by Kate Gibson
The blank spaces in bibles and other religious texts have long been used by families to record births, marriages and deaths. Historian Kathleen Ashley has found examples from sixteenth-century Books of Hours, and Lauren Winner and Karin Wulf have found that the practice was widespread in eighteenth-century America. As Tanya Evans has recently explored in an illuminating Twitter thread, there is a contemporary ‘roaring trade’ in orphaned family bibles. These objects can be useful and emotive prompts to genealogists, but also raise complex questions about the materiality of family history and the act of recording and memory-making.
For this project, we are looking at family bibles for evidence of lay religious belief and practice. So, our question is why was it particularly religious books that were chosen as repositories for family genealogies? Karin Wulf suggests that families were echoing the bible’s own status as a ‘genealogical text’; it did, after all, spend pages detailing the patrilineal descent of early Christians such as Adam or Noah. She suggests the practice had religious and worldly functions, in some cases used to demonstrate God’s providential goodness towards a family, and to prove access to inheritance and status. As Wulf states, ‘Perhaps embedding one’s own family history in the most important book of Christian family history created an authoritative echo’.
We suggested in a previous blog post that religious spaces were seen as particularly evocative prompts to memory, because they were seen as reassuringly dependable links to centuries of past worshippers. Religious texts may have performed the same function, which, as Lauren Winner states in her research into eighteenth-century elite American families, ‘created a kind of domestic or familial immortality’. Our evidence shows that this practice was also common among non-elites living in urban Northern England. Anglican William Robinson, a Durham tailor, recorded the births, deaths and marriages of his children in the flyleaf of their family bible from the 1780s, as did the Methodist Richardsons, living around Stockport and Manchester from the 1830s, and the Banks family of Cockermouth from the 1770s. The sixteenth-century bible belonging to the Dain (also spelled Dayne) family of Derbyshire and later of Manchester, contains hundreds of marginalia, including signatures and genealogical information.
In the bible belonging to the Rawson family, woollen manufacturers from Halifax, an extra inscription dated 1797 and preceding the genealogy, indicates the association of the bible with immortality: ‘Eternal Life God’s Word imparts, / Whereon each fainting Spirit lives’. Our evidence suggests that eighteenth-century individuals saw religious objects as eternal and above human concepts of time; they inscribed the reminders of the earthly passage of time and human mortality – birth, marriage, and death – on a bible, in the confidence that it would long outlive them. This was an act of kinship with biblical families, positing them as their spiritual ancestors and drawing on centuries of bible readers since. It is the equivalent of writing ‘I was here’, marking one’s existence on something that you thought would last. Although Winner also suggests that writing on bibles shows that they were not seen reverentially as sacred items, the practice of using them, rather than any other book, for preserving genealogical information suggests that they were considered as having a certain symbolic temporal power beyond the capacity of their temporary human custodians. The religious nature of the bible gave it a sense of permanence and security, above the vulnerability of human life.
Kathleen Ashley, ‘Creating Familial Identity in Books of Hours’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32. 1 (2002), pp. 145-65
Karin Wulf, ‘Bible, King and Common Law: Genealogical Literacies and Family History Practices in British America’, Early American Studies 10.3 (2012), pp. 467-502
Lauren Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New Haven, 2010)
DRO: D/X/422/1, Robinson family bible
Tameside Archives: DD320, Richardson family bible
CALSC, Whitehaven: 9 BIB, Banks family bible.
WYAS, Calderdale: WYC, 1525/6/8/1, Rawson family bible
The John Rylands Library: R211685, The Byble in Englyshe (London, 1541), also known as the Dain family bible or High Peak bible