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Interview of Editors of The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages

Updated on December 18, 2011
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Editor Susan Boynton
Editor Susan Boynton
Editor Diane J. Reilly
Editor Diane J. Reilly

I was honored to have an interview granted with the editors of The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages. This work was a wonderful look at how the Bible was used and viewed during Medieval times. I found this work to be an excellent piece of historical writing that too many assume they know but in reality have very little knowledge.

The editors, Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly, did a magnificent job of compiling the writings of others to create a work that flows smoothly and logically. Here is their interview in their own words.

The Interview

Where did the idea of the book come from?

SB: As a teacher, I have long been aware of the need for a book in English on the Bible in the Middle Ages – a book that would be readable and affordable enough to assign to students, but at the same time would reflect the most current scholarship and be written entirely by experts in the field. In 2004-2005, I wrote an essay for a book on the Bible in the Middle Ages that never came out; it was abandoned by its coeditors in 2007. I wanted to see my chapter (“The Bible and the Liturgy”) published, because it had required a significant investment of time and energy and I thought it would be useful for students. However, it could not stand alone as a journal article; it really had to be a chapter in a book. As it happened, earlier in the same year I had organized a small but very stimulating conference on medieval manuscripts of the Bible that featured presentations by Emily Francomano, Richard Gyug, Laura Light, and Diane Reilly (all of whom later contributed to The Practice of the Bible). This experience inspired me to put together a book on the Bible in the Middle Ages.

As editors, what precisely were your jobs on this book? How much writing was involved for you?

DR: Susan and I gathered all the contributions and read them for coherence, clarity to the intended audience, and consistency. From the beginning we planned for the book to be read by the 'uninitiated' you could say, so we didn't assume any background knowledge about the Bible, or the Christian tradition. Because our authors were all specialists who wrote their contributions based on their research areas, sometimes we had to ask them to step back and simplify or clarify the ways in which they described practices or events. It was especially important that obscure terms be defined, and that all the terminology be used consistently, so that if someone read through the book from beginning to end they wouldn't become confused by the use of different terms. Some of the contributions had originally been written for use in other contexts, and that meant a considerable amount of rewriting to make them appropriate for our volume. Fortunately, our authors were very cooperative about the numerous rewrites we asked them to do, and those suggested by the outside readers for the press. They were also very good about writing the kind of studies we anticipated and described to them. After we had received and edited all the contributions (and written two of them ourselves), we wrote the "Orientation" that opens the book so that it would supply information necessary to understand the chapters that followed.

How were the authors chosen among all those out there as specialists?

SB: I already knew most of the authors personally through various scholarly networks; others I knew through their publications. Most of the authors are the foremost experts in their fields. I invited the speakers in my 2007 conference to contribute essays, and we also solicited a few chapters from the abandoned book project I described above. We were very fortunate that so many outstanding scholars agreed to write for us.

When one first thinks of combining the writing of other people’s into one volume, you almost expect it to seem choppy. This book reads so smoothly between sections. What is the key to doing that?

DR: Most of the contributions were written especially for this book. We assigned the authors specific areas or themes, and tried to make sure that they didn't overlap too much and that there was continuity between the chapters. Figuring out how to arrange the chapters was a challenge, but in the end a chronological arrangement seemed most logical. The oldest preserved uses of the Bible were readings from the Latin Bible during church ritual, such as the Mass and the Office, and many of the oldest manuscripts were used that way, so the chapters that address those themes come first. The writing of sermons and the translation of the medieval Bible into other languages primarily occurred later, so those chapters logically come later in the volume. Hopefully a reader can sense that the chapters build on each other. At the same time, each one should be able to stand alone as a discrete explanation of a single phenomenon.

SB: The smoothness of the book as a whole also reflects our long-term work as editors. Once we had worked out the order of the chapters, we went over the entire manuscript many times, and did extensive, repeated editing on both the micro and macro levels. At various stages, we also hired graduate students to do additional copyediting and help us with the glossary and the index.

Have the two of you worked together before?

DR: Susan and I had worked together a bit, in that I had contributed an article to a scholarly volume Susan had co-edited. You can learn a lot about another scholar's work habits simply by communicating about a single article: does the person respond quickly, listen to suggestions, and abide by deadlines? I think we had a feeling we would be able to collaborate from that.

SB: Diane was an ideal contributor (conscientious, responsive) for the earlier volume she mentions. She also spoke in the conference I organized on the Bible in the Middle Ages; our conversations around that conference were part of the inspiration for this book.

How easy was it to work together?

DR: I enjoyed our collaboration very much. Both Susan and I communicate constantly, and neither of us takes offense easily, so we were able to offer and critique suggestions, and critique each other's work, which is invaluable. We also have complementary skill sets: both of us write clearly and read quickly, but Susan has a very good idea of the big picture and was able to envision what the appropriate parts of the book should be, and when there were gaps to be filled. She also knew most of the contributors and knew exactly whom to ask for what. I'm an extremely detail-oriented person, and edit text almost reflexively. So I did a great deal of text editing and rewriting of some contributions (though Susan did this as well). We felt the collaboration was so successful that now we're working together on another project, about the relationship between medieval art and music.

SB: Diane is the ideal co-editor. She has a creative vision and she gets the job done. I cannot imagine a better collaborator. In fact, even before the book was really finished we began to think about what other projects we could work on together.

What were your favorite parts of the book?

DR: Personally, my favorite parts of the book are those that describe the role of the Bible in the rituals of the church. Because I'm fascinated by medieval manuscripts, I like the ways those chapters show how the manuscripts would have been used, when people would have seen them, and when they would have turned the pages or reached for another book. While most Bibles that were made in the Middle Ages were plain and simple workman-like manuscripts, some were incredibly lavish and beautiful. Now that anyone who wants to can have a copy of the Bible, we think of a Bible as a tool, most conveniently owned in a small, inexpensive form. This is not how Christians looked at their core text as a physical object before the invention of the printing press.

SB: For me, the most fascinating chapters concern the topics that were most unfamiliar to me before we began the project: the English, French, and Castilian translations of the Bible.

Was it what you had anticipated?

DR: The book is more attractive and more affordable than I anticipated, thanks entirely to Columbia University Press, whose graphic designers did a fabulous job, and to the rare book library at my home institution, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, which gave us the image for the cover. The contributions to the volume came together very nicely and I was very pleased with the quality and consistency of the chapters.

SB: I second Diane’s comments. Also, I am delighted that the price of the paperback is so reasonable.

When do you know a book is done?

DR: This book was done when it satisfied both us and the outside readers for Columbia University Press. The vetting process for a book like this is very long and stringent. We wanted the book to be as good as possible, and so did the Press. Once we were satisfied that we couldn't make it any better, it was done.

SB: Sometimes a book has to be “done,” practically speaking, when the publisher’s deadline arrives – when it is finally time to let go and stop tinkering with a project that could otherwise continue forever. In other cases, a book goes through so many stages of revision over a period of years that it feels really finalized, as if there is nothing substantive left to do. That was the case of The Practice of the Bible.

What projects do you have in the works now?

DR: I am now working on the early manuscripts of the Cistercian monastic order. In 1098, a group of monks walked into what they described as "a vast and horrible wilderness" (actually the French province of Burgundy) and set up a bunch of wooden huts were they could live as plainly as possible. Nonetheless, in the next 20 years they wrote and illuminated at least two dozen very large and very beautiful manuscripts for themselves. Not very long after, the same order of monks outlawed that type of decoration within their books. I'm trying to figure out why they made these books, and how they were used.

SB: I am working on an edition and translation of a monastic customary written in the late eleventh century. The text is a set of instructions for every aspect of life in a monastery from making bread and cooking beans to celebrating the mass. The original Latin text will be published with my English translation and a French translation by my coeditor, Isabelle Cochelin. I am also editing eleventh-century Latin glosses on the hymns sung in the medieval liturgy of the hours. These glosses, or commentaries, were used for teaching the texts of the hymns. I might publish the edition online using hypertext because it is difficult to come up with the right format for a printed edition.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

DR: In ten years I'll hopefully still be doing the same kind of work: researching, writing and teaching. I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to research an area I love and introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the Middle Ages. This book was designed with those students in mind, so I look forward to seeing how it is used. Everyone should be able to do a job they like this much.

SB: Like Diane, in ten years I hope I will still be doing research, writing, and teaching. I would like to focus on the Middle Ages even more than I currently do as a professor of music history, so I aspire to teach in a medieval studies program.

What person in history would you love to talk to?

SB: I would love to have a conversation with Andrés Marcos Burriel (1719-62), the Spanish Jesuit and scholar of the Middle Ages who was the subject of my last monograph (Silent Music: Medieval Song and the Construction of History in Eighteenth-Century Spain, Oxford University Press, 2011). From reading his letters, I feel as if I know him, but I have a lot of questions to ask him about the things he left unsaid.

Review and Book

If this has you interested, check out my review of The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages and where you can buy it on

Thank you, Ms. Boynton and Ms. Reilly. I enjoyed reading your work and can't wait to see what the future holds.


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      PamD 5 years ago

      I have GOT to read this book!!!