Saucy to Princes

Gerald Hammond

  • The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher de Hamel
    Phaidon, 352 pp, £24.95, September 2001, ISBN 0 7148 3774 1
  • The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 edited by W.R. Cooper
    British Library, 528 pp, £20.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 7123 4728 3

Julia Kristeva was in Manchester in March to give a lecture. One of the pleasures of her visit, for me, the day after the lecture and en route to the Manchester United superstore, was to accompany her on a tour of the Deansgate branch of the John Rylands University Library. Mrs Rylands, the extraordinary founder of the collection, was particularly keen on Bibles, and among the many Biblical treasures is a tiny triangular fragment of the text of St John’s Gospel, catalogued as Gr. Pap. 457. A reasonably reliable dating of the fragment is c.125, making it the earliest surviving witness to the New Testament. It was the first time Kristeva had seen the fragment and perhaps the tenth time I had, but I doubt that our sense of wonder was any different. There, in its portable transparent box, was the earliest relic of the Book.

In Christopher de Hamel’s history, the Rylands fragment is reproduced life-size in the final chapter: life-size but not, to my faulty memory at least, very true to its actual appearance. In the reproduction the papyrus is a kind of drab olive; in the Rylands, with the sun coming through the windows, it is brighter, more like light khaki, setting off the black ink of its text very clearly. The text itself, on one side of the fragment, comes from John 18, the passage in which Pilate asks: ‘What is truth?’

The other thing that de Hamel’s reproduction can’t show, but which a privileged visitor to the Rylands can see, is that the fragment has writing on both sides. It comes not from a scroll but from a codex. As early as 125, what later became Biblical text already took the form of a book. The book may give way to the screen some time soon but it has been with us now for two thousand years – and de Hamel’s main argument is that it is essentially the product of our Biblical culture. So, the jagged triangle in the Rylands is the closest we can get to our intellectual origins, not only in the West but now across much of the world. For our libraries and universities it can be claimed as our founding material object.

Some of its outgrowths are wonderfully exotic. De Hamel has fun in his chapter on the Missionary Bible, listing the largely 19th-century versions of the Bible, or of bits of it, in African languages. It was translated into Hausa, spoken in West Africa, into Ashanti, spoken in the Gold Coast, into Ibo, spoken in Southern Nigeria, into Nupé, spoken in Northern Nigeria, and so on, the roll call of largely Protestant translators stretching down the page:

Saint Matthew in Benga (spoken on the island of Corisco, West Africa), translated by G. McQueen of the American Presbyterian Mission, New York, 1861; the Gospels in Ewe (spoken in Togoland and Dahomey, West Africa), translated by B. Schlegel of the Bremen Bible Society, Stuttgart, 1861; the New Testament in Efik (spoken in Calabar, West Africa), translated from the Greek by Hugh Goldie (1815-95), Edinburgh, 1862; Saint Luke in Dinka (spoken on the White Nile), translated by the Roman Catholic Central African Mission, Brixen, 1866, a rare instance of a Catholic translation in a profession dominated by Protestants; Ruth and Jonah in Southern Swahili (spoken in the region of Zanzibar), translated by Edward Steere (1828-82), Zanzibar, 1868, and Saint Matthew by the same translator, London, 1869; Saint Matthew in Susu (spoken in French Guinea, West Africa), probably translated by J.H.A. Dupont (a West Indian of African descent, from Codrington College, Barbados), Oxford, 1869.

Most exotic of all are those Bibles that are now only objects, such as the Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, which de Hamel calls ‘the most important unreadable book in the world’: unreadable because its language died along with its speakers, important because it was the first Bible printed in America. It was translated by John Eliot in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1663, into the now extinct Natick dialect of Algonquin: ‘Jesuse Kristusib Ekkarlénik okausek, Davib Niarnæt, Abraham-ib Niarnæt.’

The chapter on the Missionary Bible is necessarily the most superficial in de Hamel’s book, an entertaining coda to the very detailed studies that form the core of the earlier chapters. Chapter 7 offers a carefully argued exploration of the origins and development of the first complete English Bible, the so-called Wycliffe version. Translated in the closing decades of the 14th century, the Wycliffe Bible is a bit of a puzzle in that it survives in two distinct and quite different forms, a very literal translation of the Latin Vulgate and a much freer rendering. The literal version is generally seen as a first effort, a rough basis for the more sophisticated one that the translators were always intending to prepare. But this explanation has its own problems, not least in accounting for the surprisingly large number of copies of the literal version that survive, and de Hamel argues instead for a more political rationale for the two texts. The literal one was an ‘official’ version, prepared to convince the Roman authorities that although Jerome’s Latin was being Englished it was not being altered or corrected. The version with the freer translation was for actual use by Wycliffe’s followers while the literal one continued to appeal to the orthodox.

The Wycliffe Bible has been a neglected text, strangely ignored by British and American medieval literary scholarship, so W.R. Cooper’s modern-spelling edition of the freer version of its New Testament is welcome, even though some of his modernisations are difficult to understand. He changes clepe to ‘call’, brenne to ‘burn’ and han to ‘have’, but retains such easily modernisable forms as sclaundered, rightwiseness, briddis (for ‘broods’) and advoutry. But for the most part this edition lifts the Wycliffe Bible out of the exotic unreadable category in which it has languished for the last four hundred years. However, Cooper’s introduction to it is, disappointingly, of the ‘necessarily brief survey of the evidence’ variety, so the reader who wants to know more about the real issues concerning the Wycliffe Bible will learn much more by reading de Hamel’s chapter in The Book. He has little time for the fairly loose claims that are sometimes made for its proto-revolutionary impact, as a kind of terrorist handbook in the hands of the Lollards, the first English group who aimed to turn the world upside down. But something about it nettled the authorities enough for them to take more draconian measures against the vernacular Bible in England than in any other country in Europe. They forbade not only any further translation of the Bible into English, but also the possession and even the mere reading of an English version.

Catholic apologists have understandably played down the proscription, and de Hamel writes squarely in line with their arguments when he suggests that the evidence points to Wycliffite versions being in the possession of a good number of English men and women who probably read them without feeling very threatened; but the fact remains that in the early years of the 16th century, while there was, for instance, a variety of printed German versions of the Bible antedating Luther’s, in England there was nothing. The absence of English Scriptures helps explain the great impact that William Tyndale’s English translations, first of the New Testament and then of substantial parts of the Old, had on the country in the 1520s and 1530s. His New Testaments, printed on the Continent, were bought up by the Bishop of London, who had them burned in public. From the proceeds of their sale Tyndale and his co-workers simply printed more and smuggled them into the country in bales of cloth.

What happened to the Lollards’ descendants when they made their way to London from Steeple Bumpstead with their ancient, lovingly protected, illicitly owned copy of the Wycliffe version, in order to get an entrée into radical Reformist circles, may stand for the impact on England as a whole of having the Book printed in English. They encountered Robert Barnes, a singularly entrepreneurial supporter of the Reformers’ movement. In the words of a deposition made by one of the Steeple Bumpstead men to the authorities who were hot on the tail of the peddlers of an English Bible, Barnes was contemptuous of their Wycliffe version, ‘and made a twit of it and said, “a point for them, they be not regarded toward the new printed Testament in English, for it is of more cleaner English.”’ With that sales pitch he charged them 3s. 2d. for a Tyndale New Testament, which they took back home with them to share with their fellow parishioners as one of the wonders of London – until the authorities arrived.

About the English printed Bible, as opposed to the manuscripts of the Wycliffe version, de Hamel is somewhat muted. One reason may be that his sympathies lie more with the book as a beautiful object than with the book as an ugly, unprepossessing, rather tatty object, which is the actual state of the most important English Bibles. Tyndale’s pioneering versions, diminutive and designed to be ordinary in appearance so that they could be easily smuggled into the country and read clandestinely, get little more consideration here than do some of the run of the mill Authorised Version spin-offs, such as Thomas Macklin’s six-volume Bible published in 1800. Macklin’s doorstopper included 71 prints engraved from Biblical pictures by contemporary artists such as Joshua Reynolds, and so offers more to the aesthetic bibliophile than those versions that people actually read.

Ugly and mass-produced certainly applies to the Geneva Bible, the most influential English book ever. It was translated by Protestant exiles in Geneva in the last years of Mary’s reign and printed in the opening years of Elizabeth’s, and in spite of its significance de Hamel gives it only a passing word. Even more disappointing is his failure to find room among his 237 illustrations to reproduce a page of it, for it was through the Geneva Bible that the English people learned to read. It had its significance in the high culture, was the Bible read and known by Philip and Mary Sidney, Donne and Shakespeare, and one does not have to dig deep to find these writers’ explicit use of it. Of even more significance, however, was its contribution to the development of independent thought among the lower orders. Half a million copies were printed and sold in a country with a population of about three million. We can assume that in a proportion of the households that invested in a copy, the Geneva Bible was literally the Book, the only one that they possessed; and for some of those in which no one could read it was essentially a talismanic object, a valuable, holy but domestic thing to be used in folk-cures or to seal binding promises.

To a good number of its owners who could read, and particularly to the many who will have learned to read from it, it was the key to knowledge. To see a typical copy now – and many survive – is to see a book in its cheapest form, with poor-quality paper, the print often slightly smudged, pages chopped at an angle, in drab utilitarian bindings. It is far removed from the gilded, calfskin-bound objects that dominate the higher end of the Bible market today, and completely unrecognisable as the same book when set against the magnificent 13th-century portable Bibles or early medieval giant Bibles whose pages are reproduced so lovingly in The Book. But the Geneva version is far more valuable than any of those, for in its cluttered pages, in which the actual text is often swamped by marginal annotations keyed in by a bewildering system of minuscule letters and symbols, lie the beginnings of English autodidacticism. What Tyndale began, the Geneva translators brought to a triumphant climax in a book that required no intruding priest or teacher to elucidate. It was the Book because its readers needed no other to understand the world. The first English version to be divided into chapter and verse, it gave its readers the means to manufacture their own intertexts and in its margins ammunition to challenge the assumptions of their betters. James I detested it – ‘saucy to princes’ was his judgment on its notes – so he ensured that the 1611 Authorised Version contained no interpretative notes at all, which may be one reason it took two generations for the AV to displace it in the hearts and minds of English readers. Indeed, the Biblical quotations in the monumental AV preface are all taken from the Geneva Bible.

One of the sub-narratives of Jonathan Rose’s recent study of English autodidacticism, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes,[*] is the rise and fall of the Bible in working-class life. Beginning with 16th-century figures such as Henry Hart, who ‘led a group of about sixty dissidents who believed that the educated class had misinterpreted Scripture and were determined to read it for themselves’, Rose fixes the origins of plebeian intellectual culture in the Bible’s singular opportunity to give its readers ‘enormous latitude for individual interpretation’. The Bible that Hart and his fellows read was almost certainly a Geneva version. The latitude which Rose talks about was very wide – ‘the Bible as sex manual’ is one of the entries in his index – but by the 19th century the Bible had dwindled to an intellectual embarrassment, with working-class intellectuals tracing their freedom to think for themselves in their escape from households in which it was the only reading matter. Still, the Bible kept some of its radical force: it figured third in the list of favourite authors of early Labour MPs made in 1906, after Ruskin and Dickens but ahead of Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Shakespeare.

The Book is an excellent guide to the development of the Bible as a beautiful or exotic object but de Hamel is much less alert to its cultural importance. A final example may illustrate the distinction. In the Missionary Bible chapter he has one paragraph and one illustration devoted to the Bible in Japan. His chief observation about Japanese Bibles is that ‘they are entirely Japanese in structure, which was perhaps exactly the intention.’ There is a world of cultural significance missing here, in relation to the fascinatingly perverse use that the Japanese made of the Bible. Not for them the notion that it was a religious book. They bought the Japanese Authorised Version in huge numbers when it appeared in the 1870s, but not with the intention of converting to Christianity. Unlike, say, their Korean neighbours, Japan’s Christians still make up less than 5 per cent of the population. For most Japanese this ancient book, written on papyrus two thousand years earlier, was the text that embodied European and American values. In Japan, the Bible was the blueprint for modernisation, a quite different truth from the one that the missionaries were introducing to Africa.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Stefan Collini (13 December 2001).