The uses of error

When the King’s printer Robert Barker produced a new edition of the King James Bible in 1631, he overlooked three letters from the seventh commandment, producing the startling injunction: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Barker was fined £300, and spent the rest of his life in debtors’ prison, even while his name remained on imprints. ‘I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented, ‘but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.’ Most copies of what became known as the Wicked, Adulterous or Sinners’ Bible were promptly burned, but a few survive as collectors’ items, their value raised immeasurably by Barker’s error: one featured in an exhibition at the Bodleian Library last year about the making of the King James Bible.

Adam Smyth, reviewing Anthony Grafton’s Panizzi Lectures on “The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe” in the current issue of The London Review of Books.