A Concent of Scripture

A Concent of Scripture

A Concent of Scripture, by H: Broughton
Imprinted at London [by R. Watkins] for Gabriell Simson and William White, [1588-1590]
Canterbury Cathedral Library, Elham 1292 and H/J-4-27

September’s image is an excellent example of how the art found within books develops as new methods of book production became common in early Modern England. Although black and white, it is a striking example of how effectively contrast can be used, and shows the high technical skill and capability of sixteenth-century artists. The image is taken from A Concent of Scripture, a book intended to prove the accuracy of Biblical chronology, written by the English Hebraist Hugh Broughton. Published in the reign of Elizabeth I in 1588, the work was popular – the first edition was soon reprinted with corrections and additional material, and a second edition that included further changes followed in 1591. As well as these major printings, supplemental material was also printed and sold with some copies of the book. There are five illustration plates in A Concent of Scripture, etched by the Dutch engraver Jodocus Hondius, and a map made by William Rogers. The images were produced through a process of engraving, which was a development from the use of woodcuts in printing. A plate of copper is covered with wax and the engraver then etches the desired image into the wax, revealing the copper below. Once complete, the plate is dipped in acid, permanently marking the plate with the image to be printed. Finally, the wax is removed, and the plate is ready for printing. Through this process, it is possible to produce a high quality image that is durable and can be quickly duplicated with a printing press.

The scene shown in the picture is a representation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 4), and is part of a sequence of four images within A Concent of Scripture that shows scenes from the Book of Daniel. In this episode, Nebuchadnezzar has recounted his dream to Daniel, in which he sees a tall and strong tree, visible across the world and with food and shelter for all animals and birds. Once he has seen the tree, however, he sees a messenger come down from heaven who calls for the tree to be cut down and for the shelter and support it had provided to be destroyed and scattered (Daniel 4:13-14). These actions leave only the stump, bound to the ground by chains of iron and bronze (Daniel 4:15). It is the climax of the dream that has been skilfully captured in the engraving – the messenger is shown above while the colossal tree collapses across the page, branches severed, the trunk nearly cut in two while below, the stump remains securely bound to the earth by mighty chains. Daniel explains that the tree represents Nebuchadnezzar himself, who will be driven mad and struck from his throne and forced to live amongst wild beasts for seven years until he admits that God is superior to him.

The images found within A Concent of Scripture contributed to its success as a book, although the exact images were unfortunately not reused in later printings. When the second edition was printed, the themes of the plates – including Nebuchadnezzar’s tree – were reproduced by another engraver, William Rogers. Although the reproductions are sufficient in conveying the message of the Biblical passage on which the image is based, the reproduction of the felling of the tree lacks the contrast of light and deep shadow, and the apocalyptic character of the dream is lost.

In addition to – or, perhaps, fuelling – the popularity of A Concent of Scripture, was the controversy that surrounded the book and Broughton himself. Upon publication of the first edition, Broughton’s view that the Bible was authoritatively correct and superior to non-Christian sources earned him criticism from John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury: criticism that led to Broughton temporarily fleeing to Germany. As well as this, Broughton’s views on the accuracy of biblical chronology were heavily criticised by John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Edward Lively, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University. Despite this opposition, Broughton stubbornly defended his work including in public at a series of lectures held in St Paul’s Cathedral before an audience of academics. By 1591, however, Broughton became frustrated with the tone of his critics, and wrote to Queen Elizabeth I, asking that the dispute be settled by joint decision of the Church of England and the universities. Ultimately, the decision went in his favour. Rainolds and Lively withdrew their criticisms, and Whitgift accepted Broughton’s views. Although A Concent of Scripture was successfully defended, the aggressive and stubborn attitude with which Broughton had conducted its defence would later come back to haunt him. He was excluded from the project to produce the King James version of the Bible in 1611, despite having written about the necessity for such a translation for twenty years, and his own personal status as one of the most accomplished Hebraists of his generation. Hugh Broughton died in 1612 of consumption, bitterly disappointed that he had been excluded from the project and very critical of the result, writing that ‘[he] had rather be rent in pieces with wilde horses, then any such translation, by my consent, should bee urged upon poore churches.’

The Cathedral Library holds two copies of A Concent of Scripture, H/J-4-27, and Elham 1292, in addition to other examples of his work. The skill of the artistry, and the prickly character of the author, both serve to bring to life a small book that might otherwise be easily overlooked.

Josef Reinbold, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS), University of Kent

Further Reading:

  • Broughton, Hugh, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography