The Bibles of Salisbury House

There are a lot of myths and apocryphal tales about Salisbury House that have taken root in the popular perception of Carl and Edith Weeks’ amazing home. Some of the ones that we hear most often include:

  • “The house was moved intact, brick by brick, piece by piece, from England.” The real story: The house is modeled after King’s House in Salisbury, England, and some architectural elements were acquired in England, while others came from more mundane locations, including cobblestones ripped up from High Street in Des Moines.
  • “Carl Weeks’ father died when he was a young boy.” The real story: Carl’s father and mother separated, and Carl’s father lived for many years afterward, into Carl’s own adulthood, in northwestern Iowa; this myth was repeated often enough that the story of Carl’s father’s premature passing actually made it onto our visitor center signs before recent research proved it wrong!
  • “Carl Weeks collected or tried to collect every Bible ever printed.” The real story: Carl only collected a tiny fraction of the probably immeasurable number of Bibles that have been printed since the first Gutenberg edition in 1454, but among the ones that he did collect are some of the most important and beautiful Bibles ever produced.

Spine from our oldest complete Bible, published in Venice.

One of our conceptual planning ideas for 2013 or 2014 is to curate an exhibition of some of the more incredible pieces from the Salisbury House Bible Collection, most of which spend most of their time locked away in climate controlled, high security rooms. We’re going to be doing some fundraising for this project and perhaps reach out to some area churches as presenting or collaborating sponsors over the next year, since we’ll have some significant costs associated with safely sharing these works with the public, while also conducting the in-depth research required to interpret and present them in the ways that they deserve to be seen.

But until we get there, we’ve been doing a little bit of preliminary research just to get our hands around the holdings, and there are some exciting things that we can share with you now, just to give you a sense of what we’re finding.

In addition to our many Bibles printed with movable type, we also have some earlier hand-lettered and illuminated incunabula from the 13th to 15th Centuries. Our oldest Biblical documents were produced in 1200 and 1225 in England; they are single, hand-illuminated leaves, one from a Psalter, one from a Bible. We also have three illuminated Books of Hours dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Dutch Bible, 1553.

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s, is obviously a landmark work of art and culture, a true game-changer for the ages. There are only 48 substantially complete copies left in the world today, and none have changed hands since the 1970s. In 1921, though, a New York book dealer dismantled a damaged copy and sold individual leafs to collectors; these are now known as “Noble Fragments,” and we have one of them here at Salisbury House. We also have two leaves from the 1460 Gutenberg Catholicon (another seminal early printed work, this one a Latin encyclopedia cum dictionary) and a leaf from the original 1611 King James Bible, among many other fragmentary pieces.

Our oldest complete Bible was printed in Venice in 1483 by Franciscus Renner of Heilbrun. It was clearly a working or study Bible, and many of its pages contain hand-written marginalia exhibiting the distinctive sepia tone of aged iron gall ink. We also have the New Testament from a Douay-Rheims Bible (1582, the first translation of the Bible from Latin Vulgate to English), a complete Dutch Bible from 1553, a 1607 English Bible bound with The Book of Common Prayer and Sternhold and Hopkin’s Psalms of David, a Greek Apocrypha from 1612, and many dozen other Bibles printed around the world up through the middle of the 20th Century.

Bruce Rogers’ massive Oxford Lectern Bible (1935), next to a reproduction of a Gutenberg set, for scale.

In addition to his interests in the Bible itself, Carl Weeks was also fascinated by and hugely supportive of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century, wherein the art of book-making was celebrated in ways that matched the magnificence of a text’s words with illustrations, paper and binding of equal brilliance. The Salisbury House Library features two epic books inspired by this cultural movement: Bruce Rogers’ 1935 Oxford Lectern Bible (we have one of the 200 large format editions)  and the 1903-1905 Doves Bible. Every facet of these books is beautiful, and they are truly great works of art in their own rights.

Five volume Doves Bible, 1903-1905.

Some of our Bibles aren’t important because of the quality of their construction or when or where they were printed, but rather because of who owned them. We have Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament, for example, along with Bibles either inscribed or owned by John Trumbull, James Boswell, William Henry Harrison, and others. Carl’s favored book-dealer was a gentleman named Harry Marks, from New York City, and we often find notes from Harry in our books themselves or letters in our archives providing background or provenance for Carl’s benefit.

C.L. Dodgson signed his Greek New Testament; most know him as Lewis Carroll of “Alice in Wonderland” fame.

While we work to develop a full exhibition of our Bibles over the next couple of years, we are going to be taking one step in the short-term to allow some of these fragile or priceless pieces to be seen, without subjecting them to the rigors of daily exhibitions and tours. In January, we will be launching what we’re nominally calling “The Treasures Tour.” It will be an evening tour, held once per month, to a limited number of people (probably 20), with preregistration required. We are developing a list of items that will be shown each month of this tour (likely including the Gutenberg leaf, along with some of the other Bibles mentioned above), and will also feature a few wild card items each month, perhaps inspired by the season, or happenings in the world around us, or simply by finding something remarkable in our research.

Harry Marks’ notes, Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament.

In the early 1990s, when the founders of the Salisbury House Foundation were assessing the true merit in preserving Salisbury House as a historic house museum, they engaged the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct an assessment of the house and its holdings. Their conclusion: “Salisbury House is a nationally significant architectural resource; its decorative arts and book collections are unique to the Midwest.”

I know I speak for everyone on the staff here, as well as our volunteers and board members, when I say that we are all actively committed to working in the years ahead to continually return to and be invigorated by the fundamental principle upon which our organization is built: that Salisbury House is truly, truly special, and its collections are worthy of international recognition.

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