The Bible forms the basis for an enormous amount of literature in the Middle Ages. At the same time, vernacular works in particular transmit or explain the Bible not just to those able to read, but more importantly to a nonliterate laity unfamiliar with the scriptures at first hand. Apart from the scope of material involved, there are two major issues in assessing the use of the Bible in medieval European literature. The first is what is meant by a literary work: potential genres include prose and metrical paraphrases of the Bible, didactic writings, hymns and other lyrics, popular dramatizations, chronicles, and independent texts that allegorize or rework biblical material. Biblically influenced literature moves, too, from the monasteries to the secular world, with different assumptions necessary at each stage about the approach to the Bible. Given a range from the Celtic to the Slav worlds, from Scandinavia to the Near East, only representative examples can be given for any stage or genre.

The second issue is that it is an oversimplification to refer simply to the Bible as a source. Early adaptations sometimes worked from no more than a Gospel harmony, a Latin translation of the second-century Greek or Syriac Diatessaron of Tatian. On the other hand, for the Middle Ages in western Europe in particular, “the Bible” rarely meant the plain text of the Latin Vulgate. The scriptural text on the manuscript page was surrounded and dwarfed by interpretative commentaries and was sometimes even provided with interlinear or smaller marginal glosses. These commentaries all added information. Further, although the biblical canon (which did include the deuterocanonical books now known as the Apocrypha) was well established, noncanonical apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and also biblical legends were often incorporated into the scriptural text alongside material from the commentaries. All this contributed to what can be termed the “popular Bible”: what was assumed to be biblical, but often was not.

Senses of Scripture.

The hermeneutic of biblical analysis in late antiquity and the Middle Ages interpreted the scriptures according to four senses, all of which could influence literary representations in content and in structure. The literal sense (which is not just a literal reading, but expands and clarifies) is the most overarching, establishing firmly ideas such as the identification of the serpent in Genesis 3:1 with the devil. The typological or allegorical sense considers Old Testament prefigurations (types) of New Testament events (antitypes) and is of particular importance in the shaping of texts and the selection of materials; a familiar example juxtaposes the sacrifice of Isaac with the crucifixion. The tropological sense draws moral lessons from Bible stories, hence is used in homiletic and didactic contexts. The anagogical sense links biblical texts with the next world, and apocalyptic and eschatological writings draw upon it. A writer might, of course, adopt more than one of these approaches. Special interpretations include those of numbers mentioned in the Bible, and biblical numerology can have structural implications. While all books of the Bible were used, there is an emphasis on Genesis, particularly the creation and fall as the first part of the Heilsgeschichte, the divine economy of history, but also the patriarchs; on Exodus and the historical books (notably on David); on Job, Psalms, and the Song of Songs. In the New Testament, the Gospels are predominant, but Acts and Revelation are also used.


Individual commentaries exist on all biblical books (in Latin most importantly by Augustine and Gregory the Great, who were much copied). The twelfth-century compilation known as the Glossa ordinaria condensed many Latin commentaries and in even briefer summary form was also used as interlinear exegesis. In the West it is hard to overestimate the importance of the Historia scholastica of Peter Comestor (d. ca. 1179), an expanded biblical history. There for example is the idea that the serpent of Paradise had a woman’s face. Literary works themselves supplied biblical embellishments, and the view that the forbidden fruit was an apple seems to be attested first in the metrical Heptateuch of Cyprian of Gaul (d. ca. 425), with a Latin pun on malum (“apple” and “evil”) developed later. There is, further, a whole genre of question-and-answer dialogues in Latin and the vernaculars, which contain literal details that become part of the “popular Bible.” Thus the early medieval English Solomon and Saturn (late ninth century, prose and verse) tells us how old the Virgin Mary was at the birth of Christ (14) and at her death (63).

Material that is not strictly biblical could become so familiar as to be treated as part of the Bible itself. The detailed narrative of the prior fall of Lucifer and the rebel angels, explaining the origins of the devil(s) and hell, develops from an interpretation of Isaiah 14, supported by texts such as Luke 10:18 or Revelation 9:1. Lucifer’s envy then prompts the temptation in Eden. The diabolical tradition then takes on a literary life of its own and expands, with separate devils and diabolical councils within biblical contexts. The early-fifteenth-century English Devil’s Parliament has an infernal debate on how to cope with the Incarnation, and in the Slav world the notion of diabolical demands for their rights are represented in the Old Bohemian Solfernus (fifteenth century). Equally well established is the nonbiblical narrative of the harrowing of hell, supported loosely by verses such as Isaiah 42:6–7.

Many familiar expansions are literal, but Gregory the Great’s moralizing interpretation of the fall as the response by the flesh (Eve) to the inner prompting (of the devil) and the subsequent corruption of the mind (Adam) is much echoed in literature. Typologically, the eating of the fruit by Adam is compared by Cassian in the fifth century and many others with the temptation of Christ in the desert. Guides for preachers categorized moral interpretations, and handbooks of typological interpretations were also available, such as the early-thirteenth-century Pictor in carmine (see M. R. James, “Pictor in carmine,Archaeologia 94 [1951]: 141–166), originally for artists.

Interpreted biblical material might enter literature indirectly via the liturgy or (especially in the case of moral exegeses) the sermon. Sermons often have literary value in their own right and were much disseminated both in Latin and in the vernacular, with translations in both directions. Aelfric and Wulfstan in the tenth century produced fine examples in Anglo-Saxon rhythmic prose, and later in the Middle Ages the Franciscans and Dominicans in particular developed the genre. Notable preachers include the German Berthold von Regensburg (ca. 1210–1272) and the great mystics such as Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–1327), Giordano da Pisa (ca. 1255–1311) in Italian, and Vincent Ferrer (1350–1419) in Catalan. Homiletic, too, are hybrid works like the late-twelfth-century Ormulum in English, ostensibly Gospel paraphrases arranged liturgically, but in fact an enormous and incomplete sequence of rhymed sermons. What is implied by the concept of the rhymed sermon is problematic, however.

A final related source for expanded biblical matter is the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) of Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230–1298). Although it consists mainly of saints’ lives, the sections on biblically based feasts such as that of the Resurrection add biblical and apocryphal material and details from works like the Historia scholastica. The whole was much translated and also adapted into verse in many European languages.

Language and Style.

Early translations of the Bible into the vernacular tried to conform as closely as possible to the sacred languages, to Latin in the case of the Vulgate, and seem wooden to the modern reader. A broader general issue, however, is the effect of the language of the Bible on vernacular works. Otfrid von Weissenburg, prefacing his ninth-century German Gospel poem with a letter in Latin, apologizes for using lower-status German, and his headings are in Latin. It is reported that the books of Kings were not translated into Gothic because their content was too warlike for the new audience. However, understanding might always have been affected even by single words, as when dominus (lord), used of Christ, was rendered with a word that in the vernacular implied a war leader.

Works not intended principally as translations could operate more freely. Notker the German (ca. 950–1022) translated the Psalms in a mixture of German and Latin, with exegetical material added, for pedagogic purposes. His technique is visible in a more clearly literary German work, the Expositio in Cantica Canticorum of Williram, abbot of Ebersberg (ca. 1020–1085, abbot from 1048). The text of the Song of Songs appears in a central column in the manuscripts, flanked on the right by a mixed German and Latin prose translation/commentary, and on the left by a Latin poetic version. The various voices in the biblical text are given designations: the church, the heretics, Christ.

The Expanded Bible.

Apparently straightforward prose Bibles could be augmented, rather than just translated. The prose Bible en françois, a thirteenth-century combination of narrative and exposition by Roger d’Argenteuil (which was translated into English in the fifteenth century) incorporates legend material. So too the much-copied Old Norse Stjórn (Governing), a fourteenth-century composite work, mixes a translation of the Vulgate Old Testament (down to 2 Kings) with material from Peter Comestor and from the encyclopaedic Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais (ca. 1190–1264). Haakon V (king of Norway, 1299–1319) apparently commissioned Stjórn for those unable to read Latin. Nonbiblical materials are integrated, too, in simplified narrative Bibles designed for the uneducated reader. The numerous late medieval German Historienbibeln (story Bibles) typically use apocryphal narratives and other material, and there are parallels in many European languages in manuscript and print, extending as far as the nineteenth century. Early printed texts include the Italian Fiore della Bibbia (1473), and we may also note at the end of the sixteenth century the popular collection of Old Testament stories for women in Yiddish, the so-called Tzena Urena (Go Forth and See; Song 3:11).

Biblical Epics.

The earliest examples of literary adaptations are metrical versions of parts of the Bible. Latin writers such as Juvencus (early fourth century) produced a harmony of the Gospels in hexameters, Caelius Sedulius (early fifth century) a free treatment of Gospel miracles with their old Testament forerunners, Avitus (d. ca. 519) poems on the beginnings of the Old Testament, and Arator (late sixth century) a metrical version of Acts which was declaimed publically in Rome. The Latin tradition continued: the Aurora of Peter Riga (d. ca. 1209) is a versification with allegorical explanations of the Old Testament.

Influenced by Latin epics, vernacular texts such as the Old High German Evangelienbuch (Gospel book) of the first named German poet, Otfrid von Weissenburg (ca. 810–870), also mixed narrative with exegesis (mainly typological or tropological). Otfrid’s lengthy rhymed poem moved from Germanic alliterative to Latin-influenced rhymed verse. This first major German literary text appears in several dedicated manuscripts. Based on his knowledge of the Gospels and not on a harmony, it has five books (so that the four Gospels may counter the impure senses), and there are other numerical patterns and acrostics. Otfrid sometimes indicates with a heading where he is offering an exegesis, but not always, so that commentary is integrated.

There are early Old Testament examples in Anglo-Saxon, alliterative poems on Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel occurring together in the tenth-century Junius manuscript, with a Judith poem at the end of the manuscript of Beowulf. Interpolated into the Genesis is a separate text, Genesis B, translated from continental Old Saxon. In that language we also have the Heliand (Savior, ca. 840), a Gospel poem in Germanic alliterative verse that takes its structure from the Diatessaron, but again adds material from commentaries. It also makes local changes, substituting the forest for the unfamiliar desert. The Anglo-Saxon Old Testament patriarchs in these poems may sound like warriors addressing their men, and the cultural assimilation of the material, especially in respect of the warrior society that often provided the (aristocratic) audience, is significant.

Other works are less linear. The Anglo-Saxon Christ and Satan (late eighth–early ninth century) has three themes (in a slightly confusing order): the fall of the angels, the harrowing of hell, and finally (two of) the temptations in the desert. The intent behind the combination of these themes (two not strictly biblical) is presumably to stress the defeat of Satan. Three Anglo-Saxon poems combined as Christ in the manuscript known as the Exeter Book are also indirect. The first is based on a series of Advent antiphons and celebrates the Incarnation; the second, which carries the name of Cynewulf (early ninth century), derives from a homily by Gregory the Great on the Ascension, while the equally homiletic third poem is about Doomsday.

The pattern of commentary-influenced narrative continues in vernacular material composed outside the monasteries by secular canons for a lay audience. The largely tropological Genesis adaptation known as the Altdeutsche Genesis (Old German or Vienna Genesis, ca. 1060) is a good example of the ongoing technique. Here we are told that when Eve blames the serpent (Gen 3:13), this was an “even worse fall.” Knowledge is assumed of the exegesis that her words are an implicit blame on God the creator, but it is not explained. The poem was revised more than once over the next century and stands alongside a far more theological-typological twelfth-century work called Anegenge (Beginning). A major French example of a vernacular versified Bible plus commentary, Li Romanz de Dieu et de sa Mere (Romance of God and His Mother) by Herman de Valenciennes, is roughly contemporary. Later the dominance of the Historia scholastica becomes ever clearer in large-scale works such as the French rhymed Bible of Macé de la Charité (early fourteenth century) and the English Cursor Mundi (ca. 1300), which has a strong typological bias. Later still are the strophic Middle English Paraphrase of the Old Testament (around 1400), and the Dutch Rijmbijbel (rhymed Bible) of Jacob van Maerlant (ca. 1230–ca. 1291). Biblically more limited is the English poem Cleanness (later fourteenth century) in nearly 2,000 alliterative lines, a fairly straightforward version of biblical episodes selected to underline the fate of sinners (Noah, Sodom, Belshazzar); the embellished descriptions are vivid, especially the destruction of Sodom.

Individual Themes.

Single biblical themes may receive epic treatment. The Old English hexameron, Exameron Anglice, presents the creation and fall (with a Christian moral) in just over 500 lines, and poetic versions of significant biblical episodes are numerous; the chronological and geographic extent may be indicated by reference to the early-fifteenth-century Adamgirk’ of the Armenian Arak’el of Siwnik’. The breadth and complexity of material is exemplified too by the brief but embellished Joseph poems, focusing mostly on the episode with Potiphar’s wife. Thus a thirteenth-century narrative English Iacob and Ioseph is mostly about Joseph; a fragmentary fourteenth-century Alhadith de Yuçuf (Tale of Joseph) is in Spanish written in Arabic characters, and based also on the Qur’an; a slightly earlier Jewish Coplas de Yocef (Poem of Joseph) is also in Spanish, but this time in Hebrew characters and close to the Bible; and in a manuscript dated 1382/1383 we find Josef ha-tsadik (the righteous or chaste Joseph), in proto-Yiddish, or Middle High German using Hebrew characters.

Later poetic lives of Christ are frequent; the Chester Stanzaic Life of Christ and the Cornish Pascon agan Arluth (Passion of Our Lord), both of the fourteenth century, influenced later drama, and other treatments of the Passion are devotional or meditative. Although it is not usually treated separately before Milton, the typological parallel between the fall from Paradise and the temptation in the desert (as in Matthew 4:1–11) is often made at length in medieval poetry. There are also early large-scale lives of the Virgin in verse, although here the biblical basis is often less secure, and the devotional aspect is strong. Early examples are in French (Wace, ca. 1100–ca. 1170) or German (Priester Wernher, late twelfth century), while later Konrad von Würzburg (ca. 1223–1287) wrote an extremely long and florid praise poem to the Virgin, Die goldene Schmiede (The Golden Forge), which was much imitated. In the fourteenth century, Eysteinn Ásgrimsson’s Lilja (The Lily) in Icelandic also points toward the devotional Marian lyric. Even further from actual biblical material there is a poetic and dramatic tradition of Marian miracles, sometimes in very large collections, in Latin and other languages such as those by Gautier de Coincy (ca. 1177–1236) in French, or in Spanish by King Alfonso X “el Sabio” (1221–1284). From the fourteenth century there are 40 small dramas in French, the Miracles de Notre-Dame.

There are many examples of medieval apocalyptic writings that go beyond the actual biblical sources in Daniel, some of the prophetic books, and Revelation. Considerations of Doomsday and visions of hell and heaven are common, and there are also Latin and vernacular prose, verse, and dramatic treatments of the Antichrist. There is a strong overlap with apocryphal material, much of which is apocalyptic, but it is again unclear whether the tale of the battle between Enoch and Elijah and the Antichrist in the last days (known in Irish and German) would have been recognized as nonbiblical.

Shorter Poems, Hymns, and Lyrics.

In contrast with the extended biblical epic, the many varieties of shorter verse are able to treat the Bible in a more concise and imaginative fashion. Thus in the Old English Dream of the Rood, an impressive poem in 156 lines, the cross itself offers an account of the crucifixion. The work is found in a tenth-century manuscript but linked to an inscription more than two centuries older. Other poems present the whole of the divine economy in a relatively short space. The eleventh-century German strophic poem known as Ezzos Gesang (Ezzo’s Song) does so in a brief and allusive style, encapsulating the Heilsgeschichte in a single strophe. Early German has a whole range of biblical poems that merge Bible and commentary, and the homiletic nature of many of these has led them (and works in other languages) to be called rhymed sermons, although the term is a difficult one, since details of performance and reception are unclear.

The most concise use of biblical material is in hymns, sequences, and religious lyrics; the influence of the Psalms and the overlap with the liturgy is also patent. With the biblical episode usually a starting point, the artistic aspects become increasingly important, as in poems like the Hymnus de Christo abecedarius ascribed to Sedulius, with strophes taking us alphabetically through the Gospels. Specific forms such as the Latin sequences treat biblical themes, as with the In natale Domini (On the Birth of the Lord) by Notker Balbulus (ca. 840–912). There are large numbers of Latin and vernacular (and also macaronic) devotional lyrics, hymns, and carols on the Virgin, the Nativity, and the Passion in particular. These may also contain affective descriptions of the wounds of Christ, sometimes much embellished. Many familiar Latin hymns are devotional developments of biblical themes; celebrated examples are the thirteenth-century Dies irae (perhaps by Thomas de Celano, ca. 1190–1260) on the end of the world, and the Stabat mater (perhaps by Jacopone da Todi, ca. 1230–1306) on the crucifixion. Vernacular examples are equally plentiful in an enormous range of styles, from the meditations and panegyrics of the Welsh Gogynfeirdd (twelfth- to thirteenth-century lay poets) to the Italian poems of Jacopone da Todi. There is much flexibility in the handling of the basic material, and lyrics may move away completely from the scriptures to use legends, as in the English Cherry Tree Carol.

The planctus Mariae, the lament of the Virgin, which is based on a description, since no words of the Virgin are biblically recorded, has a strong tradition independently and in the drama. Marian poetry itself is an extensive field and also contains very well-known examples, such as the Latin Ave maris stella, the Duelo de la Virgen (On the Sorrows of the Virgin) in Spanish by Gonzalo de Berceo (ca. 1195–ca. 1246), and many more in most European languages. The devotional aspect even feeds into the secular (courtly) love lyric. Again far from the Bible as such are such pieces as the English rhymed Dispute between Mary and the Cross, found in the late-fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which does have the superscript secundum Apocrafum, meaning only “not biblical.”

Universal Chronicles.

The Bible served as a sourcebook for medieval prose and verse chronicles, with the creation as the beginning of history. Additions came from sources such as Eusebius’s church history, and later the Historia scholastica, and once more the distinction between literature and instructional writing is tenuous. Biblically based prose chronicles are found in most languages; there is an early and substantial example in the ninth-century Byzantine Greek Chronography of George Synkellos, and a later Latin one in the prose Polychronicon of Ranulph Higden (d. 1364) of Chester, which was translated into English by John Trevisa in 1387 and printed by Caxton. Chronicles may be culturally or regionally specific, but while so-called world or universal chronicles embrace much of biblical history, even the more restricted ones often begin with the creation or with the dispersal of nations in Genesis 10, as does the Old Russian Primary Chronicle, which was probably begun in the first part of the eleventh century.

The chronicles expand literal details and sometimes very considerably, introducing nonbiblical elements seamlessly into what is being presented as history. The Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland), begun in the eleventh century, survives in a number of different cumulative recensions and contains biblical text, prose, and verse. It begins with the creation, then describes the nonbiblical fall of Lucifer and his angels, moves to his envy of Adam, and thence to the biblical narrative of Eden. Elements are added throughout, such as the names of the wives of Adam’s children and of Noah (whose wife acquires a multitude of names) and his sons, and the dispersal of the nations is much ramified. A slightly later but equally representative example is the rhymed German world chronicle of Jans Enikel, written in around 1272, taking us (in nearly 30,000 lines) from the creation to 1250. The first part is Old Testament, then we move to other ancient history, and then to Rome. The Historia scholastica is much used, but there is plenty of other nonbiblical information, including the discovery of alcohol by Noah and his goat. Some chronicles incorporate apocryphal material, and the Life of Adam and Eve is used in German verse by Heinrich von München in the early fourteenth century, in French prose by Jean d’Outremeuse later in that century, and later still in the English Abbreuiacion of Cronicles (1462–1463) by John Capgrave.

Chroniclers divided the history of the world into six ages (derived from Augustine and parallel with the six days of creation), the first from Adam to the flood, and the last from Christ to the second coming (there are variations, and occasionally seven ages). The concept of the six ages gives rise to a literature of its own in various languages and contexts as an abbreviated universal history. Separate treatments include a much-copied Irish Sex aetates mundi in prose and verse (perhaps composed around 1090), which ends with a detailed recapitulation of the dispersal of the nations. A more complicated text is the relatively little-known late medieval Scots prose The Sex Werkdays and Agis (1495), a clearly literary work in elevated style which is a typologically arranged survey of the ages, structured according to the days of creation.

Apocrypha and Legend.

Noncanonical apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were regularly translated and adapted into vernacular languages. More importantly, they were often merged with biblical material, usually without indication that the source is not the Bible. Well-known apocrypha supplied details where the Bible was felt to be wanting, about Adam and Eve, Enoch, the infancy of Christ and the life of the Virgin, the harrowing of hell and the fate of Pilate, and the acts of the apostles. Thus the Life of Adam and Eve, of Greek origin and with parallels in Eastern church languages, is found in different Latin versions after the eighth century and was both translated and adapted into literary texts. It is integrated fully into the late tenth-century Irish retelling of the Bible in verse known as Saltair na Rann (Psalter of Quatrains), and as late as 1480 a German, Hans Folz, translated the text and then printed a poem based upon it. Around 1300 an Austrian writer called Lutwin incorporated it into a long poem of Adam and Eve, the manuscript of which is illustrated, and episodes appear in biblical drama (in Italian and in Breton) and in chronicles, almost always merged tacitly with Genesis, though occasionally its nonbiblical source is noted. The English metrical Canticum de creatione refers to a (spurious) Hebrew original, Heinrich von München knows of a separate Adam book, and Capgrave’s chronicle calls it apocryphal, but all use it. The Slavonic version of the Life of Adam and Eve also contains the legend of the cheirograph, the written contract between Christ and the devil, based on Colossians 2:14.

The limited biblical information about the Virgin, or Christ’s childhood, led medieval writers to borrow details from the various apocryphal infancy gospels. There is an early rhymed Irish version of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (perhaps eighth century) and a number of later French and German works on the childhood of Christ. Epic lives of the Virgin sometimes combined biblical and apocryphal material, and the Old Icelandic Maríu Saga (ascribed to Kygri-Björn Hjaltason, d. 1237–1238) adds further historical material from Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. The composite Gospel of Nicodemus brought together in the fifth century two important narratives: the harrowing of hell and the life of Pilate. It was widely translated and adapted in prose and verse and used within biblical contexts in all genres, as were additional legends associated with Pilate. There are separate texts on the harrowing, which also appears regularly in lives of Christ. Using another Bible story, too, a Russian apocryphal work from the end of the twelfth century has Adam in hell begging Lazarus, who is, of course, only temporarily dead, to persuade Christ to harrow hell as soon as possible. Originally Greek or Latin apocryphal acts of the apostles sometimes attributed to them very odd adventures indeed, and these tales were popular as far away as Iceland, with the earliest manuscript of the prose Postola Sögur (Saga of the Apostles) dating from the first part of the thirteenth century. The apocalyptic Visio Pauli (Vision of Paul, expanded from 2 Corinthians 12:1–5, possibly of third-century Greek origin, but well known in Latin after the eighth) was much used in the vernaculars later in the Middle Ages to provide more details of heaven and (especially) hell.

Additional legends are also adopted into the biblical narrative. Those associated with Adam tell exactly how he was created, how he got his name (from the four cardinal points in Greek), or where he was created or buried. Equally significant are the legends of the Holy Rood, the cross before Christ, which grows from seeds planted by Seth in Adam’s grave; these legends involve Moses, David, and Solomon and Sheba. There are strong English, French, Dutch, German, and Italian traditions, and the legends are incorporated into drama in the Cornish Ordinalia, the biblical mystery cycle of the fourteenth century.

Text and Illustration.

The relationship between literature and iconography may be exemplified first by the anonymous Anglo-Norman Holkham Bible Picture Book of the early fourteenth century, in prose with some verse, which uses Peter Comestor and various legends. A separate and ramified tradition involving both words and pictures approaches the Bible from a typological perspective, setting Gospel scenes against their Old Testament prefigurations. In the so-called Biblia pauperum a Gospel scene such as the Resurrection is flanked by two Old Testament parallels: Samson breaking the gates of Gaza and Jonah emerging from the whale. Differing amounts of text are placed above the pictures (extensive in some examples, in others it disappears). Comments from the prophets also appear above and beneath the main illustrations, their words appearing sometimes on ribbons. Manuscripts are found from the fourteenth century (the origins are perhaps earlier), with block-book versions later. Originating in the fourteenth century, the illustrated Speculum humanae salvationis also juxtaposes Old and New Testament scenes typologically. The text is in Latin verse, and it was also translated. Most spectacular of all is the Bible moralisée, known in several manuscripts and associated with France and Spain, with the typologically arranged illustrations predominant.

Medieval Drama.

The most direct impression of the Bible was provided for the unlettered in the Middle Ages through the visual and emotional impact of drama. Even God is placed on stage. Its origins in the ninth-century quem quaeritis trope, depicting the Maries at the empty tomb, are well documented, and medieval biblical drama develops from individual plays to the great cycles in many languages at the end of the period.

The way in which the Bible was received in drama may have been affected by costume and stage furniture (probably contemporary) or by local reference (the Cornish mystery plays refer to places in Cornwall). Biblical plays also adopt the broader perspective of the popular Bible. Thus the later cycles typically begin with the fall of Lucifer and include the harrowing of hell, while typological exegesis determines the regular use of, say, the Abraham and Isaac story. There is clearly no possibility of source indication when noncanonical material is included. Such additions may be small or more extensive. In the so-called N-Town Plays in England, Eve asks Adam to kill her, which comes from the apocryphal Life of Adam, while the apocryphal Adam material is presented more fully in Italian in a mystery play from Bologna as well as a Breton play of uncertain date. Finally, stage business might have affected what the audience took as biblical. In the English cycles comedy elements are added by Noah’s wife and her attendant gossips, and the Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play contains a parody of the Nativity. Medieval plays offered, too, scope for lyrical development. The planctus Mariae is incorporated into medieval Passion dramas, sometimes associated with Christ’s words from the cross in John 29:26.

There are early Latin plays on Daniel, the Antichrist, and the Nativity and Passion, as well as a thirteenth-century play from Fleury on the Holy Innocents. In the vernaculars are the Anglo-Norman Le Mystère d’Adam (with a plurality of devils, who provide comic business throughout) and La Seinte Resurrection, while in Castilian the fragmentary Auto de los Reyes Magos (Play of the Magi Kings) from the mid-twelfth century confirms the unspecified biblical magi as three named kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Baltasar). The play also uses allegorical interpretation of their gifts, as did earlier biblical epics. In most vernaculars there are paradise plays, Christmas plays, and plays of the Passion, as well as plays of the Virgin. From the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries come the cycles of dramas performed over several days. In England individual episodes encompassing much of the divine economy were performed by different guilds. In fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century France, the Passion de Semur required two days, the Passions of Eustache Mercadé and Arnoul Greban four; Jean Michel’s extension of Greban would have occupied the better part of a week. There is also a less coherent late-fifteenth-century French cycle known as the Mistére du Viel Testament. In the Cornish plays (which contain, unusually, the tale of David and Bathsheba), the Holy Rood legend is used consistently to link the Testaments through the image of the cross, and other legends are also included.

Dramatization of biblical themes continues down to the end of the Middle Age, always with additions and expansions. A very prolific writer of short biblical plays is the German Hans Sachs (1494–1576), whose oeuvre again includes pieces based on legends. Even during the Reformation, with its insistence on sola scriptura, the Swiss Protestant Jacob Ruf (ca. 1500–1558) produced a two-day play from the creation to the flood, which was performed in the cathedral square in Zurich and which included a profusion of devils. It also translated the wickedness of the Cainite generation into anti-Roman polemic.

The medieval dramatist was aware of the importance of seeing and believing. At the end of the second play in the Cornish Ordinalia trilogy, the audience is told that they have just seen how Christ was martyred and that the next day they shall see the Resurrection. In the third play comes the apocryphal story of the suicide of Pilate, who refuses to believe in the divinity of Christ even though he has actually seen it. With this as a negative example, the audience is encouraged to believe in what they have seen performed.

Indirect Reflections.

Reworkings of and allusions to the actual or the popular Bible are common throughout medieval literature. The four brief lines of the English song “Adam lay i-bowndyn” refers to the nonbiblical apple and to the estimate of time until the Redemption. On the grand scale, the much developed eschatology of heaven and hell are familiar in Dante and in works like Piers Plowman. Less obviously, the curious tale of Gregorius (originally twelfth-century Anglo-Norman but known in most European languages), the tale of a child born from brother–sister incest, who marries his mother and then does penance on an isolated rock before divine intervention makes him pope, in fact uses the tale of Adam and Eve, who are of one flesh, while his penance echoes the apocryphal Life of Adam.

Allegorical interpretation is used to link biblical events to the real world. Thus the Physiologus, the Greek descriptive zoological handbook from late antiquity, becomes a Christian bestiary in many medieval vernacular languages in prose and in verse. To the attributes of the animals are added parallels with biblical events, possibly the best known being that of Christ as the spiritual unicorn, since the unicorn can supposedly be caught when it lays its head in a virgin’s lap. The approach was applied, too, to a moralized reading of classical literature, with well-known instances being the Ovide moralisé, adapting the Metamorphoses in the early fourteenth century, or the many messianic readings of Vergil’s fourth Eclogue.

Finally, the Bible could be used to comic effect. Beside the drama, a further well-known example is the use of the story of Noah to trick the carpenter Nicholas in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. In Latin the Psalms were parodied directly as drinking songs, and in a German collective codex (Karlsruhe 408) of popular stories written around 1430, which also contains shorter verse narratives on the fall of the angels and on the biblical creation and temptation, the opening piece, albeit entitled “Adam and Eve,” turns out to be an obscene mock-sermon on Eve’s anatomy and stresses that it was fruit that they were forbidden, not sex.

Intent and Awareness.

Questions of intent and reception often remain open. Early texts might well be for monastic teaching and edification, but the precise function of, say, vernacular homiletic pieces is less clear. However, the Bible as a source for medieval literature is hardly ever the Bible in a modern sense, but a Bible expanded by literal additions, by legends and noncanonical writings, and by various kinds of interpretation, this making up a popular Bible. Often, indeed, a medieval writer might assert the biblical origin of something that is not in fact biblical; in the English Canticum de creatione the fall of the angels for seven days and nights is ascribed to “holy writ.” Literal and other additions establish themselves firmly; that the biblical magi are viewed as kings becomes a literal commonplace, but the allegorical interpretation of their gifts as referring prophetically to kingship, divinity, and death is also offered without explanation at an early stage. The question remains open of whether it was ever clear to the medieval audience what was actually scriptural and, indeed, whether this was an issue.



  • Axton, Richard. European Drama of the Early Middle Ages. London: Hutchinson, 1974. A useful brief but broadly based introduction.
  • Coleman, Edward D. The Bible in English Drama. New York: New York Public Library, 1968. An annotated list of texts (updated by Isaiah Sheffer).
  • Cornell, Hendrik. Biblia pauperum. Stockholm: Thule, 1925. Remains the fullest introduction to the text groups of the Biblia pauperum and to the typological illustrated Bible.
  • Diehl, Peter. The Medieval European Religious Lyric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Looks at form and content, with full bibliography.
  • Dronke, Peter. The Medieval Lyric. London: Hutchinson, 1968. Especially useful on the early European religious, lyric.
  • Dunphy, Raymond Graeme. Daz was ein michel wunder. The Presentation of Old Testament Material in Jans Enikel’s Weltchronik. Göppingen, Germany: Kümmerle, 1998. An illustration of how a representative (German) world chronicle could adapt Old Testament material.
  • Dunphy, R. Graeme, ed. Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010. Two-volume reference work on all medieval chronicles, with general articles on biblical chronicles and those using biblical material.
  • Fowler, David C. The Bible in Early English Literature. London: Sheldon, 1977. On translations and paraphrases, metrical versions and chronicles.
  • Fowler, David. The Bible in Middle English Literature. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984. On drama, lyric, Chaucer, Langland, and other writings.
  • Green, Roger P. H. Latin Epics of the New Testament: Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. A study of the three writers and their later influence.
  • Howlett, D. R. British Books in Biblical Style. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 1997. A complex and unusual attempt to observe stylistic influence in Latin and Old English texts.
  • Izydorczyk, Zbigniew, ed. The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus: Texts, Intertexts and Contexts in Western Europe. Tempe: Arizona State University, 1997. Illustrates medieval versions of the Nicodemus-Pilate material in different cultures.
  • Kranz, Gisbert. Europas christliche Literatur von 500 bis 1500. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh Verlag, 1968. German introduction to a wide range of European Christian material, explained simply.
  • Leclerq, Jean. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Translated by Catherine Misrahi. New York: Fordham University Press, 1961. A survey of the monastic culture that lies behind much medieval literary Bible adaptation.
  • Masser, Achim. Bibel- und Legendenepik des deutschen Mittelalters. Berlin: Schmidt, 1976. A clear introduction to the use of biblical material in German through the Middle Ages.
  • McKenzie, Donald A. Otfrid von Weissenburg: Narrator or Commentator?? Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1946. A representative study of the way biblical material was merged with exegesis.
  • Möhring, Hannes. Der Weltkaiser der Endzeit: Entstehung, Wandel und Wirkung einer tausendjährigen Weissagung. Stuttgart: Thorbecke, 2000. An encyclopedic study of eschatological prophecies in different writings on the Antichrist, with a very full bibliography.
  • Morey, James H. “Peter Comestor, Biblical Paraphrase, and the Medieval Popular Bible.” Speculum 68 (1993): 6–35. An important indication of the role of the Historia scholastica.
  • Murdoch, Brian. The Recapitulated Fall: A Comparative Study in Medieval Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1974. Medieval versions of the Gospel narrative of the temptation in the desert.
  • Murdoch Brian. “Various Gospels: Die Erlösung, Pascon agan Arluth, and the Sermone of Petro da Barsegape.” Studi Medievali 36 (1995): 777–796. Examples of three representative vernacular Gospel adaptations.
  • Murdoch, Brian. Adam’s Grace: Fall and Redemption in Medieval Literature. Woodbridge, U.K.: Brewer, 2000. A survey (with bibliography) of the direct and indirect representation of the biblical balance of fall and redemption in European literature.
  • Murdoch, Brian. The Medieval Popular Bible: Medieval Adaptations of Genesis. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 2003. Adam, Babel, Lamech, and Joseph in different medieval genres and languages.
  • Murdoch, Brian. The Apocryphal Adam and Eve in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. A study of the Adam apocrypha in European vernaculars in all genres; large bibliography.
  • Owst, G. R. Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1961. A standard work on the influence and transmission of Bible and theology.
  • Raby, Frederick. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953, repr. 1997. A useful reference tool for Latin metrical adaptations of biblical material.
  • Sherwood-Smith, Maria C. Studies in the Reception of the Historia scholastica of Peter Comestor. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2000. A study of the important source of additional material for medieval literature.
  • Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. 3d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983. An indispensable study of the medieval biblical commentary techniques and approach to the Bible.
  • Thompson, John J. The Cursor Mundi: Poem, Texts and Contexts. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. A study of the (vast) Middle English biblical chronicle.
  • Wenzel, Siegfried. Preachers, Poets and the Early English Lyric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Has useful material on the hymn tradition and on the sermon as an art form.
  • Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. The standard introduction to the English mystery cycles.

Brian Murdoch