University Libraries Exhibits The King James Bible Virtual Exhibit Typography



Throughout its history, the Bible’s text has been written and printed not just in a great diversity of languages, but in a wide variety of letter forms as well. Before the advent of printing, scribes created new Bibles by using a number of different scripts that developed throughout the centuries in response to evolving artistic fashions, changes in the technological and commercial ways through which manuscripts were produced, and the emerging needs of new generations of Bible readers. The idiosyncratic local and regional variations in writing so popular during the early Middle Ages gave way to a more standardized form of writing known as “Carolingian minuscule” during the ninth century. Developed by Alcuin of York (ca. 735-804) at the instigation of Charlemagne (ca. 742-814), this new form of writing was characterized by rounded , clear forms with distinct spacing between each letter. In contrast to many of the crabbed, cramped, and overly-complex forms of earlier scripts, Carolingian minuscule was easy to read, a fact that helped this script become the dominant form of writing across much of Europe over the next 300 years. By the end of the twelfth century, however, a new script began to emerge. “Gothic” handwriting, as it came to be called, was a more vertical, compressed script characterized by short sharp strokes that allowed scribes to write more quickly and include more text in a much smaller space. The gothic script, including many subtle regional variations, remained the principal form of handwriting until well into the fifteenth century when early Renaissance scholars developed yet another new form of writing, the humanistic book hand, closely based on the earlier Carolingian minuscule system of writing. This return to a more rounded, well-spaced writing system would form the essential foundation for the letter forms we use today.

The scripts developed and used by scribes throughout the medieval period continued to exert a powerful influence on the textual appearance of Bibles produced after the invention of movable type in the mid-fifteenth century and the rapid spread of the printing press across Europe during the next two centuries. The earliest printers used type designs based on the gothic script so common in the hand-made manuscript books they were trying to reproduce and imitate mechanically. For instance, Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type printing, crafted the beautiful and complex type forms used to print the Gutenberg Bible in the mid-1450s.

Printers continued to print books with gothic type for centuries, but by the end of the 1460s they began to use other typographical designs based on humanistic book hand script. “Roman” and “italic” types were introduced and refined throughout the remainder of the fifteenth century and became increasingly common in books produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, eventually superseding gothic type in most regions of the Christian West by 1800.

The early printed Bibles included in this exhibition include many examples of gothic, roman, and italic typography. In many cases, the printers of these volumes used all three types to set their texts. This use of multiple fonts was not unusual, and each type face represented specific portions of text and helped readers navigate their way through the book and discern what exactly they were reading. For instance, the 1594 edition of the Geneva Bible employs roman type to mark chapter headings and to print the explanatory marginal commentary surrounding the main biblical text, which is printed in gothic, while italic type is used in the chapter summaries lying between the roman chapter headings and the biblical text in gothic.

Like the 1594 Geneva Bible, the 1611 King James Bible also uses gothic type to present the biblical text, but it uses roman type not just for its chapter headings but for its running titles and chapter  summaries as well, and italic type for its marginal commentaries. Additionally, the printer occasionally interposes roman type within the gothic portions of text to signify words added by the translators that are not found in their original sources but have nevertheless been deemed necessary in order to help clarify the meaning of the text.

The 1609-10 Douai Old Testament, in contrast, uses roman type almost exclusively for both the biblical text and its marginal commentary, only adding text in italics for chapter summaries and occasional sections containing editorial comments and explanatory commentary.

A close examination of the Bibles included in this exhibition can reveal much about the competing and complementary uses of different typographical forms and can help us understand more about how and why different editors, translators, and printers produced their Bible versions as well as the ways in which typographical design helped mediate the biblical text for readers during the hand press period.