The story of the printing of the early modern English Bible has often been told, typically from the vantage points of religious, literary, political, or publication history. Nonetheless, older studies have devoted little attention to issues of present concern within the field of the History of the Book, a discipline that has emerged during the last three decades under the influence of scholars such as Robert Darnton, D. F. McKenzie, Roger Chartier, and many more. This vital, albeit heterogeneous, field of inquiry moves beyond long-standing investigation of the physical processes involved in the production of printed books and intentions of translators, editors, printers, and publishers to consider newly posed questions related to reading practices, the reception of books, the manner in which the material form of books effects the production of meaning, and manifold ways in which books entered into the social, devotional, and cultural lives of individual readers.
The present essay devotes particular attention to the materiality and artifactuality of English Bibles as a means of cultivating discrete readerships and promoting the authority of translations ranging from translations by William Tyndale, which were originally produced surreptitiously by continental printers, to the King James Bible, which the King’s Printer published in London in 1611. Although our focus is on books in print, we must acknowledge that they succeed a preexisting manuscript tradition dominated by the Wycliffite translation. Matters under consideration involve the size of books, the number of sheets of paper required for their production, typography, book format, illustration, and, to a lesser degree, the inclusion of paratext such as prefaces and marginal notes. This investigation ranges from small-format books whose efficient use of paper made them affordable even to humbler consumers, to the largest English folio Bibles of this era.