the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Canon Tables

Posted by gninja on June 6, 2006

Canon tables are a fairly neat little convention seen in many medieval bibles. As an invention, they are attributed to Eusebius, a 3rd-4th century bishop of Palestine and major player in the First Council of Nicaea. Whether or not there is truth in this attribution, its association with an early Church Father nonetheless testifies to the importance of canon tables in the written tradition of the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels (the canonical, as opposed to the apocryphal, ones).

In short, a canon table is a tool of concordance. Because the four Gospels differ from one another, a table was created to show which verses are shared by each or some of the Gospels, and where these verses occur.

Here’s an example of a canon table:


These, much like a table of contents page, were most often placed at the beginning of a manuscript, and it was not uncommon for multiple canon tables to be included.

Canon tables, however, are not merely a nifty convenience, but they also serve a less practical and more conceptual purpose. If you recall, I had mentioned in my last post that a medieval reader would be attuned to certain signs in the manuscript. For example, the layout of the text and the script– just two of many, many possible signs– conveyed to the reader what kind of literature or writing she was about to read. (I must pause here to name-drop in order to emphasize how useful the work of AJ Minnis and MB Parkes is to supplying us with an understanding of medieval textual organization and presentation. Strikingly, neither of these men is an art historian. They, like so many scholars of manuscript studies, are literary theorists.)

One of these signs is indeed the canon table. Because the Bible is the ultimate auctoritas,the manuscript containing the words of the Bible would be given the most careful and deliberate treatment, whereas the manuscript containing a set of lyrics and romances would be given a more casual look.

Think of it in terms of a meal. A meal is something we eat. But a picnic comes with a set of signs very different from a holiday meal. (NB: I am describing in the following the Americanized ideals or models with the full recognition that such are paragons and not necessarily typicalities.) The picnic comes with: basket, blanket, paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery, disposable cups, hand-held food, and a more laid back attitide of the participants. A holiday meal–let’s say Thanksgiving–comes with: a table with fancy table-cloth, the special family silverware, fine china, foods that require different utensils, and participants who engage in formalized rituals (e.g. naming the things for which we are thankful). If we saw a picnic layout, we would not approach it with the same demeanor as we would a Thanksgiving spread, and vice-versa.

So it is with texts, and even moreso for manuscripts, which were unique and often illustrated. The canon table was a tool that not only helped readers find concordances among the Gospels, but it also reinforced the authority and eminence of the text. Immediately upon opening the manuscript, and without reading a word, the reader would confront an elaborate table. And like the fine china and sparkling crystal glasses at the Thanksgiving meal, the table would prcolaim “imporatant!”

Of course, this is a Bible, and it seems that such a sign would be unnecessary– everyone knows (or knew) that the Bible was, well, The Good Book. True, but such a truth does not inhere in the text itself, but rather the traditions, laws, and institutions that are built up around it. People never automatically thought the Bible was the ultimate textual authority. It took years for such an authority to be established, and the creation of an elaborate, finely decorated, and painstakingly organized manuscript tradition for Bibles helped establish the text’s authority. Of course, so too did many other conventions within Christianity.

It’s no mistake, then, that canon tables almost always come within an architectural framework (take another look at the image above). Not only does the table assert the authority of the text, but it also houses (pun absolutely intended) the Word of God within the structure of the Church, thereby co-opting the Word’s power for itself. To say co-opt may even be an understatement, since Christ was considered Word incarnate (the Word was actually considered the inviolate body of Christ, which was why vandalizing a Bible would be likened linguistically to injuring Christ’s body). So, really, when one looks at these canon tables, he is looking at the institution of the Church being the receptacle, the house, for the body of Christ. I can’t think of a greater power statement within the context of medieval society than that.

Note: I understand that this last paragraph has a whole lot of information in very little space. I hope, in the future, to expland upon and clarify these notions.


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