From the Lowy Room: the magnificent 1657 Walton Polyglot Bible

Although Brian Walton sounds like a guy you could google or find on LinkedIn, one glance at his likeness in the 1657 Polyglot Bible, resplendent in bishop’s robes, quill in hand, will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Walton, indeed, was a product of the 17th century and left a legacy in the form of the magnificent multilingual Bible comprised of original tongues and early translations. Two versions of the bible were printed, the earlier one is known as the “Republican” version which thanks Cromwell in the dedication for removing the import tax on paper. The latter one is known as the “Loyal” version as it was printed after the Restoration of the Monarchy. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has the privilege of owning both versions. These bibles are just some of the treasures available in the Jacob Lowy Room at 395 Wellington Street for scholars and the general public due to the foresight of Mr. Lowy and LAC.

Colour photograph of a richly ornate book with gold leaf and the inscription “Bibla Polyglotta Walton” on the spine.

The 1657 Walton Polyglot Bible (AMICUS 940077)

If not for the Polyglot that bears his name, Walton’s face and backstory might not have made it to the 21st century, as his grave was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. An active and controversial clerical figure in the 1600s, he disagreed with some of his puritan parishioners and a House of Commons committee over the issue of tithes. Forced into early retirement in Oxford, he used the opportunity of enforced leisure to brush up on a few ancient languages, conceive a plan to create a polyglot Bible, sell the idea to eminent scholars of the day, and enlist the services of his colleagues who specialized in Eastern learning.

Colour photograph showing an image of a man standing in bishop’s robes with a quill in his hand and looking directly at the reader.

Engraving of Brian Walton in the introduction to the 1657 Polyglot Bible.

At least three polyglot Bibles had appeared in Europe in the 1600s but Walton was interested in creating a less costly, more saleable version. It was a successful commercial venture, even though Walton had priced it at £50. It often was the most expensive book on the shelves of scholars and gentlemen. This was the first work to be sold in England by subscription. By the time the work was ready for press, over £9,000 had been collected. It also represented a technological triumph of the day, being the first Bible to print all versions side by side on the same page.

Colour photograph showing the different languages side by side.

An example from the 1657 Polygot Bible with all the languages and scripts laid out

That is just one of the incredible features of this six-volume set that gives new meaning to the word “tome.” Seeing the ancient biblical text appearing in nine languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Persian on one page, with Latin translations of each language, makes you wish you had taken more languages at school.

The Walton Polyglot is a unique work with a unique story to tell, not only through its content but also through its more than 400-year journey from London into the Montreal home of Jacob Lowy who donated his entire world-class library of rare and old Hebraica to LAC in 1977.

For more information about the Lowy Collection, please visit http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/lowy-collection/index-e.html.

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