Danish and Icelandic Folio Bibles, 1550-1728

Presented by © Peter Raes

My friend, Paul Rosendahi, and I are calling this talk a causerie because it is -obvious that 50 minutes is far too short a time to treat in depth such an enormous subject as the translation and production of 6 folio bibles from Greek, Latin and especially German into 16th and 17th century Danish and Icelandic. First we will give you an overall picture of the growing demand for bibles in the vernacular — similar in many ways to the situation in England under Henry VIII and, later, James I — and follow this with discussing some details off the problems involved in the production of these 6 folio bibles, with our own experiences in bible collecting and in doing research in the field of Scandinavian bible history. In fact, it will be more of a Bibliophile occasion than a linguistic or theological discussion. We will be concentrating, therefore, on the historical side of the actual printing of these bibles, their distribution and their subsequent provenances as books.

Why only Danish and Icelandic bibles? Partly, of course, to limit the field, but also because Norway and Iceland were under Danish sovereignty at the time; the Icelandic, though, being a different, if related language, needed its own translation and editions — all 3 Icelandic bibles being printed close to the Arctic Circle in the far north of the island, an amazing feat. Sweden was often at war with Denmark and anyway had its own king, language and fine bibles, whereas Finland had a completely different culture and language.

In 1550-51, the so-called Christian III folio bible, based mainly on the first Lutheran bibles from Germany was produced. This was, by royal decree, ordered to be bought by and read in every parish church in the realm, very similar to Henry VIII's decree of 1540 in England. Though it took many years for this goal to be reached, the Lutheran bible translated into Danish eventually became widely used and Christian III's admiration for and personal contact with Luther began bearing fruit. The whole tone, layout and illustrations are very German. Indeed the printer of this 1550 bible was Ludwig Dietz, a German from Rostock, who won the contract for this considerable undertaking on the strength of his 1534 Low German bible. At that time there were no printing presses in Denmark large enough to manage its production, so Dietz brought with him not only his German compositors and apprentices but also the complicated printing equipment, especially his presses, type and matrices, necessary for an edition of 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.

Good copies of this bible are comparatively rare on the market nowadays. I have traced only 173 copies in the whole of Scandinavia and the leading libraries of Northwest Europe, nearly all of which are in poor condition — not surprising for a much-used book — and only 10-15 of these are complete. Perhaps another 100 copies have eluded my enquiries, hardly more. Paul Rosendahl will later be telling you more about this important bible.

Only 38 years later a Danish printer, Mads Vingaard, printed in Copenhagen a new, revised edition of the Danish church bible, as the Christian III edition had by then long been out of print and many churches lacked a copy. This time the King, Frederik II, wanted the text of the previous translation revised and augmented with both Luther's commentaries and the theologian Veit Dieterich's summaries. As it happened the King died in 1588 and 'his' bible was not finished until 1589, taking about 18 months to produce. Again it was a massive undertaking, 762 folio-sized leaves, numerous woodcuts based on Virgil Solis's illustrations in a German 1560 bible, wide woodcut borders, fine new woodcut title-pages, and a copperplate portrait of the King, not to mention a standard thick, heavy wooden binding usually covered with dark brown or black ox-hide; altogether an impressive feat of, for those days, modem technology and mass production. The edition ran to between 2 and 3 thousand copies. No one knows exactly how many. The quality of the paper was rather inferior but adequate until the 1620s and 30s by which time many copies were, after 30-40 years' constant use in church, very worn. This resulted yet again in there being a demand for a new church bible.

This time the bishops and university professors advised Christian IV, Frederik's son, to publish a smaller, more convenient Quarto edition; it would also be much cheaper. He would have none of it. He was not going to be outshone by his forebears so he ordered magnificent new title pages and royal portrait — in full folio size! Differences between this new edition and Frederik II's are few, for both the type and all illustrations in the text are the same. Christian IV's edition ran to 2000 copies, consisting of 764 leaves, 2 more than his father's. Production of these great bibles took a great deal of time to carry through, so that we find that in all three cases something like 1 1/2 years were taken up just for the printing and binding of the editions. Christian III's bible is, for example, dated 1550 on the title page but was first bound ready for sale in late July 1551; Frederik II's has 1588 in the colophon to the Old Testament but 1589 elsewhere. Similarly Christian IV's has 1632 in the colophons but 1633 as the publishing date. The original price of this last folio bible was 7 riksdaler, the equivalent of a good ox or 15 acres of rye, reduced by 1649 to 4 daler as demand had by then petered out.

Up to now I have been able to track down and register 243 copies of Frederik II's bible, of which only 18 can be called complete. Of Christian IV's bible some 200 copies have come to light in Scandinavia, many of them in good condition but still only about 20 complete. As so often, it is the first and last pages that are usually missing, exposed as they are to most wear and tear, damp and bookworm.

In the remaining time I would just like to focus briefly on the details of bible printing in Iceland. The three editions of folio bibles were all produced at Hoolum or Hólar in 1584, 1644 and 1728. The first of them, called Gudbrand's bible, was largely based on the Danish Christian III's translation and was printed in 500 copies — the bishop Gudbrandur Thorlákson being both promoter, publisher, part-translator and part-printer. Some 30 surviving copies of this early bible have been tracked down in recent years by Dean Ragnar Lárusson of Reykjavik.

The second bible was published and printed in Hoolum in 1644 by Bishop Thorlákur Skúlason, so being known as Thorlaks bible. It had only 4 woodcuts, resembled its predecessor in many ways, was again an edition of 500 copies but took all of seven years to produce. 37 copies have been traced in Iceland, 15 of these being complete.

The last of these folios appeared in 1728, called Steinn's bible and once more was produced by a bishop in Hoolum in Hialltadal, Steinn Jónsson. It was not a success as the translation was an awkward mixture of styles. Of the 1000-1500 copies printed some 125 survive today in Iceland.

Editor's Notes

The Speaker mounted a small exhibition of folio bible leaves to illustrate the talks. He also kindly offered original single leaves of the 1589 Frederik II folio bible for sale donating the proceeds to the expenses of the Conference. The organising committee is very grateful for this generous gesture.

Valid XHTML 1.0!