Anne Hudson: The First Complete English Bible

It would be unfortunate if the increasing interest in Tyndale should lead to disregard for his predecessors in the work of producing an English Bible. Nearly a hundred and fifty years before Tyndale's first edition of the English New Testament the first complete translation into English of the Old and New Testaments and of the Apocrypha was made by the followers of John Wyclif. Although parts of the Bilble had been translated, or in in some cases paraphrased or abbreviated in English, from before the Norman Conquest, this Wycliffite translation is the first known that attempted to render the entire body of scripture. The translation was made from Jerome's Vulgate Latin version, the standard biblical text of the middle ages. Some 250 manuscript copies of the whole or parts of this translation survive, the largest number of any medieval English work. The translation was a collaborative enterprise by many scholars, probably at least begun in Oxford, and completed within the last twenty years of the fourteenth century.

John Wyclif, who died in 1384, had advocated in his later works the availability of the Bible to the laity in a language that they could understand. Wyclif was certainly perceived as the instigator of the enterprise of translation, but it seems unlikely that he himself took part in the actual work. That work was a long and complicated process, a process which is described in the so-called ‘General Prologue’, found in a small number of copies and usually attached to parts of the translation. This tells how the first, and evidently arduous, task was to produce a reliable Latin text — at a time of manual copying each copy differed in some repsect from every other copy, and correction was very hazardous. One ingenious way used to check the text was to compare its wording with the precise words commented on by fathers such as Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose: the verbal detail in these fathers might allow later corruptions to be perceived. The workers also consulted commentaries of this kind, and other available tools such as concordances, to clarify the meaning of the text; particular attention was paid to oddities of syntax and technical vocabulary. Only after these processes were complete did translation proper begin. The first version produced was a very literal rendering of the Latin, hardly comprehensible without the Vulgate text alongside: Latinate constructions, often even the word order of the Vulgate, were preserved. This, known as the Early Version, was evidently regarded as a first step, and few copies of it survive. At once processes of revision began, in part further correction of the underlying text, but chiefly modification of the English to produce a fluent, idiomatic rendering, intelligible in its own right. This Later Version gained much wider circulation, and was plainly the standard one.

As is obvious from the account in the ‘General Prologue’, the enterprise was one that must have taken a considerable time and drew upon the resources of many scholars. To attach individual names to parts of the work is for the most part conjectural, and boldly distorts the collaborative nature of the translation. Two manuscripts of the Early Version appear to associate the name of Nicholas Hereford with part of the Old Testament version; Hereford was one of Wyclif's early Oxford disciples, though he had renounced his master's views by 1391. Modern critics have often attributed the Later Version to the work of John Purvey. Purvey was also an early follower of Wyclif, and accompanied Wyclif in his retirement after 1381 in Lutterworth; though he maintained an uncertain loyalty to his master in later life, he lost his life in prison after involvement in the revolt of Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard (as Wyclif's followers came to be known), in 1417. But there is no medieval evidence to link Purvey's name with the work of translation. The first time that he was associated with it was in a letter from Daniel Waterland to the scholar John Lewis in 1729, where Waterland makes it quite clear that he was guessing and had no evidence to support his suggestion. Lewis gave circulation to the suggestion, suppressing its conjectural nature, in the prefatory material to his edition of the Later Version New Testament of 1731. Dislike of anonymity has perpetuated this myth.

When the translation was first made and revised the ecclesiastical hierarchy tolerated, even if it did not actively encourage, biblical translation. In 1401 the issue of its desirability could be debated freely in Oxford. But already in the 1390s the chronicler Henry Knighton connected the translation explicitly to John Wyclif, and the translation came to be condemned by association with the heresies of which Wyclif was accused. Wyclif's chief errors in the sight of the ecclesiastical authorities concerned the eucharist, clerical absolution, the papacy, the religious orders and the temporalities of the church. But many other opinions, formerly indifferent, came to be regarded as heretical because they had been favoured by Wyclif or by his declared followers. Thus in the Constitutions drafted in 1407 and promulgated in 1409 against heresy by Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury appeared a formal prohibition of the translation of the Bible into English; in addition existing copies of English scriptures were to be confiscated unless both text and owner had been approved as orthodox by the local bishop. Thereafter possession of English scriptures became regarded as serious evidence of heresy.

Despite this prohibition circulation of copies of the Wycliffite Bible continued, particularly but not exclusively in Lollard circles. Orthodox owners are known: for instance the copy now found in the Bodleian Library Oxford, MS Douce 277, belonged to Henry VI, and was given by him to the London Carthusian house. The majority of copies were professionally produced to a high standard, with regular running headings, clear division into chapters, and decorated (though only very rarely with figural elaboration) capitals. Many are accompanied by a list of festivals and a lectionary; the start and often the end of the gospels and epistles used in the mass are usually marked in the margins. Most date from the period before the middle of the fifteenth century, but some are found from later dates up to the 1530s. Because Arundel's Constitutions remained in force until that time, the translation was not printed by Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde or their followers. The ‘General Prologue’ was issued by the radical John Gough in 1540, and again by the equally Protestant Robert Crowley in 1550; but by that time the translation itself had been superseded by others.

Despite the condemnation of Arundel, and the persecution of owners of the text by other bishops, the translation itself reveals no trace of renderings that could be thought to have been influenced by sectarian bias — this neutrality doubtless explains ownership by men such as Henry VI. Only in a few glosses, introduced into the margins of a small number of manuscripts, and in a few sentences of the ‘General Prologue’, are traces of Wycliffite preoccupations to be found. Arundel's requirement of scrutiny of biblical text must have been virtually impossible to carry through at a time of manuscript circulation, in default of the provision of any crucial readings that would identify the offending versions.

Contemporary desire for the Bible in English is not only evidenced by the surviving number of copies of the Wycliffite translation. Arundel himself licensed a translation by the Carthusian Nicholas Love of the pseudo Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, a gospel harmony with extensive additional pious meditation, declaredly as a substitute for the banned vernacular Bible; some sixty manuscripts, some fragmentary, survive. For Wyclif's followers at least, however, this was not an acceptable alternative: the stress that they placed on the precise words of scripture, without gloss or modification, ruled out of court a text such as Love's where it was impossible to separate out scripture from commentary, let alone to attribute elements of one gospel rather than another.

Persecution undoubtedly often followed discovered possession the English scriptures. Over and over again ownership is mentioned in investigations of Lollards between the 1380s and 1530s; at the recantation or burning of the suspect the offending books were routinely confiscated and destroyed. Yet individuals and groups persisted in the reading of the English Bible, often in the home, almost always after 1407 in private; one literate person read to the others, and encouragement was given to learn to read for the purpose of studying scripture; memorization of sections of the English Bible (sometimes of whole books) was common. From enquiries it is clear that groups of sympathisers pooled their money to purchase copies, and equally that there was collaboration in their concealment. The value that continued to be put on the copies is evident in the familiar story of the pair of men from Steeple Bumpstead in Essex who about 1527 visited Robert Barnes in London, to whom they displayed their copies of the gospels and epistles. Barnes persuaded them that they should purchase from him a copy of a later translation, that of Tyndale, ‘for it is more cleyner Englishe.’

By the 1520s the language of the Wycliffite translation was in certain respects old-fashioned: changes in English during the fifteenth century had produced new vocabulary and inflections. But, though to us Tyndale's language, not least because of its frequent adoption into the Authorised Version, seems more familiar, there is no reason to think that the Later Version would have seemed in any way strange to a reader in the first half of the fifteenth century. Praise of Tyndale does not require a denigration of earlier translators. In many ways the achievement of the Wycliffite translators can be regarded as no less great than Tyndale's: unlike Tyndale's apparently largely individual enterprise, there were many collaborators in the earlier work but they had to proceed without the advantage of the printed materials to which Tyndale had access.

Did Tyndale know the Wycliffite translations? That question is surprisingly hard to answer. Tyndale, though he knew of Wyclif, never refers overtly to earlier English translations. The possibility remains, however, that his silence is explicable because of his desire to dissociate his own enterprise from that which he knew to be banned — his hope that the authorities, perhaps influenced by his use of the Greek and Hebrew sources rather than the Latin Vulgate, might take a more enlightened attitude. There are some anticipations of Tyndale's wording in the Wycliffite text, but it is hard to be sure whether this is coincidental. When the base text remains essentially the same, and the target language identical, there is only a finite number of possible translations. Conversely, when differences are noted, the divergence between Tyndale's Greek or Hebrew texts and the Wycliffite Latin, as well as linguistic changes between the 1390s and the 1520s, could be the explanation. If, as some modern critics have sought to demonstrate, Tyndale's independent writing shows traces of influence from earlier Lollard texts, then it is improbable that Tyndale could have been unaware of the Wycliffite translation.

The precise wording of the Bible was central to the thought of Wyclif, and his followers throughout the ensuing hundred and fifty years maintained that primacy. Even though Lollard preachers and tract writers often chose to make their own translations of the many biblical texts they included, they testify to the existence of groups of people long before Luther, Tyndale and other reformes of the sixteenth century who insisted on the availability of biblical teaching in the language familiar to all. Reginald Pecock, enemy though he was to Wycliffite ideas, nonetheless used the Later Version when he quoted the Bible. And he spoke accurately when he characterized the Lollards as ‘Bible-men’.

© Anne Hudson

Valid XHTML 1.0!