You may have noticed that Hannibal Hamlin’s recent post on Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, and the King James Bible began “Happy Birthday Walter!” And with good reason. As we look back on the Manifold Greatness blog since its own birth announcement on March 15, 2011, birthdays and other anniversaries have been an enormous help to us in tracing the origins and cultural influences of the 1611 King James Bible, from its time to the present day. Many of our posts have been quite different, of course, with no anniversary connotation. But again and again, we’ve found that anniversary dates are a welcome and frequent part of the mix.
A special date, like Whitman’s birthday, not only gives a blog post an easy-to-understand reason for appearing when it does; it often means that there will be other links and resources elsewhere for readers to explore on the same day on the same topic. For our blog, paying attention to such dates has also created, in effect, a real-world immersion in the width and breadth of the King James Bible’s influence, so that we find ourselves noting the anniversary of the first Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) one day, the death date of reggae superstar Bob Marley another day, and the death of King James Bible translator John Rainolds on yet another. Others in an almost endless list of examples include the anniversaries of the reading from Genesis from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit, the death of William Blake, and the death of Elvis Presley.
Anniversary dates can be tough deadlines, too. Behind the scenes, we’ve occasionally found ourselves scrambling to create a post on or near belatedly discovered date. Steve Galbraith produced that post on the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death in a matter of hours; Helen Moore, at the Bodleian, wrote the Rainolds tribute in very short order; and, quite recently, Hannibal Hamlin marked the rarely noted anniversary of the death of Casiodoro de Reina, a crucial early Spanish Bible translator, with just a few hours’ notice. For all of which and more, many thanks to all three!
King James Bible-influenced poems, songs, movies, television shows, and other creative works have anniversaries to celebrate, too, from the release of the 1956 film version of Moby Dick to the debut of the Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn. Handel’s Messiah has given rise on this blog to posts on Handel’s birthday, the anniversary of the oratorio’s original Dublin premiere, and the modern custom of performing it in the days before Christmas rather than during Lent, the period before Easter. Christmas and Easter, of course, are among the annual holidays—religious and secular, fixed-date like Christmas and moveable feast like Easter—that we have marked on the blog, too, which has also included posts tied to Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, among others.
Ultimately, the impulse to celebrate anniversaries led to the entire Manifold Greatness project, inspired by the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Bible, and to countless other projects around the globe in the anniversary year of 2011. But the same impulse has also inspired a modern King James Bible myth. The natural desire to link the King James Bible to a specific date, as well as to the year 1611, has led to the widespread, but false, idea that the King James Bible was first published on May 2, one of several King James Bible myths debunked on this blog over time.
King James himself, of course, is inevitably linked to several anniversary dates, including the date of his coronation. On June 19, 2011, we first wished him “Happy Birthday, King James!” You can wish him the same next Wednesday, as June 19 rolls around once more.
My two favorite categories of English language idioms are those derived from printing and those derived from baseball. I can find no excuse for discussing baseball terms and phrases in a blog devoted to the King James Bible, so I’ll simply provide you with this link to Wikipedia and move on to printing.
One of the happy byproducts of the history of bookmaking is the bits of language that have traveled out of the printing house and into our common English parlance. Calling letters upper and lower case, for example, comes from the physical arrangement of the two type cases that held majuscule (capital or upper case) letters and minuscule (lower case) letters. For a visual aid, check out these photos from the Bodleian Library.
Other common idioms that may have bibliographic roots are “out of sorts” and “mind your p’s and q’s.” I have small children, so I often find myself talking like I’m in a printing house. The truth is, however, that the jury is out on these origins of these phrase, but The Happy Dragons’ Press is on the case (please note that “on the case” is not a printer’s term).
Another common bibliographic idiom travels back centuries to early manuscript Bibles. Today the term “red-letter day” is often used to donate special days of any sort, but it has its origins in liturgical calendars found in manuscript and printed Bibles. While most of the days of the calendar were written or printed in black ink, the more special days were emphasized by being written or printed in red ink. These red-letter days typically included saint’s days and other festivals.
Like most Bibles that came before it, the King James Bible includes a calendar. The page from the 1611 King James Bible shown above in full (with a close-up view here) is for the month of December, which happens to contain a number of red-letter days—including, of course, Christmas.
Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
NOTE: For audio comments from Steven Galbraith on how the printer used black and red inks on this calendar page (and for a closer look at the page itself), go to Read the Book on the Manifold Greatness website; select “December calendar” from the Choose a Page menu. Read the Book is also available at a computer station within the Manifold Greatness exhibition, on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library through January 16.