Beyond the Word

In the 1640s and 1650s several authors based in England attempted to produce universal languages in the wake of Francis Bacon who had already suggested the need for a “philosophical writing” with a direct correspondence between words and things.  Others were concerned about improving the speed or security of communications to overcome the barriers posed to conversion by differences between vernaculars. Advances in shorthand writing and in cryptography, especially during the English Civil Wars, as well as the discovery of new kinds of human language, such as Chinese, helped to encourage people to believe that breakthrough could be made in these areas. Behind this linguistic work lay the conviction that human beings had once spoken the same language, which corresponded exactly to nature, and that this language could be restored. It is in this light that one must understand the work of William Addy, a writing-master who had published Stenographia, or the Art of Short Writing (1684) before the bible in short-hand, three years after. The rebus Bibles, aimed at children, represent a degraded form of the same dream of a Bible beyond words.

Another way to present a Bible without words was to print suites of engravings, a specialty of the Antwerp printers since the 16th c. In England Puritan hostility to Biblical illustration waned during the Restoration, but the patent to print Bibles in the United Kingdom covered only the text of the Bible. Illustrations were thus had to be published apart, in suites engraved by artists such as John Sturt (1658-1730), who also illustrated the Book of Common Prayer, in 1713, or James Cole in 1724. They were then added to the text by booksellers or owners.