Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Colonial Ribaldry

August having finally arrived, I can at long last share a minor bibliographic discovery I made a couple months ago. For a seminar paper this spring I wrote on John Eliot's 1663 "Indian Bible," (Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God) a single-handed translation of the Bible into the Natick dialect of Massachusetts. This was the first Bible printed (in any language) in North America, and was the most substantive single printing project in the colonial period.

As part of the paper I decided to write up a bibliographic/provenance history of each of the copies of Eliot's Bible currently held at Massachusetts libraries (ten of the several dozen extant copies worldwide), by way of partially updating the most recent census of copies (done way back in 1890 by Wilberforce Eames). My full findings will hopefully make their way out into the world eventually, but I'm waiting on a couple outstanding questions before I do too much more with them (and, if I have time someday, I'd like to complete the full census of all remaining copies).

The most interesting and unexpected discovery I made was close to home; when I examined the Eliot Bible held at the Massachusetts Historical Society I found some odd lines of verse scrawled on a rear endleaf. They were not mentioned in either the MHS catalogs or Eames' bibliography of the Bible, so needless to say I was surprised to see them, and more than a little perplexed, since they didn't seem to make much sense at all:

"When sturdy storms are gon and past
shall pleasand calmes appare
I oftimes see in ashes deepe
ly hiden coles of fire
with fervent thou"

I called in the Librarian - who was just as surprised as I was to find them there - and we started digging around, searching databases and other sources for some of the strange word strings in the poem ("hidden coals of fire," "sturdy storms" &c.). JSTOR yielded the answer, and it turned out to be a fascinating one, so we've made the poem our Object of the Month for August. Turns out the poem, in complete form, is an acrostic - read the first word of each line from top to bottom, and there you'll have the question (the complete form and more commentary are here).

I'm still doing some research into acrostics of this sort and during this time period, but my guess is that this is probably a particularly early example of this specific type. As I find more, I'll certainly pass it along, and if any readers have any suggestions or thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

It's things like this that make bibliography fun - not only for the little hint of scandal, but also simply for the many neat avenues of inquiry that open up with each new discovery.