King James Bible (1619)

This is one of many bibles we have featured on this blog, and like most of the others, it is an object that fascinating for the extent to which it bears the signs of usage by the family that owned it. This early seventeenth-century King James bible was printed only eight years of the appearance of the very first one; it is bound together with a 1673 copy of the Book of Psalms.

Throughout the book we find scribbling and handwriting, much of it not entirely clear, and some of it apparently by a young person or child. Much of the writing takes the form of conventional family history, noting births of the annotator and family members. As Adam Smyth notes, in his lovely newsletter on the bible of his own family and other early bibles, “These inscriptions represent a reader’s impulse to assert her presence, her place in time, her relationship to an important book, and that evidence of her aliveness is still legible today. These inscriptions have a kind of depth or texture because they record both an exact moment when the note was written (the I-am-here-ness), and immediately imagine a future when that record will be read as past (the I-was-here-ness).” Other inscriptions, if we can call them that, seem much less aware of future readers.

The page below shows that the bible is bound with the Book of Common Prayer. The inscription on the page begins “When the wicked man turneth…,” a quotation from Ezekiel 18:27, “when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” The inscription seems as much to emphasize the quotation as it is a pen trial, though the quotation itself does not appear on this page, so the writer is not simply copying.

Another hand is seen at the bottom of the left page below with a cryptic inscription. It seems to give an incomplete date, “17th 1542” perhaps followed by “J was buried 23 day,” so this may be an item of family history, but if so, only as a reminder to the annotator, not for any other reader.

On this page appear pen trials of numbers, some writing, and a drawing, along with further scribbling next to the dedication to the bible.

There is also the conventional listing of family members, including Mary Chide or Childe, Richard Webb, John Webb, and Mary Webb, along with further calculations, perhaps of ages. But the family history is not as neatly listed as in many other bibles that expect future reading by descendants and others–instead it appears to take the form of pen trials, with its repetition and combination of diagonal and horizontal writing.

Clearer birth dates for Mary Childe and John Webb are given below. Perhaps the writer was practicing for these inscriptions on the page above.

And a further list of family members with now faded dates of birth are given on the page below, some in a different hand. It includes another female member of the family, Ann Webb. A delightful animal of some sort appears among the inscriptions.

Yet another page lists a James Webb in a different hand, along with a location, Eynsford, allowing us to situate this family tentatively in Kent.

For this particular family, the blank pages of the bible, book of prayer, and psalms were a space to record family history, do pen trials, make calculations, and do drawings. The book was used by different family members, probably of different generations, and to different ends. Such scattered writing shows the degree to which the bible could be a book that was not only cherished but also actively in use in the household, open to appropriation and modification by all members of the family, male and female, young and old. We cannot know to what extent or which notations are by women, but their presence as members of the family is clearly marked and kept for posterity.

Source: Book offered for sale by moonlandingpro on 3/1/2020; since sold. Images reproduced with permission.

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