Biblical Building Blocks: Traces of Use in a Fifteenth Century “Delftse Bijbel”; by Judith Bleeker

In 1477, a Middle Dutch Bible was printed for the first time in Delft (the Netherlands). The choice for the vernacular makes clear that the “Delftse Bijbel” was oriented not only towards the clergy, but also included laypeople as its intended audience. These Bibles, which could for instance be read in silence for the purposes of Bible study and meditation, or out loud by the head of the family, must have taken up an important function in the households of their lay owners. However, medieval readers also treated their Bibles as objects of use, which meant that in addition to reading from them, they also did not hesitate to annotate them, underlining important passages, or even correcting the text where the printer had made mistakes.

However, that the Bible as object of use could also fulfil a function beyond the religious, becomes clear from Deventer SAB 113 KL 11. Fol. 263v of this copy of the “Delftse Bijbel” includes a handwritten list of building materials and descriptions of journeys made to acquire them. Frequent mention is made of stone and lime, as well as tiles, while the word “schuiten” (ships) may indicate how they were transported. The list also resembles an account in that it mentions both worked hours (“een schoft gewrocht”) and an amount of money (“alf sestalfe gulden”).

Fragment from Fol. 263v:

drie reijsen om
steen ende kalck [doorgehaald]
[doorgehaald]
[…] noch een achter
middach die schuiten
holpen estreeken

three journeys for
stone and lime [crossed out/illegible]
[crossed out/illegible]
[…] Another late afternoon
[I] helped [to] tile the ships.

The text has been written at the end of Kings IV, where the large amount of white space on the page made it ideal for adding text, and before the start of the book of Daniel. As it is possible that these quires were only later bound together, the position of this page at the end of a quire may have made it easily accessible for writing notes. Yet, the list was not written all at once, but in stages, suggesting that the writer deliberately returned to the note to make additions on various occasions. It is also possible that it concerns a temporary note, which the writer meant to copy elsewhere at a later time.

A possible explanation as to why the writer chose to use his Bible as notebook is that it, as an important possession, was likely kept in a central space in the house. Therefore, the Bible provided a safe and easily retrievable place to store important information, information that was probably connected to the writer’s livelihood. Additionally, keeping administration in Holy Writ may also have guaranteed its reliability and truthfulness, similar to the still current practice of swearing an oath on the Bible.

This curious secular note thus reveals the Bible as an object of use, while also pointing to the intertwinement of the practical and the devotional – the secular and the sacred – in the lives of medieval laypeople.

By Judith Bleeker

Caption for the image: Digitally enhanced picture of the “Delftse Bijbel” (Deventer SAB 113 KL 11, fols. 263v, 264r) with the handwritten list visible on the verso, underneath the second column. Source: Atheneumbibliotheek Deventer, URL: https://athenaeumcollecties.nl/scans/detail/077a91fd-a660-7296-1df6-9f4cda7717c0/media/505ecb52-c111-5830-46a8-e7998841563a


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