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!



Something for Sunday: the Mappa Mundi

Yesterday I spent some time exploring Hereford Cathedral’s online Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta site, which you can view here (link opens in new window). It is brilliantly done, both historically and technically, and the cathedral authorities are to be congratulated (and thanked) for making such a resource freely available over the internet. Many years ago, when I was making eBooks on a regular basis, I did one on the wood engravings of Sr Margaret Tournour and was fascinated by what the combination of back lighting/high magnification afforded by the computer screen revealed. Here is yet another example of how contemporary technology can enrich our understanding of history and historical artefacts, giving us cause for wonder. If you can, spend a few minutes exploring the Mappa Mundi today.


Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.


A Forced Virtue?

In the last few days we have seen the publication of the Leveson Report with its recommendation of some form of statutory regulation for the press, the announcement that the Government favours setting a minimum price for alcohol to reduce abuse and, in Australia, the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes to improve public health. Each, in its different way, is looking to law to make us virtuous.

No one (well, no sane person, surely) would deny that the some of the British press has behaved abominably on occasion; nor would anyone dispute that alcohol in excess can lead to violence and potentially fatal illness or that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health; but is regulation the best way to deal with any of them? I have to confess to having doubts, although part of me wants to add that anything is worth a try, given the misery that can result. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between regulation of the press and attempts to control usage of alcohol and tobacco.

A free press is an important element in any democracy. You have only to think for a moment of the way in which the Syrian government has clamped down on every medium of communication — press, internet, telephone — to see how subversive any element of government control can become. Regulation of alcohol and tobacco is not in the same class. In fact, we can point to the important role of government in eradicating the horrors of Gin Lane to provide a precedent. We know, of course, that regulation will take time to work; that it won’t go down very well with lots of people; but one day society will look back and wonder how we could ever have got into a situation where we countenanced such socially destructive habits.

The case for press regulation seems to me much more nuanced. I have not read the Leveson Report, only some of the published extracts, but shouldn’t we distinguish between law-breaking and ethics? Where the press breaks the law, a penalty should follow; but who is to decide the ethical standards by which the press should operate? We are often told that we live in a multi-cultural society. It is certainly true that there is only very limited agreement on what constitutes ethical behaviour. Can we legislate for ethics? Whose ethics should they be? Although the internet was expressly ignored by Leveson, there are questions for bloggers, too. I try to ensure that what I write is both truthful and consistent with a Christian understanding of charity. That means there are times when I do not write all I know or think. The decisive factor is not, will this boost my ratings (= sell copy) but, will this be constructive/helpful. A journalist might well argue that I can only consistently take such a view because writing isn’t my job. It will be interesting to see how the debate develops, but we need to do some hard thinking about what may be in store for us all. Can law make us virtuous; or do we need to be virtuous to make good law?


May is Mary’s Month

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a mark of both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, so much so that those innocent of Church history sometimes express surprise that St Benedict never mentions Mary in the Rule, unless we are to understand that she is included among ‘the saints’ to whom he refers in general terms. Indeed, judging by today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 73, he is keener for the monk to take Scripture and the Fathers as models than Mary or any other saint or martyr.

It would be wrong, however, to deduce from this that Benedictines are indifferent to Mary or have no devotion to her. On the contrary, it is because Mary is so close to us, Our Lady as we call her in England, that we do not make much of a razzmatazz about her. We ask her prayers, and are confident that she prays for us as she prays for the whole Church, with a tender sympathy and interest. May is a month peculiarly dedicated to her honour: one in which we rejoice in her as Mother of God who leads us closer to her beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Some years ago we produced a little booklet of poems as a kind of monastic jeu d’esprit, a May Day gift for Mary. We hope you will enjoy it.

If you like Ladyflower, have a look of some of our other digital books on our main web site, http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/books.html


Christianity’s First Woman Writer?

Today is the feast of SS Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred at Carthage on 7 March 203. Much of the account of their martyrdom (strictly speaking a Passio) is written in the first person by Perpetua herself and therefore has a claim to being the earliest known text by a Christian woman. There are two versions, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation here.

Historians and hagiographers love these texts because they contain many puzzles, but I think the ‘ordinary Christian’ can get a great deal from them because they plunge us straight into the world of the third century with the dramatic intensity of a good thriller or whodunnit. Put simply, they are the record of profound faith and heroic courage. They remind us that family and friends are often the last people to understand why we believe or the importance of faith to us; that what we sometimes think of as ‘persecution’ in the west is nothing of the sort; and that often it is those whom we least regard who show the most sterling qualities.

Cold and wet as it is here today, I intend to spend a few minutes under the broiling heat of a Carthaginian sky nearly two thousand years ago. The noise of the crowd, the smell of sweat and blood, recall another and greater Passion. Christianity’s first woman writer makes incomparable Lenten reading.


A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.


Catholics and the Bible

I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.

So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.


Wikipedia Blackout

Whatever one thinks of the legislation being proposed in the U.S. A. — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate — and the implications for British web sites hosted on American servers (as this one is), the blackout of the English-language Wikipedia raises some interesting possibilities. Will people start reading books again and doing their own research the hard way? Will the results be more accurate? Will plagiarism be less of a problem? Shall we look back on 18 January 2012 as a golden moment when we rediscovered the beauty and power of an old technology? Despite my enthusiasm for most things digital, I’m rather hoping we may.


In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.