by Olivia Lardner, Bolton Cataloguer
The Bolton Library’s copy of the breeches Bible (London : Christopher Barker, 1580) – the English language Bible produced by reformers in exile in the city of Geneva – may not be perfect, lacking as it does its title page and all to leaf A1, leaves 345-346 and the divisional title, but it has other offerings unlikely to be seen in other copies.
Its binding, for instance, is quite unusual.
Fashioned in goatskin in a dark green colour, the blind-tooled1 decoration gracing its covers and spine is quite amateur in appearance.
The spine, equally simple, is divided into three compartments. The centre compartment bears an empty double lozenge. At the top appears a small single lozenge, while at the tail is found a curious ‘ace of spades’ or sailboat shape, or a lozenge with a foot.
A date for the binding cannot be posited by this cataloguer, as this is the first example of this type of decoration she has ever seen, but an assumption of place of binding as Italy or one of its closest neighbours could be made. The use of goatskin was uncommon in European bookbinding before the 16th century, when the practice began to make its way from the Middle East into southern Europe.4
This 1580 edition was printed in London in glorious black letter by Christopher Barker (1529-1599), official printer to the court of Elizabeth I.5
Markings old and new
Scattered throughout the text, such as here on leaves 319 and 434, are the signatures and markings of John and Richard Bucknall
… with often poignant notes inside:
The explanatory label inside the front cover is possibly a 19th century addition in the hand of de facto librarian at Cashel Henry Cotton (1789-1879),6 but further research on this would be required.
During the latter years of Henry 8th this the first English Bible with notes and references was prepared by Miles Coverdale, then Bishop of Exeter, assisted by his brother Edward & Messrs. Whittingham & Colly. on the decease of Henry & the accession of Mary. These parties were compelled to leave England, and flying to Zurich there prepared for the press this edition. They returned to England on the accession of Elizabeth, and this Bible was then published. – The notes having a strong leaning to the teaching and doctrine of Calven & Beza, it became the favourite version with the English Puritans & Scotch Presbyterian clergy. – about one hundred and fifty of this version has been published, being the greatest number of any edition then extant.
So why is it called the breeches Bible you might ask. Simply because the word ‘breeches’ appears in Genesis 3.7, used to describe the garments fashioned for themselves out of fig leaves by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness.
This description first appeared in the Geneva Bible7 and persisted well into the era of the King James version. It has since been replaced by ‘aprons’, ‘girdles’, ‘loincloths’…
Incidentally, it was the strong Calvinist tone of the increasingly popular Geneva Bible which accelerated the preparation of the King James Bible, although the Geneva Bible did bring a much welcome order to the work by using verse divisions for the first time.9
In case you are interested, we also have a copy of the bug Bible, but that is a topic for another day.
- Decoration impressed onto binding material without the use of colour or leaf.
- A repeated diamond pattern.
- CoOL, Conservation Online.
- CERL Thesaurus, CERL.
- Archdeacon Henry Cotton (1789-1879).
- Geneva Bible, Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Darlow, T.H. & Moule, H.F. (1903). Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Reprint ed. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, vol. 3, p. 705. Find it here.
- Higman, F. (2007). ‘The Genevan context of the Geneva Bible’, in The Tyndale Society Journal, 32, pp. 8-27, available here.