Do hens have hands?

Adam Smyth

  • The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe (Panizzi Lectures) by Anthony Grafton
    British Library, 144 pp, £30.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 7123 5845 3

When the King’s printer Robert Barker produced a new edition of the King James Bible in 1631, he overlooked three letters from the seventh commandment, producing the startling injunction: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Barker was fined £300, and spent the rest of his life in debtors’ prison, even while his name remained on imprints. ‘I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented, ‘but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.’ Most copies of what became known as the Wicked, Adulterous or Sinners’ Bible were promptly burned, but a few survive as collectors’ items, their value raised immeasurably by Barker’s error: one featured in an exhibition at the Bodleian Library last year about the making of the King James Bible.[*]

‘In winter, working by candlelight, when the rooms are warm and the printers become lazy and sleepy, it’s easy to overlook things,’ the Dresden printer Wolfgang Stöckel wrote in the early 16th century. It isn’t clear whether Barker’s mistake was a weary slip in a dark room, or an act of sabotage at a moment when biblical translation was politically fraught; the motives behind ‘Blessed are the place-makers’ (1562 Geneva Bible), and ‘the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1653 King James Bible) are uncertain too. But the three missing letters show the vertiginous power of error suddenly to invert meaning, and they illuminate, momentarily, the responsibility resting on the underpaid, undervalued, put-upon compositor. One can understand why, with so much at stake, his exhausted fingers might have hesitated over the rows of type.

The story of error is the flipside of a history of the book that is traditionally organised as a narrative of technological triumph. Elisabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) made a pioneering argument about the revolutionary capacity of movable type not only to standardise and fix text, but also to disseminate it to a newly wide readership, a radical democratisation of knowledge that in part enabled a Protestant Reformation in which each reader’s encounter with the printed word was central. Recent scholarship has broken up this grand narrative into a more tentative story of change, replacing technological agency with a messy world of collaboration, muddle, money, contingency and imperfection. Less a confident stride towards modernity, the Renaissance book now looks stranger: not quite yet a thing of our world.

Where once there was revolution, we’re now inclined to see continuities with manuscript culture: early printed books – including the first of them, Gutenberg’s Latin Bible of 1455 – tried very hard to look like handwritten texts. Like all new media scrambling for credibility, print disguised its own novelty. Narratives in which print triumphs over scribal culture have been eclipsed by a recognition of their overlap; Peter Stallybrass’s work on ‘printing-for-manuscript’ shows how popular printed texts such as almanacs actively encouraged handwritten interventions: one from 1566 offers itself as a space for anyone ‘that will make & keepe notes of any actes, deedes, or thinges that passeth from time to time, worthy of memory, to be registered’. Far from killing off scribal activity, printing functioned, in Stallybrass’s words, as ‘a revolutionary incitement to writing by hand’. The printing press’s capacity to stabilise texts – to ensure that the right words were printed again and again – and so to encourage categories such as ‘author’ and ‘literature’ to take root, now seems, at best, a stuttering process.

The gusto with which readers intervened in texts, adding annotations (ticks and crosses; sketches of flowers; heckling commentaries) or even physically remaking them (knives and scissors were reading props alongside spectacles and candles) suggests that the book was thought of less as a finished, coherent object and more as an ongoing process: often sold unbound, and frequently including blank pages, the material book had the capacity for endless revision. Perhaps most significant, historians of early modern print culture have begun to realise that the book was only one of many forms for conveying printed text, and not always the most profitable: printers made much of their money from ephemeral texts like pamphlets, broadsheets and ballads. The history of the book beyond the book is becoming a rich area of study.

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[*] The exhibition catalogue is Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid (Bodleian Library, 208 pp., £19.99, April 2011, 978 1 85124 349 5).