Paris Bibles


The Burke Library’s resources include some wonderful examples of the first personal study Bible filled with innovations still in use today.  These precious volumes are not from the 19th-century, the Reformation, nor even the first days of the printing press, but are manuscripts from the medieval world, products of the end of the period known as the twelfth-century renaissance.

These Bibles were produced in the thirteenth century by the many thousands in small, thick codices for handheld personal use, on 500-600 folia of impossibly thin and fine parchment (its crafting alone a lost art), with minute, precise writing and delicate embellishments.  While the popular imagination usually pictures Western medieval manuscripts being produced in monastic scriptoria, these were actually made by both lay men and women working in the emerging commercial book trade, mostly in Paris and Oxford. A single Bible contained over 700,000 words and would take almost two years to complete; hand production on this scale is almost incomprehensible.  As a genre, they have become known to many as “Paris Bibles.”

Last semester in Columbia’s Introduction to Medieval Manuscript Studies course, we had the opportunity to choose one of the manuscripts across the collection to examine in more detail. I chose MS 47, which has been at the Burke Library since March 27, 1923 – a century this month. During its long century in the library, it has been studied so little that it had nothing in its accompanying file – no provenance, no detail on its content, nothing beyond its scanty catalogue entry.  I decided it had waited long enough for attention and deserved a celebration – and its own bibliographic file.


MS UTS 47, detail from the prologue to Paralipomenon I, “Si septuaginta,” showing a typical red and blue painted initial with pen scrollwork.
MS UTS 47, detail from the prologue to Paralipomenon I, “Si septuaginta,” showing a typical red and blue painted initial with pen scrollwork.


Paris Bibles are known not only for their size and relative uniformity in material features, but also for their revolutionary reference aides.  In many ways, new elements pioneered in the Paris-type Bible of the 1240s have been preserved and handed down and are still visible in Christian study Bibles today: an historical order of the books, chapter divisions for quick reference, running titles in the top margin for easy navigation, and paratextual exegetical material tools for all-in-one reference.  All medieval study tools!

Each book (or section of books) is preceded by a short preface introducing it and telling a little about who is thought to have written it, when, where, to whom, and why.  Many of these are from Jerome; others are from medieval scholars.

Most, like MS 47, also include a highly-popular glossary, the Index of Hebrew Names, interpretatio hebraicorum nominum, which provided (imaginative, if not always accurate) exegetical fodder.

Nearly 2,000 Paris-type Bibles survive today in collections around the world, most of them in Europe.  Here in New York City, there are just over two dozen in collections available to the public; Union actually has three: MSS 46, 47, and 48. For a North American institution, this is quite a special treasure. I made a number of fun discoveries about MS 47, including some about the way its early owners used it.


Image of a stained-glass window covered in vines with the Union seal and an open book
MS UTS 47, detail from inside front cover pastedown, showing Union Theological Seminary’s donor bookplate from March 27, 1923


At first glance, MS 47 doesn’t have many marginal notes beyond small textual emendations, so it may strike the modern eye that it was never heavily used.  However, a closer examination gives several signs to the contrary.  There are dozens of tiny patches to the parchment, as well as other places with small holes (that are not related to ruling pinpricks).  According to Alexis Hagadorn, Head of Conservation for the Columbia University Libraries, these most likely held tiny silk thread markers for quick reference. The patches fixed spots where use of the markers eventually tore the parchment.


MS UTS 47, detail of early parchment repair from user damage -- a paragraph in a book with what looks like a page-colored patch covering some text
MS UTS 47, detail of early parchment repair from user damage


Another indicator of heavy study use are the dozens of whimsical manicula (hands with a finger pointing at the text) drawn by early users to function as medieval highlighters.  These appear in several different inks and sizes throughout the volume; one even has a very long arm to encapsulate a large bit of text!  If you go looking, they are quite concentrated in the Wisdom books and the book of Romans.


MS UTS 47, detail of three user-added manicula in the margin pointing to text -- in the margins is an illustration of a finger pointing to a place in the paragraph
MS UTS 47, detail of three user-added manicula (hands with a finger pointing at the text) in the margin


Finally, I discovered that one of its first users was a Dominican, as an early hand supplied a Dominican lectionary on the blank folia at the end of the quire containing the book of Revelation.


MS UTS 47, detail of user-added Dominican-use Gospel-Epistle lectionary table


Although I’d set out just to analyze and document its features, along the way I was able to amass enough evidence to strongly suggest that its origin is French, rather than the catalogue’s former “English?” designation.  One of the many identifying features includes aspects of its beautiful pen scrollwork.  While most Paris-type Bibles are not illuminated (using gold leaf), and only some have notable figural artistic decoration, nearly all have blue-and-red penwork and beautiful painted initials.


MS UTS 47, detail of painted I with characteristic decorative French pen flourishes in red and blue


It’s my suspicion that because they lack stunning golden pages and are “just Bibles” that these treasures have gone largely ignored by many modern scholars.  But what a pity – there’s so much to consider!  Let’s look at just a few more interesting aspects to MS 47.

Check out the opening to the Gospel of Luke.  The small initial is the Prologue, and the larger one is the beginning of the book:


MS UTS 47, detail from opening to the Gospel of Luke, with Q of ‘q[uonia]m’ marked as ‘alius p[ro]logus’ in red, and the principal painted initial F of ‘Fuit’ with the red ‘incip[er]it lucas’ indicating the formal opening to the biblical book

Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationes quae in nobis complete sunt rerum sicut tradiderunt nobis qui ab initio ipsi viderunt et ministri fuerunt sermonis: visum est et mihi assecuto omnia a principio diligenter ex ordine tibi scribere optime Theophile ut cognoscas eorum verborum de quibus eruditus es veritatem.


Fuit in diebus Herodis regis Judee sacerdos quidam nomine Zacharias de vice Abya et uxor illius de filiabus Aaron et nomen eius Elisabeth.


“But wait,” you say, “doesn’t Luke start with ‘Quoniam’ and not ‘Fuit’?” Well, yes it does.  Isn’t it fascinating that there was a time that was considered a preamble and not part of the Gospel? There are several other books where the opening (and closing!) are not clear – not just in MS 47, but across the Paris Bible tradition, with multiple variants flourishing well into the era of printed text, even beyond the Reformation and the Council of Trent.  (Some variants may be traced to recensions circulating in Late Antiquity; others are due to scribal error and the proliferation of exemplars.)

MS 47 has several other wonderful secrets – some of which I hope to present in future work, and some which I hope you’ll come and discover for yourself.  (Extra chapters and verses! Hebrew and Greek words! Cool other bits!)

The middle ages aren’t past – we hold much of the twelfth and thirteenth-century in our hands every time we pick up a modern Bible.  Spending time with these incredible manuscripts honors the work of all the women and men who worked to pass it on to us today, and helps modern Bible scholars like me realize that today’s questions about the Bible aren’t really all that new.

Come join me!



Loraine Enlow (she/her) is a second-year doctoral student in the Bible Department at the Jewish Theological Seminary studying the exegetical entanglements between Jews and Christians in 12th-and 13th-century England and France.  She works as Music Associate at St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue (Episcopal). When she’s not fangirling over manuscripts, she can usually be found running in Central Park, knitting, or playing the bassoon.


3 thoughts on “Paris Bibles

  1. Great efforts share, thanks for sharing such type of information. The Burke Library’s resources include some wonderful examples of the first personal study Bible filled with innovations still in use today.

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