Jonathan Schofield on the pain of the typo: check and check again

Every professional writer and every publisher fears the error that gets printed. Sometimes it might be a misplaced apostrophe or a misspelling which proves embarrassing. We know that pain well at Personally I know it well. 

But by far the worst errors are the ones that change the whole meaning of a sentence or passage. John Rylands Library on Deansgate contains a classic example of this in what became known as the Wicked Bible.

This was in a section you thought might have been checked and re-checked again and again

Robert Barker and Martin Lucas in 1631 published in London a handy pocket-size Bible. It wasn't sub-edited properly and there was a tiny error. Very small really. Three little letters were omitted. Easily done. 

Yet, this was in a section you thought might have been checked and re-checked again and again.

2023 12 13 John Rylands Library Wicked Bible
Hey, we can do number 7 Image: Confidentials

The three little letters were the word 'not' and they were omitted from seventh of the Ten Commandments. So 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' became ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. Remember, this was not a suggestion - it was an order from God. 

The printers went bust and the stock was burnt. Most of it. Very few copies survived, although one came up for sale in Sotherbys in 2018 in the USA and went for $59,000 (£47,000), which seems a lot for a book with mistakes. 

If that had been the only error in the ‘Wicked Bible’ then fair enough but there was possibly another which has led to suggestions that a rival printer sabotaged the book so that Robert Barker and Martin Lucas would lose their licence to print the Bible.

A passage which should read ‘Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness’ became ‘Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse’. 'Asse' meaning 'donkey' back then, not the American for 'arse'.  

Missing out ‘not’ seems a more natural error whereas the latter seems planned.

Perhaps poor old Barker and Lucas had been the victim of a conspiracy. After all they were the royal printers so was somebody after their job which they lost. Indeed they went to trial and and were fined £300 (about £55,000 today). 

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