In April, Helen Moore, Fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, spoke about the history of the King James translation at the Harry Ransom Center. The talk is now online on YouTube.
Moore was lead curator of Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, an exhibition held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 2011. Her illustrated talk addressed the role played by Oxford in the translation of the King James Bible, the methods used by the translators, and some of the items displayed at the Oxford exhibition.
The event was co-sponsored by Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford and The Wall Street Journal.
The title page of the 1611 King James Bible is the first title page of an English Bible to feature a depiction of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though this Bible is traditionally called the “King James,” the title page does not announce the king’s patronage by featuring his image.
The imposing architectural frame, suggestive of a church edifice, is full of human figures, including Moses and Aaron, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. Traditionally, Jesus had twelve Apostles, but the thirteen depicted here include Matthias, who replaced Judas after his betrayal (Acts 1:26), and Paul, who described himself as an Apostle in Romans 1. Each apostle is represented by a symbolic attribute, though not all are easily identifiable.
Helen Moore, a fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about the history of the King James Bible translation. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Moore’s interdisciplinary research has been founded on bringing neglected texts back to academic attention. She was lead curator of Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, the exhibition held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 2011 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the translation of the King James Bible. Moore and Julian Reid co-edited Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, the book that accompanied its associated exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library and now at the Ransom Center.
In this video, Moore and other scholars discuss the challenging task that the translators of the King James Version faced.
This event is co-sponsored by Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford and The Wall Street Journal.
In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.
In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from the King James Version translators’?
For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.
In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?
Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.
With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?
Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.
“Eat, drink, and be merry.” “The skin of our teeth.” “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Phrases from the King James Bible are so thoroughly integrated into our language that we often don’t think about their origins. In conjunction with today’s opening of the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, co-Curator Danielle Brune Sigler explores the translation’s influence on works ranging from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert De Niro’s tattoos in Cape Fear.
In elementary school, my class took a field trip to the main branch of the Houston Public Library. We learned how to use the microfilm machines, and I was allowed to look up the front page of the newspaper from the day I was born. I still remember the “Ransom Recovered” headline, a reference to the Patty Hearst case, something about which I knew absolutely nothing.
That moment sitting in front of a microfilm reader is as vivid to me now as it was 30 years ago. Suddenly, there was an entire world before me. I had discovered the appeal of research and of primary source materials. I certainly wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time. I just knew that I had found something new and interesting that suggested limitless possibility.
That love of research ultimately led me to the Ransom Center. And appreciating the value of using primary source materials in the classroom has inspired the Ransom Center’s teacher workshops.
For the last five years, the Center has offered seminars for teachers on topics ranging from the 1920s to Watergate. These workshops provide the Ransom Center with the opportunity to share collections with educators from around the state who can then take their experiences and digital materials back to the classroom and their students. Local teachers can also follow up by bringing their students to tour the exhibitions.
This spring, the Ransom Center will be hosting two workshops related to the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence. The first workshop will examine the historical influence of the King James translation and is designed for social studies teachers at the junior high and high school levels, while the second workshop will focus on the King James Bible’s literary influence and is designed for language arts teachers at the junior high and high school levels.
A grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, made these workshops possible. Thanks to their support, teachers will leave the workshop with a copy of Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611–2011, an edition of the King James Bible, and digital images from the Center’s collections to use in their classrooms.
By supporting the work of local educators, we hope to foster the next generation of scholars and help students understand how vital the care and preservation of our cultural heritage is.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
In the four centuries since its printing, the King James Bible has influenced much of the English-speaking world in its history and culture. In a collaboration between the Harry Ransom Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Bodleian Library, an exhibition has been launched that tells the little-known story of this influential work. From today through January 15, the Folger will present Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. This exhibition will present the history leading up to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, the process of translating the book, and finally, its influence on English-speaking cultures from the seventeenth century until today. View a video preview of the exhibition.
An online exhibition accompanies the physical exhibition and provides a series of multimedia presentations concerning the history of the King James Bible, as well as many interactive resources that can be accessed online that are meant to supplement the exhibition and to prepare guests prior to visiting the Folger.
After its time at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the exhibition will travel to the Ransom Center, where it will be presented as The King James Bible: Its History and Influence and include additional material from the Center’s collecions. The exhibition will be on display at the Ransom Center from February 28 through June 2, 2012.
The Manifold Greatness project is jointly produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford, with assistance from the Ransom Center.
Among the Harry Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Bibles is a 1638 edition of what is arguably the single most influential English translation of the Bible, the King James Bible. This Bible’s front and back covers are embroidered with a nativity scene in silk and silver thread on linen. Mary, seated and holding the infant Jesus, is the most imposing and central figure in the scene. At her feet are the three Magi presenting gifts to the Christ child, while Joseph, clad in a red-and-white striped costume, stands behind her. At the bottom of the front cover is embroidered the Latin word “obtulerunt” (they offered), and on the back, “adoraverunt” (they adored), terms that refer not only to the actions of the Magi, but also, perhaps, to the devotional work of the embroiderer.
The book’s binding provides several clues about the embroiderer’s identity. The embroiderer would most likely have been a female member of a wealthy family who could have afforded the luxury goods of silk and silver with which the book was covered. Though there were professional male embroiderers at this time, embroidery was a formative component of girls’ education, and women were the main producers of embroidered household furnishings in wealthy households, including cushion covers, bed hangings, clothing, and book covers.
Through her embroidery, too, she would have participated in the seventeenth-century debate over needlework’s role in women’s education. Many contemporary writers praised needlework’s role in shaping women’s virtue, claiming that it kept women from idleness and talking too much. For example, a popular seventeenth-century pattern book, The Needle’s Excellency, begins with a poem by John Taylor called “The Praise of the Needle”:
And for my Countries quiet, I should like,
That Women-kinde should use no other Pike [i.e., needle].
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more.
The Needles sharpenesse, profit yields, and pleasure,
But sharpnesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.
But women’s needlework also troubled early modern moralists because it encouraged women to aspire to the more “manly” virtues of artistic creation and public display. Others, however, saw the private and public faces of needlework not in opposition but as a continuum. Hannah Wolley, a writer of household manuals, recommended that women wear clothing they had worked themselves as public signs of their skill and virtue. And still others explicitly perceived needlework as authorship. The tomb of Dame Dorothy Selby (ca. 1572–1641), for example, describes her as a woman:
Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.
The needle, then, was also seen as a tongue or a pen with which women could participate in public dialogue with and about the world. Mary’s prominence in this Bible’s embroidered scene, for example, is no accident. The most popular sources of pictorial embroidery in the seventeenth century were Biblical stories of heroic and virtuous women. That the intimate and domestic nativity scene on the cover of this Bible is also one of public worship by the Magi makes it a fitting representation of the simultaneously private and public roles of domestic needlework and its maker.
The embroiderer of the Ransom Center’s 1638 Bible would also have been someone of artistic sensibility. Placing the family against a background of silver thread recalls the painterly practice of situating holy figures against a metallic background to highlight their otherworldly qualities. The flowers and leaves on the spine are examples of raised work, a very popular embroidery style in the seventeenth century. Its three-dimensional effect is part of the contemporary trend towards textured effects in other artistic media. We welcome readers’ advice in identifying the particular stitch this embroiderer used here.
Finally, thanks to the numerous marks of ownership inside the book, we may even know the needlewoman’s last name. Written on verso of the title page to New Testament is the inscription: “John Sleigh, Inner Temple. 12 Nov AD 1850.” Written inside back cover is the note: “James Sleigh ye sonne of Hugh Sleigh was born ye 26th [?] day of Jany 1688.” And inside the front cover is pasted in a hand-drawn shield that includes the arms of the Sleigh family of Derbyshire, England.
This artifact’s text, annotations, and decoration thus combine to enrich our understanding of women, domestic life, economics, reading practices, art, religion, and material culture in seventeenth-century England.
Brooks, Mary M. English Embroideries of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2004.
Jewitt, Llewellyn, ed. The Reliquary, vol. 7. London: Bemrose & Lothian and John Russell Smith, 1866-7.
Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. “The needle and the pen: needlework and the appropriation of printed texts.” In Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Morrall, Andrew, and Melinda Watt, eds. English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature. New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: Women’s Press, 1984.
Click on thumbnails for larger images.
Image: The Holy Bible, HRC BS 185 1638 L5 1638. Printed by Robert Barker, London, 1638. Size: ca. 6 x 3.5 in. Cover materials: silk and silver thread on linen.