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The Printing of a Literary Landmark

October 23, 2017

Printing and Publishing in 16th Century England - a Crown Sanctioned Monopoly

 

A handful of wealthy businessmen owed the exclusive rights to print certain classes of books. These exclusive rights were called "patents," "licenses" or "privileges."

Books like the ABS's (and other books on grammar), the Psalms, and "Foxes Book of Martyrs" were very valuable "privileges" to own because they had mass appeal and a subject matter that could be sold year in and year out.

However, the single most valuable and by far the greatest "privilege" for any printer was that of the Bible. It was the perpetual "Best Seller," but the cost of production was enormous. Especially the printing of a new edition.

 

The "Burden" of a Lifetime Monopoly

 

The first edition of the King James Bible was printed by Robert Barker "Printer to the King's most Excellent Majestie" at the Barker family print shop in St. Paul's Churchyard, London.

In 1599, Robert barker was granted the Bible "patent" for life by Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII). 

It was a patent that was actually passed on to him by his father, Christopher, who had been printing copies of the Geneva and Bishop's Bibles (two of the 6 major English Bibles that preceded the King James).

All went well until the appearance of the King James or "Authorized Version" of the Bible. It was newly translated out of the original tongues and was probably welcomed by young Robert as a project with unlimited potential.

But the cost of production, both personally and economically was staggering. 

 

The Requirements of the First Edition

 

1.  This new Bible contained 774,746 words. There were millions of pieces of metal type that had to be hand set.

2. Barker didn't have the luxury of printing from an already printed document. Each Page had to be typeset from a hand written manuscript. Therefore, it had to be proof read, revised and checked again and again. 

3. It required approximately 2 tons of hand made paper (which Barker had to buy from Spielman's mill).

4. In addition to the large folio size for distribution to churches, it had to be printed in smaller sizes also.

5. Most importantly, each copy was expected to be produced - WITHOUT ERROR! An error in a Bible is thousands of time more serious than an error in any other book because men's immortal souls are at stake!

 

 

"I do yet groan under the burden of this book."

 

So wrote Robert Barker in 1609 even as he was sending out proofs to be checked. The monumental project soon sapped all his wealth causing him to ease the burden by borrowing money from Bonham Norton and John Bill.

As part of the deal, Norton and Bill were to hold the patent for a year. However, at year's end, Norton refused to yield the patent.

Barker lost the patent in 1617 only to regain and share it with Bill until 1621 when Norton again took over.

Barker sued Norton for control and after a nine year struggle finally settled with him by paying £8,000 to regain the privilege in 1629. 

 

 

The "Wicked" Bible

 

Norton was furious. He was wealthy, manipulative and ruthless.

It is suspected that Norton bribed workmen in Barker's shop to omit the word "not" in the 7th commandment of Barker's 1631 edition of the King James Bible. This rendered the passage "Thou shalt commit adultery!"

Obviously, such a soul damning injection could not be tolerated and so the bibles were ordered to be recalled and burned.

The whole affair spelled financial ruin for Barker who, in 1634 was forced to lease his premises, equipment and even the patent itself to three men even more devious than Norton.

 

A Remarkable Achievement

 

In spite of the cloud that hung over the business side of the King James Bible the translation itself remains "The Noblest Monument of English Prose." It contained over 1400 pages, weighed nearly 20 pounds and was almost 5" thick!

The First Edition is referred to as a Pulpit Bible because it was produced in a large size and was "appointed to be read in the churches" from the pulpit.

It's production was remarkable in that the process and printing methods were virtually unchanged since the invention of printing with moveable type 155 years earlier.

Every tool, every piece of paper, each piece of type, each engraved headpiece and ornamental letter was made entirely by hand. The process was extremely time consuming, labor intensive and very expensive.

 

Every Page is a Work of Art

 

Individual pieces of metal type were placed into a metal frame called a "chase" to form the reverse image of the page it was transferred to.

Obviously, the typesetter had to layout each page - in reverse!

Once the type was set, the chase was placed upon a moveable bed and hand inked. A piece of paper was set in a wooden holder and placed over the type. Both were then slid under a flat plate called a "platten" attached to a large screw.

The platten was then screwed down forcing the paper onto the inked type.

The screw was then released; the bed slid out and the newly printed page was removed and allowed to air dry.

 

An Engraver at his work 

 

Every ornamental headpiece and ornate letter was hand cared into wood blocks. The original title page was etched into a copper plate by Cornelius Boel, a master engraver from Antwerp, Belgium.

The entire production of the First Edition was a painstakingly slow process that required expert care, organization and workmanship. Each page is a true work of art!

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