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What is the Most Important Book in the World?

Some thoughts on Literary Britain by Jim

The Winchester Bible, Book of Jeremiah


What is the most important Book in the World?  Christians are bound to say the Bible. And one of the most spectacular copies is the great Winchester Bible on display in Winchester Cathedral Library. It was produced in the twelfth century on the orders of the Bishop of Winchester, Henri de Blois.

Henri was the brother of King Stephen and one of the richest men in England. He needed to be. The Bible is written on calf-skin parchment and would have required no fewer than 250 calves to produce. Remarkably, it seems to have been written by a single scribe but the lavish illustrations, painted in the richest colours available, are by several hands. The Bible has been rebound on a number of occasions and today is displayed in four separate volumes.

British Library

The British Library

Some of the earliest Bibles are on display in the British Library. Of the three earliest known versions of the New Testament, two are in London (the third is in the Vatican). Written like the Winchester Bible on animal-skin parchment, the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Alexandrinus are, despite their antiquity, clearly legible. They are both written in Greek, and the plain text lacks any form of illustration which only became popular in the Mediaeval period. The earlier of the two, the Codex Sinaiticus is believed to date from the fourth century and takes its name from the ancient Monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was bought by the British Library from the USSR in 1933.

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

The British Library also has on display a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica which was published in the summer of 1687 in London. This was the book that began the Western Enlightenment and created the modern world.

Perhaps the most important copy of the book though is held, not in London, but in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. This was Isaac Newton’s personal copy and has the pencilled alterations he made when he was correcting the text in preparation for the publication of the second edition. On the title page, to which the book is normally open, the name of Samuel Pepys who was President of the Royal Society when the book was first published has been crossed out and Newton, who was President at the date of the second edition, has written his own name in.

Pepys, of course, was the great seventeenth century diarist and his own work is not far away. It is held in the Library of Magdalene College. Those of you who want to come and see these books should note that the college libraries are not normally open at weekends.

- Jim
Jim is one of the expert British Tours guides

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