Philip, Physicality, and Politics: The Intended Audience of Plantin’s Vulgate Bible

Christopher Plantin’s Biblia, ad vetustissima exemplaria castigata: Quid in horum Bibliorum castigatione praestitum sit, subsequens praefatio latiùs indicabi boasts a variety of physical, textual, and historical evidence that indicate its intended audience, and perhaps even the intention behind its publication.  In beginning this portion of research on my pet book, I began with the utmost surface details and moved my way into the more complicated, research heavy aspects of its history in order to get a fuller understanding of who this book was intended for.

There are two primary pieces of physical evidence that I used to determine my book’s audience- the binding and the formatting of the physical text.  These elements offer a primary, broad glimpse into the kind of people this book was created for: people interested in the study of religion who had the ability to read Latin.  The word Biblia is printed across the book’s spine in small, gilded letters, which serves as a physical sign that the text of the book is a bible written in Latin (which is technically an element of textual evidence.) In the 16th century, when this book was published, the ability to read Latin was an indicator of a formal education.  

There are two primary pieces of physical evidence that I used to determine my book’s audience- the binding and the formatting of the physical text.  These elements offer a primary, broad glimpse into the kind of people this book was created for: people interested in the study of religion who had the ability to read Latin.  The word Biblia is printed across the book’s spine in small, gilded letters, which serves as a physical sign that the text of the book is a bible written in Latin (which is technically an element of textual evidence.) In the 16th century, when this book was published, the ability to read Latin was an indicator of a formal education.  Traditionally, only upper class men and members of the clergy could afford formal education that included training in the classics. However by 1567, in response to the Humanism movements, a number of upper class women were receiving a high-level education as well.  Interestingly, Martin Luther was a huge proponent of the compulsory, formal education of young girls and noted a need for women in the education profession. This initially made me think that Protestants were the only sector of Christianity that promoted the education of women, but after reading some comments from Professor and doing more research, I found that Catholics during this period also embraced the idea of giving women the same level of education as men. On account of the changing social tides in Europe during this period, it seems most likely that the audience of Plantin’s Vulgate Bible included both men and women with a formal education in Latin (a theory that I find quite exciting.)

 The book’s binding and the formatting of the physical text.

Even though formal education was traditionally an indicator of wealth, the binding introduces the idea that this book was intended for both upper, middle, and lower class people. The book is bound completely in a mahogany-colored, mottled sheep skin that is rather thin and fragile.  The structural component of the binding beneath the sheepskin is flimsy cardboard, which makes the book light but rather unsturdy. There are small leather flaps pasted onto the top corners of the binding as a way of repairing it and holding the cover together, which further proves that this current binding is not high-quality. The small but ornate design on the front and back of the binding is also chipping and faded, which further reinforces the feeling of low-quality. Based on the way annotations and text are cut off in certain places, it is clear that this book was rebound at some point in its history, but the modest way in which it was rebound suggests that its previous owners were not particularly wealthy.  The fact that it was rebound in the first places suggests that the original binding was also delicate and poorly made. In general, the book is quite small and light, which shows that it was meant to be portable and used for more than display (i.e. actually read.) The sheer size of Plantin’s operation suggests that there were a lot of these books in circulation, so they were most likely on the cheaper side, especially because cheaper materials can yield more profit. The people reading a book like this would be people interested in religious studies, whether it be for strictly academic or spiritual purposes.

 

The chipping leather of the binding on the spine, the faded design on the back cover, and the flap of leather holding the binding together in the upper right corner. 

The book’s textual formatting confirms that this Bible is intended for use by adults who are familiar with the contents of the Bible and accustomed to rigorous study.  The text on the page is incredibly small and closely packed, and there are no illustrations or color, which eliminates children and people who are learning to read as the target audience.  The margins are quite large. Often, in the margins next to a verse, there is shorthand that references a different verse from somewhere else in the Bible. These references likely exist for comparison and therefore are meant for people to use while studying the bible.  Additionally, in order to understand the shorthand, the reader must have a certain familiarity with biblical content.

The book’s textual formatting.

From this basic physical and historical information, one can surmise that the intended audience of this Bible was adults in the religious, academic, and/or social elite.

Textual evidence (combined with more historical evidence) gives a deeper understanding of the political context surrounding the release of this book, and more insight into who the target audience was.  The “verbal text” of this book contains both the Old and New Testament, which clearly implies that it was meant for Christian audiences or for people who were studying Christianity. On the dedication page of the Bible, titled “SUMMA PRIVILEGII,” King Philip II is alluded to as the sponsor/patron of the book.  King Philip II was a firm Roman Catholic who championed the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation movement that took place in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

The dedication page, SUMMA PRIVILEGII.

The Counter Reformation occurred simultaneously with the Protestant Reformation (and according to some sources, began even slightly before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in 1517.) It originally arose as a movement for internal renewal within the Roman Catholic institution, but became a movement against the Protestant Reform in 1545.  King Philip II sponsored many of Plantin’s greatest works in an attempt to promote and defend Catholicism- when the Vatican became concerned about Immanuel Tremellius’ projects to promote Protestantism, for example, King Philip II stepped in to sponsor Plantin’s greatest work, the Polyglot Bible. For these reasons, it seems likely that Plantin’s Vulgate Bible (my pet book) was intended to promote and spread awareness of Roman Catholicism- perhaps to strengthen the faith and devotion of preexisting Roman Catholics, to garner compassion from agnostic parties, or to convert Protestants.

It is worth noting that even though Plantin claimed to be a Roman Catholic with staunch loyalty to King Philip II, he frequently printed Protestant works, Jewish sacred texts, and works that encouraged rebellion against the Spanish government.  According to the biography provided by the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Plantin’s works were generally “intended for intellectual and international public of scholars, students, clergy, military officers, and others.” His books were sold in the Netherlands, Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain and its colonies in America, Italy, and England, and North Africa. This means that Plantin was likely less politically motivated than the King was, and viewed the book’s target audience as a wider community that included students and scholars as well as clergy around the world, whereas the King viewed the target audience as primarily Roman Catholics and potential converts in Spain and Spanish colonies.  

Though the specific politic audience may be elusive, it is at least possible to conclude that this Bible was intended for adults who were educated and familiar with the Christian faith and who had the money to obtain both a formal education and an expensive book.

 

Sources:

Balmuth, Miriam. Female Education in 16th & 17th Century England Influences, Attitudes, and Trends. 

Professor Cook’s Comments

http://wscf-europe.org/mozaik-issues/women-in-the-16th-century/

https://www.britannica.com/event/Counter-Reformation

https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Philip-II-king-of-Spain-and-Portugal

https://www.museumplantinmoretus.be/en/page/who-was-christophe-plantin