Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Bible According To Henry VIII

Arthur Freeman, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, describes a rare portable-sized Vulgate Bible published in London in 1535. It contains selected portions of the Latin Old Testament along with the entire New Testament. But the preface, though unsigned, indicates that the editor was Henry VIII himself.

Freeman's speculations about what led Henry to sponsor the publication and then, in turn, abandon the project include interesting observations about the political pros-and-cons of Bible publishing in the 16th century.

Given whatever doctrinal or theological thrust such editorial choices suggest, can we adduce any special purposes in the publication of Henry’s bible, beyond those he states, of fulfilling an obligation to God and serving “the necessity of the people”? Was it really directed to a popular readership, or was it more in the nature of a ceremonial performance? Ordinary “people”, after all, could rarely manage Latin, and those who could, would probably have preferred – like Henry’s scrupulous reader – a complete bible, which, if they could afford Henry’s, they no doubt already possessed. Here a few bibliographical observations may be helpful.

The volume is, to begin with, conspicuously rare: it now survives in only four complete copies, and three slightly imperfect ones, none of which bears any sign of ceremonial presentation, that is, a lavish contemporary binding or sententious inscription. Apparently it was never reprinted, ...

... perhaps the forthcoming availability of the complete scriptures in reader-friendly vernacular English left Henry’s and Berthelet’s curious Vulgate – still the “first” bible printed in England, no mean distinction – something of an anachronism, or throwback, and accounts for its virtual demise both in practical use and in (modern) historical memory. Another possibility, also linked to its date of appearance, is more prosaic, but evocative: July 1535 was not exactly a serene month in the religio-political history of the English monarchy and Church. Bishop John Fisher had been beheaded at Tower Hill on June 22, to the indignation of nearly all Europe, a furore compounded by the perfunctory trial of Sir Thomas More, who followed Fisher to the block on July 6. Henry had escaped the latter occasion with a long summer progress through the West Country. But in the light of impending reaction from the rest of the Christian world, including papal excommunication itself in August, the appearance of a somewhat self-congratulatory “personal” canon of scriptural law, via an eccentric edition of the Vulgate, might have seemed grotesquely ill-timed.

(Thanks to PhiloBiblos for the tip.)

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