Annotated copy of the first Bible printed in England

A guest blog post by Dr Eyal Poleg, Queen Mary, University of London 

Lambeth Palace SR2 E75 is a peculiar book.  It is a copy of the first Bible to be printed in England – the ‘best of’ the Latin Vulgate, printed by Thomas Bethelet in London, July 1535.  But it is not the original text that is the most interesting about this book.  At first glance it appears to be a clean copy, with little to no marginal annotations and signs of reading.  A more careful look reveals a hidden layer.  At empty spaces at the end of prologues and sections, or at blank margins, a very thick paper was carefully pasted.  This was done so professionally that previous librarians have placed the library stamp and wrote the shelf mark on this pasted paper.

Pasted page with Library stamp
Pasted page with Library stamp

Naturally, one wonders why was this paper placed, and what lies underneath.  Having discussed the matter with the Library staff, a go-ahead was given to experiment with non-obtrusive ways of uncovering this.  Using long exposures and a light-sheet, Steph Eeles, the Library’s resourceful photographer, was able to reveal some of the happening underneath.  It revealed a mass of marginal annotations.  However, as the images merged texts from both sides of the paper, they were virtually indecipherable.

Images merging text from both sides of the paper
Images merging text from both sides of the paper

Help came from an unexpected place.  Dr Graham Davis from the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary University of London has long been developing innovative technologies and instruments for digital imagery within his discipline, as well as assisting medieval scholars and archivists (see  Seeing the images, he began developing ways of ‘subtracting’ one image from the other, thus clearing up the annotations.  Two joint sessions with Graham and Steph assisted in perfecting the images.

Photography in progress
Photography in progress

Graham then took the time to develop a software for image subtraction, which he trialled and tested.  Eventually it enabled the desired result of isolating the hidden annotations.

Isolation of hidden annotations
Isolation of hidden annotations

A full analysis of the annotations will be published in due course, but they incorporate an English table of liturgical reading, revealing the parallel use of Latin and English in the liturgy during the reign of Henry the Eighth.

Lambeth Bible and Maidstone Bible to be re-united

Illuminated initial from Lambeth Bible MS3 showing Isaiah being sawn in two
Isaiah being sawn in two. Lambeth Palace Library MS3 f198v

The Lambeth Bible, a giant illuminated Bible of the mid-twelfth century, is one of the finest examples in this country of Romanesque book illustration and one of the greatest treasures of Lambeth Palace Library, where it has been since 1610. The second volume of the Bible, separated from it during the sixteenth century and only identified in 1924, is now at Maidstone Museum.

By kind permission of Maidstone Museum, and in conjunction with Christopher de Hamel’s lecture to the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, Who commissioned the Lambeth Bible?, both Bibles will be on display in the Great Hall of Lambeth Palace, offering an historic opportunity to see the two manuscripts together for only the second time since the Reformation.
Lecture (for Friends of Lambeth Palace Library): 3pm, Tuesday 4 June, in the Great Hall, Lambeth Palace SE1 7JU

Wednesday 5 June at 11am, 12 noon, 2pm and 3pm
Thursday 6 June at 11am, 12 noon, 2pm and 3pm

Viewing on these two days is free and open to all, but please book in advance, giving your name, contact details and choice of day and time. Access at these times only via the main Gatehouse of Lambeth Palace (opposite Lambeth Bridge), where a register of names will be kept.

To book a viewing, email: or tel: 020 7898 1263.

To join the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library, please see the Library’s website:

Sponsored by the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library

Cataloguing LPL’s (not only) Greek manuscripts

Hebrew annotation to MS 1214
Hebrew annotation in the Octateuch MS 1214

For the last ten years Lambeth Palace Library and the Hellenic Institute, Royal Holloway, have been engaged in a fruitful collaborative partnership. Lambeth has been pleased to welcome students to annual Greek Palaeography workshops using the collection of fifty-three Greek manuscripts acquired during the four centuries since the Library’s foundation. This palaeographical work led to an exhibition of some jewels of the collection for the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies in London in August 2006 and the production of the first complete inventory of the collection. Now, thanks to a very generous grant from the A.G. Leventis Foundation, work has started on a detailed analytical catalogue. According to Dr Christopher Wright, one of the research team, the project has made discoveries that cast light on the diversity of cultural communities and interactions across linguistic and religious boundaries in the Byzantine Empire, where most of these codices were produced.

Dr Israel Sandman has assisted the project team by examining Hebrew annotations in the Octateuch MS 1214, which was copied in 1103 for the Byzantine governor of Cyprus by a scribe named John Koulix, who described himself in his colophon as a foreigner and whose surname may indicate that he was of Russian origin. It has been found that most of the Hebrew annotations mark the beginnings of the Scriptural passages read in sequence in synagogues on the Sabbath through the course of the year. Palaeographical analysis suggests that the notes were added by members of the Jewish community in the Byzantine world, probably in the 15th century. Thus it seems that this manuscript, though originally produced for a Greek Orthodox imperial official, later passed into Jewish liturgical use. Such use was compatible with Jewish law, Greek being the one permitted alternative to Hebrew for the Torah reading.

Recently further cross-cultural connections have come to light in MS 1179, a Gospel book probably produced in the 11th century. The sequence numbers of its quires have been identified as Armenian numerals, indicating that the codex was bound by an Armenian, either originally or in some later rebinding. This element of the manuscript’s history may also be reflected in annotations which have been added in the margins at various times, including prayers for the protection of the individuals who wrote the notes and for the souls of others. These are written in Greek, but the standard of language is generally very poor, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, which may indicate that those who wrote them were not native speakers, while two of those commemorated appear to bear specifically Armenian names. The use of the Gospels in Greek suggests that the owners of the codex did not live in the Armenian lands but in the migrant communities to be found in many places across the Byzantine Empire. Such communities were an important presence on both sides of the Sea of Marmara, which may help to explain the manuscript’s eventual acquisition by the Greek monastery of the Holy Trinity on the island of Chalke in that sea, where it was purchased in 1800/1.