Ellen Joyce is an Associate Professor of History in Beloit, Wisconsin, where she also directs the Medieval Studies minor. She frequently teaches courses on medieval manuscripts and aspects of religious and intellectual history in the Middle Ages. Dr. Joyce was on the staff of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and taught courses in Department of Theology at Saint John's University during the early years of The Saint John's Bible's production. She received her bachelor's degree in humanities from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and her Masters and Ph.D. in medieval studies from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada.
Dr. Joyce continues to develop undergraduate courses that revolve around issues of reading, writing, and book production in pre-modern European History. She recently attended a class on the History of the Printed Book to 1800 at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in order to deepen her knowledge of book history. During her most recent sabbatical she spent two months at HMML to catch up on recent developments in the field of monastic history and spirituality in the Central Middle Ages. She then continued her research in Rome, with frequent visits to the collections at the Vatican Library.
Interview with Ellen Joyce
How did you get involved with the Committee on Illumination and Text?
I was asked to join the CIT in the spring of 1998 when the decision to go forward with the Bible Project had just been made, and I believe the new committee was called the “Production Committee” for a year or two. I was the Assistant Director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at the time, and my initial role was simply to represent HMML on the committee. I left HMML in the summer of 1999, but by then I was actively involved with the group’s work and remained on the committee for the next two years.
Describe a typical CIT meeting. What were some themes of your conversations?
The early meetings were intense because nobody was quite sure what our role was or how to communicate most effectively with Donald and the Scriptorium team. Early on we came up with the idea of organizing our notes about each Scripture passage that was to be illuminated into categories—theological interpretations, local associations, visual references, etc.—and tried to keep our conversations structured along those lines. One of the Biblical scholars would begin the discussion of each selected Scripture passage by giving us some theological context and a sense of what the most current interpretations of it were; from there we would share our own understandings of the story, perhaps recalling a great homily we had once heard about it, an artwork or musical interpretation, or a moment when that particular Word of God had touched us in a way that made us visualize the story differently. As time went on and as we grew comfortable with each other, we came to admit that we were engaging in a kind of communal lectio divina that made our meetings something to look forward to.
Tell us about your personal contribution to the committee. How did your background in history and theology impact your interpretations?
I am a historian of medieval Europe, and while I have a strong grounding in how Catholic faith and culture have developed over many centuries, I have very little formal training in theology or Scripture. Learning about themes, terms, and techniques for biblical exegesis in this informal environment was a real delight for me.
How did your work on the CIT change your way of thinking?
Since we had agreed early on that the artwork in The Saint John’s Bible was to be contemporary, not medieval, I found myself thinking less about medieval images or motifs and more about the notion of iconography in an abstract sense: How could we underline thematic connections between various Old and New Testament passages by using similar images, colors, or patterns, for example? To make those connections visually has a long history in the art of illuminated manuscripts, and I wanted to see if there were ways we could keep that tradition—if not specific medieval images—alive in our modern Bible.
Are there any memories you would like to share?
I think my favorite memory of our work together is from Memorial Day weekend in 2002. I had left Minnesota a year earlier, so I was no longer involved in the regular meetings of the CIT, but Fr. Michael invited me to join the group for a weekend “retreat” in Chaska to work on the briefs for the Wisdom volume, which needed to be done quickly. I drove up from my new home in Beloit, Wisconsin, and quickly fell back into the flow of the conversations. What was memorable about the weekend were Sister Irene Nowell’s “seminars” on the theology of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, and the way we arrived at consensus that this volume, more than any other, should highlight the feminine faces of God and the very real work that women do to nurture hospitality and to create sacred spaces. It was fascinating for me intellectually and personally at the same time, and the weekend was a joyous mix, too, of prayer and friendship.
How has working for the CIT and The Saint John’s Bible impacted your life?
I now teach at Beloit College, a secular liberal arts college in southern Wisconsin where there is little opportunity for me to expound on Scripture or theology in most of my classes. I have, however, developed two courses about aspects of reading and book production in the Middle Ages, and in both classes I draw on what I learned about manuscript production and the complex relationship between medieval monasteries and the artists who decorated their books through my involvement with the CIT. I usually show The Illuminator video at some point in each class, both to illustrate the production methods of medieval scribes and to invite discussion about differences between medieval and modern concepts of an artist’s role and of creativity.
I have been delighted to invite other members of the CIT, Father Michael Patella and Sister Susan Wood to come to Beloit to speak at my parish (Our Lady of the Assumption), and I treasure one of the comments our pastor repeated after one of those visits: “The pictures were great, Father, but what I really loved was learning all those things I’d never heard about in Scripture.” Neither the illumination nor the handwritten text of the Bible have ever been, for me, more than a means to an end, and I am still most excited by the project when I find that it has sparked conversations about the living word of God in our own lives and times.