John Knox’s Bible Discovered

Title page of "Knox" Old Testament (Sp Coll Euing Dr-b.5)

Title page of “Knox” Old Testament (Sp Coll Euing Dr-b.5)

Staff at the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections have identified a previously unknown book once owned by Scottish religious reformer John Knox. The large folio Latin and Hebrew Old Testament published in 1546 in Basel, Switzerland, appears to bear the reformer’s signature dated 1561 on the reverse of the title page.

Printed books are inextricably linked with the Reformation: from published Scripture in the vernacular and polemical ‘pamphlet wars’ between clerics holding different confessional viewpoints to the large illustrated works memorialising those ‘martyred’ for their faith, printed books were central to those on both sides of the confessional divide. Large book collections were amassed during the sixteenth century packed with works – often annotated by their owners – tracing the controversies. Yet frustratingly for Reformation historians, all too often these libraries don’t survive intact having been broken up for one reason or another.1 John Knox’s library is just one such example; in the words of one biographer, Knox’s “personal library has been largely lost to view” with just a handful of books certainly traceable to him surviving and identifiable.2 This find, therefore is significant.

The volume was bequeathed to the University of Glasgow in 1874 on the death of insurance broker and Bible collector William Euing as part of a remarkable collection of around 3,000 Bibles described at the time as “one of the largest in existence”3 and “almost, if not altogether, the most extensive and costly private collection [of Bibles] ever formed”.4 The ‘Knox’ Old Testament was purchased by Euing in 1864 from the London bookseller Ebenezer Palmer as we learn from a letter from the bookseller pasted to the inside cover of the volume. In it, Palmer states, “The grand attraction … is that it has the handwriting and was the property of John Knox”. In fact the volume has a wealth of provenance history associated: six separate early ownership inscriptions on the title page. Since most of these are undated, it’s difficult to piece together the exact sequence of early owners but the earliest may be one Ulrich Kyburz who recorded at the foot of the title page that his 1556 purchase of the volume in Berne, Switzerland, cost four florins. A number of other inscriptions also claim ownership, most scored out by a later owner – Michael Kummer, Peter Pansch, Johann Bergin, Samuel Steinegger – all Swiss or German names and all unidentifiable to us (so far) as known historical figures. But turn the title page over and on the back we see one more sixteenth-century ownership inscription: “Jo. Knok[e]s 1561”. Could this really be the signature of the famous Scottish religious reformer?

"Jo. Knok[e]s 1561" - John Knox's signature? (Sp Coll Euing Dr-b.5

“Jo. Knok[e]s 1561” – Scottish Reformer John Knox’s signature? (Sp Coll Euing Dr-b.5)

Well quite possibly, says leading Knox historian, the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Jane Dawson:

“During his career and in common with most sixteenth-century figures, Knox used a variety of different signatures and writing styles. In such a Latin/Hebrew Old Testament he would have probably used the Latin abbreviation ‘Jo.’ of his Christian name, Joannes. The spelling of Knox with a second ‘k’ would also be unusual for him, though this was a variant used by his contemporaries. The signature in the Old Testament is in a formal style and has more in common with the signatures Knox employed in his earlier days acting as a notary. This makes it appear quite different from the flowing ‘secretary’ hand he commonly used when writing in English or Scots in the early 1560s. Although there is no match with Knox’s known signatures, there is equally nothing to prevent this being Knox’s book.”

So if this Old Testament was owned by John Knox, how might he have acquired it? Professor Dawson makes some suggestions:

“Since it was in the possession of Ulrich Kyburz at Berne in 1556 if the volume belonged to Knox five years later it would probably have been purchased in one of the Swiss cities or at the famous Frankfurt Book Fair. Knox had returned to Scotland in 1559 and would have been dependent upon the usual arrangement of a friend or agent purchasing the volume for him and sending it to Scotland. A packet of letters from Geneva including one from Calvin to Knox arrived in Scotland in the early summer of 1561 and it is conceivable this delivery might have included the Old Testament.”5

The spelling of Knox with a second ‘k’, Dawson contends, might be an indication that the inscription was written in by another person for Knox – possibly the person who acquired the Bible and dispatched it to him. Of course, another possibility exists: forgery! Might an unscrupulous nineteenth century bookseller have forged the Knox autograph to make the volume more collectable? It’s unlikely, thinks Dawson:

“By the middle of the nineteenth century copies of Knox’s signatures had been published in David Laing’s edition of Knox’s Works (Edinburgh, 1846-64). A forger would have copied one of those printed signatures and would probably have placed the name of the Scottish Reformer prominently on the title page [rather than on its reverse side].”

The most valuable and interesting early printed books frequently bear hand-written marginal annotations which can tell us something about how the early owners engaged with the text, and sometimes even what they thought. In his letter to William Euing, Ebenezer Palmer promises that he has been told “by its former proprietor6 that … the [Old Testament’s] few [manuscript] notes are in the hand of the Great Reformer”. The most notable of these manuscript notes is a series of bracketed branching tables on the front endpaper and on the reverse of the title page of the type popularised by French humanist Petrus Ramus and his followers in the mid sixteenth century as a useful visual method of breaking down complex ideas.7 Predominantly in Latin but also using some Greek words, these tables seem to analyse the Passion – the crucifixion of Jesus. The other significant handwritten interventions appear in the body of the text itself where, throughout much of the Old Testament, the annotator has worked through the dense column of Latin marking up and numbering the verses. They have then moved over to the Hebrew column and done likewise as an aid to verse by verse comparison. This is possibly, Professor Dawson suggests, an indication that the annotator is using the Latin they know to try to familiarise themselves with and learn the Hebrew characters which they do not. It’s by no means certain that both the earlier bracketed tables and the later numbering are made by the same person, and even if they are, can we be sure – as Ebenezer Palmer claims – that they were made by Knox?

Perhaps; or perhaps rather they were made by someone else8 but were useful to Knox nevertheless. Professor Jane Dawson again:

“Many religious exiles found their way to the Swiss and German Protestant cities during the 1550s and they often saw this as a great opportunity to learn or improve their grasp of the Hebrew language. Anthony Gilby, one of Knox’s close friends among the exiles in Geneva, was probably the leading Hebraist among the group of translators of the Geneva Bible [1st edition 1560]. Gilby probably encouraged Knox to become better acquainted with Hebrew. During his time in exile on the Continent Knox was extremely busy and was often on the move. Once he was back in Scotland and had been appointed as minister of St Giles’ Kirk, Edinburgh, acquiring a Latin/Hebrew Old Testament might have been another attempt to fulfil that good resolution of improving his Hebrew.

Even if he never got beyond the basics with his Hebrew, Knox was certainly interested in that biblical language and in the latest scholarship on the Old Testament. Knox was not a great linguistic scholar and translator, unlike his friends the Genevan Reformers, John Calvin and Theodore Beza. When preparing his sermons, Knox would examine his biblical texts and their variant meanings as closely as possible and he liked to use different translations and interpretations of those texts. He would certainly have been pleased to own and use a Hebrew and Latin Old Testament. It therefore seems likely that this marvellous and intriguing book in the University of Glasgow did belong to John Knox from 1561.”



1For an example of the potential benefits (and limits) of studying an important reformer’s library see David G. Selwyn The Library of Thomas Cranmer (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1996), p. lxvii-lxix
2Books still identifiable include a Bible presented to Knox by English friends around 1567 now at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a German chronicle known to have been read to Knox by his nephew, now at the University of Edinburgh Library. The University of Edinburgh Library also houses a part of the library of Knox’s friend Clement Litill which, it has been contended, may contain further volumes previously owned by Knox. See Jane Dawson John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p.5-6.
3The Glasgow Herald (13/5/1874) “Death of Mr Wm. Euing”
4James Maclehose (ed.) Memoirs and portraits of one hundred Glasgow men who have died during the last thirty years, and in their lives did much to make the city what it now is (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1886) p.125
5John Knox Works,VI, Calvin to Knox 23 April 1561, pp. 131-5
6We are unsure exactly from whom Palmer acquired the volume. It bears the bookstamp of the library of the Earls of Guilford and a copy of this edition was sold in 1830 at the sale of Frederic North, 5th Earl of Guilford. It was bought for 17 shillings by someone with the name “Brown” (according to the British Library’s annotated copy of the sale catalogue). However, we do not know who Brown was or whether Brown is the “former proprietor” to whom Palmer refers.
7Often known as Ramist trees. See Walter J. Ong Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. From the art of discourse to the art of reason (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1958) pp. 199-202. Also see Raphael Hallett ‘Ramus, Printed Loci, and the Re-invention of Knowledge’ in Steven J. Reid and Emma Annette Wilson (eds.) Ramus, pedagogy and the liberal arts: Ramism in Britain and the Wider World (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011) pp. 89-112.
8The bracketed Ramist-tree style marginalia, in particular, looks like it may be in a similar hand to Kyburz’s ownership inscription.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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11 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Aftershocks and commented:

  2. Congratulations!!! Great job. There is always something to discover in those beautiful books. I miss “my” ms a lot.

  3. Just a guess, but could ‘Brown’, who bought the volume at the Guilford sale, be the bookseller David Brown, of St Andrew’s Street, Edinburgh? He was a relative of the Edinburgh Presbyterian minister John Brown (1784-1858), and was described by the latter’s biographer as “a man of letters as well as of books, who was much consulted by his associates in the pursuit of their several studies”.

    • Hi Arnold,
      Nice to hear from you. Possibly, yes. I’d concentrated my search on London booksellers (a dealer with the name William Brown was operating in the capital in the 1830s) but didn’t consider that it might have come north of the border before going back to Palmer at a later date. It’s worth checking out. That said, when the BL sale catalogue for the Guilford sale says just “Brown” it could be difficult to verify. If you have any thoughts on this do let me know though.


  4. Reblogged this on Learning To Be Full Of Grace And Truth. and commented:
    For all you church history buffs out there, this Is a fantastic find! Check out this post, very interesting.


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