Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture

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Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture. By Kate Narveson Ashgate, 246pp, Pounds 55.00. ISBN 9781409441670. Published 28 September 2012

Last year was the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, with extravagant claims made about it being "the most important book written in the English language". Such a description inevitably induced some scepticism: did it make such a difference, translating the Bible into English? Did anybody apart from the clergymen and scholars with a vested interest actually read the Bible?

Kate Narveson's book gives a definite and exhilarating response to this question. She argues that not only did ordinary men and women read their English Bible, but they were truly transformed by it, arriving at a new realisation of their own identity and capabilities. Encountering the Bible turned people into skilled readers and, even more excitingly, into writers. In particular, it gave women a literary voice with new levels of authority and self-awareness. By the mid-17th century, the experience of Bible reading and the many forms of writing that it prompted had brought about a profound change in English culture.

All this came about because the Bible is, inconveniently, extremely hard to read and understand. As Narveson neatly illustrates, the religious reformers whose official line was that faith should be based on "scripture alone" were in fact deeply anxious about letting the uneducated loose on this vast and complex text. So they poured out instructions as to how it should be done. Over the period covered here, between about 1580 and 1660, their dutiful flocks learned to "digest" Scripture, through note-taking and the collating of texts, keeping of commonplace books and writing of miscellanies. They analysed, organised, summarised, and in the process almost inadvertently learned to compose, creating a "transitional landscape between a miscellany and a book of the author's own conceiving", where "biblical language was part of the cadences of daily life". …


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