OUR BIBLE & THE ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS by SIR FREDERIC KENYON - formerly Director of the British Museum - © Sir F Kenyon 1895. First published Eyre & Spottiswoode 1895. - fourth edition 1939. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

Chapter X:

THE ENGLISH MANUSCRIPT BIBLES

HOME | Conversion of England | Caedmon's Bible Paraphrase | Aldhelm's Psalter | Bede | Interlinear Glosses | 10th  cent Gospels | Aelfric's OT | 13th cent Verse Translations | William of Shoreham Psalters | -  & Richard Rolle | 14th cent Revival | Wycliffe | Wycliffe Bible - Earlier | - Later | Is the Wycliffe Bible really Wycliffe's? | Theory that it was the Bishop's Authorised Version | Examination of Theory

WE take another step forward in our story, and narrow still further the circle of our inquiry. It is no longer the original text of the Bible with which we have to deal, nor even the Bible of Western Europe. Our step is a step nearer home; our subject is the Bible of our own country and in our own language. For nearly a thousand years, from the landing of Augustine to the Reformation, the official Bible, so to speak, the Bible of the Church services and of monastic usage, was the Latin Vulgate. But although the monks and clergy learnt Latin, and a knowledge of Latin was the most essential element of an educated man's culture, it was never the language of the common people. To them the Bible, if it came at all, must come in English, and from almost the earliest times there were churchmen and statesmen whose care it was that, whether by reading it for themselves, if they were able, or by hearing it read to them, the common people should have at least the more important parts of the Bible accessible to them in their own language. For twelve hundred years one may fairly say that the English people has never been entirely without an English Bible.
top

The Conversion of England.

It was in the year 597 that Augustine landed in Kent, and brought back to that part of the island the Christianity which had been driven out of it by our Saxon, Jute, and Engle forefathers. In 634, Birinus, a Roman priest from Gaul, converted the West Saxons; and in 635 came Aidan from lona to preach Christianity in Northumbria, as related in the last chapter. Soon after the middle of the century all England had heard the Word of Christ, proclaimed by word of mouth by the missionaries of Rome or of Ireland. At first there would be no need of a written Bible for the common people. As in the days of Christ and His Apostles, men heard the Word of God by direct preaching. Most of them could not read, and the enthusiasm of a convert requires personal instruction rather than study of a written book. Yet it was not long before the story of the Bible made its appearance in English literature.
top

The Bible Paraphrase of Cadmon.

In the abbey of the Lady Hilda at Whitby was a brother named Caedmon, who had no skill in making songs, and would therefore leave the table when his turn came to sing something for the pleasure of the company. But one night when he had done so, and had lain down in the stable and there fallen asleep, there stood One by him in a dream, and said, "Caedmon, sing Me something." And he answered, "I cannot sing, and for that reason I have left the feast." But He said, "Nevertheless, thou canst sing to Me." "What," said he, "must I sing?" And He said, "Sing the beginning of created things." So he sang; and the poem of Caedmon is the first native growth of English literature. It is a paraphrase in verse of the Bible narrative, from both Old and New Testaments, written in that early dialect which we call Anglo-Saxon, but which is really the ancient form of English.
top

The Psalter of Aldhelm.

Caedmon's Bible paraphrase was written about 670, a generation after the coming of Aidan; and another generation had not passed away before part of the Bible had been actually translated into English. Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, who died in 709, translated the Psalms, and thereby holds the honour of having been the first translator of the Bible into our native tongue. It is uncertain whether we still possess any part of his work, or not. There is a version of the Psalms in Anglo-Saxon, preserved in a manuscript at Paris, which has been supposed to be the Psalter of Aldhelm; but the manuscript was only written in the eleventh century, and the language of the translation seems to contain forms which had not come into existence in the time at which Aldhelm lived. If, therefore, this version, which gives the first fifty Psalms in prose and the rest in verse, really belongs to Aldhelm at all, the language must have been somewhat modified in later copies.
top

Bede.

The next translator of whom we hear is the greatest name in the history of the early English Church. Bede (673-735) was the glory of the Northumbrian school, which, as we have seen, was the most shining light of learning in western Europe during the eighth century. In addition to his greatest work, the History of the English Church, he wrote commentaries on many of the books of the Bible. These works, which were intended primarily for scholars, were written in Latin; but we know that he also took care that the Scriptures might be faithfully delivered to the common people in their own tongue. He translated the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, as the first essentials of the Christian faith; and at the time of his death he was engaged on a translation of the Gospel of St. John. The story of its completion, told by his disciple, Cuthbert, is well known, but it never can be omitted in a history of the English Bible. On the Eve of Ascension Day, 735, the great scholar lay dying, but dictating, while his strength allowed, to his disciples; and they wrote down the translation of the Gospel as it fell from his lips, being urged by him to write quickly, since he knew not how soon his Master would call him. On Ascension morning one chapter alone remained unfinished, and the youth who had been copying hesitated to press his master further; but he would not rest. "It is easily done," he said; "take thy pen and write quickly." Failing strength and the last farewells to the brethren of the monastery prolonged the task, till at eventide the boy reminded his master: "There is yet one sentence unwritten, dear master." "Write it quickly," was the answer; and it was written at his word. "It is written now," said the boy. "You speak truth," answered the saint; "it is finished now." Then he bade them lay him on the pavement of his cell, supporting his head in their hands; and as he repeated the Gloria, with the name of the Holy Spirit on his lips, he passed quietly away.

Of Bede's translation no trace or vestige now remains; nor are we more fortunate when we pass from the great scholar of the early Church to the great statesman, King Alfred. Alfred, by far the finest name among the early sovereigns of England, careful for the moral and intellectual welfare of his people, did not neglect the work which Aldhelm and Bede had begun. He prefixed a translation of the Ten Commandments and other extracts from the Law of Moses to his own code of laws, and translated, or caused to be translated, several other parts of the Bible. He is said to have been engaged on a version of the Psalms at the time of his death; but no copy of his work has survived, although a manuscript (really of later date) now in the British Museum [Stowe MS. 2, of the eleventh century.], and containing the Latin text with an English translation between the lines, has borne the name of King Alfred's Psalter. Still, though nothing has come down to us from Bede or Alfred, the tradition is valuable, as assuring us of the existence of English Bibles, or parts of Bibles, in the eighth and ninth centuries. From the end of this period we have an actual example of an English Psalter still extant; for a manuscript in the British Museum, containing the Psalms in Latin, written about AD700 (though formerly supposed to have belonged to St. Augustine himself), has had a word-for-word translation in the Kentish dialect inserted about the end of the ninth century. In the tenth century we stand on firmer ground, for, in addition to similar translations, we reach the date of independent versions, known to us from copies still extant in several of our public libraries.
top

Interlinear Glosses.

It is indeed possible that the Gospels were rendered into English earlier than the tenth century, since one would naturally expect them to be the first part of the Bible which a translator would wish to make accessible to the common people; but we have no actual mention or proof of the existence of such a translation before that date.

As in the case of the Psalter, the earliest form in which the Gospels appear in the English language is that of glosses, or word-for-word translations written between the lines of Latin manuscripts; and the oldest copy of such a gloss now in existence is that of which mention has already been made in describing the Lindisfarne book of the Gospels. That magnificent volume was originally written in Latin about the year 700; and about 950 Aldred the priest wrote his Anglo-Saxon paraphrase between the lines of the Latin text. Some words of this translation may be seen in the facsimile given in Plate XXVI; and we may regard them with a special interest as belonging to the oldest existing copy of the Gospels in the English language. The dialect in which this translation is written is naturally Northumbrian, which differed in some respects from that spoken in other parts of the island. Another gloss of the Gospels is found in a manuscript at Oxford, known as the Rushworth MS. It is of somewhat later date than the Lindisfarne book, and in the Gospels of St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John it follows that manuscript closely; but the gloss on St. Matthew is in the Old Mercian dialect, which was spoken in the central part of England.
top

The Gospels of the Tenth Century.

These glosses were, no doubt, originally made in order to assist the missionaries and preachers who had to instruct their congregations in the message of the Gospel; and the same must have been the object of the earliest independent translations of the Bible books. Few, if any, of the ordinary English inhabitants would be able to read; but the monks and priests who preached to them would interpret the Bible to them in their own tongue, and their task would be rendered easier by the existence of written English Gospels. We know, moreover, that during the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period the culture and scholarship of the English clergy declined greatly, so that the preachers themselves would often be unable to understand the Latin Bible, and needed the assistance of an English version. It is in the south that we first meet with such a translation of the Gospels existing by itself, apart from the Latin text on which it was based. There are in all six copies of this translation now extant, two at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two in the British Museum, with a fragment of a seventh at Oxford. All these are closely related to one another, being either actually copied from one another or taken from a common original without much variation. The oldest is a manuscript in the library of Corpus Christ! College, Cambridge, which was written by one AElfric, at Bath, about the year 1000. There can be no doubt that the original translation, of which these are copies, was made in the south-west of England, in the region known as Wessex, not later than about the middle of the tenth century. It may have been made earlier, but we have no evidence that it was so, and the total absence of such evidence must be taken as an unfavourable sign.

In Plate XXIX is given a facsimile of one of the British Museum copies of this first independent version of the Gospels in English. 

The manuscript, which was written in the early part of the twelfth century, has an interest of its own, even apart from its contents; and its history is partly told by the inscriptions which it bears on its first page, here reproduced. This page contains the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel, which holds the first place in the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, and is headed "Text[us] iiii."evangelior[um]" -
i.e.,
"The text of the four Gospels." To the right of this are the words "ang1. d xvi. Ga IIII." Below is the name "Thomas Cantuarien[sis]" and the figures "1 A xiv."; and at the bottom of the page (not included in the plate) is the signature "Lumley." What do all these inscriptions tell us of the history of the MS.? They tell us first that it is a copy of the four Gospels in English; next that it bore the press-mark "D[istinctio] xvi, G[r]a[dus] IV," a press-mark of a form which we know to have been used in the library of Canterbury Cathedral; and when we turn up the catalogue of that library, made in the time of Prior Henry of Eastry, we find among the English books a "Textus iv evangeliorum, anglice," which it is safe to assume is the same book. After the dissolution of the monasteries it passed into the possession of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, whose secretary wrote his name (in a hand closely resembling the prelate's own writing) at the head of the page; and after Cranmer's death it was acquired, with many others of his books, by Henry Fitz-Alan, Earl of Arundel, from whom it descended to his son-in-law, John, Lord Lumley. Lumley died in 1609, and his library was bought for Henry, Prince of Wales, eldest son of James I. Thereby this volume entered the Royal Library, in which it bore the press-mark 1 A xiv.; and when that library was presented to the nation by George II in 1757, it passed into the keeping of the British Museum, then newly established; and there, retaining the same press-mark, it still remains. So much history may a few notes of ownership convey to us.

Some readers may be curious to see the form of the language in which this first English Bible is written. It is unlike enough to our modern English, yet it is its true and direct ancestor. After quoting the first words of the Gospel in Latin, the translation begins thus:

Her ys Godspelles angin, halendes cristes godes sune. Swa awriten ys on thaswitegan bec isaiam. Nu ic asende mine aengel beforan thinre ansyne. Se gegarewath thinne weg beforan the. Clepigende stefen on tham westene gegarwiath drihtnes weg. Doth rihte his sythas. lohannes waes on westene fulgende & bodiende. Daedbote fulwyht on synna forgyfenysse.

top

The Old Testament of AElfric.

This specimen will probably be enough for those who have no special acquaintance with Anglo-Saxon. Shortly after the date at which this version of the Gospels was probably made, in or about the year 990, AElfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, translated a considerable part of the Old Testament -
namely, the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Kings, Esther, Job, Judith, and Maccabees, omitting such passages as seemed to him less necessary and important. Two copies of this version are known, at Oxford and in the British Museum. This completes the history of the English Bible before the Norman Conquest. That catastrophe seems to have crushed for a time the literary development of the English people. The upper class was overthrown and kept in subjection; the lower orders were too ignorant to carry on the work for themselves. It is true that the existence of the manuscript described just above is a proof that the early English version of the Gospels continued to be copied, and presumably read, in the twelfth century; but it is not until the century after this that we find any resumption of the task of translating the Scriptures into the language of the common people.
top

Verse Translations in the Thirteenth Century.

In the reigns of John and Henry III the intermixture between Norman and English was progressing fast, and the English element was beginning to assert its predominance in the combination. English poetry begins again with Layamon about the year 1205. Ten years later religious verse made its reappearance in the "Ormulum," a metrical version of the daily services of the Church, including portions of Scripture from the New Testament. About the middle of the century the narratives of Genesis and Exodus were rendered into rhyming verse; and towards its end we find a nearer approach to regular translation in a metrical version of the Psalter which has come down to us in several copies. It is curious that, at this time, the Psalter seems to have been in especial favour in England, almost to the exclusion of the other books of the Bible. For about a century, from 1250 to 1350, no book of the Bible seems to have been translated into English except the Psalter; and of this there were no less than three distinct versions within that period. In addition to the verse translation just mentioned, of which the author is unknown, a prose version exists, written in the first half of the fourteenth century, which has been attributed to one William of Shoreham, Vicar of Chart Sutton, in Kent. The attribution, however, rests solely on the fact that it occurs in the same volume as some poems by William of Shoreham; and since the dialect is not Kentish but of West Midlands, the attribution is improbable. At about the same time another prose version, accompanied by a verse-by-verse commentary, was produced by Richard Rolle, a hermit of Hampole, near Doncaster, which had a wide circulation, and that not only in the north, since copies are extant in the other dialects of the kingdom.
top

The Psalters of William of Shoreham.

Some specimens of these translations will show the progress of the English language, and carry on the history of the English Bible. The following is the beginning of the 56th Psalm as it appears in the version attributed to William of Shoreham:
[The letter represented by gh sometimes corresponds to our y, sometimes to g or gh.]

Have mercy on me, God, for man hath defouled me.
The fende trubled me, feghtand alday oghayns me.
Myn enemys defouled me alday, for many were feghtand oghains me.
Y shal dred the fram the heght of the daye; y for sothe shal hope in the.
Hii shal hery my wordes, what manes flesshe doth to me.
Alday the wicked acurseden myn wordes oghains me;
alle her thoutes ben in ivel.

top

And of Richard Rolle of Hampole.

In Richard Rolle of Hampole the verses are separated from one another by a commentary, much exceeding the original text in length. Many copies of this version exist, but they differ considerably from one another, so that it is difficult to say which represents best the author's original work. Here is the same passage as it appears in one of the manuscripts (Brit. Mus. Arundel MS. 158);

Have mercy of me, God,
for man trad me, al day the fyghtynge troublede me.
Myn enemys me trede al day for many fyghtynge aghenes me.
Fro the hyghnesse of the day schal I drede:
I sothly schal hope in the.
In God I schal preyse my wordes, in God I hopede.
I schal noght drede what flesch doth to me.
Al day my wordes thei cursede aghenes me, alle the thoghtes of hem in yvel.

top

Revival of Religion in the Fourteenth Century.

Such was the knowledge of the Bible in England on the eve of the great revival which took place in the fourteenth century. The old Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels had dropped out of use, as its language gradually became antiquated and unintelligible; and no new translation had taken its place. The Psalms alone were extant in versions which made any pretence to be faithful. The remaining books of the Bible were known to the common people only in the shape of rhyming paraphrases, or by such oral teaching as the clergy may have given. But with the increase of life and interest in the lower classes, and with the revival of literary activity in the English language, this condition of things could not last. The end of the thirteenth century had seen the first recognition of the right of the common folk to representation in the national Council, which thenceforward became a Parliament. The reigns of Edward II and Edward III saw the steady growth of a spirit of healthy life and independence in the people. They saw also the rise of literature, in Langland and Gower, and above all in Chaucer, to a position of real influence in the national life. And with this quickening interest in their surroundings on the part of the common people, there came a quickening interest in religion, which was met and answered by the power and the will to provide religious teaching for them in their own language. The tragedy of the Black Death also, in 1348-9, may well have deepened the national feeling. Thus was the way prepared for the religious movement which makes the fourteenth century so important a period in the history of our Church and Bible. In France, under the stimulus of the University of Paris, and perhaps of the king, St. Louis, the awakening had come a century sooner, and had manifested itself alike in a revised edition of the current Vulgate text, with a great multiplication of copies for common and private use, and in the preparation of the first complete version of the Bible in French. In England the result of the movement was likewise an increased circulation of the Bible, but it was a Bible in the language of the people.

The movement of which we are speaking is commonly connected in our minds, and quite rightly, with the name of Wycliffe; but it is impossible to define exactly the extent of his own personal participation in each of its developments. The movement was at first discountenanced, and presently persecuted, by the leading authorities in Church and State; and hence the writers of works in connection with it were not anxious to reveal their names. Most of the publications on the Wycliffite side are anonymous; and the natural consequence of this is that nearly all of them have been, at one time or another, attributed to Wycliffe himself. So far, however, as our immediate subject, the translation of the Bible, is concerned, there is no reason to doubt the personal responsibility of Wycliffe; nor is there any sufficient reason for the opinion, which has been sometimes held, that a complete English Bible existed before his time. It rests mainly on the statement of Sir Thomas More, in his controversy with Tyndale, the author of the first printed English New Testament, that he had seen English Bibles of an earlier date than Wycliffe's. The nearest approach to a justification of this claim is a version of the Pauline Epistles and the four larger Catholic Epistles (1 John, James, 1 and 2 Peter), to which were subsequently added the minor Catholic Epistles, the Acts, and Matt.1-vi.8, extant in a small group of MSS., of which the earliest (now at Cambridge) was written about the year 1400. This version (the credit for the publication of which in 1902 is due to Miss A. Paues) is said in the prologue to have been made at the request of a monk and a nun by their superior; and that it belongs to a time of controversy is shown by the fact that the author says that he wrote it at the risk of his life. It therefore does not satisfy the requirements of More's statement at all. It is far more probable that More was not aware that there were two Wycliffite translations, and had mistaken the date of the earlier one. This would be all the easier since the earlier version had no preface (as the second had) which definitely identified it with Wycliffe's views. To the history of these translations, the first complete Bible in the English language, we may now proceed.
top

Wycliffe.

John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire about the year 1320. He entered Balliol College at Oxford, and presently became Fellow and, for a short time, Master of that College; but resigned the latter post when, in 1361, he was presented to the living of Fillingham, in Lincolnshire. It was not until he had passed middle life that he began to take part in public controversies; but when he did so, he at once became the most prominent leader of the party of reform. It was a period of discontent in England; discontent at the long and costly war with France, discontent at the demands of the Pope for money, discontent at the wealth of the higher dignitaries and corporations of the Church, who, in the main, supported the claims of the Pope. Wycliffe's first work was a treatise justifying the refusal of Parliament to pay the tribute claimed by the Pope in 1366; and from 1371 he was in the forefront of the religious and social disturbance which now began to rage. Papal interference and Church property were the main objects of his attack, and his chief enemies were the bishops. He was supported in most of his struggles by John of Gaunt, who wished to humiliate the Church; by the University of Oxford, consistently faithful to him except when he committed himself to theological opinions which it held heretical; and by the great mass of the common people, whose views he reflected with regard to the Pope and the Papal supporters.

 With the political and religious controversy we have here nothing to do. Whether Wyclifie was right or wrong in his attack on Church property or in his generally socialistic schemes concerns us not now. Reformers are often carried to extremes which dispassionate observers must condemn. But his championship of the common people led him to undertake a work which entitles him to honourable mention by men of all parties and all opinions -
the preparation of an English Bible which every man who knew his letters might read in his own home. And that even those who could not read might receive the knowledge of the teachings of this Bible, he instituted his order of "poor priests" to go about and preach to the poor in their own tongue, working in harmony with the clergy if they would allow them, but against them or independent of them if they were hostile.
top

The Earlier Wycliffite Bible.

The exact history of Wycliffe's translation of the Bible is uncertain. Separate versions of the Apocalypse and of a Harmony of the Gospels have been attributed to him, with more or less probability, but with no certainty. In any case these were but preludes to the great work. The New Testament was first finished, about the year 1380; and in 1382, or soon afterwards, the version of the entire Bible was completed. He was now rector of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, living mainly in his parish, but keeping constantly in touch with Oxford and London. Other scholars assisted him in his work, and we have no certain means of knowing how much of the translation was actually done by himself. The New Testament is attributed to him, but we cannot say with certainty that it was entirely his own work. The greater part of the Old Testament was certainly translated by Nicholas Hereford, one of Wycliffe's most ardent supporters at Oxford.

Plate XXX gives a reproduction of a page of the very manuscript written under Hereford's direction, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Bodl. 959). The manuscript itself seems to tell something of its history.  
It breaks off quite abruptly at Baruch iii.20, in the middle of a sentence, and it is evident that Hereford carried on the work no further; for another manuscript at Oxford, copied from it, ends at the same place, and contains a contemporary note assigning the work to Hereford. It may be supposed that this sudden break marks the time of Hereford's summons to London in 1382, to answer for his opinions, which resulted in his excommunication and retirement from England. The manuscript is written by five different scribes. The page exhibited, which contains Ecclesiasticus xlvii.6-xlviii.17, shows the change from the fourth hand to the fifth, with corrections in the margin which may be those of Hereford himself. After Hereford's departure the translation of the Old Testament was continued by Wycliffe himself or his assistants, and so the entire Bible was complete in its English dress before the death of Wycliffe in 1384.

 A marked difference in style distinguishes Hereford's work from that of the other translators. Their style is free and colloquial, as is Wycliffe's own in his other works. There can be little doubt that he had in his mind the common people, for whom his version was specially intended, and that he wrote in a style which they would understand and appreciate. Hereford, on the other hand, was a scholar, perhaps a pedant, trained in University ideas of exactness and accuracy. He clung too closely to the exact words of the Latin from which his translation was made, and hence his style is stiff and awkward, and sometimes even obscure from its too literal faithfulness to the original.
top

The Later Wycliffite Bible.

The rest of the translation also was capable of improvement, and the strong contrast in style with the work of Hereford called aloud for a revision of the whole version. Such a revision was taken in hand, shortly after Wycliffe's death, by one of his followers, and was completed probably about the year 1388. The pupil who executed it has left a preface, in which he describes the principles upon which his revision was made, but he has not told us his name; from internal evidence, however, and especially from the verbal resemblance between this preface and other writings of which the author is known, he is believed to have been John Purvey, one of Wycliffe's most intimate friends during the latter part of his life, and a sharer in the condemnation of Nicholas Hereford. The Old Testament, which stood most in need of revision, was completed first, and the reviser's preface relates to that alone. The New Testament followed later. This revised version rapidly supplanted its predecessor, and became the current form of the Wycliffite Bible during the fifteenth century.

 About a hundred and seventy copies of the Wycliffite Bible are now known to be in existence; and of these, five-sixths contain the revised edition by Purvey, while less than thirty have the original form of the translation. The following instance will show the character of this, the first complete English Bible, and the extent of the alterations made by Purvey. In the first passage the author of the older version is Hereford; in the second it is Wycliffe or one of his unnamed assistants. 

EARLIER VERSION

LATER VERSION

ISAIAH XXXV.1-6.

Gladen shal desert and the with oute weie, and ful out shal ioyen the wildernesse, and flouren as a lilie. Buriownynge it shal burioune, and ful out ioyen, ioyeful and preising. The glorie of Liban is youe to it, the fairnesse of Carmel and of Saron; thei shul see the glorie of the Lord, and the fairnesse of oure God. Goumforteth the hondes loosid atwynne, and the feble knees strengtheth. Seith, yee of litil corage, taketh coumfort, and wileth not dreden; lo! oure God veniaunce of yielding shal bringe, God he shal come and sauen us. Thanne shul ben opened the eyen of blynde men, and eres of deue men shal ben opened. Thanne shal lepe as an hert the halte, and opened shal be the tunge of doumbe men; for kut ben in desert watris, and stremes in wildernesse.

ISAIAH XXXV.1-6.

The forsakun Judee and with outen weie schal be glad, and wildirnisse schal make ful out ioye, and schal floure as a lilie. It buriownynge schal buriowne, and it glad and preisinge schal make ful out ioie. The glorie of Liban is youun to it, the fairnesse of Carmele and of Saron; thei schulen se the glorie of the Lord, and the fairnesse of oure God. Coumforte ye comelid hondis, and make ye strong feble knees. Seie ye, men of litil coumfort, be ye coumfortid, and nyle ye drede; lo! oure God schal brynge the veniaunce of gelding, God hym silf schal come, and schal saue us. Thanne the iyen of biynde men schulen be openyd, and the eeris of deef men schulen be opyn. Thanne a crokid man schal skippe as an hert, and the tunge of doumbe men schal be openyd; for whi watris ben brokun out in desert, and stremes in wildirnesse.

HEBREWS i.1-3.

Manyfold and many manors sum tyme God spekinge to fadris in prophetis, at the laste in thes daies spak to us in the sone: whom he ordeynede eyr of alle thingis, by whom he made and the worldis. The which whanne he is the schynynge of glorie and figure of his substaunce, and berynge alle thingis bi word of his vertu, makyng purgacioun of synnes, sittith on the righthalf of mageste in high thingis; so moche maad betere than aungelis, by how moche he hath inherited a more different, or excellent, name bifore hem.

HEBREWS i.1-3.

God, that spak sum tyme bi prophetis in many maneres to oure fadris, at the laste in these daies he hath spoke to us bi the sone; whom he hath ordeyned eir of alle thingis, and bi whom he made the worldis. Which whanne also he is the brightnesse of glorie, and figure of his substaunce and berith all thingis bi word of his vertu, he makyth purgacioun of synnes and syttith on the righthalf of the maieste in heuenes; and so much is maad betere than aungels, bi hou myche he hath enerited a more dyuerse name bifor hem.

Such is the first complete English Bible, the first Bible which we know to have circulated among the common people of England. Many of the copies which now remain testify that they were intended for private use. They are not large and well-written volumes, such as would be placed in libraries or read to a congregation. Such copies there were, indeed -
volumes which were found in kings' houses and in monastic libraries, as we shall see presently; but those of which we are now speaking are small, closely written copies, with no ornamentation, such as a man would have for his own reading and might carry in his pocket. In this form the Bible reached those who could not read Latin. It had indeed travelled a long way. It was no careful rendering of an accurately studied and revised Greek text, such as we have to-day. The original Greek had been translated into Latin long centuries before; the Latin had become corrupted and had been revised and translated anew by St. Jerome; St. Jerome's version had become corrupted in its turn, and had suffered many things of editors and copyists; and from copies of this corrupted Latin the English translation of Wycliffe and Purvey had been made. Still, through all these changes and chances, the substance of the Holy Scriptures remained the same; and, with whatever imperfections, the entire Bible was now accessible to the English in their own language, through the zeal and energy of John Wycliffe.
top

Is the Wycliffite Bible really Wycliffe's?

So, at least, it has always been held; and it is only because erroneous statements, once issued, may continue to mislead if not constantly corrected that it is necessary to refer to the assertion put forward in 1894 by the well-known Roman Catholic scholar Dr. (afterwards Cardinal) F. A. Gasquet to the effect that the Wycliffite Bible is not Wycliffe's at all, but is the work of his bitterest opponents, the bishops of the English Church who represented the party of Rome.
top

Theory that it was an Authorised Version issued by the Bishops.

Gasquet's main arguments are as follows:

  1. The evidence connecting Wycliffe with an English version of the Bible is very slight;
  2. the hostility of the bishops to an English Bible has been much exaggerated, and there is no sign that the possession or use of such a Bible was commonly made a subject of inquiry in the examinations of Wycliife's adherents;
  3. the character of the extant copies, and the rank and known opinions of their original owners, are such as to be inconsistent with the idea that they were the work of a poor and proscribed sect, as the Wycliffites are represented to have been;
  4. there are indications of the existence of an authorised translation of the Bible at this period, and this we must conclude to be the version which has come down to us. The Bible of Wycliffe, if it ever existed, must have been completely destroyed.

top

Examination of this Theory.

Now on the first of these points. Dr. Gasquet seems to ignore the strength of the evidence which connects Wycliffe and his supporters, not merely with a translation of the Bible, but with these translations. That they were responsible for a translation is proved by the contemporary evidence of Archbishop Arundel, Knyghton, and a decree of the Council held at Oxford in 1408 - all witnesses hostile to the Wycliffites. If that translation is not the one commonly known as the Wycliffite Bible, then no trace of it exists at present, which is in itself improbable. But of the actually extant translations, the Old Testament in the earlier version, as we have seen, is shown to be the work of Nicholas Hereford by the evidence of the note in the Oxford manuscript; while the later version is obviously based upon the earlier, and was, moreover, certainly the work of someone who held identical views with Purvey; further, in a manuscript of the earlier version at Dublin Purvey's own name is written as the owner, and (what is more important) the prologues to the several books commonly found in the later version have been inserted in Purvey's own writing. Dr. Gasquet says "whether Hereford or Purvey possibly may have had any part in the translation does not so much concern us"; but he cannot seriously mean to maintain that an authorised version of the English Bible, existing (as on his theory it existed) in direct opposition to the Wycliffite Bible, could itself be the work of Hereford and Purvey, the two most conspicuous adherents and companions of Wycliffe. Moreover, the last words of the preface to the revised version show that the author did not know how his work might be received by those in power, and looked forward to the possibility of being called upon to endure persecution for it:

God graunte to us alle grace to kunne [understand] wel and kepe wel holi writ, and suffre ioiefulli sum peyne for it at the laste.

This evidence, taken together with the proved connection of Hereford and Purvey with the extant translation, is sufficient to establish that it is, as has always been believed, the Wycliffite Bible.

Still more disastrously does Gasquet's case break down in respect of his assertion that there is no evidence that Wycliffe's followers were persecuted for the possession of the Scriptures in English; for in fact the depositions of the witnesses against the Lollards (as Wycliffe's followers were called) repeatedly make mention of the possession of vernacular Bibles. Dr. Gasquet finally ruined his case by referring to the prosecution of Richard Hun in 1514. He admits that Hun was charged with the possession of a vernacular Bible, the prologue to which contained heretical errors; but he affirms that "we shall look in vain in the edition of Wycliffite Scriptures published by Forshall and Madden for any trace of these errors." He maintains therefore that the Bible for the possession of which Hun was persecuted was not that which we know as Wycliffe's. It is to be feared that Gasquet had not himself looked at the edition to which he refers; for there, in the preface to the second Wycliffite Bible, which we know as Purvey's, are precisely the statements which are cited verbatim in the charges against Hun. If Dr. Gasquet had read it, he could not possibly have attributed to the official heads of the English Church a translation the prologue to which speaks of "the pardouns of the bisschopis of Rome, that ben opin leesingis," and affirms that "to eschewe pride and speke onour of God and of his lawe, and repreve synne bi weie of charite, is matir and cause now whi prelatis and summe lordis sclanndren men, and clepen hem lollardis, eretikis, and riseris of debate and oftreson agens the king." There can in fact be no doubt that the Bibles which we possess are in fact the translation produced by Wycliffe and his followers, and are those for the possession of which they were condemned by some at least of the heads of the English Church.
[Gasquet's article, originally printed in the Dublin Review (July, 1894), was reprinted in his volume, The Old English Bible (1897). The most complete and fully documented refutation of it was in the Church Quarterly Review for January, 1901.]

The whole suggestion is in truth a mare's nest, probably due to the fact that Dr. Gasquet, at the time when he first promulgated it, was daily passing, on his way to the Manuscript Department of the British Museum, a handsome copy of the earlier Wycliffite Bible, which had once been the property of Thomas ofWoodstock, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Richard II. Dr. Gasquet was fully justified in emphasising the fact that copies of this Bible are known to have been in the possession of members of the Royal Family, such as Henry VI, Henry VII, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and of many religious houses, which were never charged with heresy on that account. But the fact is that the persecution of the Lollards was partial and intermittent. Much of it was due to the activity of particular bishops, such as Archbishop Arundel, under whose influence a Provincial Council at Oxford in 1408 forbade the production of any translation of the Scriptures into English, or any use of the translation lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe; but not all the bishops were of Arundel's way of thinking. Wycliffe had powerful supporters, notably John of Gaunt and the University of Oxford, so that there would have been no difficulty in the way of the production of fine copies, or their possession by eminent persons. As time went on, moreover, the charge of Lollardism or of heresy probably became weaker. Unless a copy contained Purvey's prologue (and most of them do not) there was nothing to connect it with Lollardism; and individuals and religious houses may have possessed them in all innocence of heart. It is quite probable that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many people (including the royal owners mentioned above) used them without suspicion of their connection with Wycliffe. Among them may well have been Sir Thomas More himself (see above, p.202); otherwise we should have to suppose that the orthodox Bibles of which he speaks, and which he expressly distinguishes from the Bible which caused the condemnation of Richard Hun, have wholly disappeared. It is contrary to all reason to suppose that the condemned Bible has survived in many scores of copies, while the orthodox one has perished without leaving a trace. The only rational explanation is that Sir Thomas More, whose good faith no one would question, was mistaken; that Cardinal Gasquet's revival of his contention was an unfortunate lapse on the part of a scholar who did much good work for Biblical studies; and that the manuscript Bibles of which we have been speaking were in truth the work of John Wycliffe and his disciples, and were the first and only complete Bibles in the English tongue before the invention of printing.
top