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Rare Books Virtual Lecture — Historyes of English

The Rare Books Department invites you to view its most recent virtual lecture, Historyes of English.

Das Buch von Lindisfarne
Lucerne: Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 2002
ND3359 L5 L56 2002

Early manuscripts from western Europe can help us trace the histories of the English language. From these illuminated pages, we can see the integration of Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and German cultures. Books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels shed light on the themes and motifs that came from Mediterranean sources, and how they were combined with Celtic ornamentation and decorations native to the Germanic tribes themselves. 

Nearly two hundred years after the completion of this production, interlinear translations in Old English were added by Aldred, Provost of the community of St. Cuthbert. These translations represent the earliest known version of the gospels in any form of the English language.

The Trinity Apocalypse
Lucerne: Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 2004
ND3361 R52 T83 2004

As the cultures and languages evolved and integrated, so too did the production of books. The stylistic traditions began to shift from the Hiberno-Saxon to the Romanesque and then to the Gothic by the latter part of the 12th century. The Trinity Apocalypse, named for its repository, the Trinity College Library in Cambridge, is an exceptional example of the early Gothic, with its tall, thin figures and voluminous patterned drapery with expressive gestures and faces. Arguably the finest of the English illuminated Apocalypses, it represents a unique specimen in that it is written entirely Anglo-Norman French, and has no known direct copies.

A Leaf from the first edition of… The Coverdale Bible
Miles Coverdale
San Francisco, CA: Book Club of California no. 145 1974
BS146 W47 1974

The histories of English can be further traced into the age of the printing press. However, from the Gutenberg Bible of the mid-fifteenth century, it would take nearly one hundred years for the first complete Bible in English to be printed. The first edition of the Coverdale Bible was created by Miles Coverdale in 1535. In all, more than twenty editions of the Coverdale Bible were printed within eighteen years.

Love’s Labour’s Lost: original leaves from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th folio
William Shakespeare
London: s.n.,
PR2751 A1522 1623

By the seventeenth century, English printing suffered under the heaviest restrictions. The Star Chamber Decree of 1637 limited the number of licensed printers was just twenty. But despite these circumstances, books in England were still turned out in good numbers. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the two most often printed books in the English language appeared: the King James version of the Bible and the First Folio of the Shakespeare plays. Included in that First Folio Love’s Labour’s Lost. Full of sophisticated wordplay, puns and literary allusions, Love’s Labour’s Lost includes the longest scene and the longest speech in all of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the longest single word, honorificabilitudinittatibus.

Everything You Hear
Melissa Wagner-Lawler
Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 2012
N7433.4 W334 E94 2012

But the English language is not without its own linguistic diversity. Dialects, accents and hybrids of English can be found within books across the centuries. With such books, we are able to trace not only the origins of English grammar, spelling and vocabulary, but also understand the complexity of an ever-evolving language. How will our English histories continue to evolve? Will our digital and virtual worlds and words begin to influence how we speak and how we write? 

To learn more, visit the J. Willard Marriott Library YouTube page and view the full lecture, Historyes of English.


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