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Bible Trains Printers And Translators (1450-1611)

( Originally Published 1914 )

WE have been led in the last chapters far back into the Middle Ages. Now we approach the great time of discoveries. It is difficult to say who made the most important discovery, Columbus crossing the Atlantic to find a new world, in which a new civilisation was to arise, or Gutenberg inventing the art of printing and thereby revolutionising the world of intellectual life and consequently the history of the Bible.

During the last centuries of the Middle Ages the Bible had been much copied. At the University of Paris booksellers, helped by some scholars, undertook to issue a special edition for the benefit of the students. This Paris edition, easily recognised by its fine type of handwriting and its blue and red decoration, became the standard Bible text for men of learning. At the same time many a pious member of the Fraternity of the Common Life, which was founded by Gerhard de Groot at Zutphen (in Holland), copied the Bible in his miserable cell with great skill. The monasteries began to have large collections of Bible editions. There were large copies consisting of four or eight volumes in folio, for use in chapel, and smaller ones, in one volume, for private reading. We know of a regulation made for all monasteries of the Order of Saint Augustine, that in the catalogues of their libraries all Bibles should be put under the letter A. There was no need for such a regulation in the pre-Carolingian time, when a monastery would scarcely have one complete Bible.

But now let us try to realise what it meant that each copy should be made by itself, the writer painting (as we may say) letter by letter, and this through hundreds and thousands of pages. The copyists showed wonderful skill. Some of these manuscripts look exactly like printed books; one letter is just like the other; no slipping of the pen! Nevertheless it was inevitable that the copyist should make mistakes from time to time. He dropped a letter, a word, even a line; unconsciously he changed the order of the words. He brought in something which he happened to have in his mind. When he was familiar with his Bible, some parallel confused him. It is only natural that in copying a book of this size even the best copyist should make some hundreds of blunders; the next copyist would intro-duce other hundreds, sometimes even by an unhappy attempt at correcting the blunders of the former. So it went on till in the end the text be-came filled with mistakes. Of course, there was a remedy. After having finished the copy the writer himself or some one else was expected to compare it carefully with the original and correct all the blunders. But from personal experience in reading proofs we know how easily a real blunder escapes our attention. One ought to go over a proof-sheet three times at least in order to avoid all mistakes. So we cannot wonder that the Bibles copied by hand contained errors, and considering all the difficulties it is surprising that the copies were most of them so nearly correct.

It was Johann Gutenberg, a native of Mainz, residing some time at Strassburg as a silversmith, then again returning to Mainz, who made the great discovery that several copies could be printed at once by using letters cut out of wood or metal. People had used woodcuts before his time. Engraving large blocks of wood with pictures and letters, they printed the so-called block-books, as a cheap substitute for illuminated manuscripts. Gutenberg's great idea was that instead of using a woodcut block for the page one might compose a page by using separate, movable letters, putting them together according to the present need, then separating them and using them again. We are not interested here in the technical part of the work; imperfect as it was, it was surely a great advance. Now one got a hundred copies, two hundred, or even more without any difference between them. When the proofs had been corrected carefully the Bible was sure to have as few mistakes as possible; and if the printer still found some errors, he could easily correct them for the whole edition by adding a printed list of errata, or necessary corrections, at the end of the volume. It was only by printing that uniformity of text became possible.

The important fact for our present investigation is that it was the Bible which Gutenberg chose to be the first printed book. This fact illustrates the estimation in which the Bible was held. It shows at the same time the demand for Bible copies; the printer felt sure that it would sell and pay. It was an enormous enterprise to put the fresh, inexperienced art of printing straightway at a task so big as this. It took four years to print the first Bible, from 1453 to 1456. While working at it Gutenberg had to try some smaller things which would bring him money immediately, school-books, letters of indulgence, and so on, but his main care was given to the Bible. It contained six hundred and forty-one leaves, with two columns on each page, and forty-two lines in each column (Plate XV). The initials were not printed, but were supposed to be illuminated by hand; a small letter was printed in the free space to indicate what kind of letter the illuminator had to paint. Probably not more than one hundred copies were printed, a third part of them on parchment. Out of the thirty-one copies which have been preserved, or, to speak more accurately, are known as such, ten are luxuriously printed on parchment and illuminated, each in a different way, but all very fine and costly. It is obvious that Gutenberg put into this printing not only a great amount of labour but much money, too; and there was no assurance that it would come in again in a short time. Like many ingenious discoverers and inventors, he was no business man; he was al-ways in need of money. So when his first Bible was not yet finished one of his creditors, John Fust, of Mainz, took all his apparatus from him and, associating himself with an apprentice of Gutenberg's, Peter Schôffer by name, brought the printing of the first Bible to completion, thus depriving the inventor of the financial success as well as of the glory. But Gutenberg was not discouraged. He immediately began, with a new set of letters, the printing of a second Bible, containing thirty-six lines in each column and so amounting to eight hundred and eighty-one leaves in size. He printed it in the years 1456 to 1458. Again his rivals, Fust and Schöffer, published, in 1462, a third Bible, called sometimes the Bible of Mainz. It has forty-eight lines in each column.

Thus the printing of the Bible was inaugurated. The new art quickly spread all over Germany, and printing-presses were established at Strassburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Basel, Cologne, Lubeck, and many other places. The art entered France and England with less success, the government in both countries being partly opposed to it and partly trying to make it a royal privilege. Good printers worked at Paris and Lyons. The most splendid presses were at Venice, where the Doge championed the new art even against attacks from Rome. Before the year 1500 ninety-two editions of the Latin Bible were issued by these various presses, according to Mr. Copinger, who possessed the largest collection of printed Bibles. (He registers four hundred and thirty-eight editions of the Latin Bible during the sixteenth century.) In addition to these we have a great number of printed Bibles in the vernacular of Germany, France, Italy, Bohemia, and so on. There was a sudden outpouring of Bibles. But we must not overestimate the circulation. These editions contained scarcely more than two hundred copies each; they were most of them in large folio, very unwieldy, and the price was enormous, though, of course, not so high as it is now, when for one copy of Gutenberg's first Bible $20,000 is paid. The Bible was not available for the average man. We know of scholars copying for themselves the Bible or the New Testament from a printed Bible. The clergy were rather opposed to this printing. They did not in the least encourage the printers; on the contrary, they tried to cause as many difficulties as possible. Therefore the circulation was a limited one. Copies were bought by churches for their services, by princes, and by very rich merchants, as to-day a splendid work is bought more as a luxury than as something for daily use. One cannot say that at this period the Bible, even by printing, acquired a circulation among the people.

This was accomplished only through the Reformation. It was Luther's German translation which made the printed Bible popular and caused a number of similar translations. In order to make the Bible what it was destined to be, the book of the people, the printer and the translator had to work together.

In former times many Protestants held the view that Luther rediscovered the Bible, which had been almost entirely forgotten. They thought that there had been a meagre transmission of the Bible and no translation into the vernacular at all. This view, of course, is untenable. We have seen what a circulation the Bible had in the last century before the Reformation, and that it had been translated into almost every vernacular. Nevertheless, Luther's version is a landmark in the history of translation; it marks a new period and rep-resents the beginning of a new sort of translation.

In order to realise this, let us look back over the former history of translations. In the first period we found the Bible translated from the Greek into Latin, Syriac, Coptic; in the next period Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Libyan, and Ethiopic were added, not to mention the several revisions of the former translations. About 600 A. D. the Bible was known in eight languages; in each of them there had been several attempts at translating. There were different dialects, too; in Coptic no less than five. The spread of Christianity in the next period is shown by the fact that the Bible is translated—and this again several times—into Arabic and Slavonic from the Greek, and into German, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and French from the Latin—rather, I should say, parts of the Bible, for it was only parts which people at this period tried to translate. We hear of a Gospel, of a Psalter, of one or another book translated into the vernacular. Only when stimulated by the popular movements of the next period, as we have seen in the fifth chapter, was the work of translating into the vernacular prosecuted on a larger scale; from the thirteenth century on we may speak of Bibles in the vernacular. Beginning in the southeast of France, the tendency spread over Italy and Germany. We can still trace the influence of the French Waldensian Bible in the earliest Italian translations and also in some of the German ones. Another circle is defined by the northern French translation, which influenced the Flemish and Dutch and possibly even the Scandinavian. All these are based not so much upon the Bible itself as on a rearrangement known as the Historical Bible, telling the stories and omitting the doctrinal portions. A new start was made in England by Wycliffe, and this caused the Bohemian translation into Czech, which was again influenced by the Waldensian Bible. It is like a net thrown all over Europe. We may count more than a dozen languages, many of them represented by different dialects and by several separate renditions, which were added to the eight languages of the former periods. The culmination came in the fifteenth century, when everywhere fresh translations were attempted. In Germany more than forty different types of translation can be counted, and one of them, containing the whole Bible, was printed fourteen times before the period of the Reformation (Plate XVI). There was only one translation, how-ever, with a value of its own, and that was the Spanish, for this was made from the Hebrew Old Testament by the help of some Spanish Jews. Both the king of Spain and the high clergy showed at that time a remarkable breadth of view in trying to get a trustworthy translation. All other versions in the West were based upon the Latin Vulgate as the recognised Bible of the church, and they were made with more devotion than knowledge. The translators usually did not know Latin well nor were they masters of their own language. They translated word for word, and the result was sometimes strange. It is of no great importance that, not recognising in "Tertius" and "Quartus" proper names, one of these translators said "the third" and "the fourth." It was worse when another explained "encænia" in John 10 : 22, the feast of dedication, as meaning "wedding," or declared the words in Matt. 27 : 46, "Eli, Eli," to be Greek. Sometimes the translation resulted in pure nonsense, and even where it made sense, it was difficult and often far from the true meaning. Now humanism insisted upon going back to the original languages. Erasmus, in 1516, published the first edition of the New Testament in Greek. We see how Luther, at this time professor at the University of Witten-berg, lecturing upon Romans when this edition came into his hands, was impressed by this new source of information. He eagerly set himself to learn Greek with the help of his friend Melanchthon, and so he was prepared for the great task of translating the New Testament directly out of the Greek into German. It was during his exile in the Wartburg that he found the necessary time to make this translation. It appeared in print in September, 1522, and it is astonishing in how short a time this New Testament circulated all through Germany. It was reprinted everywhere, and often very carelessly, so that Luther had to complain against the printers as falsifying his translation. He himself did not take any payment for his work; he wanted the publishers to sell it as cheaply as possible. And it was a master-piece, not only for the beauty of the language, which was the best and most popular German that had ever been written but also in the way Luther translated, giving not the single words but the meaning of the sentences, not transferring from one vocabulary to the other but transmuting (if one may say so) the whole expression of thought from Greek into German. The Bible became a German book; one hardly feels that he is reading a translation. Luther had more trouble with the Old Testament. In order to master the Hebrew he had to rely on friends; he even asked some Jewish rabbis to join their meetings. He tells us that they often had to look for a single word three or four weeks; that in particular Job was so difficult that they scarcely finished three lines in four days. The Pentateuch was ready in the year 1523; then year after year the work went on. The prophets were not finished until 1532, and in 1534 the first complete Bible was issued. The work was highly praised by Luther's friends and unduly criticised by his antagonists. He himself replied sharply to such criticism, and he had a right to do so because the attempts made by Eck and Emser, the champions of Roman Catholicism, to translate the Bible them-selves were feeble and betrayed much dependence on Luther's translation, which they had so severely criticised. Luther himself never felt satisfied with his own work and always tried to improve it. At two different periods he held meetings with his friends for the purpose of revising the Bible. The records of these meetings of the committee for the revision of the Bible (if one may call it so) have come down to us, and it is highly interesting to see how carefully they discussed every word and how it is always Luther himself who at last finds the most apt expression.

It is a great privilege of the German nation that it received this excellent Bible at the very beginning of the new era. The German language is moulded by this Bible. In Luther's time the dialects still prevailed. Luther's Bible had to be translated into the dialect of lower Germany. The south of Germany and Switzerland had quite an-other dialect. The Zürich reformers, in 1529, published a Bible in this dialect, translating from Luther's Bible as far as it existed at this time and providing for the rest a translation of their own. It is unquestionably due to Luther's Bible that the Germans have now one language for all literary purposes. The German classic writers Herder, Wieland, Klopstock, Lessing, Schiller, Goethe were all trained from their childhood by the language of this Bible. Even now there is a remarkable difference in style between authors of Protestant and of Roman Catholic origin in Germany. In the easy and fluent language of the former we see the influence of Luther and Goethe, whereas the latter often show a certain stiffness and a greater number of provincial-isms. The attempts to translate the Bible independently of Luther have never succeeded in gaining any large circulation, although there have been many such, not only from the Roman Catholic side but also from Protestants. A famous one is the so-called Berleburg Bible, by certain mystics, published in 1726-42 in eight volumes. In the nineteenth century scholars undertook to give more scientific and more exact translations, but, valuable as these may be for scholarly purposes, the German people will never abandon its classic Bible. It is difficult even to introduce a revision. There was a revision some twenty years ago, but in this Luther's text was retouched and altered only at a very few points, most of the corrections introduced by the revision committee being rather restitutions of Luther's original renderings, which had been badly "improved" by former printers. It is remarkable that even the printed Bible never stands still, but is always changing, the printers acting as the copyists did in former times. The copies of the revised text printed at Stuttgart differ slightly from the copies printed at Halle and Berlin, to mention three of the modern centres of German Bible printing.

Luther's translation was the signal for a general movement in this direction. It is not so much translating the Bible into new languages—only a few which had no Bible before were added to the list given above—as rather the making of new translations in all languages of the Christian world as far as this was influenced by the Reformation. Of course some of these translations were inspired by humanism more than by the spirit of the Reformation. The humanists abhorred the vulgarity of the monkish Latin, and they extended their aversion to the official Bible of the church, the Vulgate of Saint Jerome; therefore they tried to translate the Bible into what they thought to be Ciceronian Latin, and some of them translated this again into French or German. But most of the translators were simply following Luther's model; nay, they used Luther's translation even more than the original. King Christian III of Denmark gave orders that the translators should follow Luther's version as closely as possible. In this way the Dutch, the Danish, the Swedish, the Finnish, the Lettish, and the Lithuanian Bibles were more or less influenced by or even based upon Luther's.

It is different with the English and the French Bible. Wycliffe's translation never had been printed. William Tindale, a pupil of Erasmus, translated the New Testament and parts of the Old during his exile in Germany and Holland, whither he had gone under Henry VIII because, as he says, there was no place to translate the New Testament in all England. Printed copies of them were brought to England, but most of them were confiscated and destroyed. Once again the Bible was burned, but this time by the Christian king in agreement with the bishops of the English church; and with the Bible suffered many of its zealous readers. Tindale himself died a martyr for his faith and his Bible in October, 1536, at the hands of the imperial authorities in Flanders. But the work of Bible translation went on, nevertheless, and Henry VIII was still on the throne when the Bible gained the victory. Miles Coverdale, who had undertaken an-other translation, issued the year before Tindale's death, failed to get royal sanction for its publication, but the book was not suppressed. John Rogers, a friend of Tindale's, the year after his death, under the assumed name of Thomas Matthew, published a Bible, chiefly made up from Tindale's and Cover-dale's work. Through Crumwell's mediation Cran-mer secured the king's permission to sell this Bible in the realm. But the convocation was not satisfied with it. It asked for another translation, and therefore the so-called Great Bible was published in 1539, Coverdale revising his former work under the direction of Crumwell, Cranmer, and others. This Great Bible was ordered by a royal warrant to be exhibited in all parish churches; copies were fastened to the pulpits by means of chains, and the public was allowed to read them "with discretion, honest intent, charity, reverence, quiet behaviour," as is said in the admonition published by Bishop Bonner. This happened in the last years of Henry VIII. Under Queen Mary—bloody Mary, as she was called—the printing of Bibles was stopped, but the exiles who went to Geneva undertook a new revision, which was much more radical and had the privilege of bearing an introductory letter by Calvin himself. At the very moment of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, among other prisoners (according to the expression of one of her courtiers) the four evangelists and Saint Paul were released, having been long shut up in an unknown tongue, as it were in prison. The Great Bible was revised by some of the bishops under direction of Archbishop Parker, who did not shrink from using improvements from the Geneva Bible. This Bishops' Bible, published in 1568, was the official one, but the Geneva Bible was far more popular, while the Roman Catholics made a translation of their own, printed in France at Rheims and Douai. The rivalry between the Bishops' Bible and the Geneva Bible was confusing. Therefore, in order to overcome it, King James, in 1604, appointed a committee for the revision of the Bible, consisting of about fifty members, and divided into six groups, two of which met at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge respectively. They did excellent work, the result of which was published in 1611 and is known as the Authorised Version. It is in this version that the English translation attained its highest excellence. It is this form which gained the largest circulation and the greatest popularity among all English-speaking peoples. It still survives the recent attempt at re-vision, which was made by an English and an American committee, both working on the same principles and in constant communication with one another. It is a well-known fact that the final corrections were cabled from England to America in order to procure a simultaneous publication on both sides of the Atlantic. Here again, as in the German revision, the two issues are not identical. It marks, however, a clear distinction between the German and the English Bible that the former reached its final form at its very beginning, whereas the latter did not achieve this result until a hundred years later. The Bible of Luther was creative of the German language, as we have seen, while the English Bible is rather a product of the period of highest literary culture in England. Luther produced Goethe. Shakespeare (d. April 23, 1616) is practically contemporaneous with the Authorised Version.

The development of the French Bible is still more slow and varied. There was a pre-Reformation translation, printed several times, at Lyons and at Paris; but it was of a purely mediæval character. Then a humanist, Jacques Lefèvres d'Etaples (Faber Stapulensis, d. 1536), undertook a new French translation from the Vulgate. The first French Bible translated from the original Hebrew and Greek was published in 1535 by Peter Robert Olivetan, a cousin of Calvin. The author himself, and Calvin, and others corrected and improved it from time to time, and nearly every twenty or thirty years a new editor would try to revise it. In this series of revisions one of the most successful was that of Frédéric Ostervald of Neuchâtel, in 1744. But the process is still going on, French and Swiss theologians vying one with another in fair competition. More-over, the Protestant translation found many rivals in the work of Roman Catholics, especially in the great period of French literature in the reign of Louis XIV. Some of these translators, for example Bossuet, aimed at making the style of their translation as elegant as possible, while others, under the influence of Port Royal, paraphrased the text with a view rather to clearness. None of these versions had real success; none has become final. France still suffers from the lack of a classic form for its Bible.

The attitude of a nation toward its Bible is largely determined by the development of the translation. It is obvious that the Germans hold to Luther's Bible even more insistently than the English do to their Authorised Version, and that in France there is an open field for every fresh attempt at revising and translating. The nation has not become united with its Bible, and, as regards language, the famous "Dictionnaire de l'Académie," aiming at a standard of literary uniformity, is but a poor and artificial substitute for the influence exercised in a living and natural way by the Bible.

It is not our task here to trace the history of translations in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and elsewhere. It is to a large extent a history of enthusiasm, devotion, and martyrdom, and at the same time of failure and oppression. Wherever the so-called Counter-Reformation, started by the Jesuits, gained hold of the people, the vernacular was suppressed and the Bible kept from the laity. So eager were the Jesuits to destroy the authority of the Bible—the paper pope of the Protestants, as they contemptuously called it—that they even did not refrain from criticising its genuineness and historical value.

To sum up: it was the Bible which trained printers and translators and thereby made a noble contribution to modern civilisation and literature; on the other hand, it was printing and translating which made it possible for the Bible to become the popular book that ruled daily life.



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