Bible in English, 1537

Antwerp: R. Grafton and E. Whitchurch

The title page of this Bible is deceptive in more ways than one. It mentions the date 1537 and the royal license granted by Henry VIII, but fails to indicate the place where the book was printed and the name of its printer. More seriously, it disguises the name of its translator under the pseudonym of “Thomas Matthew.” By 1537 the Reformation had made significant progress both in England and the Netherlands, but the Bible’s publishers still judged it prudent to suppress most of the information usually found on a title page.

The person responsible for putting together the English text of the 1537 Bible was John Rogers (c. 1500-55), a scholar who was then living as an exile in Antwerp and later on was to be burned at the stake during the reign of Mary Tudor. Rogers reprinted Tyndale’s Pentateuch and New Testament, inserted Coverdale’s translation of Ezra to Malachi and the Apocrypha, and added a previously unpublished version of Joshua to 2 Chronicles based on Tyndale’s work. He also provided more than 2,100 marginal notes that testify to his own outstanding erudition.

The Bible was printed in Antwerp for Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch. Fearing persecution, the two publishers did not advertize their names nor were they bold enough to mention the exile John Rogers or the heretic William Tyndale, who had been executed near Brussels in 1536. Instead they used large ornamental initials printed from woodblocks as cryptic references to these names: R G and E W on the verso of the title page for the Prophets, I R, for John Rogers, at the bottom of the page containing “An Exhortation to the Study of the Scriptures,” and W T on the page facing the beginning of the Apocrypha. The initials H R alluding to Henry VIII’s Latin name, Henricus Rex, are printed at the end of Rogers’ preface.

The general title page and the title page of the New Testament are embellished with a woodcut border designed by the German artist Erhard Altdorfer (1480-1561). The image was first used in the Low German edition of Luther’s Bible published by Ludwig Dietz in Lübeck in 1534. In the center of the image a large tree supports the tablet with the letterpress while also separating the areas reserved for the Old and the New Testaments. Eight scenes respond to each other across the central divide. On the left side, one can see God giving the Law to Moses, Adam and Eve in the Garden, the Brazen Serpent, and a corpse lying over a sarcophagus, while on the right side are the Annunciation, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Crucifixion, and the resurrected Jesus trampling over Death. At the bottom, a man resting against the trunk of the tree is entreated by two male figures representing the Old Law and the New Law.

Matthew’s Bible was the second printed edition of the English Bible and the first one to be based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts.

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