The Printing of Bibles in 16th Century Antwerp

Report by Roy Damary on the paper given by Dr Guido Latré.

Early 16th Century, Europe was seething. Parts of Germany and Switzerland had accepted the Reformation, Charles V reigned over the Hapsburg Empire, a vast area and successor of the Holy Roman Empire. Within that Empire the cities had a great deal of independence, One such was Antwerp, which, although very much part of Charles' very Catholic empire, was quite tolerant to the activities of Protestants and fellow travellers.

At this time, Henry VIII, 'His Most Catholic Majesty', reigned over England. There, too, Protestant ideas were spreading, including the revolutionary concept of the bible being available in a language the people could understand. Future reformers, many of whom acquired senior positions in the English Church after its 1532 break with Rome, had, for their personal safety, to have an operating base outside England. One such was provided by Antwerp, which combined religious tolerance, a powerful printing industry, and intensive trade with England.

Some 5,000 English people lived in Antwerp at the time of its big trading fairs ('jaarmarkten'). English ships were constantly in the harbour, where they even had precedence over other craft for access to the quay and the crane. Amongst these 5,000 was William Tyndale. Chased out of England, he had studied Greek in England and possibly Hebrew in Germany where he had begun his NT translation. However, life in Germany was also precarious, so he moved to Antwerp where, apart from the tolerance of the city, there was a sufficiently strong emigre community including an 'English House', in which he could reside relatively safely. The printers' quarter was a mere 15 minutes walk away, and among them there was master-printer Marten de Keyser, actually a Frenchman called Martin l'Empereur. He was the printer of, among other works, Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man.

The safety of Antwerp was unfortunately only relative. Armsbearers of the Emperor captured Tyndale and Louvain theologians found him guilty of heresy (actually for his tracts rather than his bible translation). They put him in prison for more than a year in Vilvoorde (near Brussels), where he continued his work on the Old Testament, covering about half of it before his life was cut short by public execution. Mercifully he was strangled before being burnt at the stake. Yet his work lived on. Miles Coverdale produced the Coverdale Bible using much of Tyndale's work. Recent research conducted by our lecturer suggests that it, too, was probably first printed by Marten de Keyser.

In England, Henry VIII opened the gates to the Reformation by ordering the reading in churches of the Great Bible (1538-39). The Reformation proper (as distinct from the 'Break with Rome') did not take place till Henry's son Edward VI's reign from Easter 1540. Thus Tyndale's English words (which are present not only in the Great Bible but the Geneva Bible and then the Authorised Version) were heard by the whole country from ploughman to lord.

The emergence of the English nation is closely linked to the Reformation and to the establishment of a common language. Both are closely associated with Antwerp and to Tyndale's work. This observation led our lecturer to ask whether Antwerp might be considered the cradle of the English language and of the nation. He admitted such a claim was a little tongue in cheek, but, having introduced us to the Low Countries humanists, the Antwerp magistrates and printers, and the Antwerp 'nation' of English Merchant Adventurers, all of them stimulating and protecting Tyndale, he left us thinking that it is not entirely without foundation.


A more detailed description of the argument developed in this lecture is to be found in Guido Latré's The 1535 Coverdale Bible and its Antwerp Origins pp. 38 b,c,d and pp 89-102 which is in Orlaith O'Sullivan (ed) The Bible as Book: The Reformation London: the British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2000.


This publication has been accepted as establishing definitively the place of origin of what is arguably the most influential book ever published in the English language: The Coverdale Bible, which is largely Tyndale's work and which, in slightly adapted versions from 1538 onwards, exerted a profound influence on the formation of the English language and nation.

In the Exodus chapters of this Bible, there is an illustration of the Tabernacle in which the Dutch words occur (Oost, Suiid, Ijsachar). This had hitherto escaped the attention of the bibliographers, who were confused about the place of origin of this book (Zurich? Cologne? Marburg?). It now appears that both its preparation and its printing were done in Antwerp. The article gives an idea of the typographical circumstances allowing Coverdale, pupil of Tyndale, to print his Bible. The ground is now clear for a further investigation of the intellectual climate in which this monumental work originated (humanism, religious reform, and new 'Eurasian' linguistic and literary interpretations).

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