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Biblia Sacra 1596

The Biblia Sacra – an Overview

Our oldest piece in our local history collection is the Biblia Sacra, or colloquially known as the “Hamburg Polyglot,” whose origin and history was, for a long time, unknown to both our staff and patrons. Printed in 1596 in Hamburg, Germany during the Renaissance and the Reformation Period, this Bible is segmented into three very large volumes that include seven parts or “pars,” and they all measure roughly 37x25cm. Jacob Lucius Junior and David Wolder (or Davidis Wolderi) are credited as its compositors/printers. Inside, each main printed section consists of four columns; each column contains a separate translation: “the Septuagint and original Greek New Testament, the Latin Vulgate, the later Latin text of Pagninus and the German text of Luther.” The four languages included in this Bible – listed side-by-side in a way that makes for easy comparison – are what make it somewhat unique for its time: the word “polyglot” means “knowing or using several languages,” and during this time (the Reformation), straying from printing purely in Latin was a new and radical concept that challenged the authority of churches and government.

Historical Significance

Because the Biblia Sacra is a polyglot and it includes a translation into vernacular German, we know that it is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation and the influence of Martin Luther. Before the Reformation, printing Bibles in vernacular languages created controversy and divisiveness, and – in some cases – was strictly outlawed, as acknowledging the need and desire for laypeople to be able to read and understand scripture themselves (and not rely solely on the clergy to interpret and disseminate scripture) was seen as an attack on the authority of the Church, and, in the case of England, the king (who was said to have received the word of God directly). The first printers/translators of vernacular language Bibles were often hunted down by states and executed. William Tynedale, the publisher of the first Bible translated into English in 1525, was burned at the stake for his project. According to the British Library, even “owning a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament still attracted the death penalty,” which is why Tynedale’s Bibles were small and compact, easily stuffed into a pocket and smuggled from country to country. The size of the Biblia Sacra is then indicative of the changes in the legality and acceptance of vernacular language Bibles that occurred before 1596. In England, Henry VIII legalized English translated Bibles in 1536. In Germany, where the Biblia Sacra was printed, vernacular Bibles had been printed as early as the 15th century. However, these Bibles – especially Martin Luther’s landmark translation – were still received with distrust and divided support, as they were so entrenched in Reformation ideology. Luther was, indeed, excommunicated by the pope in 1521 (Britannica). By 1596, vernacular Bibles were widely available, though they often added fuel to the Reformation movement, which resulted in the Thirty Years’ War that began in 1618 and resulted in the split between between Protestant and Catholic Churches.

Physical Aspects a.k.a. “Materiality”

Inside the covers of the third volume, there are several loose papers. One, a blue index-sized card with what looks to be letters stamped by a typewriter, gives a physical description of the Biblia Sacra. From this, we know that the Bible is a folio, meaning its pages consist of a stack of larger sheets of paper that are folded only once, which makes the pages and, in relation, the entire book, very large (compare this with quartos, octavos, and duodecimos that are folded four, eight, and twelve times, respectively). The covers of the Bible consist of “stamped pigskin over thick oak boards,” which is typical for the time. Renaissance books were extremely expensive. Often, only nobles and other wealthy families could afford them. Thus, books were more like heirlooms or prized possessions, and they needed to be protected with thick and sturdy covers that could withstand the test of time and continuous use.

The Bible

Renaissance books were made much differently from modern-day “codices.” (Did you know the format of print technology that we usually consider a standard “book” is called a “codex?” Before codices were invented, we relied on scrolls as our primary mode book technology) (Levy & Mole xv). While modern books are printed using laser printers and then glued together using large-scale machinery, Renaissance bookmakers painstakingly sewed each page to thick cords/ropes by hand (a process that took days to complete), cut away the excess paper, and then fastened real wooden boards, which served as the book’s protective cover. These cords are what create the ridges in the spines of old books. Fun fact: some more modern bookmakers create books with ridged spines to mimic the books of old, even though they contain no actual cords. In the images below and to the right, you can see where wear-and-tear has caused the boards and rope to be exposed, offering a cool “inside look” into the way books were made.


The volumes also have metal clasps (several broken off and missing) that were once used to keep them from expanding too much. This type of paper (most likely made from macerated rags, an abundant and sustainable material in Renaissance Europe) expands over time, so a mechanism to keep it compacted was necessary. Here, you can see that one of the volumes has expanded quite a bit; the second volume (right) was most likely left unlatched for a long period of time, and now it has expanded so much as to be impossible to latch again. The first volume (left) has expanded only slightly, due to the fact it has only one out of two remaining clasps. The third one (middle) has both claps intact and in use, making it the least expanded. To open this volume, one must only apply some pressure to the top cover and the claps unhook.

The front and back covers of the Biblia Sacra are stamped with the portraits of “Luther and Melancthon,” although over time these portraits have become very faint. Luther (Martin Luther) and Melancthon were both main figureheads in the Reformation movement. Thus, their portraits engraved here speak to this Bible’s deep entrenchment with the Reformation.


Besides the blue index card describing the materiality of the Biblia Sacra, we found what seems to be a receipt of purchase detailing how the Bible was bought for 3 British pounds, 10 shillings, and 3 pence from a bookseller called Grafton & Co. in London in 1929. There is also what seems to be an advertisement sheet (or “catalogue” No. 73) from the same bookseller, listing current books for sale. On this sheet, books are sorted by subject: “BEES,” “BELGIUM,” “BIBLE,” “BLIND,” “BODONI PRESS,” “BOHEMIA,” “BOTANY,” “BUILDING,” “CARPENTRY,” “CARPETS,” and “CERAMICS” are the subjects listed, which shows the bookseller’s quite eclectic taste. Included under “BIBLES” is our Biblia Sacra, whose description contains the same text printed on the blue index card. At some point, someone marked the catalog sheet to point to the Biblia Sacra’s entry. There are also two small scrap-like papers, cut out from what seems to be a similar catalog. They contain descriptions of other books, titled The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy by Sir A.W. Ward, The Struggle with Revolutionary France by J.H. Rose, and Great Britain and the Continental Alliance by W.A. Phillips. These scraps seem oddly out of place within the Bible, but perhaps its purchaser, Rev. Bernard C. Clausen of New York, was interested in these titles. Finally, the most peculiar loose article contained within the Bible is an envelope filled with pressed pansies, which were apparently found on page 79 and 147 in volume II. Although it is impossible to answer the question jotted down on the envelope (“HOW OLD,” it reads, all in CAPS), it is interesting to wonder when these extremely delicate tokens of the past that we once clumsily dropped on the floor — not knowing they were there — were placed inside.

Printing, Woodcuts, and Notations

The Biblia Sacra was most likely printed using an old style printing press in the shop of Jacob Lucius Junior. In Renaissance times, this was a laborious process. While printing — invented in 1440 by the German, Johannes Gutenberg — greatly improved upon the traditional method of meticulously copying manuscripts by hand (and it even launched bookmaking into what can be called a state of “mass production” of sorts, changing the book industry forever), it was still a time-consuming, complicated, expensive, and labor-intensive process (Levy & Mole xv). Printing required each individual piece of type (metal letters that were casted one-by-one from hand-carved molds) to be carefully arranged by a “compositor” and set in what was called a “galley” or “forme” — a frame that kept the pieces of type together in the format of a single page while they awaited being put into the press (Pettegree 25). A forme with several pages of text — the number of which depended on the size of the book and how many times it was to be folded — was set into the press. Two men would then work together to simultaneously attach paper to the press and apply ink to the form of set type. The type was then pressed down onto the paper using the immense amount of pressure that the printing press provides. This process would be repeated for each page of the book. While looking at the Biblia Sacra, you can see how the letters look “stamped” onto the page. Some of the larger letters at the beginning of paragraphs — known sometimes as “historiated letters” or “drop caps,” in modern times — are not entirely black; they have patches of un-inked paper where the type did not evenly/entirely press down on the page.

Similarly, woodcuts were stamped or “pressed” onto the page during the printing process, negating the need for hand-painted illustrations and speeding up the book making process. Our Biblia Sacra makes plentiful use of woodcuts, as “Biblical scenes” appear at the beginnings of nearly all different sections, as well as fill up empty space at the ends. Another fun fact is that most woodcuts are not made specifically for individual texts, since they are both time-consuming to make and are relatively expensive. Instead, printers would have a repertoire of generic woodcuts on hand and would insert the most relevant or most closely-matching one into a text, much like how we use stock photos now. If you look closely, some woodcuts in the Biblia Sacra are reused in different sections, which indicates the illustrations are perhaps only loosely correlated with the scenes in the text.

However, in the case of our Biblia Sacra, there are a fair amount of non-generic woodcuts as well. The first few pages of each volume are dominated by large and very grand woodcut illustrations that seem specific to our text. Our Grafton & Co. catalog tells us that some of these illustrations — located in the front matter of the first volume — include “two engravings of insignia, of Christian IV of Denmark and the Archbishop of Bremen,” who seem to be the patrons the Bible is dedicated to. The first volume also contains the title page for the Biblia Sacra, as well as a dedication and “Preface to the Good and Benevolent Reader” by Davidis Wolderi/David Wolderus, an “opening” and “argument” by Johannem Brentium, and a “Preface by Martin Luther in the Old Testament” — all written in Latin.

Additionally, there are hand-written notes on and adjacent to the title page of the first volume, as well as on page 7 of volume II. The handwriting is perhaps that of the apparent past owner of the Bible — a J. W. Erle — whose name is scrawled on the inside cover of each volume. Unfortunately, these notes are indecipherable to us; it is even difficult to delineate whether they were written in English or German or, perhaps, Latin. However, these notes suggest that the Bible was, indeed, used and analyzed.


Tracing the Biblia Sacra’s Path through Time

Perhaps the most fun aspect of this project for us was tracking down each individual who had a hand in the Biblia Sacra’s history. While we will never know exactly how many owners the Bible had in its long, over 400-year time as a print object, the Bible contains clues as to its passage through time, space, and the hands that owned it.

David Wolder, or, Davidis Wolderi

We start with the man who most likely had the largest hand in the compilation and creation of the Bibila Sacra. On the title page, Wolder’s name is printed proudly above Lucius’, prefaced by the word “opera,” which roughly means “the works” (i.e. “the works of”) in Latin. WorldCat – our trusty world wide catalog – credits Wolder as the author of 163 works (although many may simply be slightly different editions or records of the Bibila Sacra). Born in Hamburg, Wolder was a preacher at the St. Petri church as well as, apparently, a publisher of large biblical works on the side. Throughout his book publishing career, Wolder continually found himself in financial trouble, as the production costs of such large and intricate works sometimes outweighed the sales returns. Wolder died in 1604 from the plague, after having nine children.

Jacob Lucius Junior

Jacob Lucius Junior – also known as “Jacob Lucius the Younger” – is the person who performed the actual printing of the Biblia Sacra. Born in 1570 in Helmstedt, Germany, Lucius learned the printing trade from his father, Jacob Lucius the Elder, whose specialty was creating woodcuts. The British Library has a page dedicated to Jacob Lucius the Elder that showcases these works, and this page can be found here if you are interested in exploring them. Although information on Lucius the Younger is sparse, his name surfaces in a blog post by Liz Broadwell, a cataloger at the University of Pennsylvania, who found a proof of a pamphlet printed at Lucius’ shop. According to Broadwell, “The younger Lucius first plied his trade in Braunschweig in the late 1580s and then in Hamburg in the mid-1590s, where he produced the lavishly illustrated Hamburg Polyglot, a trilingual scholarly Bible (1596). After his father’s death from plague, Lucius returned to Helmstedt to take over the family business in 1598; in 1600 he also succeeded his father as printer to the Academia Julia (later the Universität Helmstedt).” Broadwell also offers interesting information regarding the printing and editing process, highlighting the notations found on Lucius’ proof.

J. W. Erle a.k.a John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax

As we segue into talking about this next name associated with our Biblia Sacra, we begin to enter more uncertain territory. There is no complete paper trail that offers an explanation as to how the Bible made its way from the print shop into the hands of its new owner. Moreover, there is no definite way to know how many owners the Biblia Sacra had. However, we know that book owners would often sign their names on the inside covers of their property. Thus, we have one name to work with: the “J. W. Erle” that is scrawled on every volume of the Bible. As far as we can tell, J. W. Erle may refer to John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax, an Englishman born in 1800 with a long name and a short biography. Although Erle-Drax was a member of parliament – serving three times between 1841 and 1880 – he was apparently known as the “Silent MP” due to the fact that he never made but one statement while in office, which was only to request that a window be opened.

Grafton & Co. and Frank Hamel

Sometime between the living years of J.W. Erle and 1929, we know that the Biblia Sacra made its way into the possession of the Grafton & Co. bookselling company previously located at 51 Great Russell Street in London. The company, located directly across from the British Library, was one of many booksellers along Russell Street and the surrounding area. It sold a wide array of different material, including the books listed above in our catalog sheet, as well as antiquities, classics, and – surprisingly – books on library science. Its owner/proprietor, Frank Hamel, was also an author, as well as an editor for the publication called “The Library World.” Perhaps the most interesting fact to note here is that Hamel was, indeed, a woman (“Frank” was a penname for “Franny”), as well as a South African, who a colleague described as always wearing “a red wig” (Waterfield). In a description underneath the sales listing of archival material from the company (for those who are book history nerds and ephemera collectors), we found that “Hamel’s obituary in her periodical The Library World characterizes her as ‘the remarkable woman, who for about fifty years has owned and edited The Library World, and described herself as author, publisher and antiquarian bookseller.’” This “remarkable woman” – as she is so rightly titled! – amazes us, as we had blindly assumed that Frank Hamel was a man, for in 1929 (the year the Biblia Sacra was sold to two Americans and shipped over seas), women were not typically business owners – let alone women of color.

Bernard C. Clausen and L. H. Pennington

Next, we make our way “across the pond” to our buyers in New York – Bernard C. Clausen and L. H. Pennington, who apparently bought the Bible for the New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse. Clausen, whose obituary is printed next to an advertisement for Norge Refrigerators (“IT NEVER FROSTS!”) in a 1960s Binghamton, New York newspaper, was a minister for a Baptist church and authored several books in the religious genre, including “Preach it Again;” The Sermon Test and The Miracle of Me. Pennington was more of an academic; he was a Professor of Forest Botany and later a Pathologist at the state college. In a letter to C. L. Shear, a Pathologist in Washington, D.C., Pennington pleads with Shear to examine a sample of particular fungus that he believes to be associated with a “poplar cancer.” However, Shear has disappointed Pennington before: “I presume, however, that you have been too busy to give [it] your attention.” It seems even the community of botanists has its drama.

The Gladys E. Kelly Public Library

Finally, we make our way to the Gladys E. Kelly Public Library (formerly, the Chester C. Corbin Public Library) where our Biblia Sacra currently resides. Our collective memory of the Bible only goes back so far. In 2018, when we prepared to move our collection of materials from our temporary location at Webster Town Hall to the brand new library building, our Library Director, Amanda Grenier, found the Biblia Sacra in a ratty cardboard box stored in the back of the town hall’s auditorium stage. There are no records of the Bible’s arrival at either the library or the town hall. However, our blue index card does specify that it was “loaned” by Clausen. To whom, we do not know, and nor do we know when. But we do welcome anyone who wishes to see or study the Biblia Sacra. We are always happy to help!

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