Lots of People Have Read the Bible but who Read this One?

Previous blog posts: introduction, origins
Blog posts to come: illustrations, digital afterlives

I think it can be incredibly hard to decipher the audience for a book such as the Bible purely because of its extensive history and readership. Fortunately, there are clues in my 1557 Dutch edition of the Old and New Testaments that give some indications as to who the intended audience of the book was.

Firstly, I wanted to discuss the structure of the book and what this can suggest about the audience. Although the book is relatively small, paper in the book is used leisurely. There are large margins and the focus of each page is an image. From this it is easy to infer that the book was published with the intent of costing a decent amount as it was not made in the cheapest way possible. It was also made by pretty reputable people in the printing industry (the printer, illustrator, and author all had made names for themselves as we saw in my last post) which again suggests an audience already familiar with the existing work of these people; someone who is middle or upper class perhaps? Similarly, the size of the book suggests that it is something that is supposed to be flicked through and probably read in the home. As the different books of the Bible are written as headers on the top of each page it would be easy to find a particular verse, which negates the necessity to read the book in one sitting. On the other hand, the small size suggests portability and that the intended audience was someone who traveled and was eager to give different people access to the Bible. This last point is unlikely because the book is not inundated with words and does not contain full Biblical verse at any point so would not be incredibly useful as a tool to share the full Biblical liturgy.

Secondly, the language of the text suggests a lot about its intended audience. Willem Borluut’s Ghesneden Figvren Vvyten Ouden Testamente naer tleuene met huerlier bedietsele is written in Dutch and was published only forty years after Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ which was a catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. One of Luther’s key philosophies was the idea that the Bible should be accessible to all and should be written in the vernacular instead of the Latin. This prompted translations of the Bible into a large variety of languages. From this contextual information it is possible to understand that the intended audience of this Bible was Protestant and not Catholic. And that the audience was either Dutch or a speaker of the Dutch language. This suggests that converting people to Protestantism was a potential reason as to why this Bible could be given to different people.


A children’s Bible

However, an extensive knowledge of Dutch is not required to understand the message of this Bible because each page is primarily occupied with a large illustration that addresses the same point as the accompanying text. Although there is text on each page, it is not at all the main focus of any page of my Bible, and almost reads as an afterthought. The easiest comparison to make here is a children’s Bible (image on left) that has an image depicting a scene from the Bible accompanied with only a small annotation, see images below. This was a common aspect of illustrated Bibles, as the short passages that were used were intended to be examples of the “basis of moral and allegorical teaching” to make sure that not only were Biblical stories being shared but Biblical lessons were being learned. The illustrations in the Bible allowed people to connect with these Biblical lessons despite either not knowing Dutch or being illiterate. Illiteracy rates were incredibly low in this period in Europe and in 1550 the Netherlands literacy rate was only twelve percent. As there were multiple ways to read this Bible it meant that it was accessible to a larger number of people and so had a broader intended audience. It also meant that it could be a tool for people from different classes to access Christianity, especially early Protestantism. This style of Bible could alternatively be used as a tool for a fluent Dutch speaker who doesn’t speak Latin and so has never had access to the Bible in a language they understand. The images would therefore help to convey Bible stories they would already be familiar with and give them the language to use to talk about what they see.

An example of a general page from my book

If I had to describe the ultimate audience member for this book I would suggest it was someone in the middle, or upper, class who was a Dutch speaker (but probably not a reader) and who was investigating Protestantism and had the leisure time to use their existing knowledge of Christianity to inform their understanding of the images and words on the page.



Works Used:

Image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/611715561856480191/?lp=true