither of whom was the same as the main artist. As we have seen there is written evidence that it was "incomparably illuminated" by Master Hugo or Hugh.

There is other written evidence that the same Master Hugh made the great double doors to the Western entrance of the abbey church in cast bronze, a great bell, and a crucifix, carved with flanking images of Mary and John, for the Monk's Choir.
He was undoubtedly an unusually versatile artist, able to work in several media, and well respected at the time. He is referred to as Magister, rather than as pictor, scriptor or illuminator in contemporary documents. He probably also worked elsewhere than Bury, but must have spent about 20 years at St Edmund's.

How do we Know this Bible is the one?

This great Bible has been known to modern scholars since it was deposited at Corpus Christi College following the death of Archbishop Matthew Parker in 1575. It is known as CCCC MS 2, and it was M R James in 1912, who first demonstrated that it was from Bury St Edmunds.
The main indicator is the abbey library catalogue number B1 on page two. It is in the hand of Henry de Kirkstede, who was Prior from 1362 to 1374. There are also graffiti of the names of Bury monks, and a patch with a head and the words 'hic,hic, hic', on page 322, referring to St Edmund.
James also referred to the quality of the parchment, but this is a bit tenuous.
There is written evidence that a two volume bible was indeed at Bury by c. 1190, and so it is now accepted that this book is the one commissioned by Talbot, and financed by his brother Hervey.

Where is it now?

The Bury Bible has been in the safekeeping of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, since 1575. The College owns the copyright of all the images of the Bible displayed on this site, and during 2001, the pages were photographed into a digital form by the HUMI Project of the Keio University, working from its UK base at Nowton, just outside Bury St Edmunds.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury website
by David Addy, October 2002

Books consulted:
The Bury Bible - Written by R M Thomson, 2001. Published by Boydell and Brewer.

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Updated 31st August 2008 Go to Home Page