[Ed. Note: This is the first part of a series by participants in the Rare Book School course on “The Bible and Histories of Reading,” taught by Peter Stallybrass with the assistance of Lynne Farrington, on a single bible at Penn: The Byble, which is all the Holy Scripture: in whych are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament, truly and purely translated into Englysh by Thomas Matthew (Printed in Antwerp by Thomas Crum? for the London Booksellers Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch, 1537), STC 2066, UPenn RBC Folio BS150 1537]
In the Summer of 2016, Philadelphia hosted four courses for the Rare Book School, three of them held in the Kislak Center on the 6th floor of the Van Pelt Library. The participants in the seminar on “The Bible and Histories of Reading” worked on a wide range of manuscripts and books in Penn’s collections, from fourteenth-century books of hours to nineteenth-century salesmen’s sample bibles (used in door to door book-selling, promoting the “same” bible in different bindings and with a variety of illustrations and additional materials at a wide range of prices). But the group also worked on the history of one particular bible from its printing in sixteenth-century Europe to its arrival in the USA in the nineteenth century. The specific copy that we studied is a “Matthew” Bible, printed in 1537. The bible is so named because it claims on the title page that it was “truly and purely translated into Englysh by Thomas Matthew.”
But who was “Thomas Matthew”? It was already known in the sixteenth century that the name was a pseudonym. John Foxe wrote in the 1570 edition of his Acts and Monuments:
thou hast louing reader, to note and vnderstand that in those dayes there were ij. sundry Bibles in Englishe, [p. 1402] printed and set forth, bearing diuers titles, and printed in diuers places. The first was called Thomas Mathews Bible, printed at Hambrough, about the yeare of our Lord. 1532. the correctour of whiche printe was then Iohn Rogers… In the translation of this Bible, the greatest doer was in dede William Tyndall, who with the helpe of Myles Couerdale had translated all the bookes therof, except only the Apocripha, and certein notes in the margent, which were added after. But because the sayd William Tyndall in the meane tyme was apprehended before this Bible was fully perfected, it was thought good to them whiche had the doyng therof, to chaunge the name of William Tyndall, because that name then was odious, and to father it by a straunge name of Thomas Mathewe, Iohn Rogers the same tyme beyng correctour to the printe, who had then translated the residue of þe Apocrypha, and added also certeine notes thereto in the margent, and thereof came it to bee called Thomas Mathewes Bible.
If “Thomas Matthews” was a pseudonym, was it the pseudonym of Tyndale or of John Rogers? Both had reason to conceal their names while the translation was in the making, but in 1537, when the bible was printed, Tyndale had already been executed as a heretic. Although Tyndale’s name would have made the book impossible to market in England, it was Rogers who had the more immediate reason to conceal his identity, given that the fate of this revised translation was by no means assured. Moreover, Rogers was repeatedly referred to during his later prosecution for heresy under Mary Tudor as “John Rogers, alias Matthew.” The initials “I R” (“I” and “J” being the same letter in the sixteenth century, so presumably standing for “Iohn Rogers”) are printed from large and elaborate woodblock letters below “An exhortacyon to the studye of the holy Scriptures gathered out of the Byble” (sig. *4).
Such fine and elaborate woodblock letters as these were not being cut in London, which was far behind Antwerp in terms of printing technology in the sixteenth century – and it was indeed in Antwerp that the bible was printed. In 1534, Rogers had arrived in Antwerp, where he was appointed chaplain to the English merchants at the English House. William Tyndale, who had already translated the New Testament from Greek into English (1526), as well as the Pentateuch from Hebrew into English (1530), was at that time living in the English House. Even after his arrest in 1534, Tyndale continued to work on the parts of the bible that he had not yet translated, above all the historical books. But it is probable in our view that he had support from other biblical scholars, including Rogers, and there has been perhaps too great a tendency to attribute most of the new work to Tyndale alone. In addition to his work as co-translator, Rogers added prefaces, marginal notes, cross-references, and chapter summaries, largely drawn from the French translations of Lefèvre d’Étaples and Pierre Robert Olivétan that Martin de Keyser had published in Antwerp (1530, 1534, 1535). If it is the work of Rogers that the elaborate “I R” initials point to, it is above all his biography that the Penn copy of the Matthew Bible celebrates through the later additions pasted into it.
By the nineteenth century, when Penn’s copy was brought to the United States, “John Rogers,” whose identity was deliberately obscured except for his initials in 1537, had become a household name – nowhere more so than in New England. John Singleton Copley painted a portrait of him in 1759, which was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1854. Several further copies of Copley’s painting, with the inscription “Martyrio Coronatus, 4 Feb. 1555” (“crowned as a martyr, 4 February 1555”), were also made. An early painting of Rogers also hangs in the museum of the Worcester Historical Society.
A lithograph of this Worcester painting was pasted into the front of Penn’s Matthew Bible in the nineteenth century. The lithograph was printed with the following text:
John Rogers the Martyr; The Coadjutor of Tyndale: who under the name of ‘Thomas Matthew,’ translated in part and revised the Text, from the Hebrew and Greek, arranged the Canon, compiled notes, summaries, a rudimentary concordance and commentary, and published, August 4, 1537, the first Authorised Version of the English Bible, placed by authority in every parish church. Proto-martyr of Queen Mary’s reign. Burnt alive in Smithfield, Feb. 4, 1555. The original painting in the Historical Society’s Museum, Worcester, Mass., brought over in the Mayflower by Thomas Rogers, who signed the ‘Social Compact’ at Plymouth, Mass., Nov. 21, 1620, and afterwards founded the family at Salem, by whom the portrait was deposited at Worcester, Mass., U.S.A.
The description above helps to account for the specific interest in John Rogers in North America, since not only was he a “puritan” who had suffered martyrdom for his beliefs but his namesake Thomas Rogers (in fact, unrelated) could be directly connected to the founding colonists. Thomas Rogers, a member of the English separatist church in Leiden, did indeed move to New England, but it is unlikely, although not impossible, that he brought a painting of John Rogers with him.
Probably at about the same time that the lithograph of the Worcester painting was added to the Penn bible, another depiction of Rogers was pasted in on the following blank leaf. This second portrait is an engraving by the Flemish draughtsman and engraver Crispin van der Passe (c1565-1637), who began working in Antwerp, but, as an Anabaptist, fled from the Counter-Reformation city to Cologne in 1589, before fleeing again to Utrecht in 1611. The two images on the blank leaves at the beginning of Penn’s “Matthew” Bible are clearly intended as author-portraits: even though their texts relate primarily to Rogers’s martyrdom, their positioning asserts Rogers’s role as “author” of the “Matthew” Bible.
Below van der Passe’s engraving is a Latin couplet by the Dutch antiquarian and humanist, Arnoldus Buchelius (=Aernout van Buchell), together with his “AB” monogram:
“IOHANNES ROGERSIVS MART:
Te pietas alium JANE hinc abduxit in orbem
Martyrem vt et patriae redderet inde tuae. AB”
[“John Rogers, Martyr. With you, John, piety has been drawn away from here to another world [i.e. heaven], restoring you to your fatherland as a martyr. AB”)
Buchelius (1565–1641) was from Utrecht, so presumably the engraving was done between 1611, when van der Passe arrived in Utrecht, and 1620, when it was published in Henry Holland’s Heroologia Anglica,
It was not, however, such sophisticated representations of John Rogers that turned him into a household name in America. On the contrary, they are themselves testimony to the fame that he had already achieved because of his prominent place in the single most popular children’s primer in colonial America. The New-England Primer, of which perhaps five million copies were printed before the American Revolution, gives an extraordinary and striking prominence to Rogers not only as the author of a long poem that he supposedly wrote shortly before his execution but also because of the woodcuts in nearly every edition that depict him being burned to death in front of his wife and children. Here are three such images from Penn’s small collection of primers.
Like so much of the greatest Christian art prior to the Renaissance, these images for children are resolutely anachronistic. Very occasionally, one finds a soldier wearing armor who might indeed have come from the sixteenth century. But the great majority of these cuts show an eighteenth-century clergyman, an eighteenth-century wife, and eighteenth-century soldiers. If the cuts are dated, it is because they continued to be used for decades after they were made. But the stress is upon the present: yes, John Rogers was executed in 1554, but it is also happening right now.