Remembering the Bible

This complicated-looking manuscript is a mnemonic device which helped its medieval readers memorise and digest the contents of the Bible. Usually known as the Summarium Biblicum, it summarises each chapter in (usually) just one word; hence, in the first line shown here the words ‘Sex. prohibet. peccant. Abel. Ennok. archa fit. intrant’ [‘Six. prohibits. [they] sin. Abel. Enoch. arc is built. [they] enter.’] represent the first seven chapters of Genesis. Further notes above each line offer further explanation so that, for instance, the reader has the explanatory gloss ‘adam et eva’ to accompany the single word ‘peccant’ [they sin] for Genesis chapter 3. The text is often attributed to the thirteenth-century French author Alexander de Villa Dei, but recent research points to a considerably later date of composition. There are hundreds of surviving manuscripts of the Summarium from across Europe, suggesting widespread popularity and use. It continued to be used into the seventeenth century; one version was included at the beginning of the first volume of Jean de la Haye’s Biblia Maxima, printed in Paris in 1660. This and other such biblical mnemonics are evidence of the varied tools and skills of memory that were needed to approach a text as complex and as culturally important as the late medieval and early modern Bible. CL

A memoria technica for the contents of each chapter in the Bible, consisting of hexameter verses, fifteenth century.

CUL: MS Gg.iv.10, fo. 7r

Further reading

Greti Dinkova-Brunn, ‘Biblical Versification and Memory in the Later Middle Ages’, in Rafał Wójcik (ed), Culture of Memory in East Central Europe in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (Poznań, 2008), pp. 53-64.

Lucie Doležalová , ‘The Summarium Biblicum: A Biblical Tool both Popular and Obscure’, in Eyal Poleg and Laura Light (eds), Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible (Leiden, 2013), pp. 163-84. The translation in this caption is taken from p. 163.

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