"There is one other comfort for my missionary labours that I should like to ask from you. May I be so bold as to beg of you to send me the Book of the Prophets which Winbert, of revered memory, my former abbot and teacher, left behind when he departed this life? It contains the text of the six prophets bound together in one volume, all written out in full with clear letters. Should God inspire you to do this for me, no greater comfort could be given me in my old age, nor could any greater reward be earned by yourself. A Book of the Prophets, such as I need, cannot be procured in this country, and with my failing sight it is impossible for me to read small, abbreviated script. I am asking for this particular book because all the letters in it are written out clearly and separately.
"In the meantime I am sending you by the priest Forthere a letter and a small gift as a token of affection, a towel, not of pure silk but mixed with rough goat's hair, for drying your feet. . . .
"News was brought to me recently by a priest who came to Germany from your parts that you had lost your sight. You, my Lord, are more aware than I am who it is who said: "Where he loves, he bestows correction." And St. Paul says: " When I am weakest, then I am strongest of all "; and: "My strength is increased in infirmity." The author of the psalms adds: " Many are the trials of the innocent", etc. You, my father, have eyes like those of Didimus, of whom Antony is related to have said that his eyes saw God and His angels and the blessed joys of the heavenly Jerusalem. On this account, and because I know your wisdom and your patience, I believe that God has permitted you to be afflicted in this way so that your virtue and merit may increase and that you may gaze with the eyes of the spirit on those things which God loves and commands, whilst seeing less of the things God hates and forbids. What are our bodily eyes in this time of trial but the windows of sin through which we observe sins and sinners, or, worse still, behold and desire them and so fall into sin?
'Farewell, my lord, and pray for me in Christ."
- St. Boniface, an excerpt from a Letter from Archbishop/St. Boniface to Bishop Daniel of Winchester, ca. 742-746, from The Correspondence of St. Boniface, ed. Tangl, from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
In the course of his ministry, St. Boniface won more than 100,000 people to Christianity, and he is said to have “had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived,” carrying Romano-Christian civilization beyond the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Always, correspondence with men and women he knew in England helped to sustain him. The quoted text is a portion of a letter from Boniface to Bishop Daniel of Winchester (Boniface’s own beloved former bishop) written between 742 and 746, expressing concerns about Bishop Daniel’s blindness and asks for a volume of the Prophets. Ordaining more than 300 clergy and forming monasteries with more than 2,000 monks and nuns, Boniface was often seeking books for his own use and books to be copied for his clergy and for people in the monasteries. He carried his own books with him wherever he went, reading the Bible and singing Psalms and hymns, giving alms to the poor. (Biographical sources: (Greenaway, Sladden).
Most American Christians today have several complete copies of the Bible, professionally bound, translated into our own language. Most of us have more than one translation of the Bible into English, all of them scholarly versions prepared by groups of scholars knowledgeable about the original languages. The translators have at their disposal copies of collections of manuscripts in the original languages. We assure people of the accuracy of the text now available because of the meticulous care taken by copyists over the centuries in transcribing the Bible from one manuscript to another, slowly and tediously making sure that very few errors were made over the centuries.
We forget the cost. Not until Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press in 1451 did it make much sense to expect that every Christian would have access to even one complete copy of the Bible. Even Boniface, as bishop and archbishop, did not have the luxury of possessing a complete copy of the prophets carefully printed and legibly written so that a 60-year old far-sighted man could read it. He wrote to a fellow bishop in England asking if he could have a copy of such a book that he knew existed in that country. The volume he wanted had once belonged to his teacher, and must have been passed on to the fellow bishop who could no longer use it in his blindness. It was probably beautifully hand printed, with beautiful designs, and it may have had a very costly cover hand-made by a loving nun or monk. Boniface was careful to explain that he wanted it because it was legible. Although books were then part of wealth, his request was not from greed.
From his letter, it appears that the copies of the Prophets that were available in Germany at that time were transcribed in small handwriting with abbreviations, probably reflecting that the copyists would spend less time preparing a copy of those less essential books than they commonly spent on the New Testament texts and the Psalms. There were only so many copyists, tediously and carefully copying the Bible from one manuscript to a new manuscript as Christianity spread through Europe. Surely an archbishop could have instructed copyists to make a legible copy of the prophets for him. It would take some speculation to imagine why he did not do so. However, Christianity was spreading quickly through the region under his authority, and he would have had to take copyists away from the work of making new copies of the Psalms, Gospels and Epistles in order to have them make a new copy of the Prophets.
We take for granted what we have today. We take our literacy for granted. We forget how many men and women in earlier centuries and in other parts of the world could not read a Bible even if they had one.
We take our eyesight for granted. Eighth century people had no vision correction comparable to what we have today even if they were literate. Life could be difficult and fleeting. An English abbess once wrote to Boniface about poverty, lack of food, and exactions of the king, saying “our life is weariness to us and it is almost a burden to live.”
I remind myself to be thankful. They whose names I will never know, and who had so little, labored to make accurate copies of the Scripture for the good of the future, for us whose real lives are easier than their dreams.