Archaeology of the Book

Every copy of a rare book has its own unique story. Our recently discovered copy of the “Breeches Bible” is no exception! As a historical artefact, it embodies a fascinating record of use (and abuse) right up to the present day. This version of the Bible was published in Geneva in 1560 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.  The Bible was in English (based on a careful examination of the Hebrew and Greek  texts) and it became very popular in England. It was reprinted regularly, in more than 160 editions, right up to 1644.

Our copy looks a disaster on the outside! It has been used so much that it has started to disintegrate, however, therein lies its fascination. The Bible is still in its original binding (bindings were made to last in those days!) and its poor condition reveals the sixteenth-century bookbinder’s art. The cover is made of thick brown leather over cardboard boards. The leather is stamped with a decorative design in the centre, with evidence of gold-tooling,  and there remains parts of the metal clasps – it was once a very handsome book!  



 The texblock was sewn onto raised bands made of leather ties which were slotted into the boards, as is clearly revealed in the image on the right because the volume has lost its paste downs. The pages are very thumbed, curling at the edges and torn in some places. Continental paper was produced from linnen and is very strong, stable and acid free. Despite the heavy use, most of the pages of this Bible have stood the test of time remarkably well.  
The Bible is beautifully illustrated with woodblock prints which can only have enhanced its appeal to the common people. 
Because Bibles were in daily use and treasured as holy texts, they were also used for recording the owning family’s important events: births, marriages and deaths. Inscriptions on one page in the Book of Psalms of this Bible record the births of children of the Way family in the mid seventeenth century. We can only speculate as to what history has been lost with the destruction of the end papers and fly-leaves of this Bible!

The history of this Bible does not end in the seventeenth century. At some time during the twentieth century repairs to the torn pages were made using sellotape, with disastrous consequences. Over time the glue on sellotape becomes yellow and very sticky, leeching into the paper and leaving a permanent stain. Pages at the start an end of the Bible have been badly affected.

At some time, also probably during the twentieth century, the title page (which had obviously come loose) was glued onto a wooden board and possibly varnished, in a misguided attempt to preserve it. The glue/varnish used has turned a dark brown and has bonded the page onto the wood in such a way that it is now impossible to remove it. Thus the book and its title page are forever separated. The book is now in the hands of expert conservators. Although it is impossible to reverse most of the damage, hopefully the interventions made during the twenty first century will be kinder than those of the last century!

Title page of the "Breeches Bible" stuck to a wooden board


2 thoughts on “Archaeology of the Book

  1. Wonderful post and very exciting, thank you! The previous copies of Breeches Bibles I’ve seen have all been rebound, some several times and rebound with other religious texts, this is the first I’ve seen in its original binding. Are there any traces of text on the sheets of paper than make up the card covers? Do please post information of what the conservators find!

  2. So glad you find it exciting! It’s been great to find out so much about the Bible and its binding. As far as I remember there are no traces of any handwriting on the boards. The Bible is still with the conservators and I’m sure they will find out more! i’ll keep you updated.

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