Monthly Archives: February 2016

What do I think of the Bíblia de Danila?

There has been a very long hiatus here, for which I’m sorry. The factors in this have basically been:

  • first-marking a bunch of exams;
  • reading enough to kickstart a course I have inherited that starts two hundred years before I usually teach, which is itself five hundred years before what I actually work on
  • second-marking a bunch of exams;
  • the death in traffic of one of my cats, a truly excellent little critter whom I will not now see grow out of his kittenhood;
  • second-marking a bunch more exams and first-marking a bunch of assignments, and
  • the fact that this post needed me to read a sixty-page article in my fifth language which I could only access via a library in London.

But mainly it’s been marking. I did tell myself at one point that I would only blog when there wasn’t marking due but it’s now clear that there will be marking due until at least April, and I can be silent no longer etc., and so we swing now back into substantive blogging with a post that I should have written even longer ago than this delay suggests! It was in October 2012, you see, that our esteemed commentator Mouguias asked me if I had ever heard of a manuscript known as the Bíblia de Danila and if so what I thought of it. I hadn’t, and made an ill-judged promise to find out more and then write about it, and then didn’t do so. Mouguias popped up again in January 2015 and teased me about this in passing, and at that point I stubbed this post to remind me to do something about it. And at last I have.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 69r

A particularly decorated page from the Bília de Danila, Codex Cavensis or Cava Bible, call it what you will as long as you cite it as Cava de’ Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, this here being fo. 69r, and “LaCavaBibleFolio69r“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So, firstly, why is this bible a thing to investigate? The manuscript in question now resides in the Southern Italian monastery of la Cava de’ Terreni and this is the source of the manuscript’s other name, the Codex Cavensis. It seems to have come there in the twelfth century, however, from Spain, and probably actually dates to the early ninth century. Until recently it was held to have been nothing less than be a present of Charlemagne to King Alfonso II of Asturias, already, which would make it very early ninth-century indeed, but of late this has come under scrutiny and quite the reverse proposed, that it is fact a native Asturian product possibly even meant for display to the Carolingian Empire of Asturias’s newly-confident cultural self-expression. And for some reason in 2012 the web suddenly picked this up and ran with it. As Mouguias put it in his first comment: “Apparently this might be the ‘book’ that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his ‘Testament’, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812.” Well, it “might” be, of course, wherever Alfonso would then have got it from, and people can believe what they like about it but there’s no proving things like that from the manuscript itself and the manuscript is all we have here.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 220v

Fo. 220v. is, as you can see, written in white and red on indigo-stained parchment. Someone did put a lot of work and wealth into this manuscript! “LaCavaBibleFolio220v“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Now, you can immediately see how this is what one might expect from an area with a proud and important history within the Iberian peninsula that has since been sidelined by national politics, but for Mouguias this was coming from web reports of work by a researcher by the name of Paolo Cherubini, who is no less than the Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive and thus more like a neutral in the contest.1 His work is not easy to get at, however, and it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that the web was not reporting it totally accurately.2 Actually, to judge from the unusually scholarly Wikipedia article on the Bible, the germ of the idea of reattributing the Cava Bible to Asturias came from the late great John W. Williams.3 I’m not sure that he would have stood by all of this, however:

“The location of the scriptorium in which Danila worked is not known. However the hand, textual variations, and orthography indicate that the manuscript was produced in Spain, during the early 9th century. It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex. Additional evidence of an Asturian origin is provided by the decoration of the manuscript. The Cross which appears in four locations in the La Cava Bible, is the only explicitly Christian decoration in the manuscript. Although the form of the Crosses in the La Cava Bible do not appear in other surviving Asturian art, the Cross was emphasized in Asturian devotional art.”

Well, taking this piece by piece, I am pretty much happy that spelling and textual variants can be used to place this manuscript’s production, or at least its scribe’s training, in Spain, as can the script. After that, however, I back off rapidly, especially from this bit:

“It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex [sic].”

What, really, do we know about the size of Asturias under Alfonso II? Mostly, we know what people working for Alfonso III subsequently claimed it had been, in order to justify what were probably really new claims on that territory. Alfonso II’s kingdom was clearly a cultural centre, his rebuild of the royal palace and his attempts to link out to the Carolingians show that, but very big it may not have been, not least because those very links to the Carolingians may indicate a difficulty obtaining local support in some areas.4

Remains of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo adjacent to the cathedral of San Salvador

What there remains above ground of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo, which is to say, a few bits now sticking out of the cathedral of San Salvador

And in any case, why on earth is it “unlikely” that such a manuscript could have been produced in al-Andalus, the which polity contained Seville, Toledo and the as-yet-apparently-untaxed Christian community of Córdoba as well as many other cathedral communities? The Asturian cultural efflorescence used to be supposed, after all, to have been powered by super-cultured fugitive immigrants from the south who brought their skills and ideas for decoration with them, and indeed often their manuscripts.5 You can’t have that along with the assumption that all Christians living in Muslim-controlled areas had become culturally bankrupt. So we need some better basis for this identification.

The supposedly 'Mozarabic' church of San Miguel d'Escalada, Asturias

The supposedly ‘Mozarabic’ church of San Miguel d’Escalada, Asturias, which could of course have been built by anyone who’d ever seen such arches and had sufficient skill, wherever they’d been born, but hey. «SMdE exterior portico» por Desarrollo Local GradefesSan Miguel de Escalada 05. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

It does have to be admitted that the Bíblia’s decoration is not very Andalusi as we understand it, but then, decorated manuscripts from al-Andalus are rare, full stop. Furthermore, this decoration contains no human figures, although as you see it has some splendid fish, which might cause some to say that an Andalusi context is more, not less, plausible. Even our Wikipedian commentator, you’ll note, has to admit that in terms of manuscript art this decoration is unusual for Asturias, and hangs on the number of ornamented crosses that survive in metalwork from the area as a proxy. But while the Asturian ones are lovely, pretty much everywhere in the Latin West had ornamental processional crosses, you know? In whose Christian devotional art has the cross not been a focus? It’s really not enough by itself.

The Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d'Oviedo

The superb Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d’Oviedo, and yes, it is lovely and inescapably Asturian, but it is also from a century later than our Bible and also nothing like as geometric as the cross patterns therein. «Oviedo – Catedral, Camara Santa 02» por ZaratemanTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

So, I went and got hold of Cherubini’s article, and slowly I read it. It may not surprise you that it is more careful than the Wikipedia article for the most part. In particular, he does nothing with the argument about the crosses at all; he mentions that others have made it, but then never comes back to it.6 Instead he is focused on the palæography, and this turns out to be not as simple a question as you might expect. The main text is by two scribes, and they have differing but high levels of Iberian Latin habits that, for Cherubini and I’m happy to go along with this, place this manuscript in a zone where Visigothic script and Iberian Latin were the common ways of writing texts, and he argues reasonably for a date in the ninth century and probably in the early part of it (no tighter than that, from palæography alone). The headings, rubrics and other sorts of display script, however, all look a lot older, in half-uncials or uncials which would fit equally well in the late fifth or sixth centuries, so that there was clearly an exemplar before the scribes of a much older date, which they were partly mimicking and partly updating; they wanted what they were making to look old but also usable. It then has annotations, cross-references and glosses which suggest that among several other purposes, it was being mined by people concerned especially with the nature of the Trinity and with issues of predestination, the latter of which probably suggests use in the later ninth century when Gottschalk of Orbais had freshly brought such issues to the fore.7

Page of the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v

Human figures and God made flesh, yet, already, from the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v, image from WIkimedia Commons

Cherubini also notes that there are no human figures depicted in the manuscript, but for him this suggests use rather than origin, an involvement in the controversy over images of God and the saints that convulsed Mediterranean theology in the late eighth century and early ninth.8 But this is where Cherubini starts to go further than I think he should, and it was evident from his title that despite his palæographical caution he would have to: the article, after all, proclaims this Bible to be “a triumphal monument to Alfonso II”.9 First of all, the image controversy is (as we have seen here before) often associated with Spanish theologians because they would have been in contact with Islam, which prohibits (or rather, again as we’ve seen, has at times prohibited) images of the human form. But actually the scholars we see worrying about such issues in the eighth and ninth centuries were based at the Carolingian court, in Italy, in the Byzantine Empire, but not the Iberian peninsula, where presumably Adoptionism was still giving them quite enough to debate. Beatus of Liébana’s famous Commentary on the Apocalypse is full of pictures of people, as you see above, and so are many other Asturian manuscripts of this and following centuries.10 So this doesn’t pin it to the Iberian Peninsula for me, still less to Asturias, though I’m happy to accept the Peninsular attribution on the basis of the palæography still.

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral, another supposed parallel for the cross art in the Cava Bible but again, as you see here, not geometrical or shaped in the same way really. By Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons.

So Cherubini has a palæographical dating, which is roughly the early end of the ninth century but with scribes using a much older and probably Visigothic exemplar. He also has from that good reason to suppose an Iberian-peninsula production, but how do we get to Asturias? And sadly it turns out that the answer is twofold: by using an outdated historiographical context and by using a charter for proof it can’t provide. Signor Cherubini knows quite a lot about the glories of the court of Alfonso II, but this is because he has read quite a lot of 1940s and 1950s articles written by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz and others who agreed with him about the heroic Christian recovery of Asturias against the Muslims and took quite literally the claims about Alfonso II’s conquests of ninth-century sources which aimed to use them as precedents for those of Alfonso III.11 But as said above, we are now somewhat more critical about how marvellous Alfonso II’s court and achievements were.12

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo; note the apparent depiction of the above Cruz de las Angeles… Image by Denis Soria Fernández, whose blog linked through

But we do have his will, which is the charter that Cherubini abuses. The text of this has been much disputed, not least because the oldest version of it (and there are several) appears to be the one that is in verse, which already makes it quite odd, but importantly for us, and as Mouguias said, it mentions the gift of a Bible to the newly-established cathedral of Oviedo in 812.13 And if it’s ninth-century, there’s only 800-812 for it to fit before it has to be in the cathedral, right? Pretty tight dating!14 Unhappily, as Cherubini himself points out, in a tenth-century inventory of its good the cathedral had by then got two Bibles, and it describes them: “unam spalitanam, quam beatus Isidorus manu sua ferunt scripsisse manu quadra, et alia cordobense, quam nobis nefandus Alboaldi direxit”, “one from Seville, which the blessed Isidore wrote with his own hand in square script [i. e. capitals], and the other from Córdoba, which the infamous Alboald sent to us”, a story I’d personally love to know more about but, alas, we don’t.15 Now, for Cherubini at least, neither of these Bibles could easily be the gift of the king in 812, so that one must have already gone somewhere else by 908. I actually don’t see why the king couldn’t have given the cathedral the supposed Isidore Bible but obviously that isn’t the Codex Cavensis, though it might be the late antique exemplar from which Danila and companion copied the headings of that book. Or, of course, it might not be. But the simplest answer here is not to fit the one Bible we do have (though Cherubini thinks a fragment of the Córdoba one may have survived in the time of “Alfonso de Morales”, unspecified…16) into the words of a text that is plainly about something else. I’m afraid it is still to admit that we have no better reason to place this marvellous manuscript in Asturias than really anywhere else in ninth-century Spain with some proper old books in the library, and Oviedo is actually not really the most likely of those places.


1. P. Cherubini, “La Bibbia di Danila: un monumento ‘trionfale’ per Alfonso II di Asturie” in Scrittura e Civiltà Vol. 23 (Torino 1999), pp. 75-131; Luciano Pedicini (ed.), La Bíblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS 1 de la abadí de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni): Edicón facsímil ([Oviedo] 2010) and Paolo Cherubini, José Antonio Valdés Gallego & Alfonso García Leal, La Biblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS. 1 de la Abadía de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni) ([Oviedo] 2010).

2. It is also possible that he has changed his mind; the review of the newer facsimile volumes, which I can’t get hold of, in n. 2 above by Carlos Benjamín Pereira Mira in Territorio y Sociedad Vol. 7 (Oviedo 2012), pp. 259-264, online here, takes a noticeably more precise line than the 1999 article I’m using here.

3. The Wikipedia article’s only reference is J. W. Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York City 1977).

4. This perspective is based on Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289 and Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262.

5. Classically in Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), online here.

6. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 107.

7. Ibid., pp. 80-86 on the main text, 86-95 on the apparatus and 95-106 on the glosses. On the ninth-century predestination debate see David Ganz, “The debate on predestination” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 283-302.

8. On which see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011); sadly, you still need both.

9. See his title in n. 1 above.

10. Of course, we don’t actually have Beatus’s manuscript, but the general similarity between the century-or-more-later copies we do have is such that it has been generally accepted that they probably reflect an original sequence of images: see Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 85 (Washington DC 1995), pp. 185-210.

11. Particularly influential seem to have been C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “¿Una crónica asturiana perdida?” in Revista de filología hispanica Vol. 7 (Madrid 1945), pp. 105-146, rev. in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía hispana medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 111-160, idem, “Asturias resiste: Alfonso el Casto salva a la España cristiana” in Logos (La Serena 1946), pp. 5-29 and Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Mozarabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 134 (Madrid 1954), pp. 137-178, none of them what you would call modern references and all written from deep within the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Cherubini’s reprise of these works’ heroic picture is given in “Bibbia de Danila”, pp. 124-131.

12. See n. 4 above.

13. The verse version of the will is edited in Antonio C. Floriano, Diploma;tica Española del Periodo Astur. Estudio de las Fuentes Documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910). I: Cartulario Crítico (Oviedo 1949-1951), 2 vols, I no. 24, as cit. by Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 128 n. 228; cf. the prose version, printed as Santiago García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), no. 3. On its authenticity compare Claudio Sánchez-Albórnoz, “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section being repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía, pp. 97-108, at pp. 98-99 of the reprint & n. 8 and “Addenda”, ibid. p. 108, and A. Floriano Cumbreño, “El testamento de Alfonso II (Estudio paleográfico y diplomático)” in Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Asturianos Vol. 86 (Oviedo 1975), pp. 593-617, and Escalona, “Family Memories”, pp. 251-254.

14. This dating seems to have been adopted in Cherubini, Valdes & García, Bíblia de Danila, to judge from Pereira, review, p. 260: “Materializado, grafiado y decorado con visos de verosimilitud en Oviedo -concretamente en el scriptorium aúlico alfonsino- en el primer decenio del siglo IX….”

15. Presumably in García, Documentos de Oviedo, but known to Cherubini through Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), “Serie de documentos ineditos del reino de Asturias” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 2 (Buenos Aires 1944), pp. 298-351 at pp. 329-344, cit. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 130 and n. 233, whence quoted; the English is my translation of the Latin.

16. Ibid., p. 130.

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