A Bible Snatched from the Burning

1607 edition of the Geneva Bible, known as the Breeches Bible
1607 edition of the Geneva Bible, known as the Breeches Bible

On Sunday a friend called with ‘an old bible’ he had rescued from a bonfire. Could I tell him anything about it? I was expecting an old Bible Society Family Bible or something similar but instead was presented with a small folio volume, bound in calf, and printed in Black Letter. The title-page said everything. My friend’s bible turned out to be a 1607 edition of the Geneva Bible, commonly known as ‘the Breeches Bible’ because of its rendering of Genesis 3.7, where Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches rather than aprons to cover their nakedness.

Genesis 3.7: 'and made themselves breeches'
Genesis 3.7: ‘and made themselves breeches’

The Geneva Bible is so-called because it was  a translation into English made between 1557 and 1560 by Reformers living in Geneva. It was the favourite bible of English Protestants until the publication of the King James’ or Authorized Version of 1611. Shakespeare used it; the Pilgrim Fathers took it to the Americas on the Mayflower; Oliver Cromwell’s troops even had pocket-sized copies to carry with them in their tunics.

Among the scholars who worked on the translation were William Whittingham, who supervised the translation as a whole, Myles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, and William Cole. Whittingham was directly responsible for the New Testament, which was published in 1557, while Gilby oversaw the Old Testament.

The first full edition of this bible, with a further revised New Testament, appeared in 1560, but it was not printed in England until 1575 (New Testament) and 1576 (complete Bible). Over 150 editions were issued; the last probably in 1644.
The very first Bible printed in Scotland was a Geneva Bible, which was first issued in 1579. In fact, the involvement of Knox and Calvin in the creation of the Geneva Bible made it especially appealing in Scotland, where a law was passed in 1579 requiring every household ‘of sufficient means’ to buy a copy. The Geneva Bible thus antedates the Catholic Rheims New Testament published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament published in 1609.

As stated on the title-page, this particular edition was printed by Robert Barker, Printer to the King. He was son and grandson to royal printers (Christopher and Robert senior) but seems to have lacked some of their business acumen. In 1631 he was responsible with Martin Lucas for the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ which omitted the word ‘not’ from the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The subsequent fine of £300 may have contributed to his being imprisoned for debt in 1635. He continued to print in prison, where he died in 1645.

The bible under consideration is complete. There is the introductory matter, comprising a prayer, an exhortation to the Christian reader and an early flow-chart on how to read the bible composed by Thomas Grashop, Fellow of All Souls. It is interesting to note the importance attached to hearing the preaching of the word.

Biblical Flowchart by Thomas Grashop
Biblical Flowchart by Thomas Grashop

Other notable features are the two ‘alphabets’ or concordances of places and names at the end of the bible,

The 'alphabets' or concordances included in the 1607 edition
The ‘alphabets’ or concordances included in the 1607 edition

and the not untypical use of the bible by a later generation as somewhere to practise their handwriting.

Using the bible to practise handwriting
Using the bible to practise handwriting

My guess is that the binding is contemporary. It is of calf, with some simple tooling on the front, and at least one repair.

Front cover
Front cover
Detail of tooling: four lozenges in each corner
Detail of tooling: four lozenges in each corner










That is essentially all I was able to tell my friend, but if you happen to be an expert, do please contribute what you know in the comments section. One thing that struck me forcibly was the use of Black Letter or Gothic for the typeface when the beautiful humanist typefaces of Aldus Manutius and others were already transforming continental European printing. Religious books tend to be conventional in their approach. Some of you may remember my sadness that when the new translation of the Missal was released, it was decided to ‘play safe’ and use illustrations derived from a medieval manuscript rather than search out good contemporary work. (And if you want to understand that comment fully, you’ll need to know that I ran the Stanbrook Abbey Press for some years and was much influenced by D. Hildelith Cumming, one of the truly great printers of the twentieth century.)

Note: I apologize for the fact that the this post is late: various alarms and excursions are to blame!



11 thoughts on “A Bible Snatched from the Burning”

  1. What a find! I can’t add anything to the information you give, but as a former librarian and a lover of books of all ages, I would have been thrilled and humbled to have rescued such a historic edition from the flames.

  2. I prayed for you last night, and asked to know whether what
    I wanted to pray for you would be encouraged, and if so it could be confirmed.
    Your blog this morning is my confirmation, how very strange, but how wonderful.

  3. A truly wondrous find! Thank you so much for sharing this story, with all the fascinating contextual detail. (There’s a novel in there for those of a literary bent 🙂 )

    Ah. those Puritans, who lost faith in the power of the liturgy to transform and sought safety in the haranguing homily! This is not to decry compassionate, cogent and spirit-filled preaching (now well out of favour and well out of clerical experience). The disciplined approach of charismatic evangelists like John Wesley really did change the world.

    In fact, when I caught the title to this post, I was very much reminded of his description of himself, ‘a brand plucked from the burning’.

    He meant that at a literal, figurative and eternal level. ‘There but for the Grace of God, go I.’

    Love and prayers. R.

  4. A great summary of a wonderful find. And at some time obviously well used (handwriting?).

    There are so many versions of the bible out there that you tend to forget the historic relevance of early, printed copies such as this.

    Canterbury Cathedral archive has a huge number of treasures of early bibles which I’ve seen just a few when I visited the Archive a year or so ago. I pondered on the hands that have turned the pages over the centuries, on the prayer that might have accompanied it. Of the scriptures revealed, taught or preached from them.

    It just adds to that Word that was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

  5. An excellent article Sr Catherine. I found it immensely interesting and enlightening! We have all been truly blessed with the various publications of the Bible, some versions more so. I think the article also impressed upon me the fact that the word of God has been truly inspired of God and conveyed to mere men. I also felt that you had thoroughly researched the content of your article. A gift from you on this feast day of Catherine of Sienna. Also, the images are superb!

  6. A truly wonderful, historic find. Your research does you much credit and you are correct to publish it. Maybe you can insert it in Wilkepedia for the world to see. I was in an old house here in Scotland yesterday and was struck by the number if Bibles and Prayer Books from the 17th century in the library.

  7. A fascinating article, which sent me running to our library to check the old bible held there. (Zurich, early 17th C., in German gothic: not half so historically significant I suspect.)

    Re. the choice of typeface, it’s interesting to note that the marginalia are in a more modern style. Perhaps the conservative blackletter was seen as a more reverent choice for the words of holy scripture?

  8. What was it like to hold and turn the pages and make the discoveries of practicing one’s hand so long ago? I know I would have thrilled to its touch, its heft in my hand, and wondered whose hands this little book had passed through until it was passed -or plucked- to me.

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