Lately I have been participating in an undergraduate research project at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. We are examining a late 14th/early 15th century copy of Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ). The Meditationes Vitae Christi (MVC) was written in Latin around 1365-1390 AD by Johannes de Caulibus, but it was formerly attributed to St. Bonaventura. MVC was intended to be a devotional that monks and nuns could read in order to meditate on Jesus’ life (hence the name); and as far as these sorts of things go, it is a fairly well known piece of Christian medieval devotional literature. [Toward the end of this post I have translated the story of Zaccheus from MVC for everyone to enjoy!] A critical edition (an edition that compares all of the manuscripts and notes where they read differently) was published for the MVC around 1997.
But our copy of MVC at SIUC is exciting in more ways than one! Until fairly our copy of the MVC hadn’t gotten much attention. Several years ago Melissa Hubbard, the rare book librarian for Morris Library at the time, found the uncatalogued manuscript in the bottom of a mislabeled box during a project she was managing. After a cataloguer had researched the manuscript and catalogued it, the document was made available to the public. During this process Melissa Hubbard contacted Dr. Daniel Moore (a former SIUC professor who now teaches at Indiana State University) to let him know about the manuscript; and he began to examine the text. As he did, Dr. Moore realized that our copy of MVC is possibly one of the oldest copies in existence. MVC was written in 1360 at the very earliest and, according to the the library entry, the SIUC copy was transcribed in 1410 at the latest.
As I said, a critical edition does exist for MVC; but our copy—potentially one of the oldest—was not consulted, because the editor did not know that our copy existed. Perhaps the most exciting part about this find is that our copy contains an epilogue that is found in no other copy known to exist! Part of our job is to transcribe and translate this epilogue.
Our copy of Meditationes Vitae Christi is an attractive little volume. Its binding is not original, but is a nice brown suede stamped front and back with a diamond pattern. Two metal clasps are attached to the front cover. There are about 180 leaves, and pages are not paper; they are vellum (parchment/animal skin). To get a sense of scale, it is roughly the size of an iPad mini as far as height and width go.
This is the first page of the prologue. The first letter is ornately decorated, and some of the embellishments go entirely to the bottom of the page.
The manuscript is written in a Gothic textura script (also known as Blackletter). To the modern eye, this script can be somewhat difficult to read. Often an s will look like an f or vice versa, t, c and e are almost indistinguishable, and so on. What is more, this entire book was copied by hand; so there are also abbreviations that the scribe would use so he didn’t have to write out the entire word. On top of all of this, it is written in Medieval Latin! It can be a real challenge—but an enjoyable one for me!—to puzzle through these similar looking letters and obscure abbreviations. (Reading about Jesus makes this task easier!) But as confusing as this “font” and these abbreviations are to me, someone made good use of this book. If you look carefully at this next image, you can see that someone made notes in the margin of the right page, and even drew a hand pointing to a particular phrase he wanted to remember.
At the moment, we are collating the SIUC manuscript against the critical edition. What that means is, we are comparing our copy of the MVC—word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line—to the printed copy; we are writing down the places where they are different from one another; and we are seeing if any other manuscripts of MVC support the reading found in the SIUC copy. I enjoy diving into this process; but it is just as laborious as it sounds.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
This type of collating is exactly the sort of thing that New Testament textual critics do. They compare NT manuscripts to one another, look at all the differences (variants), and determine which readings are original and which are later errors. Occasionally people like to spout numbers, saying that the New Testament has 400,000 variants in it. But the MVC actually demonstrates why this number is deceptively large.
The vast majority the 400,000 variants in the New Testament (and yes, there are at least that many) have zero effect on what the text says or means. For example, as I was collating MVC chapters 1&3, I found these differences:
- “in facies” instead of “ante facies”
- “uolo te” instead of “te uolo”
- “ex toto” instead of “toto”
- “gracia uos” instead of “uos gracia”
- “labore magno” instead of “magno labore”
- ” se opere” instead of “opere se”
- “anno autem” instead of “autem anno”
All of these differences have no effect on what the passage means or how it would be translated into English.
Occasionally differences that are slightly more noteworthy creep in. One interesting and important difference was in the title of chapter one: Jesus was called “Deus” (God) instead of “Dominus” (Lord). At another point I saw an entire phrase got left out; it was skipped over in the copying process because the phrases around it all had similar endings (this is called homoioteleuton). But in large, most of the differences in ancient documents, particularly the New Testament, are not big—and certainly not earth shattering in the way that “400,000 variants” makes it seem.
But enough of that. Back to my research project.
I know the way I have been describing my work with Meditationes Vitae Christi might sound dry and boring—what with translating Medieval Latin, and comparing it word by word to a printed edition, and all. But MVC is far from boring. It presents a very devotional, relatable, tender picture of our Savior. I want to leave you with a translation of MVC chapter 62, which tells the story of Jesus eating at Zaccheus’ house.
While the Lord Jesus was coming into the city of Jericho and walking in it, Zaccheus (a prince of the publicans) heard this and greatly desired to see him; and he was not able to on account of the multitude, because he was short of stature. He climbed a sycamore tree, that he might be able to see him.
Now Jesus, recognizing and accepting his faith and desire, said, “Zaccheus, be quick and come down; because today it is necessary that I stay in your house”. Then he came down and did so with great joy and reverence, and prepared a banquet for him. (You have seen the graciousness of the Lord Jesus.)
He gave Zaccheus more than he desired: [Jesus] gave him his own self, which he had not dared to desire. Here, then, you have [a statement] about the strength of prayer: for desire is a loud cry and a loud prayer. And therefore the prophet says, “To the desire of the poor the Lord has hearkened: your ear has heard the preparation of their heart”; and the Lord said to Moses, “What are you calling out to me?” when he was being silent with his mouth but speaking with his heart.
Look carefully at him as he sits and eats with those sinners. He seats himself in the middle of the table with Zaccheus and seats someone else who is honorable among them at the head. He goes on talking with them intimately—like family—that he might draw them to himself. Look carefully also at his disciples cheerfully abiding with the same sinners, holding conversation with them and strengthening them for good works. For they knew that this was the will of their teacher, and that he desired those [sinners’] salvation.
I love this depiction of Christ. “He goes on talking with them intimately—like family—that he might draw them to himself”. I am so thankful that Jesus drew me to himself; and that is worth meditating on!
Find all of the posts about the MVC Project here.
3 thoughts on “MVC Project”
The illuminated letter is particularly well crafted and beautiful. I’m certainly not an expert, but the form of the letter seems unusual. Is this the case? Also, the body of the text is extremely well crafted. The spacing and form of the letters is exceptional.
Barry, I am not a paleography expert, so I am not sure how to answer your question. It is certainly shaped distinctly, and highly illuminated; but as far as being unusual compared to the conventions of the time, I wouldn’t know about that.
Melissa Hubbard, please forgive me for the unfortunate wording originally found in the post. I did not mean to minimize anyone’s contribution in regard to this manuscript.
I have corrected the post’s wording to better reflect your involvement with the manuscript, and I have even provided a link to your Twitter page so as to give further assent to your contributions to the MVC.
I noticed that you pointed out my erroneous statements on your Twitter feed. I would consider it a personal favor if you would also let your followers know that I have corrected the error. If you would like to talk to me further, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Thank you for your work with the manuscript; because it made my work with the manuscript possible!