When he paced the scriptorium and scowled at the monks, inspecting their handiwork, eyeing their script, he couldn’t have foreseen where their books would end up. Twelve centuries later, one of their most enlightening creations is stored away at the British Library: a Bible created under the watchful eye of Theodulf, abbot of Fleury and bishop of Orleans at the turn of the ninth century.
If his poetry is any indication, Theodulf was not a very sentimental man. A veritable connoisseur of verse warfare, the Visigothic refugee from Islamic Spain depicted himself as a masterful wit. He baited Frankish nobles with Latin insults they couldn’t understand. He blasted the poetry of an Irish competitor by criticizing his pronunciation, declaring him “an abomination” and announcing that “c” was the “letter of salvation” because it rescued Scottus, “Irishman,” from becoming sottus, “idiot.” Schooled in theology, trained in the law, Theodulf was brilliant. He made sure posterity knew it.
Theodulf couldn’t abide the impulses of pilgrims. He frowned on the veneration of icons. He would have rolled his eyes at the sight of museum-goers gawking at sacred objects simply because of their age. Multa scis et nulla sapis, he would have scolded them: “You know so much, and you understand nothing.”
But at the British Library, on the one decorated page of the “Theodulf Bible,” is evidence, maybe, of the bishop’s softer side. Facing a page of shockingly tiny script, the canon table doesn’t have a Northern European look to it. At the top, unmissable, are the horseshoe arches associated with Islamic Spain. They’re held aloft by five colorful columns, which aren’t decorated with the usual Romanesque doodads or acanthus-leaf designs. Steps, squiggles, and scroll-like details wind their way up each tall and slender column. They wouldn’t look out of place in an Andalusian mosque. Naturally, there’s not a single human figure in sight.
The scribe, of course, could have come from anywhere in Europe. We can’t dust the folios for the fingerprints of a scholar some twelve centuries dead. Theodulf himself—a bishop, an abbot, a counselor to kings—may never have touched that particular leaf.
But it is charming to imagine Theodulf, the great Carolingian sophisticate, recalling a scene from his own distant youth—impressions, clear ones, of places he would never see again, a streetscape of long-lost neighbors whose souls he continued to pray for—and then leaning over the shoulder of a nervous scribe, eager to tell him: “Here. These are the arches. It’s how I remember them. I want you to paint them exactly this way.”
What would Theodulf make of this speculation, this effort to spy on his medieval mind? If the bishop were as blustery as he portrayed himself, he’d have reacted like his rivals in poetic combat, attonitus, tremulus, furibundus, anhelus—”frantic, trembling, raging, panting.” But as an intellectual, a scholar who did his best to build a better Bible, Theodulf surely would have chuckled. In his heyday, he compared his colleagues to scurrying ants. He slandered them as drunkards, he made fun of their weight, and he dubbed all his rivals intemperate fools. The bishop ended his satiric poems with Christian pleas for forgiveness—but he knew full well that few of his hapless targets could truly reply in kind.
Theodulf loved a good joke—or so we imagine, based on some fragments in very old books. If we want to strip the man of his historical dignity, wrongly portray him as a sentimental sap, rebaptize the sharp-tongued Goth in mawkish, imaginary tears, we can. He can’t stop us.
Theodulf’s poems were a plea for someone to spar with, but now the joke is on him. For once, the great wit doesn’t get the final word. Let’s hope the bishop is laughing; at last, he found a worthy foe in time.