Antwerp Conference Paper 2002

The 1530 and 1534 French Bibles:
Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Martin Lempereur

A Synopsis of a paper given in French

Jean-François Gilmont

Jean-François Gilmont is currently Conservator and Emeritus Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain. He specializes in the history of the book and of reading, especially the books of the Reformation and their importance in expanding it. He has written about the publisher Jean Crespin and on the publications of Jean Calvin.

Two main actors were involved in the production of the French Bible in Antwerp: Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Martin Lempereur, and also several institutions: the Faculties of Theology of the University of Paris and of Louvain, as well as the City of Antwerp.

Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (1455/60 - 1536)
A mediaeval university professor, Lefèvre discovered Humanism in Italy. After publishing numerous editions of Aristotle, he turned to religious subjects. From 1507, he began to concentrate on the study of the Bible and published a critical edition of Latin versions of the Psalms.

As a major participant, with Guillaume Briçonnet, in the pastoral renovation of the Diocese of Meaux, he wanted the people to have a direct contact with Scripture. He published a French New Testament in 1523, followed in 1525 by a lectionary for preaching in the Diocese entitled the Epistles and Gospels for the 52 weeks of the year in 1525. But the Meaux reformers were soon accused of being Lutheran heretics. Lefèvre went into exile in Strasbourg for a while, but finally returned to France under the protection of King Francis I and his sister Marguerite of Navarre.

Lefèvre never made a clear choice for or against the Reform. He favoured a number of Protestant ideas, but he was a man of tradition who could not bring himself to leave the Church once and for all. An old man, he died soon enough to keep his dream intact.

His translation of the Bible was begun as a pastoral tool and aimed at giving all Christians access to God’s Word. He began with the New Testament (1523) and published the Psalms the year after. These first editions came from Paris. Surprisingly for a humanist, his translation was based not on the original Greek and Hebrew but on the Latin of the Vulgate. This can be seen as a sign of his respect for the mediaeval tradition which knew only this version. If it was an attempt to pacify the Faculty of Theology in Paris, which was highly critical of Erasmus and his new Latin translation of the New Testament, it was a failure.

The refusal of the Faculty of Theology in Paris
Since the Middle Ages, the Faculties of Theology, above all Paris, had considerable authority over matters of orthodoxy. But Paris was not the only university with a Theology Faculty. In the case of biblical translations, the Sorbonne had a completely negative attitude. The doctors blackballed Lefèvre’s efforts. Beginning in 1525, all French translations of the Bible were forbidden - thus causing a break in my story.

Martin Lempereur or De Keyser
In that very year (1525), the French printer Martin Lempereur (or De Keyser) set up shop in Antwerp, certainly in the hope of enjoying a greater degree of liberty and, perhaps, with Lefèvre’s encouragement. He quickly became Antwerp’s most productive printer, specializing in Lutheran and Erasmian works. This was possible because of the more relaxed religious atmosphere in then Low Countries in general, and in Antwerp in particular.

Orthodoxy in the Low Lands under Charles V
In the Low Countries, Charles V and the Faculty of Theology at Louvain had different conceptions of the Bible translations. While they forbade translations with heretical commentary, they had nothing against good translations. Books were examined, but from a more liberal viewpoint. So, Martin Lempereur was permitted to publish French Bibles with the authorization of the Inquisitor and under a privilege from the Emperor.

Antwerp, land of liberty?
Lempereur went beyond the limits of orthodoxy established by the authorities. He took advantage of the climate of freedom in Antwerp, a major commercial centre and a rapidly growing city. The civil authorities were preoccupied by matters of economic development rather than by theology. They put up with dubious publications, at least as long as the printers avoided scandal.

Martin Lempereur printed books in several languages: Latin, Dutch, French, English, and some of these texts were critical of traditional Christianity. However, he generally steered clear of frontal attacks on the Church - except in his English publications. He was not always eager to have his name associated with his publications, as can be seen from the numerous fictitious names he used to disguise the origin of the printing house.

The First French Bibles
Between 1528 and 1532, Martin Lempereur published a French translation of the Old Testament in 5 small volumes. In 1530, he put on sale a complete folio French Bible. This edition was revised and corrected for a new folio edition in 1534. As in the case of the 1525 New Testament, this Bible is a translation of Jerome’s Vulgate text. In 1530, there are a few places where the text was amended to conform with the Greek or Hebrew. This tendency is considerably enhanced in the 1534 edition. Lempereur made use of Robert Estienne’s 1532 Latin text. The 1534 edition also added marginal notes, drawing attention to the variations between the Vulgate and the original texts. Both of these Bibles were illustrated, which situates them clearly in the mediaeval and Lutheran traditions.

The religious authorities spotted the differences between the two folio editions. The 1534 edition, but not the early one, ended up on the Louvain Index.

Who was behind the Paris and Antwerp editions?
None of the editions just mentioned contains the name of Lefèvre d’Etaples. Traditionally, the partial versions and the complete 1530 translation have been attributed to him. There are serious reasons to believe that is the case for the Paris editions. Furthermore, it is certain that he was involved in making a complete translation of Bible.

However, the authorship of the Antwerp Bibles is problematic, especially those passages which are based on the original Greek or Hebrew. It is possible that Lefèvre’s version was in fact the work of a group under his responsibility, as was the case in some of his other undertakings. In addition, one wonders how he could control the work being done in Antwerp after he had taken refuge in Blois and later in Nerac. A certain responsibility must surely be given to the shop of Martin Lempereur and indeed our evangelical printer specifically mentioned the great costs that these editions entailed. These French Bibles have certainly not revealed all their secrets. They warrant a closer study and may yield further information on Martin Lempereur.

The 1530 and 1534 editions are the first complete versions of the Bible in French. They were put to use by Olivétan and later translators, and have thus left their mark on the entire tradition of French Bibles. The product of two Frenchmen, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Martin Lempereur, these Bibles could not have come to fruition without the religious policy of Charles V and of the Faculty of Theology of Louvain, and the liberal atmosphere of early 16th-century Antwerp.

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