Polyglot editions of the Bible were flagships of sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanist scholarship. Erudite works grounded on the collection, collation, and publication of manuscript texts of scripture in an increasingly ambitious and bewildering array of languages, they promised to provide the materials for an eventual reconstruction of the original, pure text of the Bible, as it had been dictated by the Holy Ghost, based on the comparison of the variant readings preserved in the different languages through which the tradition had been transmitted in antiquity. Over a period of more than two decades, scholars in Paris had worked to produce a grand Polyglot, which was eventually completed in 1645. Impressive though they were, the resulting volumes were prohibitively expensive (a set cost as much as £50), and failed to include the fruits of all the manuscript and linguistic traditions which had become available to western critics by the 1640s. As a result, the idea was raised in England of editing a new Polyglot, including fresh material (especially in Arabic, Samaritan, and Syriac) drawn from a wider and more accurate range of sources, which would be laid out in a more helpful fashion and made available at a more affordable price.
The London Polyglot was conceived by Brian Walton (1600–61), the former rector of St Martin’s Orgar (see also catalogue nos. 75 and 77 ), who had been deprived in 1641 because of his introduction of Laudian ceremony and his disagreements with his parishioners over the payment of tithes. Resident again in London during the 1650s, Walton quickly won the backing of Archbishop Ussher and John Selden, and, in 1652, his project was given the approbation of the Council of State. In the following year, Walton and his agents were promised the right to import paper for the printing of the Polyglot without payment of duty. This was a significant concession which substantially reduced production costs and allowed the use of high-quality paper from the Auvergne for at least some of the work. The undertakers began to raise subscriptions for the printing of the Polyglot, promising to supply the entire book for a down-payment of £10.
The initial prospectus for Walton’s Polyglot generated critical comment, not least from Arnold Boate (see catalogue no. 79), in part because of the poor quality of its Hebrew and Syriac type, and the resulting large number of errors which it contained. Nevertheless, by 1653, Walton had found a new printer, Thomas Roycroft, and had new oriental types cut for the printing of the Polyglot. Sufficient money had been raised to allow printing to begin in 1653 or 1654, when Walton delivered the first parts of the manuscript of the text of the Pentateuch. Walton had also assembled an impressive array of collaborators, who aided him in the production of the complex text of the Polyglot, where Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Samaritan, and Syriac versions of parts of the Bible jostled with one another, sometimes requiring the presentation of as many as eight variants of the same passage, side by side.
Over the four years between 1653 and 1657, Walton and his collaborators gathered manuscript readings from across Europe, and collated them into the successive parts of the Polyglot. The work was completed with exceptional speed, although (to the later surprise of Henry Oldenburg) Walton was frustrated in his attempt to include Coptic and Armenian materials by the failure of copies of manuscripts to arrive from Rome. The last volume of the Polyglot contained a battery of scholarly commentary and material by Walton’s collaborators, and the editor himself added a series of lengthy prolegomena to the first volume, in which he published the findings of several Continental scholars, notably Louis Cappel (see catalogue no. 79 ). The prolegomena were illustrated with engravings by Wenceslaus Hollar, including some modelled on Villalpando’s designs of the Temple (see catalogue no. 51 ).
Although there were problems in obtaining the promised grant for duty-free paper, which held up production and contributed to some delays in the distribution of copies to subscribers, and although the price had to be raised slightly to take account of extra material, the London Polyglot was a considerable success. There were those who were worried by the implications of its scholarship, but few questioned its accuracy and completeness, or the achievement in bringing it to press so quickly. Hartlib considered that the production of the Polyglot underlined the potential usefulness of government support for a standing learned press. Walton thanked Cromwell and the Council of State for their patronage in the original preface to the Polyglot, but always wished to dedicate the work to the exiled Charles II, which he was able to do in 1659. After the Restoration, in 1660, Walton was appointed Bishop of Chester. By then, the international reputation of his work was established, and foreign as well as English scholars were eager to purchase copies that remained for sale at prices which had risen to £17 or £18.
The first volume of the Polyglot, containing the Pentateuch, which was the first part to be printed, and the prolegomena, which were published last, was illustrated with an engraved portrait of the editor by Pierre Lombart (see figure in catalog 77 ). It shows Walton at work, with the sources of the Polyglot and some of the major works of Continental scholarship on his shelves behind him. Facing the portrait was the title-page, engraved by Hollar according to a design by John Webb. This is in the form of a triumphal arch, bearing illustrations of eight biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, several scenes from the life of Christ, and, in the centre of the design at the top, the gift of tongues at Pentecost. Both symbolically and literally, Walton’s Polyglot reunited the languages which had been separated at Babel, and promised to achieve a new understanding of the message of the Holy Ghost through its mastery of the divided traditions of the biblical text.