There’s a Little Real History in my Alternate History #2

I’ve brought only a few things on this voyage. My belongings fit in a small shoulder bag: a small Bible, my writing materials, a few pieces of clothing, and my rosary.

When I began writing “So The Taino Call It,” I didn’t know how devout a Christian my narrator, Rodrigo de Escobedo, was going to turn out to be. It was a part of his character that developed over time. What I knew from the beginning was that he was a literate man who loved language (he speaks several). Educated by monks, he was given the Bible mentioned above by one of his teachers.

He remembered my love of reading and hoped the book would turn me toward a less sinful life. I don’t know if that’s possible, but reading the Word of God makes me feel closer to Him.

A Bible small enough to fit in a shoulder bag? In 1492? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

Not as unlikely as you’d think. It surprised me to discover, as I was doing my research, that portable Bibles first became available in the 13th century. These handwritten books held the complete scriptural texts in one volume for the first time and looked similar to modern Bibles. They were small enough to fit in a saddlebag.

Paris Bible

Kind of like this one.

Paris Bibles, as they were sometimes called, were still a little bulky, though, for priests and friars traveling on foot, so “pocket” Bibles were quickly developed. The script in these books was minute and densely packed, and the parchment or vellum itself was as thin as tissue paper.

Italian pocket Bible

This page comes from a Bible that was 5.5 inches by 3.5.

Technology continued to advance, as it will, and by the time Columbus was considering his western sailing trip, the printing press had been around for almost 60 years. Gutenberg published the first printed Bible in two volumes in 1455; after that the race was on for more beautiful and more accurate versions. Most of these were what you’d expect, large books that were meant for a priest’s lectern. Fortunately, these weren’t the only Bibles printed.

Johann Froben established his printing business in the city of Basel in 1491 (and was good friends with the scholar Erasmus, but that’s a tale for another day). One of the first things he published was a Bible that became known as the “Poor Man’s Bible.” This edition was somewhat larger than the pocket Bible above (6 3/16 x 4 5/16 inches), but it was still small enough to be easily packed and carried on a cross-Atlantic voyage. It’s quite beautiful, as well, showing off Froben’s talent as a printer and publisher. When I saw a photograph of the cover and binding…

Poor Man's Bible

I knew it had to be Rodrigo’s Bible.

It was easy for me to imagine my scrivener/spy reading the inner pages, as well.

Poor Man's Boble inside

The inside with an illustration of St. Jerome based on Albrecht Dürer’s work

Bibles of this size, handwritten or printed, were revolutionary in ways beyond convenience. They made it easier for literate people to read the Bible themselves instead of relying on the rulers of the Church to interpret the words for them, laying the groundwork for the Reformation that would begin a mere 25 years after Columbus set sail. It was a heady time, whatever sort of explorer you were.

Categories: Books/Authors, History, Writing | Tags: , , , , ,

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5 thoughts on “There’s a Little Real History in my Alternate History #2

  1. Man, that is just beyond gorgeous…although I’d go crosseyed trying to read the text!

    • I know, right? I should have given Rodrigo a magnifying glass.

      • HAH. Totally.

        Incidentally, I appear to not be able to email you…I’m getting a weird bounce message.

        Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
        I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
        This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.

        Connected to IP REDACTED but greeting failed.
        Remote host said: 554 NO UCE error: R6.1: is on the Spamhaus blacklist. Please visit:

        — Enclosed are the original headers of the message.

        • Well, that’s just wicked bizarre. I don’t see your message in any spam folder. And your last email came through fine.

  2. Pingback: There’s a Little Real History in my Alternate History #4 « M. Fenn

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