Bay Psalm Book, Shmay Shmalm Shmook

Bible. The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into the English Metre.
[Cambridge, Mass:] [Stephen Day], 1640. A640w. The oldest surviving book printed in what became the United States is, as is widely known, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, a.k.a the Bay Psalm Book. Eleven copies of it are known to exist — one of which can be found here in the friendly confines of the Rosenbach Museum & Library. People get excited about it; they want to come and see it — it’s American, it’s really old (for the U.S.), it’s historic. Don’t get me wrong: I get excited about it. When I tell people what kind of rare books the Rosenbach has, I always mention it.
But I ask you this: where’s the love for Jaun de Zumárraga’s Do[c]trina breue muy p[ro]uechosa delas cosas q[ue] p[er]tenecen ala fe catholica? Where? I demand to know!
Juan de Zumarraga (1468-1548), Do[c]trina breue muy p[ro]uechosa delas cosas q[ue] p[er]tenecen ala fe catholica.
Mexico City: [Juan Pablos for Juan Cromberger], 1544. A543do. Sure, you’re asking: what the heck is Do[c]trina breue muy p[ro]uechosa delas cosas q[ue] p[er]tenecen ala fe catholica? Well, I’ll tell you, and I bet if you come to take a tour of the Rosenbach, your tour guide will tell you, too. It’s only the oldest surviving book printed in the Americas — Mexico City, 1544, by Juan Pablos (known in his homeland of Italy as Giovanni Paoli.) The Rosenbach owns a copy. Not only that, but it’s bound with two other books printed in Mexico City in 1544, namely, Johannes Gerson’s Tripartito del christianissimo y consolatorio doctor Iuan Gerson de doctrina christiana, and Este es en cõp[e]dio breue que tracta d’la manera de como se hã de hazer las p[ro]cessiones. So the three oldest, complete books printed in the western hemisphere can all be found here. (That’s good collectin’, Dr. Rosenbach.)

Okay, okay, if you want to be picky about it, history tells us that Paoli/Pablos arrived in Mexico City in 1539 and printed four other books before Doctrina breue. But two of them are lost and the other two only survive in fragments. (USC has one of those fragments.) Sure, the older books, are well, older, but how much use is it when you can’t read the whole thing? Isn’t it like watching Citizen Kane without the last reel — how would you know what “Rosebud” means? How would you know? Well, you’d never know, and you’d have wasted your time. But when you pick up Doctrina breue at the Rosenbach, you can curl up with it (so to speak) secure in the knowledge that you will be able to learn all of the rules of Christian conduct as explained by the first Bishop of Mexico City. And don’t worry, the heretical passages have been blacked out, so you know you’re just getting the good stuff.

(Tangent: the offending passages apparently refer to the amount of blood the risen Christ had. According to Edwin Wolf they say he had “recovered blood sufficient to sustain life.” [See Wolf, ed. Legacies of Genius: A Celebration of Philadelphia Libraries (Philadelphia: PACSCL, 1988.] It’s genuinely interesting to me that the Church considered this question. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be an issue, but in a way it makes sense. If Christ was the Son of God become human, both man and divine, you’d want to address the questions about his natural, human body and how it worked. Those questions would, I imagine, become especially interesting in light of the unique and remarkable event of his resurrection. I’m not sure what the Church later decided on this issue — was it that Christ hadn’t recovered blood? Was it that such a question wasn’t appropriate? I don’t mean to be flippant here; I’m just curious to know how these kinds of theological questions were handled.)

It throws people off when you tell them first book printed in the Americas was printed in Mexico City. Not only that, but the first book printed in South America, at Lima, came off the presses in 1584, six decades before the colonials in Cambridge got their act together. (The Rosenbach has a copy of that book, Doctrina christiana, y catechismo para instrvccion de los Indios, too. Clearly the Spanish were focused pretty intently on religious matters, especially converting the Indians.) And that’s still a quarter century before the English made the Jamestown settlement stick.

So what’s the point of this little screed? (I’m starting to wonder myself…) I guess it’s this: let’s give the Spanish in Mexico the bibliographical respect they deserve, all right? And if you make an appointment to use our reading room to see the Bay Psalm Book, I’m personally going to ensure that you also take a look at Doctrine breue. See you soon!