I’m reading the book Book of the Knight of the Tower by Rebecca Barnhouse. This is a translation and commentary of a book of the same name by Sir Geoffery in 1372. Sir Geoffrey’s book was written in France, but became popular in both England and Germany as well. It was translated into English by William Caxton, the printer who brought the movable type to England. The knight and his priests wrote the book for the knight’s daughters, so that they would know how to act. It included stories about his life as well as stories ‘from the Bible.’ Except the Biblical stories are just barely recognizable:
I’ll tell you about a good lady named Ruth, from whom issued King David. The holy scripture greatly praises this good lady, who marvelously loved God and honored and obeyed her lord. And for the love of him she honored and loved his friends and made better cheer to them than to her friends. After her lord died, his son by another wife intended to leave her nothing, neither land nor property. Thinking that she was form a distant country and far from her friends, he intended to take it all for himself. But her lord’s friends and relatives, who loved her and her great generosity and the service she had sdone them while her lord was alive, helped her against their friends and relatives, so that she got everything that was rightfully hers. Thus, because of the way she treated her lord’s friends and relatives, she saved her property. This is a good example of how all good women ought to serve and honor their lords’ friends and kin, for a greater token of love they may not show to them and good may come of it. (99)
Later Sir Geoffrey speaks of King David’s son Absolon outliving David and helping defend the inheritance of the step-mother who had argued for him on earlier. Nevermind that in the Bible Absolon dies before David and it is not a stepmother who pleased for Absolon. (112) Sir Geoffrey is retelling stories according to other retold versions of the story, which might have very well be written from memory.
I wonder if even Sir Geoffrey had a hint that this next example was poor Biblical interpretation, and thus he references to the Bishop and the Bishop’s credentials rather than describe the flood’s connection with poor fashion as fact.
I’ll tell you how a bishop, who was a very good scholar, preached recently. There were many ladies at his sermon, some wearing the new headdresses that are shaped like two horns. Their gowns were also fashionably made. The good man marveled at their clothing and began to reprove them. He told them the gathering of waters in the days of Noah took place because of the pride and over-elaborate clothing of the men and espcially of women. When the enemy saw those people’s great pride and their fashionable clothing, he made them fall into the filth of the stinking sin of lechery. This was so displesaing to God that he caused it to rain forty days and forty nights without ceasing, so that the waters were ten cubits higher than the highest mountain. (121)
Entire Bibles were expensive. Sir Geoffrey probably didn’t own one. His priests might not have had one. They might have had a gospel or a psalter. I wonder how many of the priests had access to full Bibles, and to what extent they retold Biblical stories from memory.
Somehow I’ve had this impression that the (protestant reformation’s) call for people to read and interpret the Bible itself was anti-academic. I’ve heard it in the terms of people saying we don’t need to worry about interpretations. Everyone should just be able to open the Bible and see its truth plainly written. And I’ve always had a bit of trouble with that, because a plain literal interpretation would make Christians look like idiots or people who follow a rather nasty arbitrary diety. Some historical, cultural and literary knowledge is important for understanding the Bible. But as I read about how Sir Geoffrey understood the Bible stories, it reinfornces the importance of people having access to real Bibles. There might be problems in how people interpret them, but its a whole ton better than learning it only from the vague stories someone retold long ago, or rewritten stories meant to reinforce the social norms of the time.
One of Rebecca Barnhouse’s other books, Recasting the Past, mentions the fear Anglo-Saxon monk Aelfric had that translating the Old Testament from Latin to English would lead to trouble “by reading the Old Testament without a priest to interpret it for them, men might think they could do some of the same things the patriachs did, like taking more than one wife” (5). The fear of taking the Bible literally makes me think of the jokes going around about how to sell one’s daughter or stone one’s son, and I’ll include a video clip of that joking in the Aaron Sorkin television show West Wing, in this clip (you can skip about a minute and a half in to start):
Clearly we need Biblical interpretation, not just to take things literally. We can’t say the Bible is God’s word forever without finding ways of interpretting away those difficult instructions on stoning one’s children. The question is whether the interpretation should be a moralistic interpretation, like Sir Geoffery’s Bible stories meant to promote the social mores of his era, or whether it should be historical-literary interpretation to understand the circumstances and customs from which the Biblical writers were writing. I think if the Bible is going to be anything besides playdough molded in the hands of those who would want to speak for God, then I think we need to look at it as a historical document, and ask ourselves who the people were who wrote it and what they were trying to say. Then if we take moralistic advice we do so carefully, aware of the difficulties of interpretation and the differences between now and then.