An Even More Curious Inscription

Posted By on October 23, 2011

Ok, I know that was unfair, to post something private and password protected.

And I can tell from the number of hits the post received that a lot of you are looking for “curious inscriptions.”

So I’ll make it up to you.

In case anyone has not realized it yet, I’m taking my time with the full reveal of the de Vere Bible annotations because, well, I like to take my time.

It’s certainly not as if there aren’t plenty of related topics to blog about.  I especially enjoy the chance to reflect on some of the more curious episodes of recent intellectual history or listen in on Mark Anderson at Studio 360.

And, alas, although the subject of the “curious inscription” post is near and dear to my heart, it is also, it turns out,  more properly the topic for a major peer-reviewed article — after which the blogging will begin. I promise.

More than one wise adviser has told me, in no uncertain terms, not to blog this thing first, or has questioned my sanity for even entertaining such an idea.

But given the unrequited interest the padlocked post provoked, I thought I should offer a plausible substitute.

So here it is, for those who have not yet seen it: Wisdom 18.21 from the de Vere Geneva Bible:

Wisdom 18.21 with marginal note: "the weapon of the godly is Praier." Kindness the good people at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

What does it say, you ask?

Good question, and one I pondered for some time before getting it myself.

It says  “[the wea] pon of [the go]dly is Praier.”

That’s right.

The Bible has been cropped, so we must reconstruct the missing letters. But, the Bible verse is pretty clear:  “the blameless man made haste…..& toke the weapons of his ministration, even praier…and so broght miserie to an end.”

The reconstruction seems beyond reasonable doubt.

The more interesting question is, what does this mean?

Well, I’ve written a bit on this in the dissertation, and much more extensively in the book manuscript, but here are  a few out-takes for you.

For starters it would appear that Queen Margaret in II Henry VI has been reading Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible, for she  declares of Henry VI, none too charitably, that

his champions are the prophets and the apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ, his study his tilt yard.

Perhaps the idea is also reflected, more abstractly, in the words of Gaunt  in Richard II when he urges to Gloucester’s widow,  “put we our quarrel to the will of heaven” (1.2.6), rather than pursue vengeance for Gloucester’s death.

One might add to this any number of other (slightly less compelling) parallels, but there is little point in heaping these up here and now. Newcastle is already well provided with those coals, as readers of my dissertation are aware.

More importantly, the annotation — the longest in the Bible not counting corrections of missing lines in the printed text — conveys something of deep interest about how the annotator views language.

Language, to him, can be a weapon.

Hamlet agrees: I will speak daggers to her but use none.

In the caption to Jupiter’s Moons in a previous post I mentioned modern “speech act theory.”  Among other only partly novel claims, my book will argue that Shakespeare understood, and pioneered, much of modern speech act theory as first articulated in J. L. Austin’s classic How to do Things with Words (1955).

This is not an entirely a novel idea, although I’m going to take the idea in a new and unprecedented direction. Linguists like Joseph A. Porter, whose The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare’s Lancastrian Trilogy (1979) is a formative text on the topic, know that Shakespeare’s philosophy of language is not only profound but systematic.

The bard knows how to “do things with words” — magic things, Orphic things.

Stay tuned.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


7 Responses to “An Even More Curious Inscription”

  1. knitwitted says:

    Very good about your bible project. Have you checked other copies of the Geneva Bible for similar annotations? Looks like the Folger has two other copies of the bible. I would assume more copies exist elsewhere. Seems to me if other annotated copies don’t correspond to usage in the Shakespearean works, you’d have a stronger case for the de Vere copy.


  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hey Knit, nice to hear from you. I think the Folger has many early Bibles. But since Oxford probably only owned one (or perhaps a handful), its more likely that we will find annotations by him in other books than the Bible. I think we’re making good progress on this score, although without provenance, heraldic bindings, or signatures, the case would have to depend solely on handwriting, which is a higher burden of proof. Nevertheless, I’m optimistic, and if anyone has volumes they want evaluated, I’m available for free consultation.

  3. knitwitted says:

    Hi Roger, Thanks very much for your answer but I think we might be on two different ideas. I was thinking more broadly in terms of what topics other Elizabethan bible readers might be interested in based on their annotations. Seems to me it would be an interesting insight into their values/beliefs. And presumably people back then were into group think (have people really changed that much over the years?!) and everybody’s bible would be marked similarly. Possibly none of these other annotated bibles fit the Shakespearean works giving a higher value to de Vere’s bible.

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Ah yes, I see. Well, you raise several questions.

    On groupthink, not really.

    Remember that this was an age of great religious upheaval and controversy over doctrine. From what I can tell, beyond the sermon on the mount, the Lord’s prayer, and the other commonplace topoi that we still today might associate with the Bible, there was tremendous variety in what readers paid attention to. Very few of the de Vere Bible annotations matching Shakespeare belong to what we might call a “generic Bible culture.” They tend to cluster in such places as the apocrypha — which Puritans for example hated — or Samuel. Even those from the Gospels or the Pauline letters are not for the most part what we could call “commonplaces,” based on comparison with other theological texts of the age.

    The group which perhaps most closely fits this description are actually those from Samuel, since many of the verses on non-resistance (i.e., in which David refuses to kill Saul) show up in the anonymous 1570 homily Against Disorder and Willful Disobedience and hence *do* constitute Elizabethan commonplaces. The match is actually quite strong between the de Vere Bible and that document.

    Does that mean the “groupthink argument works, at least in part?


    But it might also mean, as Mark Anderson has suggested, that the young de Vere is the author of the homily! Personally, I think that Mark will eventually be proven correct. The best that can be said for the “groupthink” theory on this point is that there’s a piece of evidence that might be interpreted to support it. But since the homily is anonymous, and de Vere had means, motive, and opportunity to be the author — unless and until someone identifies another author, the wheel’s still in spin…..:)

    In the appendices to my dissertation I surveyed the pattern of Bible references in Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser’s *Fairy Queene* and showed that the patterns are very different from both Shakespeare and those in the de Vere Bible. I also looked at Rabelais and Montaigne, although the data available for comparison were less comprehensive for those French writers. Going at this from the other direction, i.e. examining other annotated Bibles, is something I haven’t tried to do in any detail, but it could be done. I’m more interested in the possibility of other books from de Vere’s library.

    As for the larger question that is at least implied by your line of inquiry, it just so happens that there’s an excellent new book on that topic by William Sherman, at the York Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies ( that I just received and have started reading. The book is called Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, and is available for a very reasonable price from Amazon:

    Sherman’s book is an invaluable analysis — the best available as far as I can tell — of the larger question of how Early Modern/Renaissance readers approached the task of creating meaning from a written text, and how they interacted with printed books by leaving annotations, manicules, and other written marks in them. Come to think of it, I really should review Sherman’s book on the site here. Too bad in a way there’s so much else (Anonymous etc.) going on…..

    Thanks for the good ideas!

  5. knitwitted says:

    Excellent post! Very interesting stuff here… you’ve given me lots to think about (no “groupthink” for me). Very funny you’ve noted my favorite part of your dissertation… comparing bible references in others’ works to both Shakespeare and the de Vere Bible. (Can you tell I adore methodology? 🙂 Much obliged for the heads-up on Sherman’s book… per his preface: “[Case studies] have been devoted either to the marginalia and related notes produced by individual readers… or “to the notes by different readers in multiple copies of a single text.” . Personally, I like population studies as an overview and then address specific anomalies but do understand very well limitations on resources, I truly applaud your choice to focus on finding more of de Vere’s annotated books and look forward to updates of your work! And yes, too bad in a way there’s so much else going on… maybe you’d have time to hire that assistant if you weren’t so dang busy…

  6. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hey Knit, thanks for the comment.

    I think there’s a lot more to be done along the lines of statistical analysis of the Bible annotations. But there are also significant methodological problems that even good statisticians have puzzled over. And, not being a statistician, I have tended to leave that inquiry to others. I’m learning some stats, but rather slowly given all the other things that I find an interest in these days.

    And the bottom line is that statistical analysis is only one way to approach the question of the significance of the annotations. I plan to focus on other matters in the book, especially on what the marked verses on language, of which there are a number, say about how “Shakespeare” approached the communicative potentials of using language in innovative and creative ways — a very rich topic to explore.

    Best wishes.

  7. […] re-reading his own findings, Dr. Stritmatter realizes for the first time the beauty of his own work and its importance to Bible scholars, […]

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