Written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger
Popular literacy of the bible has been commonplace in Europe since the Protestant Reformation, and the understanding that the bible was not originally written in English (or even in Latin, for that matter) has followed suit. But nothing brings to light this fact of literary disconnection of the scriptures closer than a Polyglot Bible; the sacred Christian text written in two or more languages simultaneously (commonly in Hebrew and/or Greek – the ‘original’ biblical languages) for theological and academic reference. Although Polyglot Bibles had been produced for hundreds of years before the 17th century, the 1657 Polyglot Bible stands out for its staggering ambition and scale.
The most prominent feature of the 1657 Polyglot Bible in Salisbury Cathedral’s library is its sheer enormity. This bible is not just one book but 6 massive hardbound volumes, each of which measures 45cm high by 30cm across, and laid back-to-back they stretch for nearly half a meter. In total, 9 different languages are featured in the Polyglot including: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Chaldee, Ethiopic and Samaritan – each with their own Latin translations. All the books of the bible, including the Apocrypha, are included in the Polyglot but only some are printed in all 9 languages. Clearly, this bible was not intended for use in parish churches and in daily religious life, but rather for eminent academics and their institutions who had plenty of money to spend on status symbols to show off their pursuits of knowledge.
Another feature of this Polyglot Bible was its novel layout of the scriptures. Previous Polyglots tended to put large segments of text one after the other, but the 1657 Polyglot was intended as a reference work, and so short verses were printed side-by-side in order that the same segment of scripture could be viewed in all the Polyglot’s languages simultaneously. Such a printing style, as well as being highly practical, is also very beautiful and would have certainly contributed to the success of this Polyglot upon its publication for aesthetic as much as for academic reasons. In addition, this Polyglot features many pages of diagrams, maps and appendices to properly ground these Holy Scriptures in facts, in geography and in history.
But what really makes this Polyglot unique is not its content but its authors. After the English Civil War in the late 1640s, Puritan purges of academic establishments began in earnest and many distinguished professors who refused, on principle, to swear loyalty to the new Commonwealth lost their university homes and incomes. Those academics that remained found their universities emptied of students who had gone off to fight in the Civil War, their colleagues had been replaced by Puritans with little academic interests and their privileged status in society had been stripped away in this new topsy-turvy Cromwellian country.
The brainchild of the 1657 Polyglot Bible, Dr Brian Walton, was just such an academic as he himself had been ejected from Oxford for his Royalist sympathies and was reduced to moving in with his father-in-law in London. Walton funded the enormous enterprise of compiling the 6 volume Polyglot by asking for a subscription upfront from any prospective buyers – one of the first instances this had been attempted in the publishing world. With this financial backing, Walton solicited academics from across the country, a who’s who of the most distinguished linguists of 17th century England, to help him compile the Polyglot. From Cambridge came Edmund Castell (Walton’s principal assistant), Herbert Thorndike (a Hebrew Professor who had been ejected from the university by Cromwell), Abraham Wheelocke (Languages Professor) and Thomas Hyde (a student of Wheelock’s who was still a teenager when he began contributing to the Polyglot). From Oxford came Edward Pococke (the highly distinguished, yet financially troubled, Hebrew and Arabic professor), Samuel Clarke (one of Pococke’s most promising, but out-of-work, students) and Thomas Greaves (who, like Walton, had also been ejected from the university). Even though some were destitute and others were fighting to retain their academic livelihoods, what these academics collectively managed to produce would not and could not be bettered, and remained the standard reference work for students of biblical studies for the next 300 years.
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