RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
10 April 2011
Collecting early bibles in English 2
Price guide $3,000 - $2m
The first versions of the Bible in English were manuscripts created from the 1380s by Dr John Wycliffe (1328 - 84 ), a professor of theology at Oxford University, and his followers. Wycliffe’s main gripe was with the unethical practices of the Church, such as indulgences and relics, and with its stout resistance to any version of the scriptures being available to English readers. For his attempts to remedy this failing he managed somehow to escape the horrible fate of those Tudor theologians who were to follow his example, but the Pope exacted a kind of revenge 44 years after his death by ordering his bones to be exhumed, crushed and scattered in the English Channel.
A later follower, Jan Hus, a Czech theologian and dissident, was not so lucky. In 1415 he was burned at the stake for his support of Wycliffe’s teachings, and it has been reported that some copies of the offending bibles were used as kindling. One would rather like to know how many of these manuscripts were produced over the years and how many survived the flames. Presumably, those copies distributed originally by Wycliffe and his helpers were read in private and then secreted away, so a few must have survived. Until very recently, the Great Site ( of the Bible Museum Inc) boasted that it had a single copy for sale at over $1m. This has now gone, but the Site hints that it has the means of obtaining other copies, providing the buyer has up to $2m available.
With the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 the scriptures remained in Latin but the Great Site recognises the world-altering significance of this particular book by charging $120,000 for each page it offers for sale from a well documented broken up copy. But it reserves its greatest acclamation for the man who did most to spread the gospel by printing the first English version. William Tyndale, a scholar and intellectual, brought out his New Testament of 1525-6, from the safety of Germany. For this act of defiance a sizeable price was placed on his head, but Tyndale, protected by fellow Protestants on the continent, managed to supervise the smuggling out of copies ( often in bales of cotton and sacks of flour ) of his often reprinted work to England throughout the 1530s, although anyone caught with a copy here risked certain death. In the end, after eleven years on the run, Tyndale was finally cornered by bounty hunters in Holland and shipped back to England, where he was strangled before being burnt at the stake.
Over this period many Tyndale New Testaments must have been seized, or even legitimately bought and subsequently destroyed, by the authorities. Because of this, only two copies of the first edition are known to have survived. Even later editions of the 1530s command six figure sums. After his death Tyndale’s work was carried on by two devotees, Miles Coverdale and John Rogers. It was Coverdale who could be said to have published the first complete Bible in English, since in 1535 he added his own translation of the Old Testament to Tyndale’s New Testament. The Great Site has one of these at $445,000. Two years later, Rogers produced the second complete English Bible-- the first to be translated from the original Greek and Hebrew sources. One US dealer, who like the Great Site, described this edition as the ‘Tyndale Bible’ wants $750 for a single leaf, a sum which makes the Great Site’s single leaves of Gutenberg appear cheap. And as there are fewer that 15 copies extant, the $275,000 that it asks for the whole book also seems good value. Three years after Wycliffe’s execution, Henry VIII put the royal seal of approval on the English version by authorizing the publication of what became known as ‘The Great Bible ‘. Such a volte face on the part of the king, who by now was happily dismantling the monasteries of England, can only be seen as an attempt to cock yet another giant snook at the Vatican. For this particular Bible expect to pay a mere $200,000, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no one had to die for having published it.
[R. M. Healey]
Many thanks Robin. Noble words. I should say that prices charged at these bible sites tend to be absolute and final end user prices and then some, often such items can be seen at auction at considerably less. An Italian dealer once told me that his father had been offered a Gutenberg bible (on vellum) for $2000. He was sitting in his shop in the early 1940s when a monk appeared with the books under his arm. He was probably fleeing the war in the north. The fugitive monk needed the equivalent of $2000 for the great Bible of Mainz - which sadly the dealer could not muster. The coweled figure disappeared never to be seen again. Current value --more than an oligarch's mansion in Hampstead. Last word on bibles-- at a lower level old bibles of medium size tend to sell well, the great big clasped ones take much longer--presumably a question of portability. Sometimes we have half a dozen weighty bibles waiting for buyers. In the meantime they add an air of gravitas and spirituality, especially in this atheistic era of the shrill Dawkins.