Here the shepherds learn of the Baby born in a stable. Note that one is playing the bagpipes. The sheepdog seems alert to all that is going on.

The manuscript known as the Holkham Bible takes its name from the house where it formed part of the collection. It was given this name by M. R. James in 1923. James was a scholar with a particular interest in East Anglia, although he is better known today for his ghost stories, which make regular appearances on TV.  Despite being called the Holkham Bible, it did not originate in East Anglia. The Macclesfield Psalter on the other hand was written in this part of the world, possibly in Norwich itself.  In the same way it is named from the owner of the house where it was discovered, in this case the Earl of Macclesfield’s former home at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire. The Holkham Bible consists of illustrations of episodes from Genesis, the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, with a short summary written in the language of the time, Anglo-Norman. This is basically medieval French, with a smattering of words that would evolve into Middle English but were by-passed by Modern French. Venison was an Old French word for deer’s meat, for example, but while it passed into Anglo-Norman and thence into Middle and Modern English, today’s French term is viande de chevreuil.

It is thought that the Holkham Bible had been written in London. The big bold illustrations are quite different from the finely wrought miniatures we usually associate with illuminated manuscripts. It is full of asides and comments which appear in the way the drawings are done. The plough is pulled by two oxen yoked to a donkey for example. The viewer of this picture would immediately recognize this as a practice denigrated in the scriptures. Besides its story telling, which is coloured throughout with such incidents, the Holkham Bible is valuable for the picture it paints of everyday medieval life.

Holkham Bible


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