A gospel glossed

A leaf from Catena Aurea Super Quattuor Evangelistas (Golden Chain on the four evangelists) by St Thomas Aquinus, printed by Michael Wenssler in Basel in 1476 (386 x 275 mm)

Instead of writing new books from scratch, mediaeval authors were in the habit of producing what were known as ‘glossed’ editions of existing works. In these they subjected the original text to close scrutiny and added their own, often very extensive, commentary on it, interpreting, amplifying, and sometimes disagreeing with what the original author wrote.

This leaf comes from an early printed version of a glossed text originally produced in manuscript by St Thomas Aquinas in the 1260s. In it he took the four New Testament gospels, and divided them into small sections. These appear in the book as small blocks of type, surrounded on three sides by the text of the gloss printed in smaller type. The work, which Aquinas called the Catena Aurea, (Golden Chain), is unusual in that the gloss does not present Aquinas’ own words but is made up of extracts chosen by him from the writings of a large number of other theologians – Augustine of Hippo, the Venerable Bede, and many others – chosen to be particularly apposite to the portion of the gospel alongside which they appear.

The text on this leaf concerns parts of chapters 5 and 6 of St Matthew’s gospel. The typesetter has met the challenge of preserving full justification in the narrow columns of Bible text by ruthlessly dividing words with no hyphen or other indication where he has done so. Extensive rubrication helps guide the reader's eye, with most of the capital letters marked, and a paragraph mark inserted in the gap at the start of most of the individual quotations that form the gloss – mostly in red, but occasionally, for some reason, in blue.

Wenssler was a prolific publisher who produced some 150 books between 1472 and 1491, when he got into financial difficulties and had to leave Basel. He re-established his press in France and produced a few more titles there. Some of his publications for church use include music printed using a special fount containing staves, notes, bar-lines and other notation.

Catena Aurea has remained popular over many centuries. It was translated into English by John Henry Newman in 1841 and is still in print today. One modern publisher describes it as ‘of immeasurable use to priests writing homilies, lay people engaged in private or family study or of the Gospels, ... [and] the perfect companion to study the Scriptures in detail and receive the wisdom of St. Thomas on particular passages’. What began as a manuscript in the 13th century can be read online or downloaded as an e-book in the 21st.

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