Monday, July 03, 2006

When did the Psalm titles get smaller?

In most modern English Bibles the titles of the Psalms are printed slightly smaller than the rest of the text. This is the case despite the alleged independence of translations such as the NIV, NLT, and NRSV, and will be familiar to many from the KJV.

I'm wondering when exactly this practice began. I've seen it in the facsimile edition of the Geneva Bible (1560), but presume it goes back before then.

What precedents there are for this in the manuscript tradition and in early printed editions (English, Latin, etc.)? I would guess that, while there might be a few analogies for this within mss, manuscripts would more generally have other ways of marking titles (e.g. colour of ink) since a slight change of character size is hard to achieve in a ms.

It seems to me that to use another font, character shape, colour or italics for the titles can usefully separate them from the rest of the text, but that if you print them in a smaller size it will almost inevitably be seen as giving them a lower status.

A few translations, of course, do not give the titles at all (e.g. NEB). Was Coverdale also thus (modern spelling edition here)?


  1. Wycliffe titled his psalms. Coverdale and Bishop's didn't.
    Geneva and Douay made titles the 1st verse of the psalm.
    Tyndale didn't translate the psalms, but he used a smaller typeface/different font to represent passages of doubtful textual standing. In this he followed Wycliffe's use of underlining to represent glosses in the text.

    If one could find a page of a Wycliffe Psalter, I predict it would show he didn't use a special font for the titles. Reason: at
    the online edition of Wycliffe 1395 shows that his Psalm titles were explicitly labeled, as:
    "The title of the __th salm."

  2. The first edition of the whole Geneva Bible was 1560 (your facsimile). I see that it didn't give the titles their own verse numebers.

    My mistake--the verse numbers are in the margin, giving the impression that verse 1 begins with the title. Be that as it may, verse 2 begins at its standard spot in 1560 and subsequent editions of Geneva.