The Museum Meermanno’s announcement, early in 2008, that one of the manuscripts containing the Rijmbijbel [Rhymed Bible] by Jacob van Maerlant would be taken apart for restoration made the NOS [Netherlands Broadcasting Authority] news. But then, Van Maerlant’s Rijmbijbel ranks among the most widely known works in Dutch literature.
Jacob van Maerlant, a Flemish poet who at first wrote romances of chivalry, completed the Rijmbijbel in 1271. In this book, which is a free adaptation of the Historia scholastica of 1178 by Petrus Comestor, Van Maerlant presented a rhyming version of Biblical history.
The remarkable thing was that Van Maerlant did this in his national language, which was Middle-Dutch. Books were written in Latin, a language that the lower nobility and the emerging middle classes were barely proficient in. Until then, most vernacular literature had been transmitted orally.
Nowadays we would call the Rijmbijbel a bestseller, but of course production proceeded slowly at a time when books were written and illuminated by hand. Indeed, there was quite a lot of material to be copied: well over 27,000 lines for the first part and nearly 8,000 for the second.
Dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries, fifteen complete manuscripts of the Rijmbijbel are known, the earliest from about 1285. In addition, fragments from various other copies have been preserved.
In those days, one could order from the scribes a plainly executed, quickly written copy without illustrations, or a carefully calligraphed and illustrated copy, which was obviously a lot more expensive. Of the fifteen complete manuscripts, six are without any illumination, seven contain a few miniatures and two have been supplied with more or less continuous illustration.
The Museum Meermanno owns one of these ‘sumptuous’ copies, a Rijmbijbel which in 1332 was superbly illuminated by Michiel van der Borch. It is the earliest signed and dated illuminated manuscript from the Northern Netherlands.