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The first New Testament printed in Worms

Although this fact is scarcely known in Germany, it is of enormous importance for the Reformation in England and for the development of the English language: The first complete printed edition of the New Testament to be published in English in William Tyndale’s translation was printed in Worms in 1526.

The English Reformer William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake in Belgium  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)  
The English Reformer William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake in Belgium
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first printed edition appeared in Worms

This fact is scarcely known in Germany, but in 1526 the printer Peter Schöffer the Younger printed the first complete edition of the New Testament to be published in English in William Tyndale’s translation. Tyndale was an important figure in the Reformation in England, but unlike the famous English predecessor of Martin Luther, John Wyclif, Tyndale is not represented in the monument to Luther that can be seen in Worms.

A delegation from St. Albans, the twin town in Great Britain, donated a reproduction of William Tyndale’s New Testament to the City Library of Worms on May 8 th 2009.

 

Historical matters

Tyndale came to Germany in 1524 after he had been forbidden, at the instigation of the Catholic Church, to translate the Bible into English so that ordinary people could read it. The authorities in Cologne also initially refused to allow his translation to appear. He then came to Worms, where Peter Schöffer had established the city’s first printing workshop in 1518.

Schöffer was known above all from his publication of Lutheran and Anabaptist translations of the Bible into German – Wormser Propheten (“Worms Prophets”) in 1527, and the Wormser Bibel (the “Worms Bible”) in 1529, which was the first complete Protestant Bible in German before Luther’s  translation appeared in 1534. Schöffer printed Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526, and this translation is regarded by scholars today as a milestone in the English Reformation and in the development of modern English.

Unlike Wyclif, who had translated the Bible into English about 150 years earlier, Tyndale’s New Testament, like Martin Luther’s translation into German, was based on the original Greek text and not on the Latin Vulgata of St. Jerome, which was the official translation authorized by the Catholic Church. A further difference is, of course, the fact that Wyclif had been unable to distribute his translation in printed form.

The Worms edition of Tyndale’s New Testament and the copy that was pirated in Antwerp were smuggled to England and widely circulated among the ordinary people. The Church, supported by Henry VIII, at the time not yet in conflict with Rome , persecuted anyone found in possession of this printed edition of the Bible.


Only three copies in existence

Most of the copies of Tyndale’s New testament were burned in England – and the translator himself was also burned at the stake in 1536, having been  captured near Brussels in 1535 on the orders of the king.

There are only three copies of Tyndale’s New Testament in existence. The library at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has part of a copy, and the British Library bought an almost complete copy from the Bristol Baptist College at the end of the 1990s for more than one million pounds. It is this copy that forms the basis of the facsimile that was donated to the City Library of Worms at the beginning of May in 2009.

Shortly after the British Library made its spectacular purchase of the New Testament, a third copy was rediscovered in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart. This copy includes the title page and is therefore the only complete copy in existence.

 

Only two reliable clues to its place of origin

The printer is not named  in Tyndale’s New Testament, but there are two reliable clues to the origin that point to Peter Schöffer’s workshop. In his report to Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and Henry VIII about the ban on printing Tyndale’s bible translation in Cologne, Johann Cochlaeus mentions that Tyndale and his fellow-traveller had travelled on to Worms. The title page discovered in Stuttgart gives a further clue – Schöffer used the same woodcut in two other print runs in his workshop.

 

Site of the printing workshop

The site of Schöffer’s printing workshop – he was the first printer to set up in Worms and worked here for only a few years (1518-1529) – was unknown for a long time. According to the latest research, it can now safely be assumed that the printing press of Peter Schöffer the Younger which printed the New Testament was in the Meielburg in the northern outskirts of Worms at the Mainzer Tor (the Mainz Gate). This was later the site of the Eulenburg and is today the location of the DRK Alten- und Pflegeheim (the Red Cross residential and nursing home) called the Seniorenzentrum Eulenburg, Mainzer Straße - Eulenburgstraße 2, 67547 Worms.

View of the City of Worms (1630). The red arrow indicates the site of the Meielburg (a ruin) in the Mainzer Straße bordering on vineyards (drawing by Peter Hammann, source: Worms City Archives, 1B No. 48_03)  
View of the City of Worms (1630). The red arrow indicates the site of the Meielburg (a ruin) in the Mainzer Straße bordering on vineyards (drawing by Peter Hammann, source: Worms City Archives, 1B No. 48_03)
View of the Mainzer Tor (the Mainz Gate) in 1690. The red arrow indicates the site of the Meielburg (a ruin) to the left of the gate and behind the city wall (drawing by Peter Hammann, source: Worms City Archives, 1B No. 48_10)  
View of the Mainzer Tor (the Mainz Gate) in 1690. The red arrow indicates the site of the Meielburg (a ruin) to the left of the gate and behind the city wall (drawing by Peter Hammann, source: Worms City Archives, 1B No. 48_10)