The Great Bible (1540)

By Michael Durrant

We often find extensive evidence of use in early modern Protestant bibles, including transcribed sermons, commonplaced passages from other religious books, forms of cross-referencing, annotation, and self-accounting, alongside pen trials, signatures, doodles, ownership marks, recipes, financial accounts, and (perhaps especially) family histories. As other entries in this blog will attest, it is not unusual to find extensive lists of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths recorded on the pastedowns and endleaves of early modern protestant bibles, books objects that could remain in active use long after their production, serving as participatory sites of material accumulation and readerly intervention for a broad socio-economic cross-section of users, and usually over very long periods of time.

Bangor University’s copy of the third edition of ‘THE BYBLE | CRANMER VERSION’ (1540), otherwise known as the Great Bible, nicely illustrates this point (Fig. 1). As I have written elsewhere, Bangor’s Great Bible is replete with a range of readerly interventions, including handwritten signatures, ownership marks, pen trials, and forms of commonplacing, which are variously dated from the mid-sixteenth century through to the early decades of the twentieth century.[1] These inscriptions were made by up to ten separate individuals, although only three of them, all male, can be identified as former owners. These include a man called Benjamin Rogers, who identifies himself as a “yomon” residing in “Rowin[g]ton” in Warwickshire, and who is active in its margins between 1710 and 1743; one “Rev J[ohn] T[heodosius] Jones” (c. 1786–1851), a “Vicar of Saintbury” in Gloucestershire, and a former Master of the Grammar School of King Edward VI, Stratford-upon-Avon; and finally Richard Hughes (1837–1930), an Anglesey-based farm labourer who donated this Great Bible to Bangor University in 1930. 

Fig. 1

Benjamin Rogers is by far the most active book user in Bangor’s Great Bible. His name appears over 200 times throughout, and it is usually accompanied by the formulaic phrase “His Booke” or by his favoured passage adapted from Proverbs, “Give me neither poverty nor Riches but food.” Benjamin’s presence is also experienced in generic aphorisms—”Benjamin Rogers is my name and with my pen I writ[e] the | Same and if my pen it had been better I should have mended | Every Letter”—or, continuing the theme of mending, in the numerous examples of patchwork repair undertaken within the book, which see Benjamin reaching in to dress wounded pages with hand-written supplements (Figs. 2-3).

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

There is, to put it another way, a very real sense that Bangor’s Great Bible is “His Booke.” Indeed, Benjamin’s claims to ownership feel almost overwhelming, and he appears to have had a surveillant eye set on the presence of hands that are not his own. As can be seen in Figures 4 and 5, printed manicules situated within the margins of the text incite self-reflexive phrases like “the hand” or, in one instance, “wittnes my hand,” an expression that seems almost to will the typographical hand to point away from the biblical text and back to Benjamin as reader and owner. Elsewhere, an inscription dated 1670—this time a reworked passage from Owen Feltham’s bestselling essay collection, Resolves: Divine, Moral, Political (1620), which is signed by one “George Rogers”—prompts Benjamin, later in 1733, to respond with “hand of that man.” Whether or not George Rogers was a relative of Benjamin Rogers is unclear, but his “hand of that man” phrase, which loiters on the periphery of George’s earlier inscription, seems curiously combative.

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

From another perspective, however, Benjamin’s focus on hands (his own and those of others) need not be read as a sign of his guarded attitude to book ownership. The book’s emotive/devotional force seems to be located in a sense that Benjamin is not, in fact, alone, that his hands are in communal alignment with others. In one instance, for example, Benjamin’s claims to book ownership will spill over into a broader claim to patriarchal possession in marriage, and in doing so he introduces us to a female figure who can be incorporated into this book’s history of ownership: “Benjamin Rogers His Book 1739 | Susanna Rogers His Wife” (Fig. 6).   

Fig. 6

Evidence from the marriage register for St Nicholas’ Church, Warwick, suggests that this inscription was made about sixteen years after a “Benjamin Rogers of Rowington” married “Susannah Ward of Claverton” on the 13 January 1723. In that time, Susanna made her presence felt within Bangor’s Great Bible, although, unlike Benjamin, she never deployed the ownership phrase, “Her Book.” Instead, we find her formulating her signature in the margins of the Book of Esau, cautiously repeating the “S” “S” “S” “S” of “Susanna” as she prepares to write out her name in full (Fig. 7); a “Susanna” also appears once in the margins of the Book of Job, six times in the margins of the Book of Numbers, and twice in Deuteronomy; further, the letter “S” appears randomly in several other sections within Bangor’s Great Bible, which together hint at her readerly presence even if that “S” did not form itself into a fuller “Susanna.”  

Fig. 7

Susanna is/was there, moving through the book’s pages with a pen in her hand, making herself known in ways that are less insistent than that of her husband, but that are still visible to us. The same is true of other women, and other men, who materialise on an interleaved sheet that appears at the back of Bangor’s Great Bible, situated between the main text block and the lower board. There we find the name “Mary Elderidge,” which has been written out at least three times, as well as the signatures of “Thomas Reynolds,” “Joseph Bernard,” and a “Thomas Drury,” which is dated “1740.” On the same sheet we find the ubiquitous “Benjamin Rogers,” who, nestled within this messy, overlapping cluster of hands, has dated his own inscriptions “1739,” “1740,” and “1741” respectively (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The image above suggests that, whilst this book may be “His,” it is clearly also an object that moved within a larger community, and it got folded into these other lives as it moved. As such, Bangor’s Great Bible serves as evidence not of an isolated reader/book owner, but one whose reading practices were enlivened, and even authorised by, a wider network of men and women within and outside of the Rogers family. Benjamin’s “wittnes my hand” inscription seems to suggest as much, pointing us to the forms of early modern “witnessing” that Jason Scott-Warren has described, in which claims to book ownership were staged before observing, participating audiences.[2] In the case of Bangor’s Great Bible, this audience was made up of women like Mary and Susanna, and, if we can say that, between 1710 and 1743, Bangor’s Great Bible was his book, it’s conceivable that this was made possible by the fact that it passed through their hands as well.  

Source: The Byble in Englyshe: that is to saye the conte[n]t of al the holy scrypture, both of yer olde, and new testame[n]t, with a prologe therinto, made by the reuerende father in God, Thomas Archbyshop of Cantorbury. This is the Byble apoynted to the vse of the churches (Bangor University Library, shelf mark X/EC1 1540). Images reproduced with the permission of Bangor University Archives and Special Collections.

[1] Michael Durrant, “Old Books, New Beginnings: Recovering Lost Pages,” Inscription: The Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History 1 (2020)

[2] Jason Scott-Warren, Shakespeare’s First Reader: The Paper Trails of Richard Stonley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp.119-25.

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