research update: 18th-c bibles

Edit: Added more info later in the day. I saw Wilco perform last night, and they were great! A small club, and I was right next to the stage. An English band called Clearlake opened, and while they were a little rough around the edges in their performance, I think I’ll probably check out some of their recordings. Nels Cline, the avant garde jazz guitarist touring with Wilco, used everything from a metal spring to (I think) a film canister to get sounds out of his guitar, plus he had about 20 effects pedals around him. Great stuff.

I spent today at the oldest public library in the English speaking world: Chetham’s Library. I examined about a half dozen Bibles from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They contain a variety of marginalia, but nothing that compares to what I found in Bradburn’s diary. What I’m after is the ways in which people used their Bibles, and in addition to sermons and essays on how best to read the scriptures, we have marks written on pages by readers. The sample size, so far, is way too small to come to any definite conclusions, however. I’m still trying to decide how best to construct the comparisons; I’d like to determine how unusual or common Bradburn’s practice was. Suggestions are welcome.

Here are some research issues I’m dealing with:

  • I could be wrong, but I think libraries with special collections are not so likely to have Bibles with a great deal of marginalia. Rare books may have been purchased because they do not have all the marks of reading that scholars like me are interested in. Books with a great deal of writing in them could have been considered less valuable when the purchases were made, unless the book belonged to someone famous. Then the marginalia would make the book more valuable. I’m looking for Bibles belonging to ordinary folks, although I certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to examine, say, Jonathan Swift’s Bible.
  • Even if I do find marginalia in an eighteenth-century Bible, I can’t be sure who put them there. Libraries often, but not always, know who owned a particular book before they bought it (i.e. the book’s provenance), but we can’t be sure if that person is the one who wrote in it.
  • Even if I do find marginalia in an eighteenth-century Bible, I can’t be sure that they were put there in the eighteenth century. They may have been added in the nineteenth century, which will provide information about reading practices in that century, but not in the one I’m interested in.
  • I am sure that eighteenth-century marginalia is sitting on the pages of Bibles published in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but how to find those Bibles? I know of one example that I intend to examine, but library catalogues usually record the date of publication, not the dates of marginalia. I have to say, though, that Chetham’s Library’s online catalogue has excellent, detailed bibliographical notes on their rare books, and I was able to determine when, according to the archivists, the marginalia in particular books were created.
  • Finally, marginalia require interpretation before they will yield information about reading practices. For example, what do all those crosses in Bradburn’s Bible mean? Were they texts of sermons he heard? Or were they, as I am hypothesizing, texts of sermons he preached? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg.

Chetham’s has on display one of only 5 seventeenth-century handpresses in England. There are only 70 in the world. I didn’t realize they were so rare. Perhaps once new presses were developed, there was no reason to preserve the old ones. Of course, the fact that they were made out of wood, rather than the iron of later presses, probably didn’t help their longevity, much.

In keeping with the day’s early modern theme, I took a break for lunch and had oysters on the half shell at Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, which dates from the 16th or 17th century (or 18th) depending on whom you ask.

Tomorrow I finish at the Methodist Archives (for this year), and then I’m off to the British Library in London. I’m meeting a colleague whose speciality is the Renaissance, and we’re gonna party like it’s 1688! (1688…anyone?…anyone?…Bueller?)

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2 thoughts on “research update: 18th-c bibles

  1. Back home

    Some bloggers are very good at writing about their research and conference trips while they’re on the road. It always sounds so sophisticated and enticing. Using a few minutes in the hotel or from a library computer to write a…

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