Today's blog post comes from Henry Ansgar Kelly, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of English at UCLA. Among his recent books are Satan: A Biography and Law and Religion in Chaucer’s England. His latest book, The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment, just published by Penn Press, traces the history of the translation of the Old and New Testaments into English from Latin in the late fourteenth century. Kelly has also launched a website that offers detailed information about the book as well as high-resolution photos of important documents discussed in the book. Readers intrigued by today's post should be sure to pay a visit!
“Wycliffite Bible” is a household name in certain households—namely, those populated by English medieval scholars and students. It refers to the first complete translation of the entire Bible into English, over two hundred years before the King James Bible was produced in 1611. It was finished by the time that Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, and it was the most successful writing in the English language to come out of the Middle Ages. It survives in more than 250 copies, far outnumbering Chaucer’s very popular Canterbury Tales, found in 60 or so manuscripts.
The “Wycliffite” designation became firmly attached to the translation only during the past century or so. The name means that scholars are convinced that it was entirely the work of the followers of the dissident Oxford professor John Wyclif (d. 1384); and they also assume that it was recognized from the beginning as being connected to Wyclif.
Wyclif has been credited with starting a “premature Reformation,” and aficionados of the sixteenth-century Reformation have always been on the look-out for ways in which Wyclif anticipated Martin Luther and John Calvin. Surely putting Holy Scripture into the vernacular was one of these ways! And since the medieval Church was obviously doctrinaire and opposed to freedom of thought, it must have harshly suppressed any attempt to bring the sacred texts to the people in the pews who could read only English. Right?
Look at what occurred in Henry VIII’s time, when William Tyndale started printing his Lutheran-tinged translations of the Bible in 1525. Copies were actively sought out and destroyed, and he himself was hounded to his death a decade later. It makes sense that the medieval authorities would have acted similarly, doesn’t it?
“Yes,” say all modern historians. They assert that the government-backed Church in the time of King Henry IV banned the English Scriptures because they were produced by Wyclif’s followers. Specifically, they say that Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, condemned the Wycliffite Bible at the Council of Oxford in 1407, and decreed that anyone who possessed a copy would be condemned as a heretic.
The trouble is, that’s not what the Oxford constitutions say. Rather than prohibiting English versions of the Bible, they announce a method for approving new translations, from Wyclif’s time onwards. To ensure their accuracy, they must get the bishop’s “imprimatur” before they can be circulated.
Now, then, everyone agrees that the so-called Wycliffite Bible is a completely faithful rendering of the Latin Vulgate. So why would it not be approved? It was a slam-dunk. In fact, the effect of the 1407 legislation was, if anything, to stimulate the copying of the translation, which became widely used among the faithful members of the Church.
Almost half of the surviving manuscripts are fitted out for liturgical use, to assist people to understand the Latin Gospel readings at Sunday Mass. The translation must have been a boon for lower clergy whose command of Latin was shaky. The whole project may have originated as an aid to the parish priests who were sent to Oxford for a few years to improve their training.
To our knowledge, only one person was ever convicted for possessing a copy of the medieval English Bible, and that was in the sixteenth century: namely, Richard Hunne, in a notorious trial that took place in 1514, during the course of which Hunne was murdered.
When Thomas More described Hunne’s trial two decades later in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he insistently maintained that the 1407 constitutions did not forbid the translation of the Bible into English, and he pointed out that the old translation was still being approved by bishops. Hunne, More says, was condemned because his Bible really was Wyclif’s translation, full of his abhorrent errors.
More was misled on two points. First, Hunne’s Bible was same medieval translation that the bishops had been approving, except that it had a Wycliffite prologue containing offensive material. Second, More’s own bishop, Richard Fitzjames of London, did not approve of English Bibles. Fitzjames and his officials, who prosecuted Hunne, charged him with violating the law that prohibited having the Scriptures in English. It goes to show that it is not just moderns who are unable to understand the purport of old texts when presuppositions stand in the way.
The medieval Scripture translation was a great religious and literary achievement, and it is high time to recognize it for what it was, a nonpartisan attempt to make the word of God more understandable to more people. A good first step towards its rehabilitation, I suggest, would be to give it an appropriate name, and call it the “Middle English Bible,” or MEB.
A final word: if you should come across a copy of the MEB, you should treasure it as a possession of great value. A learned friend of mine, a well-known Hollywood executive and writer-producer, some years ago acquired a manuscript of the New Testament portion, and, even though it was only modestly decorated, he recently sold it for a sum well into seven figures. And it happened in Los Angeles.