The Aldine Bible

M. R. James, the editor of the Aldine Bible, is better known today for his ghost stories. Eric Gill, who supplied the engravings and designed the typeface, is remembered for bequeathing Mac users the font known as Gill Sans. Since I'm a Mac user, and am better known for writing crime novels than blogging about Bibles, it's no surprise that I have an affinity for the Aldine Bible.

Image0000

Image0008
The Aldine Bible presents the New Testament in four volumes, of which this is the third. Dating from the 1930s, it states the intention of the project right on the dustjacket:

Herein is presented an edition of the New Testament in modern typographical dress. The text is the Authorized Version, unaltered as to wording, but set in straightforward form: the poetry as poetry, the prose as ordinary prose paragraphs. There are no marginal references; the verse numbers occur only at the top of the page, and the type is large, clear, beautiful, and set by hand. There is also an appendix containing more accurate translations where those of the Authorized Version are misleading or in error.

That sounds like a pretty good program, if you ask me. The type is set in 11 pt. Joanna with 13 pt. leading. I'm not quite sure the overall effect is "modern," despite the description above. (Gill also designed Perpetua, the font used in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Mark.) While I appreciate Eric Gill's aesthetic and have enjoyed reading his essays, there is still something a little too Arts & Crafts for my taste, closer to faux medieval Roycrofters than Jan Tschichold. "That's a bad thing?" you wannabe VIctorians are asking. Actually, it isn't. Not at all. 

Image0001
This must have been quite a sight in the 30s, when Bibles looked very different from the sort of book people actually read. Even today, it hasn't lost its appeal:

Image0006
There's a lot of enjoy in this little volume. The content includes the "Pauline and Pastoral Epistles," an interesting grouping that results in a slender, hand-sized hardcover. 

Turning to my favorite passage, Ephesians 1, I was initially aghast to find what I assumed to be Diana of the Ephesians smiling impishly back at me. The wings and the scroll — which illustrate Paul as castaway, being lowered by basket, and on the verge of beheading — suggest this is in fact an angel. The style, of course, is pure Eric Gill.  

Image0007

There are two engravings in this particular volume. The one above, for me, is a miss, but I find the one below quite interesting, exemplifying the sort of symbol-laden medievalism I tend to associate with his art. But really, I'm the last person you want to take advice on art from. On my wall, there's a poster of the Magritte painting with all the men in bowler hats floating along the skyline, and along with it there's an engraving of the Defenstration of Prague. 

Image0005

The inside back cover includes a map of Paul's missionary journeys, appropriate to the content and reminiscent of the maps in the back of leatherbound Bibles. 

Image0003

The editorial note up front goes into more detail about the nature of the technical notes (this volume is post-RV but pre-RSV), as well as formatting. To be truly modern, some quotation marks would have been nice, but the Aldine Bible sticks with the KJV practice of denoting dialogue by merely capitalizing the first letter following the comma. (Note: Doesn't it look like someone forgot to hit return in that second-to-last paragraph? Not that they had a return to hit.) 

Image0004

In back, the notes are divided by epistle and chapter. They seem fairly extensive, too — more than thirty pages worth. Since there are no flags in the text itself, you have to flip back and forth on the off chance there might be a note, or ignore them entirely until later.

Image0002

Multi-volume Bibles are almost certainly a thing of the past. One could argue that the advent of smart phone editions, which allow you to have the whole of Scripture and much besides at your fingertip, might open the door for specialist volumes like this, which are much more pleasant to read than either text on a screen or super fine print on tissue paper. Even so, I don't see much of a market for the Aldine Bible approach these days.

It's too bad. All of our Bibles are compromise editions. Whether they're single- or double-columned, paragraphed or not, whether they're printed on see-through paper or relatively opaque pages, the fact that they pack so many words into one compact volume entails some trade-offs. What suffers is the reading experience. What strikes me spending time with the Aldine Bible with its large type and comfortable line spacing is how much like a novel it is. You forget you're expected to read the Bible out of a sense of duty rather than pleasure and begin to enjoy yourself. And that, my friends, is what reading the Bible ought to be like. 

3 Comments on “The Aldine Bible

  1. Multi-volume bibles a thing of the past? Tell that to the people at Harvard/Dumbarton Oaks publishing the Vulgate Bible. (Unfortunately, their editorial principles are a little bizarre, so it won’t be particularly useful, but the idea is neat.)

  2. Sit down after dinner with your typical Bible and start reading the Gospel of Luke. If you manage to make it through chapter 3 before you put it down, the thought of enduring hardness as a good soldier will probably have crossed your mind. With a good multi-volume Bible you will finish Luke and maybe tack on one of the shorter epistles for dessert. And you won’t be tempted to apply the “enduring hardness” tag to one of life’s great privileges.
    As far as multi-volume Bibles being a thing of the past, I entirely disagree. They have never been mainstream, and probably never will be. But it has never been easier to publish books for small markets, and as small markets go, the population that wants to actually read the Bible is fairly large.

  3. From the dust jacket of Volume 3 (recently acquired from New Zealand): “This volume may also be had in red leather binding, price 7s. 6d. net.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>