The Geneva Bible was one of the first Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew. Considered a vulgar Bible, it was not only published in a common language but it was also mass produced for the general public with several study guides. A Geneva Bible was one of the Bibles brought to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, and is one of the reasons there are numerous towns and cities in the United States named Geneva.
To describe the Geneva Bible as vulgar is not demeaning. Vulgar merely refers to the fact that it was linguistically different from previous Bibles and was mechanically printed to be distributed to a wide audience. Latin was used during services as the official Catholic Church language. English, French and other common languages were the languages of the everyday. English translations of the Bible were an essential part of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century; they were important to the democratization of the Church, just like Calvin’s preaching among the parishioners during Mass instead of from in front.
Today vulgar is used to describe words or actions not fit for proper company. To be vulgar is to be crude, impolite, or even obscene. This is far from the sense of common used to describe the Geneva Bible. One can be common without being crude, impolite or obscene. Democracy, after all, is based on the equality of citizens, of a respect for the common man. In democratic countries, the right to vote is given to citizens regardless of standing.
Meanings of what is vulgar change with the times. For example: The pomp and ceremony of the inaugurations of the American presidents have moved a long way from the era of Andrew Jackson, who campaigned in 1828 as the common man’s candidate. The tradition had it that following the official inauguration, the president would hold an “open house” at the White House. When elected, Jackson followed the tradition only to find a mob waiting for him in what became “the wildest party in White House history.” Legend has it that people swung from chandeliers, drank heavily, destroyed furniture and china, rubbed food into the carpets and caroused to such an extent that Jackson had to escape through a window and out a back door.
The common touch remains with newly elected presidents. Since Thomas Jefferson's second inaugural in 1805, it has become a tradition for the president to stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. But there is no longer an open house at the White House. The common touch is also present in Switzerland. After the election of high officials, they return to their places of origin to be greeted by local officials and mingle with fellow citizens.
When does the vulgar become truly vulgar? When is the common crude, impolite or obscene? The answer is obviously in the eyes of the beholder. While Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography by “I know it when I see it,” norms of acceptable language and behavior do change with time and the person judging. What is allowed on television today, for example, would not have been acceptable 30 years ago. When the wife of the Swiss president embraced the Empress of Japan it was a normal Swiss greeting, but scandalously vulgar to the Japanese.
Are you vulgar? To be positive, I ask that question to see how you see yourself in terms of the general public. On the other hand, I am negatively considered a vulgarizer by certain academics because I appear in the local media, which I gladly accept as a compliment. Being from the Bronx, I consider myself to be vulgar and often can be vulgar, to my grandchildren’s great chagrin.
As the vulgar Geneva Bible was integral to the Protestant Reformation and the democratization of Christianity – it did take the Catholic Church several more years to change the recitation of Mass into vulgar languages – the evolution of the word vulgar has been unfortunate. To be associated with the common is important for all levels of society; vulgarizing ideas should be a high priority for all intellectuals. On the other hand, when the vulgar becomes vulgar, the spirit of democratization and civil society begins to fall apart. We should all be vulgar, without being vulgar.