>1527 Latin Bible

>One of my favorite things about my job is that it gives me the chance to explore books. On the best times, it means that I can go down into the stacks where the rare materials are kept and discover something I hadn’t been looking for. This book comes from one of those occasions. It’s a Vulgate bible printed in Lyon in 1527 by Jaques Mareschal. The text itself isn’t particularly notable–it’s the standard Latin translation of the day. But the physical object is something else, a real window into the act of reading and understanding the text.

I had gone down to Deck C with our Curator of Books, Steve Galbraith, in order to find some bibles that we could use in class. I don’t remember why we pulled this one off the shelf–we misread the shelfmark, maybe? In any case, when we pulled it out, we found that it was full of finding tabs: there were vellum tabs sticking out of the fore edge of the book, that is, the part of the book where encyclopedias today put indendentations as a way to let you quickly find the start of the “p”s. These tabs were carefully labelled with abbreviations for each book in the bible, from Old Testament to New Testament to everything in between. It’s a quick and easy way to navigate between different books. Take a look:

It’s a great example of an early technology that let users of this mammoth volume find their way through it. But there are more finding aids at work here.

Look at this close-up of the outer margin on the right page. There are the tabs, along the right. And on the left is part of the text block (the main block of printed text on the page; in this case, the beginning of Genesis). In between the two, along the margin, are some printed annotations: a letter “A” nearest the top, followed by a series of phrases and number, for instance “Exo.20.b.”. To understand what those are for, go back and look again at the picture of the whole page above. What is missing? It’s a very dense text block–there is almost no white space left between the lines or between the words. What is not there? Chapter and verse numbers. It wasn’t until 1553 that the first Bible was numbered all the way through by chapter and verse. Before then, chapters were numbered (though not necessarily printed on the page). But to find your way through a chapter–to refer to a specific moment–you didn’t count each verse, but divided a chapter into roughly equally chunks, each labelled “A” through “D”, or perhaps through “G” for a longer chapter. The notation “Exo.20.b.” refers to the book of Exodus, the 20th chapter, and section “b”.

There’s a lot more to be said about this book–the handwriting in the margins, the wormholes, the beautiful woodcut, the printer, its former owners. This is just a taste of why I get excited discovering new books. I’ll share more in later posts.