New from Bodleian Publishing: The Bay Psalm Book

24 November 2014

The most expensive book in the world…

On 26 November 2013, Boston's historic Old South Church sold one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book at Sotheby's auction house in New York. The first copy to reach the open market since 1947, this unassuming little book with resounding historical significance set a new world auction record for any printed book when it sold for $14,165,000.

The Bay Psalm BookThe Bodleian Library in Oxford holds one of eleven known copies of the book and the only copy to survive outside of North America. Despite its submersion in the river Thames in 1731, when the barge carrying it to Oxford accidentally sank, this is one of the best preserved of the surviving copies. Published on the anniversary of the 2013 auction as a facsimile, The Bay Psalm Book faithfully reproduces every page of the original alongside a highly informative introduction to its historical, religious and literary significance by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

First printed book in North America

The Bay Psalm Bookholds the distinction of being the first book printed in North America. Moreover, the work is emblematic of everything that the first colonies in America stood for. As Michael Inman, curator of rare books at the New York Public Library, explained to the New York Times: 'These 11 copies symbolize the introduction of printing into the British colonies, which was reflective of the importance placed on reading and education by the Puritans and the concept of freely available information, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. All that fed into the revolutionary impulse that gave rise to the United States.'

Translating the Psalms

Twenty years after the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, New England Puritans were unhappy with contemporary translations of the Psalms and decided that they needed their own version, which would better represent their beliefs. A team of writers in the Massachusetts Bay settlement, including John Cotton and Richard Mather, set about translating the 150 psalms of King David into English from the original Hebrew, and setting the lyrics to a metre so that they could easily be sung in congregation.

The resulting translation was published as The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre in 1640 on a printing press brought over from Surrey. The unexperienced printer made so many errors that after listing the 'faults that escaped in printing' at the back of the book, he exhorted readers: 'the rest which have escaped through oversight, you may amend, as you finde them obvious'. After the original print run of 1,700 copies, the work was revised in numerous editions and became known as the Bay Psalm Book after the name of the colony. As a utilitarian book handled by worshipers many times a week, most copies of the original print run became worn and were lost. The Bodleian Library facsimile is made from a copy kept in a library, beautifully preserved and in excellent condition.

This is a chance to own a piece of history a facsimile copy of an exceptionally rare and important text and at a fraction of the $14.2 million cost.

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