Connecting to the 1594 English Geneva Bible

January 11, 2022
Ray Heigemeir
Book spine

Guest blogger : Daniel Koplitz

As I cradle the book in my hands, flecks of its leathered paper-board cover release into the free air. Carried affectionately like dandelion wisps in the summer breeze, the flecks disperse from the margins of their centuries-old home and, fearing nothing, return to the very dust of matter from which they were born. I’m reminded in this seeing and feeling of my own mortality, my impermanent nature. I recognize myself in these flecks, not knowing how or why but that we are undeniably connected.

Genealogical records in elegant script

I open the cover weathered by devoted use, and I meet the Brookes. Their records of family births, marriages, and deaths adorn the paper board in elegant script, inspiriting the object with meaning and an aura of mystery and wonder. Who were Matthew and Elizabeth—their children? Where were they from? How did their book end up here at Stanford University, being investigated by a musicology student in 2021? Looking for answers, I gaze to the right and scan the first page, which reads The Bible. Translated according to the Ebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the best translations in divers LanguagesIt’s a family Bible printed in 1594, one of many English editions of the Geneva Bible first published in 1560. The opening page describes its innovative design “with most profitable Annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance,” precursing the abundant reading aids peppered throughout the text and reflecting the Protestant emphasis on Scripture's accessibility.

Title page of English Geneva Bible

Before the English Reformation movement, set off by Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church in 1534,[1] the Bible, texts on biblical interpretation, and the Latin instruction required to read them were accessible only to the educated: clergymen and the wealthy. Most English people didn’t own a personal copy of the Bible, and they rarely, if ever, understood Scripture when it was sung or spoken at church. However, being cheaper than any pre-existing English Bible and packed with reading aids, the Geneva Bible shattered these pre-existing class barriers by allowing individuals of any social standing to read and study Scripture privately in their own tongue.[2] It became widely popular, facilitating the growth of domestic Bible-reading and the spread of Protestant theology across England, where more than half a million copies had been sold by the end of the sixteenth century.[3] The English Geneva Bible also traveled across the Atlantic to the New World where it became “the Bible of … the Ulster Plantation and the Pilgrim Fathers.”[4] Could this transatlantic migration have been part of the journey that led me to hold this very book today? I turn over the yellowed page and investigate further.

Fifth Book of Deuteronomy

Following a chart explaining “How to take profit by reading of the Holy Scriptures,” I peruse leaves upon leaves of the Old Testament, ancient words enveloped in early modern annotations. Eventually, I reach the end of the apocryphal books, where I discover another handwritten genealogical entry—dating Matthew Brookes’s birth and baptism—and the title page of the 1596 New Testament translation. More explanatory aids follow before I arrive at the final portion of the book: The Whole Booke of Psalmescollected in English meetre, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others, conferred with the Hebrue with apt Notes to sing them withall.

Title page of Sternhold and Hopkins psalter

The subsequent pages display English paraphrases of the psalms and other sacred songs, composed in various poetic meters and set to simple monophonic tunes. Like its bound counterparts, the “Sternhold and Hopkins” metrical psalter grew out of Reformed efforts to make Christian worship and devotion more accessible to laypeople, and that included the sacred music sung both in church and at home.[5] In contrast to the sacred music previously composed in Latin for choirs of trained men and boys or for wealthy amateurs, these vernacular spiritual songs could easily be learned and performed by an Englishperson of any class or gender—whether they picked them up in their parish church or used the handy solfege notation in the scores to teach themselves at home. Further, the vernacular metrical psalter enabled women, rich or poor, to sing in a socially sanctioned context for women that didn’t revolve around men or children.[6] I wonder, then, if Elizabeth Brookes herself used this book for that purpose, “giving harmonious utterance to the meditations of [her heart]” in a society that otherwise expected her to be silent.[7]

Instructions for singing with solfege

Humming through some of the tunes, I’m reminded of the modest hymns I grew up singing, which seems only natural since hymnals as they’re known today developed out of psalters just like this one.[8] Though I no longer subscribe to any religion, I see now that it was never really about the religious texts of the hymns my family and church community sang. Rather, it was the fact that through their simplicity and accessible language we were able to sing them together. That union, that connection is what was important—that’s where “God” was, in our coming together as one despite our many perceived differences.

Psalm I in the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter

I read the final entries from the Brookes family on the back cover, and then I close the book. I accept that though I may never know their entire story or how their book ended up in my hands today, I do know that it meant a lot to them. Matthew and Elizabeth chose this book to record their family’s lineage, and its successive owners, possibly their heirs, safeguarded it until was eventually acquired and preserved by this university. Returning the book to its archival case, I reflect on my experience with it. Why it is that humans go through so much trouble to conserve old books like this one? Perhaps by showing us our history—where we’ve come from and what’s been important to us—they can remind us of who we truly are: inseparable beings sharing the same fate and yearning for connection. They seem to remind us of what’s important in life, compelling us to seek that out for not only for ourselves, but for all of humanity. 

Daniel Koplitz Daniel Koplitz (they/them) is a Ph.D. student in musicology at Stanford, studying Christian music and liturgy from the Western European Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

[1] The Act of Supremacy, 1534, (26 Henry VIII c.1) in Gerald Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation: 1526–1701, Corrected reprint, Library of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge: James Clark & Co, 2004), 113–14.

[2] Femke Molekamp, “Genevan Legacies: The Making of the English Geneva Bible,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530–1700, ed. Kevin Killeen, Helen Smith, and Rachel Willie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 38.

[3] William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 166.

[4] Jane Dawson, “John Knox, Christopher Goodman and the ‘Example of Geneva,’” in The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain, Proceedings of the British Academy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 115.

[5] Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 22–24.

[6] Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘For Musicke Is the Handmaid of the Lord’: Women, Psalms, and Domestic Music-Making in Early Modern England,” in Psalms in the Early Modern World, ed. Linda Phyllis Austern, Kari Boyd McBride, and David L. Orvis (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 77.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nicholas Temperley et al., “Psalms, Metrical,” in Grove Music Online, 2001.