Avid Bible study reveals what Protestants and Catholics really thought of the scriptures

Professor Mack P Holt is a Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity for Michaelmas term 2018. He has taught early modern European history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, for 29 years.

Eve has been defaced by a reader in this 1530 edition

 How are you spending your time at Trinity?

I have spent most of my time this term in the Wren Library and in the University Library. Trinity has an unusually large number of French Bibles because of the donation made by a former Vice-Master of Trinity, William Aldis Wright, who was an avid collector of English, French, Latin, German, and Hebrew Bibles, which he donated to the College on his death in 1914.

The UL has an even larger collection, thanks to the deposit of the British and Foreign Bible Society’s collection in the 1980s. Thus, I have spent the bulk of my time examining dozens of surviving copies of sixteenth-century Bibles in French, looking for readers’ markings and annotations of any kind.

What is the importance of your research?

I hope to be able to determine which parts of the Bible lay Bible readers were actually reading. Moreover, I hope to be able to know if lay readers were absorbing the interpretations of the Bible they heard in church by the clergy, or if they

A reader scratched out Calvin’s name at the beginning of a letter to the reader in a Protestant Bible, 1565. A later reader added his name back in.

were creating interpretations of their own. The traditional narrative of the Protestant Reformation makes the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages a major component of the story, so I am trying to discover whether they actually read it, how they read it, and what they made of it.

My research to date suggests that lay Protestants did avidly read the Bible, though they were not much interested in the parts that outlined major doctrines and theology, such as salvation by grace and predestination in Acts and Romans. They were more likely to read Genesis and Exodus where the Hebrews’ escape from persecution in Egypt and Babylon echoed their own persecution in France. In other words, most sixteenth-century readers seemed to be more interested in human interaction with the divine than with abstract theology.

Finally, I have learned that many Catholics also read Protestant Bibles in French. There were some Catholic translations available, but they were many fewer in number. And even though the Sorbonne, the theology school of the University of Paris, eventually banned all French translations of the Bible, Protestant Bibles were published in French in such great numbers in Geneva and in Lyon, that French Catholics found it easier to acquire one of these than a Catholic translation. Again, having a Bible in their own language was more important to them than the theological differences dividing them from Protestants.

What has a Visiting Fellow Commonership at Trinity meant to you?

Besides access to the libraries, I have benefitted from meeting so many people and discussing my research with them. My sponsor, Professor Alex Walsham, has introduced me to her PhD students, as well as several recent PhDs who are now Junior Research Fellows at other colleges. And Trinity JRFs, Dr Kirsten Macfarlane and Dr Micha Lazarus, have been generous in discussing their own work with me at High Table and in the Parlour. Plus, Professor David Washbrook, whom I first met over 30 years ago at Harvard, has been a wonderful guide to both Trinity and the city of Cambridge.

Moreover, I have been able to give presentations to the Early Modern World History seminar as well as the Early Modern Scholarship and Religion seminar, where I have received very useful feedback from scholars across the University. Everyone has been so welcoming and generous with their time. Thus, spending three months here this autumn has been invaluable for my work. And I have also made some life-long friends at Trinity.

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