A historian in the U.K. has discovered secret notes hidden in the text of England’s first printed bible.
Recent analysis of the Latin Bible, which was published in 1535 by Henry VIII’s printer, has revealed fascinating English annotations made during the 16th-century Reformation. The Reformation was a period of immense upheaval in England, which saw the Church of England break away from the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome.
Housed in the library of Lambeth Palace, which is the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bible is one of just seven surviving copies.
“We know virtually nothing about this unique Bible – whose preface was written by Henry himself – outside of the surviving copies,” said Eyal Poleg, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, in a press release.
Close inspection revealed that heavy paper had been pasted over blank parts of the Bible. “The challenge was how to uncover the annotations without damaging the book,” explained Poleg.
The historian brought in Graham Davis, a specialist in 3D x-ray imaging at the university’s School of Dentistry. The experts took two images in long exposure. For one image, a light sheet slid beneath the pages was turned on, for another, it was turned off.
The first image revealed all the annotations, scrambled with the printed text, while the second picture showed only the printed text. Davis wrote a piece of software to “subtract” the second image from the first, revealing a clear picture of the annotations, which are written in English.
“The annotations are copied from the famous ‘Great Bible’ of Thomas Cromwell, seen as the epitome of the English Reformation,” explained the university, in its press release. “Written between 1539 and 1549, they were covered and disguised with thick paper in 1600.”
Poleg said that the annotations support the idea that the Reformation was a gradual process. “Until recently, it was widely assumed that the Reformation caused a complete break, a Rubicon moment when people stopped being Catholics and accepted Protestantism, rejected saints, and replaced Latin with English,” he explained. “This Bible is a unique witness to a time when the conservative Latin and the reformist English were used together, showing that the Reformation was a slow, complex, and gradual process.”
Poleg’s research also uncovered a handwritten transaction between two men on the back page of the book. The transaction states that James Elys Cutpurse of London promised to pay William Cheffyn of Calais 20 shillings, or would go to the notorious Marshalsea prison. Subsequent research conducted by Poleg revealed that Cutpurse was hanged in July 1152.
In medieval English, Cutpurse means ‘pickpocket’.
“Beyond Mr Cutpurse’s illustrious occupation, the fact that we know when he died is significant," said Poleg. "It allows us to date and trace the journey of the book with remarkable accuracy – the transaction obviously couldn’t have taken place after his death."
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