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BIBLE, ENGLISH

southerly transcripts. The translation, however, is stiff and literal to a fault, violating idiomatic usage and the proper order of words in its strict adherence to the Latin. The following brief extracts may exemplify the hermit’s rendering and the change the text underwent in later copies.[1]


MS. Univ. Coll. 64. MS. Reg. 18 B. 21.
(i. 1.) Blisful man þe whilk oway ged noght in þe
  counsaile of wicked, and in þe way of synful stode
  noght, & in þe chaiere of pestilens he noght sate. (2)
  Bot in laghe of lord þe will of him; and in his laghe he
  sall thynke day & nyght.
Blessed is þat man þat haþ not gone in þe counsell of
  wicked men, and in þe weye of sinfull men haþ not stonde,
  and in þe chaire of pestilence sat not. 2. But in þe lawe of
  our lorde is þe will of him; and [in] his lawe we shall þinke
  day and nyght.


Approximately to the same period as these early renderings of the Psalter belongs a version of the Apocalypse with a Commentary, the earliest MS. of which (Harleian 874) is written in the dialect of the North Midlands. This Commentary, for a long time attributed to Wycliffe, is really nothing but a verbal rendering of the popular and widely-spread Norman Commentary on the Apocalypse (Paul Meyer and L. Delisle, L’Apocalypse en Français au XIIIe siècle, Paris, 1901), which dates back as far as the first half of the 13th century, and in its general tenor represents the height of orthodoxy. The English apocalypse, to judge from the number of MSS. remaining, must have enjoyed great and lasting popularity. Several revisions of the text exist, the later of which present such striking agreement with the later Wycliffite version that we shall not be far wrong if we assume that they were made use of to a considerable extent by the revisers of this version.

To the North Midlands or the North belongs further a complete version of the Pauline Epistles found in the unique MS. 32, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, of the 15th century.

Commentaries on the Gospels of St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke, we are told by the heading in one of the MSS. (Univ. Libr. Camb. Ii. 2. 12), were also translated into English by “a man of þe north cuntre.” The translation of these Gospels as well as of the Epistles referred to above is stiff and awkward, the translator being evidently afraid of any departure from the Latin text of his original. The accompanying commentary is based on the Fathers of the Church and entirely devoid of any original matter. The opening lines of the third chapter of Matthew are rendered in the following way:—


MS. Camb. Univ. Libr. Ii. 2. 12.

(iii. 1.) In þo dayes come Ihone baptist prechand in desert of þe Iewry, & seyand, (2) Do ȝe penaunce; forwhy þe kyngdome of heuyne sal come negh. (3) Þis is he of whome it was seide be Isay þe prophete, sayand, “þe voice of þe cryand in þe desert, redye ȝe þe way of God, right made ȝe þe lityl wayes of him.” (4) & Ihone his kleþing of þe hoerys of camels, & a gyrdyl of a skyn about his lendys; & his mete was þe locust & hony of þe wode.

A version of the Acts and the Catholic Epistles completes the number of the New Testament books translated in the northern parts of England. It is found in several MSS. either separately or in conjunction with a fragmentary Southern Version of the Pauline Epistles, Peter, James and 1 John in a curiously compiled volume, evidently made, as the prologue tells us, by a brother superior for the use and edification of an ignorant “sister,” or woman vowed to religion.[2] The translation of this, our only southern text, surpasses all previous efforts from the point of view of clearness of expression and idiomatic use of English, and, though less exact, it may be even said in these respects to rank equal with the later or revised Wycliffite version.

Apart from these more or less complete versions of separate books of the Bible, there existed also numerous renderings of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, accounts of the Life, Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, translations of the epistles and gospels used in divine service, and other means of familiarizing the people with Holy Scripture. It was the custom of the medieval preachers and writers to give their own English version of any text which they quoted, not resorting as in later times to a commonly received translation. This explains the fact that in collections of medieval homilies that have come down to us, no two renderings of the Biblical text used are ever alike, not even Wyclilfe himself making use of the text of the commonly accepted versions that went under his name.

It is noteworthy that these early versions from Anglo-Saxon times onwards were perfectly orthodox, executed by and for good and faithful sons of the church, and, generally speaking, with the object of assisting those whose knowledge of Latin proved too scanty for a proper interpretation and understanding of the holy text. Thus Richard Rolle’s version of the Psalms was executed for a nun; so was in all likelihood the southern version of the epistles referred to above. Again the earliest MS. (Harl. 874) of the Commentary on the Apocalypse gives the owner’s name in a coeval hand as “Richard Schepard, presbiter,” and the Catholic Epistles of MS. Douce 250[3] were probably glossed for the benefit of men in religious orders, if one may judge from a short Commentary to James ii. 2, “& þerfore if eny man come into youre siȝt, þat is, into youre cumpenye þat beþ Godes religiouse men in what degre so ȝe be.” Nor do any of the remaining works contain anything but what is strictly orthodox.

It is first with the appearance of Wycliffe (q.v.) and his followers on the arena of religious controversy that the Bible in English came to be looked upon with suspicion by the orthodox party within the Church. For it is a well-known fact The Wycliffite Versions. that Wycliffe proclaimed the Bible, not the Church or Catholic tradition, as a man’s supreme spiritual authority, and that he sought in consequence by every means in his power to spread the knowledge of it among the people. It is, therefore, in all likelihood to the zeal of Wycliffe and his followers that we owe the two noble 14th-century translations of the Bible which tradition has always associated with his name, and which are the earliest complete renderings that we possess of the Holy Scriptures into English.[4]

The first of these, the so-called Early Version, was probably completed about 1382, at all events before 1384, the year of Wycliffe’s death. The second, or Later Version, being a thorough revision of the first, is ascribed to the year 1388 by Sir Frederic Madden and the Rev. Joshua Forshall in their edition of these two versions.[5]

It is a matter of uncertainty what part, if any, Wycliffe himself took in the work. The editors of the Wycliffite versions say in the Preface, pp. xv. ff.—“The New Testament was naturally the first object. The text of the Gospels was extracted from the Commentary upon them by Wycliffe, and to these were added the Epistles, the Acts and the Apocalypse, all now translated anew. This translation might probably be the work of Wycliffe himself; at least the similarity of style between the Gospels and the other parts favours the supposition.” The Wycliffite authorship of the Commentaries on the Gospels, on which the learned editors base their argument, is, however, unsupported by any evidence beyond the fact that the writer of the Prologue to Matthew urges in strong language “the propriety of translating Scripture for the use of the laity.” The Biblical text found in these Commentaries is in fact so far removed from the original type of the Early Version as to be transitional to the Late, and, what is still more convincing, passages from the Early Version, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, are actually quoted in the Commentary. Under such circumstances it would be folly to look upon them as anything but late productions, at all events later than the Early Version, and equal folly to assign these bulky volumes to the last two years of Wycliffe’s

  1. H. R. Bramley, The Psalter and Certain Canticles... by Richard Rolle of Hampole (Oxford, 1884); cf. H. Middendorff, Studien über Richard Rolle von Hampole unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Psalmen-Commentare (Magdeburg, 1888).
  2. A. C. Paues, A Fourteenth-Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1904), pp. xxiv. ff.
  3. See Paues, op. cit. p. 210.
  4. For a different view as to the authorship of the Wycliffite versions, see F. A. Gasquet, The Old English Bible and Other Essays (London, 1897), pp. 102 ff.
  5. Sir F. Madden and Rev. J. Forshall, The Holy Bible... made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and His Followers (4 vols., Oxford, 1850), pp. xix., xxiv.