Print sure ain’t what it used to be

May 25, 2011

in Historical interest

Post image for Print sure ain’t what it used to be

This year sees the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.  Known as the Authorized Version, although it was never actually authorised by James I, it remains an icon of English print history.

The initial production of the Bible was carried out by one London print house, that of Robert Barker.  You would have thought that having sole rights to the Bible production would have meant healthy profits for Barker but the costs of printing folio Bibles required high investment and he had to raise around £3500 (about £400,000 in today’s money).  He raised the capital by selling stock cheaply and borrowing from two rival print houses, John Bill and Bonham Norton.  His plan was for each of the three printers to print different portions of the text, share the printed sheets and then split the proceeds.  Unfortunately the ‘business arrangement’ was dogged with disagreement and accusation – leading to litigation, fines and imprisonment; of which they’ll be more later.

There were numerous inconsistencies in the early editions, both between the three printers and within each house.  Some errors were in the original manuscripts but many were contributed the type compositors.  Apprentices commonly made errors in distributing the type, mixing ‘u’s and ‘n’s for example.  As the original printing was made before English spelling was standardised, printers as a matter of course, expanded and contracted the spelling of the same words in different places.  However there was one mistake that was probably deliberate and an indication of workplace tensions from having to work for hard taskmasters.  In Psalms 119 the line “princes have persecuted me with out cause” appears in early 1612 editions as “printers have persecuted me without a cause”.

As the demand increased for the Kings James Bible so the financial disagreements between the three printers began – Barker accusing Norton and Bill of concealing their profits while they in return accused Barker of selling the sheets that were meant for them as cheap partial Bibles for easy cash.  There followed decades of continual litigation and subsequent imprisonment for debt for members of the Barker and Norton dynasties.  This culminated with Robert Barker losing his tenure as the Kings Printer when it was discovered the word ‘not’ was missing from the seventh commandment; leading worshippers to be instructed with the phrase “thou shalt commit adultery”.  Barker claimed that the error was sabotage by his ex-partners Norton and Bill but he was sent to prison where he remained until his death in 1645.

This ‘limited’ edition was to be known as the ‘Wicked Bible’ and George Abbott, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for all of the copies to be cancelled and burned.   There are very few examples of the ‘Wicked Bible’ surviving today and are highly sort after by collectors.

Now whether you’re interested by the historical, political or technical issues of printing the early editions of the Authorized Version Bible we would ask you to remember – things are so much better nowadays!

In celebration of the 400 year anniversary Lambeth Palace are running an exhibition showcasing their collection, including a 1611 edition of the King James Bible.  Have a look at their website for ticket and opening time information.

The above image is from the title page to the 1611 first edition of the Authorized Version and reads:

Conteyning the Old Testament,
Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised,
by his Majesties speciall Comandement.
Appointed to be read in Churches.
Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie.

ANNO DOM. 1611 .”

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