Bagster’s Bibles: for Norwich and the world

Last weekend, I happened upon a melancholy Twitter thread that captured the closing of a two-hundred-year-old church in Norwich: Princes Street United Reformed Church. The author, Jay Hulme (@JayHulmePoet), had gone to photograph the building as a record for posterity, a day before the pews and fittings were due to be stripped out. (You can read and see Jay’s account here.)

One of the outcomes of this visit is that a small collection of books, mostly bibles, found piled on a windowsill has now gone to the Norfolk Heritage Centre for safe-keeping. Looking carefully, with input from friends and the local church minister, Jay had identified several books belonging to the Colman family—famed for their mustard. One of these was a copy of Samuel Bagster’s “English Version of the Polyglot Bible”, heavily annotated by its owner—Ethel Mary Colman—a deacon in the Congregational Church, and subsequently the first woman to become Lord Mayor of Norwich.

Most of the annotations are in shorthand, so it will take some time and expertise to make sense of Colman’s preaching preparation. But they’ve gone to a good home—The Heritage Centre is already host to an online exhibition about the fight for women’s rights, “Unfinished Business”. (Truth to tell, I’m hoping there might be some opportunity to digitise and study Colman’s bible, somewhere in my own future.)

Anyway, on seeing (and loving) Jay’s thread, I was inspired to offer a sub-thread explaining what on earth Bagster was up to publishing an English (monoglot) version of a multi-language (polyglot); and a follow-up focused on another of his biblical inventions: the English Hexapla. Below I’ve included the contents of both the Polyglot Bible

Polyglot, formed via the Greek compound of “many” + “tongues”, is the conventional adjective to describe a text (or indeed a person) that’s versed in more than one language. So one is inclined to wonder at the bible captured in Jay’s thread, visibly printed in one language (“English”).

What the heck is Bagster doing, marketing a monoglot bible as a polyglot?

Well, first off, you can view digital facsimiles of Bagster’s English Polyglot—in an 1842 printing courtesy of The Wellcome Institute; or in several editions from, e.g. the example embedded here.

A polyglot bible is a scholarly tool, typically containing the text of the bible in the original tongues (Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic) and with other ancient translations (Greek/Latin/Syriac, etc.). It is particularly useful to translators, because they can see how others interpreted tricky passages. In print, the earliest example is the Complutensian polyglot. Sponsored by a Spanish Cardinal, it took years to lay out all the volumes (1514-1520). An expensive and prestigious product.

You can see me talking about it here, and view a fine digital facsimile courtesy of the British Library.

The skill needed to set out the different languages in parallel was immense. The inexpert reader (i.e. one who had not fully mastered the languages in question) could be cued in to understand which words corresponded with which, using a detailed referencing system, or through interlinear glosses. (The Complutensian edition uses both approaches.) Of course, this made the typesetting work even more challenging, and costly.

Another early example is the Montanus Polyglot, printed in Antwerp (1569-1572) in the workshop of Christoph Plantin. Plantin is famed for his printing skills. His former house is now a museum (sadly closed when I hoped to visit in 2016, and this year’s hoped-for study visit to Antwerp was cancelled too). I would include a picture of the Sheffield University Library copy but I seem to have mislaid the album. You can read the museum’s entry about it here.

Anyway, Bagster recognised that people wanted polyglots but they were very expensive—to produce, and to buy. So he spotted a clever solution: print the different parts separately. A purchaser might then choose to “interleave” them (see explanation below) or perhaps more commonly simply locate and compare the matching page in separate volumes.

What Bagster had realised was that if you compromised and printed the different languages on different sheets of paper, you could create a flexible hybrid that was cheaper and less risky to make. You could work on and then sell one language at a time. Such a product was also less expensive to purchase—the outlay could be spread over time, and the buyer could choose which parts they wanted.

Bagster’s idea was actually even cheekier than that. In the UK, the Authorized Version of the Bible is crown copyright. Where copyright on other texts eventually expires, the Bible was heavily protected. Historically, only the royal printer and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been permitted to print it. (This is still basically the case.)

But Bagster knew a loophole:

If you added distinctive annotations (value), you could be exempted from that protection because you were essentially providing a different, enhanced product. So Bagster presents a quality English edition laid out so that it can be consulted with other languages. Of course, there’s no requirement that any end user buy the other versions. They can satisfy themselves with a scholarly-enough edition, with detailed cross-references (see the middle column) available from Bagster & Sons at a friendly price. With the option to expand and so upgrade their library at a later date.

Now Bagster really was an inspired entrepreneur and we can see this in the edition gifted to Colman. He made pocket-size editions (cheaper, accessible to a wider populace). He produced large print pulpit editions. But Colman’s is neither of these. Hers is a distinctive large print edition with “broad margins”.

Naturally this English Version preserved the layout of Bagster’s other Polyglot editions. This was necessary for its polyglot purposes. It also meant that fond readers whose eyesight was fading could easily locate their favourite texts when adjusting upward from pocket editions. This virtue is extolled in the prefatory matter. Bagster understood his readers’ devotion, and how to capitalise on it.

For Colman and others, the wide margins offered space for annotation, which brings me to one last observation specific to her copy of the Bagster polyglot:

Colman received her bible in the 1880s, just as a revolution was happening. For 270 years, the Authorized Version had been the one signed off by companies of translators commissioned by King James VI & I and that was the text presented by Bagster. Now there was a Revised Version (RV). A New Testament appeared in 1881, a fullish Christian bible in 1885, and the deuterocanonical remnant in 1895.

Colman’s notes (pictured by Jay) show her logging changes where RV and King James Version differ.

On interleaving

Open bible. The left-hand page shows printed text in two columns. The facing page shows a plain paper insert with handwritten content.
An owner of this Geneva Bible had blank pages interleaved to increase the note-taking capacity and replace some missing pages. University of Sheffield RBR 220.52. (In the instance pictured, a passage from John has been written out in neat copperplate handwriting.)

At first I thought Bagster’s intent was to enable people to curate custom editions with versions of their choice interleaved. On further investigation, it seems he actually intended buyers to assemble a library of versions. Desk-space permitting, a reader could look up and compare multiple versions, confident that they had the equivalent passage of text open before them. 

It is nonetheless worth remembering that it was once standard to sell the printed matter of a book loose. Owners could then choose the quality and type of binding. Correctly folding large printed sheets to gather and then trim to size is complex. (See Sarah Werner’s blog for a quick impression.) Preparing and arranging printed sheets so as to end up with correctly aligned portions in two or more different languages adds another degree of complexity.  

Bagster specialised in bibles, and the Polyglot Versions were not his only innovation. Let me introduce you to his English Hexapla:

The English Hexapla

Bagster had built his reputation on fine, affordable, bibles. With the Hexapla, he imitated an ancient scholarly model.

Origen, an early Christian scholar (fl. 200-250CE), collected together six old versions of the Bible. By studying these in parallel, he could engage in informed debate about what the Bible said. It’s possible this was especially useful in arguments about the “true” significance of Hebrew scripture.

Origen lived in a Greek-speaking world, and was able to bring together Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures that predated the Jesus movement. They therefore provided information about how ambiguities had been resolved in an era before tensions with non-Christian Jewish interpreters made this more complex and freighted. (Naturally, Jewish and Christian interpretations of some passages came to differ, once the two groups realised what was at stake for their respective truth claims.)

Anyway, as 19th-century book-nerds grew interested in the history of translation and interpretation, Bagster spotted another gap in the monoglot market—by setting out passages from older English Bible translations in parallel columns, he created his own Hexapla. The Greek term means “six-fold”, so a Hexapla brings together six versions of the Bible. There was a scholarly introduction, explaining the history of the English texts involved.

The earliest was based on the manuscript versions circulated in association with John Wycliffe (d.1384), an early voice for church reform. Followers dubbed “lollards” by contemporaries (an insult, probably meaning “mumblers”) created enough unrest that bible translation was banned in England from 1408 onward, except with bishops’ permission (which was withheld). Manuscripts remained in the possession of wealthy households, nonetheless.

Next came Tyndale’s, which is our cue to acknowledge that this Hexapla did not offer a complete bible: by the time of his execution in 1536, William Tyndale had translated, published and revised the first 5 books of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some further translations (Joshua-Chronicles) appeared posthumously in the 1537 Matthew Bible.* And there’s also a Tyndale Jonah, but this need not preoccupy us as Bagster’s Hexapla was New Testament only.

In column 3 is “Cranmer’s” bible, the C of E’s first authorized version. Known also as the Great Bible (because it was big) and Whitchurch’s (after the publisher), this had been overseen by Miles Coverdale under state (royal & church) commission. For his 1535 bible, Coverdale relied heavily on Swiss scholarship (rather than e.g. merely recycle Tyndale). For the Great Bible he used the Matthew Bible and consulted Sebastian Munster’s two-volume (1534-5) diglot. More importantly, he avoided impolitic language creating a sufficiently moderate text for church use.

In fourth position is the Geneva Bible. Influenced by its French counterpart (and the Calvinism of the Genevan city), this was a study bible. Until this point, verses weren’t normally numbered. Suddenly it was much easier to cite and compare precise prooftexts. A New Testament appeared in 1557; later revisions followed. Bagster used a first edition Geneva.

Column 5 has the Rheims New Testament. By this point the English tides had turned: in 1557, the exiled were reformers, unwelcome in Mary’s Roman Catholic realm. But by 1582, English Catholics had taken their base abroad, with a college training up priests, based first in Reims and later in Douai (creating the Douai-Reims, or Douay-Rheims in historical spelling, bible). Its translator-annotators placed authority back in the Latin Vulgate and their English has a Latinate quality, and lots of pro-Rome argument.

The final column of Bagster’s Hexapla is given over to the 1611 text, which (as we know) remained the “Authorized Version” in Bagster’s own day. Its translators had been told to consult the versions of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, “Whitchurch” and Geneva, while taking a 1602 “Bishops Bible” as their starting point. The Bishops Bible (1568/revised 1572) had been the second authorised version, a rather higgledy-piggledy product and not enough to subjugate its provocative commercial rival, the Geneva Bible.

Note that the Rheims version was not on the approved list. Surviving records of the translators’ deliberations prove they ignored this unvoiced prohibition and conferred with the Catholic exiles’ text too. Bagster’s readers could make up their own minds.

And they didn’t have to learn a new language to do so. Though if they could also consult the Greek text at the head of each page, all the better.

View a digital facsimile of Bagster’s Hexapla here, courtesy of

*This is contested, but my own survey of Ruth corroborates the mainstream view that we have Tyndale’s work in this portion.

About the images:

The feature image at the top of this page is a photograph of Bagster’s 1841 Hexapla, from a copy in the holdings of Sheffield University Library (RBR Q 225.52). It was taken in preparation for the King James Bible anniversary exhibition at Sheffield Cathedral (May 2011), in which this book featured.

The photograph of an annotated late sixteenth-century Geneva Bible was taken in 2010; that copy then belonged to Alan Saxby, who has since donated it to the University of Sheffield. He had received it from a churchgoer, following a house clearance in Barnsley. 

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