Seminar on the history of the book: Theodor Dunkelgrün, “The production history of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1568-1573): the confluence of manuscript cultures in the Renaissance printing shop”, 11 March 2011

from Martha Repp

A large and appreciative audience heard the eighth and last in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book on 11 March, 2011. Theodor Dunkelgrün spoke on the subject of “The production history of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1568-1573): the confluence of manuscript cultures in the Renaissance printing shop”.

The Antwerp Polyglot Bible was printed between 1568 and 1573 by Christopher Plantin in the famous printing house known as the Golden Compasses (the current Plantin-Moretus Museum still occupies the buildings Plantin acquired in 1576) under the editorship of Benito Arias Montano (1527–1598). This Bible brought together Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac biblical texts. It has been the subject of much critical study, but this attention has tended to focus on the finished product and the commercial aspects of the project, almost every detail of which has come under consideration, rather than on the process of editing and publication itself. Little is known about how the scholars involved selected and worked on texts. This can be seen as part of a wider pattern in which the principles of editorial practice and textual criticism has been one of the major gaps in the study of the early modern period. Furthermore, such attention as has been paid to this question has tended to focus on the editing of Latin and Greek texts only, whereas as the case of the Antwerp Polyglot shows, this phenomenon extended to to other textual traditions as well. Dunkelgrün emphasised what might be learned from examining the editors’ treatment of the traditions, embodied in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac texts that they consulted.

Even before it was published, the Antwerp Polyglot Bible was seen as one of the greatest achievements of Biblical scholarship, as a monument of typography (fitting as many as 6 versions of the text onto each opening), and, by some strict Catholics, as a threat to Christians everywhere. This last is perhaps ironic, as it had been commissioned by Philip II as a monument to his unquestioning Catholic orthodoxy, and Plantin, who was himself suspected of having Calvinist sympathies, had accepted the commission as a means of proving his own orthodoxy. One major reason for this suspicion of the Antwerp Polyglot was the use it made of sources from Hebrew, especially rabbinical, literature; for example, the treatises in the apparatus include frequent references to the Talmud, which had actually been banned by the Catholic Church. This suspicion of the rabbinical tradition extended to the Hebrew Bible itself, and both the authenticity of the Hebrew text and the usefulness and importance of its study by Christians were frequently called into question. It is significant in this respect that Arias Montano wrote, as part of the apparatus to the Antwerp Polyglot, an essay defending the masoretic tradition, arguing that the Jewish tradition, far from corrupting the Hebrew text, had shown great care in its preservation and accurate transmission.

By a decree of 1546, the Council of Trent had established the Latin Vulgate as the only officially accepted version of the Bible, albeit after a lengthier and more complex debate than the terms of the decree would seem to suggest. There was still, however, debate both as to which specific exemplar or edition of the Vulgate the decree gave official recognition to, and as to whether the decree applied to the Vulgate vs. original Hebrew and Greek texts, or only to more recent Latin translations. A concern with this decree and its implications runs through the correspondence between Plantin, Arias Montano, and the other scholars working on the Antwerp Polyglot. This primacy ascribed to the Vulgate is, however, not reflected in the layout of the Antwerp Polyglot, in which the texts are arranged in four parallel columns. This forms a striking contrast with its primary model, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, directed by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros and published in 1520, in which the Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts are arranged in three columns with the Latin in the middle, which prompted Cisnero’s famous remark that the Vulgate was placed in the middle ‘like the Saviour between two thieves’. In the four-column arangement of the Antwerp Polyglot, it was impossible to privilege any one of them over another.

In the case of the Antwerp Polyglot, the scholars involved appear to have gone to great lengths to consult both authoritative editions as well as venerable manuscript versions, collating them with each other and recording variants in exhaustive detail. Indeed, at one point, Plantin actually stopped the printing of the Greek text because of the significant discrepancies between the two editions that had been used, insisting on a further collation with two manuscripts before work could continue.

Dunkelgrün drew special attention to a specific portion of the scholarly apparatus to the Antwerp Polyglot – the eighth and final volume – that contains i.a. lists of variants for all the different texts, arguing that these lists constitute a kind of “hypertext” and serve as an index to an entire library of different readings. This deep concern with variant readings shows, he argues, that the driving force behind the Antwerp Polyglot lay in the textual concerns of professional editors, and that the scholars involved were primarily thinking technically, historically and critically, rather than dogmatically or mystically, about the texts. The insistence on variant readings is also possibly at odds with the drive within the Catholic Church, in the wake of the Council of Trent, to establish a single, authoritative Biblical text.

Discussion in the seminar pointed out that the issue of the permissibility of variant readings became a significant issue between Catholics and Protestants later on in the 17th century. It is tempting but probably inaccurate to see this treatment of the Biblical texts as historical documents as part of a process of secularization. What Dunkelgrün stressed in his comments is that humanist scholars considered each of the different texts separately, as having been imperfectly transmitted through a culture and history of its own, but the process of collation and collection of variant readings in each of the traditions as variants on essentially the same phenomenon.

The final discussion took up interesting questions raised in the paper about the palaeographic and codicological skills of the humanist editors. What weight did the Antwerp editors give to script, for instance, when judging the age and authenticity of a manuscript? Was this a kind of proto-palaeography?