Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Morgan Crusader Bible

The Crusader Bible, otherwise known as the Morgan Bible, was probably commissioned by King Louis IX of France. It was estimated to have been made at some point between 1244 and 1250 C.E. for the enjoyment of King Louis (Presumably). The bible was given Latin inscriptions in Italy around 1300 C.E. After that the history of the text gets a lot murkier, having somehow ended up in the possession of the Polish Cardinal Bernard Macieojowski. Cardinal Macieojowski then sent the manuscript to Isfahan, Persia (modern day central Iran) as a gift to Shah Abbas the Great. It was sent to him as part of the mission to Persia to foster Shah Abbas tolerance and good favor towards Christians in Persia (as well as to help grease the Shahs palms towards a military and economic alliance). Shah Abbas ordered Persian text to be written next to the image, not as translations of the Latin, but Persian interpretation of the illustrations themselves. After a series of private sales the manuscript ended up in the possession of John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan (who lends his name to the manuscripts title) donated the manuscript to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. 

The manuscript consists of portions of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and Samuel. The manuscript contains 346 episodes from these six books of the bible. Roughly forty percent of the space in the book is made up of the life of David.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the manuscript is that all of the scenes, both the combat scenes and the more peaceful ones, are illustrated the way they would have occurred had the events transpired in the 13th century. This was a very common artistic technique from the time period, and one that we even do today with modern retellings of ancient stories, like the TV series Kings, which was a modern retelling of the story of King David. This is the reason the Morgan Bible is often referred to as the crusader bible, as those who study/studied the crusades (such as I when I took Early crusades last semester) because a general idea of what combat and life during the crusades must have looked like can be gleaned from the illustrations, because it is contemporary to the time period. So, as a result you can see the armor and weapons they would have used during the crusades, as well as some of their battlefield tactics. The state of fortifications can also be seen, as well as some of the designs for siege engines that might be used to counter these same fortifications. These illustrations in the Crusader bible are so detailed, that the weapons and armors can be accurately replicated (and they have) by researchers interested in the form and function of battlefield implements in the crusader era. This has led to data about how the crusader army’s must have fared during their expeditions to the Middle East, and contributed to the scholarship in that area as a whole.

Consider the following picture for example. This is an illustration of Ehud, leader in the Old Testament of the tribe of Benjamin fighting the Moabite army. The story can be found in the very beginning of the Book of Judges. Although the actual battle took place in the Bronze/Iron age (a long time before the 13th century) we see some very medieval looking armor and armaments. Consider the full chainmail on the horseback riders, the armor on the horses and the very un-bronze age Israeli pikes and swords. Also, note the garb of the political figure in the top right of the picture.

This page shows a different side of the information that might be gleaned from the Manuscript. Notice the agricultural implements in the bottom left of the page. The page is depicting another scene from the Book of Judges, that of the sign of Gideon. As Gideon requests the sign via sacrifice of a lamb, his companions shake grain in a winnowing fan. This illustration of agricultural methods provides information on agricultural practices in 13th century France, where the manuscript was illustrated and illuminated.

On this page we see another example of 13th century armor, weaponry and garb. The passage from the Bible that this page illustrates is from 1 Kings. Specifically, the story of David on the run from King Saul. Notice the “peasants” in the top right corner of the picture. Also check out “King Saul” sitting on the throne in the bottom right corner. This images provide an excellent idea of what a king was expected to look like, as well as what peasants were supposed to look like.

In conclusion, the Morgan/Crusader Bible represents the legacy of a time when popular episodes from the Bible were serialized in the form of illustrations, when the papacy was concerned about its influence in the Middle East (Particularly Persia) and a window into which we can see the way combat was conducted during the period of the Crusades. All of this information is very important, as it informs those three very different periods of historical scholarship. In a way, this manuscript reminds me of a comic book that different writers tried to put commentary to. I definitely think the parallels are interesting and I hope you do too!

The websites that I used as sources both for my text and for pictures are as follows:

-Mason Smith


  1. The Morgan Crusader Bible is really interesting considering most bibles previously actually included the text; however this one originally included just illustrations, and no captions. It’s pretty neat to think about this being the first case of a “picture book”. Not only are the illustrations beautiful and huge, they would have allowed a lay person to interact with the text even if they could not read Latin. Although, the lack of text also would have assumed the reader have at least some basic knowledge of the bible stories going in; but possibly the manuscript’s acquisition of three different languages’ worth of commentary regarding the scenes indicates that this might not have been the case. Also, the way the Morgan Crusader Bible transposes the events of Biblical times into the 13th century makes it kind of like a sci-fi book. Having the miniatures be shown with contemporary weapons, garb, and other technology reminds me of that adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in a weird modern-ish setting. It’s pretty cool today to be able to have such a wealth of information and illustrations, not just descriptions, about many aspects of life in the 13th century. This manuscript is very different from the Gospels of Henry the Lion considering textual content and its eventual purpose, but something they both have very much in common is their masterfully executed creation.

  2. As Sara mentioned, the fact that the book initially included just illustrations is in fact notable. The commentary added in three different languages may have been necessary for more people to understand the depictions, but I find the addition of these texts quite sad. If the intent was to tell the history of the crusades through images, the added texts ruin the purpose. It's like a mural that has scribbled words all over it, or a rare, iconic photograph that was doodled on. The stories in the book were supposed to be told by the pictures. The beauty was in the art. I have considered the possibility that if people were not pleased by just these pictures, maybe the art was not satisfactory enough to tell the story in the manner that it was intended. However, it is hypothesized (with good reason) that the art was created by one of the great master artists who produced the glasswork and wall paintings of churches of the time. These larger works did not require any written explanations, so why should the book? I know I am playing devil's advocate against the texts (and may possibly not be getting my point across correctly), but I feel as though the idea of writing in important manuscripts needs to be discussed more in order to bring a broader prospective to those, like us, who study manuscripts. For instance, it could bring up political questions (were there repercussions for the scholars who wrote in the book, was there any penalty for altering books without permission, etc.) as well as questions about ways in which news traveled during this time period. What do other people think? Can we draw out more from this book and the additions made, or are these questions irrelevant to our knowledge of the practices of this time period?

  3. The Morgan Crusader Bible contains many excellent illustrations of combat as it would have been in the medieval period. Unfortunately, they are quite inaccurate. Several scenes in the bible show knights whose helmets have been cloven asunder by a good strike from an arming sword, but in real life the helmet would have deflected the blow. Injuries sustained by warriors in mail armor would have been closer to those of a fierce beating, with a large number of bruises and broken bones rather than the gushing slashes that are depicted in the Crusader bible. The artist was probably influenced by the custom of the melee, tournament style combat between the nobles meant for training that would, ideally, not have a high body count. And to expand upon the commentary on the captions, the languages are Latin, Arabic, and Persian Hebrew. The book had been owned by a Muslim prince and a Jewish-Persian merchant, who both had captions added in their native languages to translate the Latin captions.

  4. As Mason points out, this is a more "modern" depiction of combat than would have been seen in biblical times. Though in class I drew an analogy to "Aristocrat's first picture book," upon second examination of the images and remembering some loose facts rattling around in my head about Saint Louis (Louis IX), this is perhaps more for memories than anything else. Medieval siege engines and battles would have been a common sight for Louis, as he was a veteran of one crusade (and would later die at a second one). This is more like a scrapbook than a picture book. Though the captions claim it is from the bible, it is more likely that Louis would identify them as battles in Egypt and point them out as something he experienced.

  5. While it is true that the combat elements are greatly exaggerated and not very accurate for the type of damage that would be inflicted, the artist would not have actually been there to see battles such as these in person and would be basing their illustrations off of tournaments and stories. However, these illustrations do provide us with valuable information regarding armor, weaponry and garb of the time. It is through illustrations like these that we can get a good sense of how people dressed and how they thought people of certain stations would be dressed or look.
    To modern people it may seem strange to have these biblical stories depicted in costume that was contemporary for the time it was made, this was a common practice during that time. We see this sort of thing happening in frescoes and other paintings. I am not sure as to why this became a trend other than the theory that using costume that people of the time would recognize might make it easier for them to understand the story, as it makes the different figures easier to recognize. This is something that gets brought up in art history classes but to my knowledge is not something that anyone has a definite answer for, and is an intriguing element in these pictures.