A Danish Biblical Encounter

A chance meeting with Peter Raes in a Genevan church led to my being sent his interesting book entitled På sporet af gamle bibler. Now I am fully aware that our Society members possess many linguistic talents but I suspect this particular 1995 Danish publication (On the track of old Bibles) has not been on their reading lists. Fortunately for me the author had thoughtfully incorporated a short summary of his main thesis in English. Thus it was that I discovered that early Danish Bibles, particularly the 1550 translation authorized by Christian III, helped form the Danish language. This is, of course, a very familiar argument which we have heard employed by historians and linguists when speaking of the English translation of Tyndale, the German translation of Luther, the French translation of Calvin, and so on.

There had been previously successful Danish translations of the New Testament in 1524 and 1529 as well as various books of the Old Testament but what really brought fine, plain, understandable Danish out to the common man were the new church folio Bibles of 1550, 1589 and 1633. By royal decree, Christian III’s 1550 Bible, based mainly on Lutheran Bibles, was ordered to be bought by and read in every parish in the realm; very similar to Henry’s decree of 1540 in England. It took many years for this goal to be reached as the geographical area was large - Denmark’s possessions at that time included all of Norway, southern Sweden and, in practice, Iceland - and the economic burden on local parish finances was considerable. However, this Lutheran Bible translated into Danish came eventually to be widely owned and used.

Production was rather slow. The whole tone, layout and illustrations of the 1550 Bible are very German; indeed the printer was Ludwig Dietz, a German from Rostock. Dietz won the contract on the strength of his having produced the 1534 Low German Bible and because, at that time, there were no printing houses in Denmark large enough to undertake the project. He brought with him not only his German compositors and apprentices but also the complicated printing equipment (presses, type and matrices). All this was essential for to print an edition comprising 3000 folio Bibles of 552 leaves each. Paper had already been ordered and delivered from Holland and had long since been in storage at Elsinore, waiting for the translation to be finished and fair copies made. Another factor in the delay was the difficulty in finalizing the business agreements.

The author estimates that the number of copies still in existence is in the region of 250. He has personally traced 163 copies in the whole of Scandinavia and in the leading libraries of Northwest Europe. He remarks that nearly all of them were in poor condition and only about 15 were complete.

By the 1580s this Christian III edition was out of print. Thirty-eight years later a new revised edition of the Danish church Bible was published in Copenhagen by Mads Vingaard. The king, Frederik II, wanted the text of the previous translation revised and augmented with Luther’s and Veit Dieterich’s summaries. This beautifully produced edition with numerous woodcuts, considered the greatest achievement of Danish 16th century printing, was finally completed in 1589. It is not certain how many copies were produced but probably between 2000 and 3000. After some 30-40 years of constant use in church these became very worn and the then king, Christian IV, initiat-ed the production of another Bible which was printed in 1632-33. His bishops and university professors advised him to publish a quarto edition which would have been more convenient to use and much cheaper but the king would have none of it and opted for a full folio size very similar to Frederik II’s edition.

The author also discusses Icelandic Bibles. The earliest, Gudbrand’s Bible, was printed in 1584 at Hoolum in the far north of the island. This was no mean feat considering the distance from necessary materials to undertake the project - England, Denmark and the German States - as well as the primitive working conditions and lack of native expertise. Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlakson had clearly studied the Danish Christian III Bible whilst in Copenhagen and gathered enough knowledge and contacts to be able to carry out the printing in Iceland. Some 500 Bibles were printed each of 621 leaves with title pages and illustrations of German origin. A royal decree of 1579 stated that a copy was to be bought by every church on the island.

This study by Peter Raes focuses our attention on the fact that vernacular Bibles were being produced during the 16th century all over Europe often drawing on the expertise and know-how of the estab-lished printing centres in England, Germany and the Low Countries.

Compiled by Valerie Offord March 2001


Raes, Peter E. På sporet af gamle bibler. Akademisk Forlag, Denmark 1995.

Valid XHTML 1.0!