The Vastly Different Forms and Meanings of Plantin’s Vulgate Bible

This week, I examined the way the form of a text effects meaning by comparing my pet book to a digital facsimile. My pet book, Biblia, ad vetustissima exemplaria castigata: quid in horum bibliorum castigatione praestitum sit, subsequens praefatio latius indicabit, is a Vulgate Bible that was revised by Johannes Hententius and published by Christopher Plantin in 1567. As I discussed in my previous blog post, the copy of this bible that I have been examining has a variety of unique marginalia, some of which can be traced back to a man named Samuel Bradstreet who lived sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries.
Before I begin, it’s worth noting that the digital facsimile I will be talking about in this post is not a facsimile of my particular pet book with all of its unique characteristics such as binding, signs of use, history, and location. Rather, the facsimile is a scan of another copy of Biblia, ad vetustissima exemplaria castigata: quid in horum bibliorum castigatione praestitum sit, subsequens praefatio latius indicabit that is the same edition (meaning published at the same time) as mine. This digital facsimile can be found on Google Books at the link: https://books.google.com/books?id=Axk6AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

I started my investigation into the similarities and differences between my pet book and the digital facsimile by looking at the first image in the digital facsimile so I knew where to orient myself within the text. Interestingly, the first image is a scan of the book’s cover, which shows a binding that is quite different from the binding on my pet book.

 

The image of the binding as captured by the facsimile versus the binding of my pet book.

The scan is quite lopsided and dark, which makes the intricacies of the binding difficult to discern. Looking at this binding through a scan versus looking at the binding of my pet book in three dimensions is a profoundly different experience, primarily because the natural lighting I normally view my pet book in reveals even the smallest details of the binding, from rips and scratches to the texture of the sheepskin. I can change the angle at which I view the binding, and can get a better understanding of the texture and size through physical touch which allows me to have a more detailed and informed understanding of the state of the physical codex. The constraints of the physical facsimile do not permit this- I have no idea how large the codex is, how much wear and tear exists, or even what the binding is made out of. The binding aspect of the digital facsimile is therefore far less interesting and comprehensive than the binding aspect of my pet book.
The way in which the pages of the book were replicated is also extremely interesting. The first two pages after the cover are blank white pages (with a lot of black streaks from dust or scratches on the scanner.) On the first blank page, there is an image of piece of metal in the lower right corner, which is likely a piece of the scanner or a paperweight that wasn’t removed from the frame:

The fact that this particular image made it into the published facsimile informs us a lot about how form can effect meaning, as it shows a certain degree of disregard for the aesthetics of the digitized book. Startlingly, after the blank pages, there is the final page of my pet book’s glossary, which shows that the facsimile is configured backwards- it begins with the pages that are at the end of my pet book and progresses to the beginning.

The “first” page of text in the facsimile.

This profoundly impacts the way a reader would interact with the text, because traditionally ebooks are read either by scrolling from the top to the bottom, not the bottom to top, so it is much more difficult for readers to orient themselves within the text. I believe that this confusion leads to a more frustrating and generally less pleasant reading experience. The form of my pet book, on the other hand, is configured so that the beginning of the text comes first. This means that readers will read it from left to right, which is standard for codecial books written in English.

The size of the facsimile text on my computer screen is mostly consistent with the size of the text in the physical book, though the text sometimes appears lopsided and titles are often cut off in the scanned images. In the facsimile, the text is often littered with black streaks from the scanner that make it difficult to read in some places. Unlike the crisp black lines of my pet book, the color of the text varies from gray to black in the facsimile, and the resolution is fairly poor. In many places, it is difficult to make out what the text says, and the decorated initials are more faded and lackluster than they are in my pet book.

Text on the same page of the digital facsimile and my pet book from a distance.

A side by side of the quality of printed text in the digital facsimile versus my pet book.

There are also different signs of use in the facsimile than there are in my pet book, including library stickers, written marginalia, and stamps. I could dedicate an entire blog post to these signs of use, but on the surface level, the sticker and stamp tell us that the book once resided in (or still resides in) the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, or Bavarian State Library in Munich. There is also a handwritten note that says “Eichweiber acquired on August 15th, 1813.” Because these signs of use are simply low resolution replications of the original pieces of evidence, they are far less impactful than the signs of use in my pet book. Personally, I feel a more powerful sense of connection to the signs of use in my pet book because I know that they originated from another person’s physical act of writing and doodling, as opposed to being a replication made through the process of scanning, which requires less obvious, physical human interference.

The facsimile versions of the library sticker, library stamp, and owner signature.

Through looking at the characteristics of this facsimile, I have found that it effects a meaning that is contradictory to the meaning effected by my pet book. The dark, lopsided pictures of the binding, the backwards page order, and the low resolution, sloppy scans of the text suggest an attitude of haphazardness and carelessness towards the physical form of the text. This therefore effects the idea that the verbal text of this work is more important than the physical form it takes, and that reading is more about academic processes than aesthetics or physical interaction. In the context of the Bible as a text, the form of the facsimile conveys the idea that the the verbal text is what’s sacred, so effort does not need to be put into worldly “packaging.” Contrarily, my pet book is neatly printed and well-bound, which suggests that care and intention motivated its assembly. The form of my book effects the meaning that reading is a combination of academic, aesthetic, and physical engagement- therefore the sacred verbal text of the Bible should be packaged in such a way that is respectful and reflective of this sanctity.
Overall, this was a very interesting exercise for me. Comparing these different versions of the same textual work helped me better understand how form can effect meaning, particularly in an era of increasing digitization, and how those differences in meaning can have a profound impact on the ways readers engage with and value a text. While looking at the facsimile, I found myself wondering if Plantin would agree with the way my pet book has been reformatted for online consumption. He seemed committed to producing quality, so my guess would be no.

Sources:

Bavarian State Library (https://www.bsb-muenchen.de/en/)

Google Books Biblia ad vetustissima Facsimile

(https://books.google.com/books?id=Axk6AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false)