Press Gleanings

Auction of Calvin Manuscripts

Report compiled by Valerie Offord

On 12 June this year Sotheby’s put up for auction in Paris two documents signed by Calvin from the collection of the well known Genevese Eynard family. This caused quite a stir not only because this type of manuscript had not appeared on the open market since 1982 but also because of the record prices they attained.

Lot 174, dated 23 January 1545, gives an account of Calvin’s appearance at the deathbed of a certain Jean Vachat and records the unfortunate man’s last utterances. Vachat`s suicide attempt, effected by slashing his stomach with a kitchen knife, was successful some agonizing hours later in spite of the barber’s attempt to repair the wound. As suicide was a very grave crime punishable by excommunication, Calvin – and this illustrates his humanity – sought to find a solution. The reformer, accompanied by the unfortunate man’s brother and a witness, Matthew de Geneston, went to Vachat and asked what had possessed him to carry out such a horrific deed. He replied that he had had enough and, according to the report of the incident written by Geneston and preserved in the Geneva State Archives (16th century Criminal Trials Collection), Vachat was suffering dreadfully and sought by using the knife to free himself from earthly life and all its pain. Calvin for his part carefully avoided terms which would condemn Vachat to instant excommunication and urged the unfortunate man to be consoled by the grace of God and prayed with him.

Prof. Irene Backus of the Institute for the History of the Reformation at the University of Geneva commented that she found it a significant document on two counts. Firstly, there are very few documents of this nature in existence and, secondly, it portrays Calvin as a caring person – a trait not always prominent or evident in the many studies about him!

Lot 175 concerned the justification of the condemning to death of Jacques Gruet by Calvin. Composed in May 1550 it was entitled Consultation théologique addressée au Sénat de Genève signed by Calvin. It is of enormous significance as Gruet was the first person Calvin asked to be condemned to death – the second, of course, was Michel Servet whose case is very well documented (see book review `Out of the Flames` elsewhere in this issue for the latest study of him). Jacques Gruet appears to have been a constant and irritating thorn in the Republic of Geneva’s side and therefore Calvin’s in particular. In 1546, in spite of being forbidden by the Consistoire, he danced at a wedding feast. The following year, and more seriously, he was suspected of placing posters on the walls of the Cathedral vilifying the protestant authorities - a very grave crime in the newly emerging city state. Neither the State Archives nor the manuscript department of the University of Geneva’s library were able to find the necessary funds to bid for these documents at the estimated reserve prices. In the event they went for record sums to the dealers Bernard Quaritch of London. The Jacques Gruet papers fetched 70`775 euros (109`325 francs) and the Jean Vachat suicide account was sold for 57`950 euros (89`390 francs).

The Geneva State Archivist, Catherine Santschi, expressed the hope that the sales would result in publications as it would be a shame if they simply ended up in a collector’s safe.

Sotheby’s Auctions Books and Manuscripts (on line catalogue June)
Le Temps 7 June 2003 Deux manuscrits de Jean Calvin risquent d`échapper à Genève.
Le Temps 17 June 2003 `Deux manuscrits de Calvin crèvent le plafond des enchères.

David composing the psalms, woodcut

David composing the Psalms - a woodcut from Historiarum Veteris Testamenti, Icones by Hans Holbein.

A ‘Strine Bible’

Report compiled by Valerie Offord

In the beginning was the word, and the word was “G’day! That’s how the New Testament might have begun if Jesus had been born Australian, according to an Australian author and broadcaster, Kel Richards, who has just completed a collection of favourite bible stories retold in Australian English.

To some, Australian English is a screech of tortured vowels and suppressed consonants parodied by “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” but to Kel Richards, author of “The Aussie Bible” (Well, bits of it anyway), it is a rich vein of regional idioms and unique slang expressions. He was inspired by last year’s Cockney Bible and the Surfers` Bible. Richards’ “The Aussie Bible” was backed by the Bible Society of New South Wales in an attempt to win new readers for some of the world’s best-known stories.

The Virgin Mary is `a pretty special Sheila` who wraps her nipper in a bunny rug, and tucks him up in a cattle-feed trough. Joe looks on. The Three Wise Men, `three eggheads from out east`, who go in search of the baby Jesus greet the infant king with ‘G’day Your Majesty’. This version of the Bible has the Good Samaritan attacked by `a bunch of bushrangers` while Australian Jesus describes those who build their houses on sand as `boofheads`.

The deviser, Kel Richards admitted to a Times journalist that he did not know what had inspired him to create the book by remarking `I don`t know if it was a brainwave, a seizure or a bad oyster.`

Church Times 6 June 2003,
Reuters Press Report (Sydney) 3 June 2003,
The Times July 2003

Prague Bible

Report compiled by Valerie Offord

A flood-damaged 500-year-old Czech Bible, regarded as one of the jewels of central European Christianity, has been saved by British and other experts in a painstaking restoration project using freezers and vacuums to bring it back to its former glory. The Bible is one of the most precious items among a vast array of books, manuscripts and ancient maps waterlogged after the David composing the Psalms - a woodcut from Historiarum Veteris Testamenti, Icones by Hans Holbein worst floods in 200 years swamped the Czech capital, Prague, in August 2002. The Bible was the first printed version of the scriptures in the Czech language and one of the first to appear in any Slavonic tongue. Known as the Prague or Kampa Bible and printed in 1488, it is classified as incunabula — a work from the earliest period of typography.

Each of the dozen Prague Bibles printed was unique because artists made hand-painted additions reminiscent of the illumination techniques used when Bibles were copied by hand by monks. The volume was one of thousands in Prague’s municipal library caught by the swiftly rising waters of the River Vltava.

The head of the Czech National Library’s conservation department, Jiri Vnoucek, said millions of items were soaked and the first task was to prevent further deterioration. He said “It was like being a civilian doctor who maybe sees two or three patients a day suddenly having to deal with thousands of patients on a battlefield, In an emergency, your first concern is to stop the bleeding.” Frozen food warehouses and vehicles were pressed into service to freeze the soggy documents to prevent rotting. However, conservationists had another problem — how to thaw and dry them out without causing further harm.

The British technique employed uses specially developed vacuum machines to package waterlogged items wrapped in materials that slowly absorb the moisture. A small version, which looks like a washing machine mated with a television, copes with most books. After repeated treatments the book is transferred to a gas bath of ethylene oxide to “kill” contaminants from the river water.

Mr Vnoucek, who had studied conservation techniques in Britain, said British experts phoned even before the floodwaters receded to offer help. The British Council paid for the first consignment of vacuum machines and for British specialists to train Czech colleagues. Jana Dvorakova has been restoring the damaged Bible since last February at the National Library’s depository as part of her final exams in conservation work and she hopes to have it ready this autumn.

However millions of pieces still await rescue and restoration. A Czech expert calculated that it would take one restorer working alone, 5000 years to repair the 20,000 rare books damaged at the Municipal Library. Dvorakova and Vnoucek admit that this is a daunting thought!

The Daily Telegraph 24 May 2003
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