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BIBLE, ENGLISH

life merely because the text used in them happens to be that of the Early Version. It is therefore at present impossible to say what part of the Early Version of the New Testament was translated by Wycliffe.[1]

The Old Testament of the Early Version was, according to the editors (Preface, p. xvii.), taken in hand by one of Wycliffe’s coadjutors, Nicholas de Herford. The translator’s original copy and a coeval transcript of it are still extant in the Bodleian library (Bodl. 959, Douce 360). Both break off abruptly at Baruch iii. 19, the latter having at this place a note inserted to the following effect: Explicit translacionem Nicholay de herford. There is consequently but little doubt that Nicholas de Herford took part in the translation of the Old Testament, though it is uncertain to what extent. The translator’s copy is written in not less than five hands, differing in orthography and dialect. The note may therefore be taken to refer either to the portion translated by the last or fifth hand, or to the whole of the Old Testament up to Baruch iii. 19. Judging from uniformity of style and mode of translation the editors of the Bible are inclined to take the latter view; they add that the remaining part of the Old Testament was completed by a different hand, the one which also translated the New Testament. This statement is, however, not supported by sufficient evidence. In view of the magnitude of the undertaking it is on the contrary highly probable that other translators besides Wycliffe and Nicholas de Herford took part in the work, and that already existing versions, with changes when necessary, were incorporated or made use of by the translators.

The Early Version, apart from its completeness, shows but little advance upon preceding efforts. It is true that the translation is more careful and correct than some of the renderings noticed above, but on the other hand it shares all their faults. The translation of the Old Testament as far as Baruch iii. 19 is stiff and awkward, sometimes unintelligible, even nonsensical, from a too close adherence to the Latin text (e.g. Judges xx. 25). In the remaining parts the translation is somewhat easier and more skilful, though even here Latinisms and un-English renderings abound.

It is small wonder, therefore, if a revision was soon found necessary and actually taken in hand within a few years of the completion of the Earlier Version. The principles of work adopted by the revisers are laid down in the general prologue to their edition, the so-called “Later Version.”

For these resons and orhere ... a symple creature hath translatid the bible out of Latyn into English. First, this symple creature hadde myche traueile, with diuerse felawis and helperis, to gedere manie elde biblis, and othere doctouris, and comune glosis, and to make oo Latyn bible sumdel trewe; and thanne to studie it of the newe, the text with the glose, and othere doctouris, as he miȝte gete, and speciali Lire on the elde testament, that helpide ful myche in this work; the thridde tyme to counseile with elde gramariens, and elde dyuynis, of harde wordis, and harde sentencis, hou tho miȝten best be vndurstonden and translatid; the iiij tyme to translate as cleerli as he coude to the sentence, and to haue manie gode felawis and kuonynge at the correcting of the translacioun.

It is uncertain who the revisers were; John Purvey, the leader of the Lollard party after Wycliffe’s death, is generally assumed to have taken a prominent part in the work, but the evidence of this is extremely slight (cf. Wycl. Bible, Preface, oo. xxv. f.). The exact date of the revision is also doubtful: the editors of the Wycliffe Bible, judging from the internal evidence of the Prologue, assume it to have been finished about 1388. This Revised or Later Version is in every way a readable, correct rendering of the Scriptures, it is far more idiomatic than the Earlier, having been freed from the greater number of its Latinisms; its vocabulary is less archaic. Its popularity admits of no doubt, for even now in spite of neglect and persecution, in spite of the ravages of fire and time, over 150 copies remain to testify to this fact. The following specimens of the Early and Late Versions will afford a comparison with preceding renderings:—


Early Version. Late Version.
(Psalm i. 1.) Blisful the man, that went not awei in the
counseil of vnpitouse, and in the wei off sinful stod not; and
in the chayer of pestilence sat not. (2) But in the lawe of the
Lord his wil; and in the lawe of hym he shal sweteli thenke
dai and nyȝt.

(Matthew iii. 1.) In thilke days came Ioon Baptist,
prechynge in the desert of Iude, sayinge, (2) Do ȝe
penaunce, for the kyngdom of heuens shal neiȝ, or cume
niȝe. (3) Forsothe this is he of whome it is said by Ysaye the
prophet. A voice of a cryinge in desert, Make ȝe redy the
wayes of the Lord; Make ȝe riȝtful the pathes of hym. (4)
Forsothe that ilk Ioon hadde cloth of the heeris of cameylis,
and a girdil of skyn aboute his leendis; sothely his mete
weren locustis, and hony of the wode.
(i. 1.) Blessid is the man, that ȝode not in the councel
of wickid men; and stood not in the weie of synneris,
and sat not in the chaier of pestilence. (2) But his wille
is in the lawe of the Lord; and he schal bithenke in the
lawe of hym dai and nyȝt.

(iii. 1.) In tho daies Ioon Baptist cam, and prechide in
the desert of Iudee, and seide, (2) Do ȝe penaunce, for
the kyngdom of heuenes shal neiȝe. (3) For this is he, of
whom it is seid bi Ysaie, the prophete, seyinge, A vois
of a crier in desert, Make ȝe redi the weies of the Lord;
make ȝe riȝt the pathis of hym. (4) And this Ioon hadde
clothing of camels heeris, and a girdil of skynne aboute
his leendis; and his mete was honysoukis and hony of
the wode.


The 15th century may well be described as the via dolorosa of the English Bible as well as of its chief advocates and supporters, the Lollards. After the death of Wycliffe violence and anarchy set in, and the Lollards came The Lollards. gradually to be looked upon as enemies of order and disturbers of society. Stern measures of suppression were directed not only against them but against “Goddis Lawe,” the book for which they pleaded with such passionate earnestness. The bishops’ registers bear sufficient testimony to this fact.[2] It would appear, however, as if at first at all events the persecution was directed not so much against the Biblical text itself as against the Lollard interpretations which accompanied it. In a convocation held at Oxford under Archbishop Arundel in 1408 it was enacted “that no man hereafter by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue, by way of a book, booklet, or tract; and that no man read any such book, booklet, or tract, now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe or since, or hereafter to be set forth in part or in whole, publicly or privately, upon pain of greater excommunication, until the said translation be approved by the ordinary of the place, or, if the case so require, by the council provincial. He that shall do contrary to this shall likewise be punished as a favourer of heresy and error.”[3]

It must be allowed that an enactment of this kind was not without justification. The Lollards, for instance, did not hesitate to introduce into certain copies of the pious and orthodox Commentary on the Psalms by the hermit of Hampole interpolations of their own of the most virulently controversial kind (MSS. Trin. Coll. Camb. B.V. 25, Brit. Mus. Reg. 18. C. 26, &c.), and although the text of their Biblical versions was faithful and true, the General Prologue of the Later Version was interlarded with controversial matter. It is small wonder if the prelates and priests sought to repress such trenchant criticism of their lives and doctrines as appeared more especially in the former work, and probably in many others which since have perished in “faggots and burning.”

For all this, manuscripts of Purvey’s Revision were copied and re-copied during this century, the text itself being evidently approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, when in the hands of the right people and if unaccompanied by controversial matter.

Of the Lollard movement in Scotland but little is known, but a curious relic has come down to our times in the shape of a New Testament of Purvey’s Revision in the Scottish dialect of the early 16th century. The transcriber was in all probability a certain Murdoch Nisbet, who also showed his reforming tendencies by adding to it a rendering of Luther’s Prologue to the New Testament.[4]

  1. Cf. A. C. Paues, The English Bible in the Fourteenth Century.
  2. See Foxe, Acts and Monuments, iv. 135 ff. (ed. Townsend, 1846).
  3. Wilkin’s Concilia, iii. 317.
  4. T. G. Law, The New Testament in Scots, being Purvey’s Revision of Wycliffe’s version turned into Scots by Murdoch Nisbet, c. 1520 (Scot. T. S., Edinburgh, 1901-1905).