By Royal Decree A Bible in the Special Collections vault turned out to be the 1642 New Testament that belonged to France’s King Louis XIII.
“The gift of Louis XIII’s New Testament is yet another example of the wonderful support of Washington and Lee’s dedicated alumni.”
— Tom Camden, director of Special Collections
Anyone who has heard me talk about my work in Special Collections knows that I use the word “discovery” a lot. The 1642 Greek edition of the New Testament that is the feature of this article is one of those serendipitous discoveries made early in my tenure as director of Special Collections, in spring 2013.
While pulling material from the vault in preparation for a guest lecture for Dr. Genelle Gertz’s class on “The Bible as Literature,” I wanted to select an early Bible that would illustrate a vellum, or skin, binding. As I made my way down the vault aisle devoted to folio (oversized volumes), a large, intricately stamped volume caught my eye. Because it was the binding that most interested me, I added the piece to my cart without reviewing the contents.
Upon closer inspection — and about five minutes before the class arrived — I made a startling discovery. On the beautifully engraved title page were two completely intact red wax seals, one at the top and another at the bottom, denoting ownership by someone who had obviously been of some importance and some means. Having given myself little time to research the crests evident in the wax seals, I was resigned to admitting to my students that I did not know the provenance of the mysterious piece.
However, a quick glance at a tiny dealer’s printed note pasted onto the endpaper opposite the title page revealed the secret: Washington and Lee’s 1642 copy of the New Testament in Greek had been the personal property of France’s King Louis XIII. The excitement generated by this discovery made for a wonderful classroom discussion, and the interest in the piece has now grown to almost cult status on campus.
Louis XIII ascended to the throne shortly before his ninth birthday (after the assassination of his father, Henry IV) and ruled as King of France from 1610 until his death in 1643. His mother, Marie de Medici, acted as regent during his minority, and his lifelong best friend and advisor was the influential Cardinal Richelieu.
Subsequent study of Washington and Lee’s sumptuous volume by students interested in textual analysis tells us that the work was printed under deed of Cardinal Mazarin at the Royal Press at the Louvre in Paris on high-quality paper handmade specifically for the king. Nearly every page of the book bears the royal watermark. There is no indication of how many copies were printed in 1642, one year before the king’s death, but we can assume that the print run was very limited.
Washington and Lee acquired this magnificent volume in December 2005 as a gift of James L. Green, Washington and Lee Law Class of 1984. The Greek New Testament was one of a number of rare volumes generously bequeathed to Special Collections that year by Green. In a September 2014 letter to me, Green explained that he built most of the collection while he was an undergraduate at Penn State, adding more books later based on the date of printing. It eventually evolved into a collection of Latin and Greek classics; Green assured me in his letter that “eventually more books will get to you.”
The gift of Louis XIII’s New Testament is yet another example of the wonderful support of Washington and Lee’s dedicated alumni. The crowning touch was the full restoration of the Bible (including a beautiful linen box) undertaken in spring 2017 and fully funded by the parent of a 2017 graduate. Full restoration ensures that future generations of Washington and Lee students will be able to enjoy this Special Collections jewel.
Watch Tom Camden handle and discuss the King Louis XIII Bible in this video.