John Trevisa, the Translator of Wycliffe B:
A consideration of the evidence

W R Cooper

The identity of just who it was who translated Wycliffe B, the superior version of the two ‘Wycliffite’ translations of the English Bible, has needlessly racked the brains of scholars for more than 200 years. The cause of the puzzlement is one Waterland (otherwise Waterton), who decided in the 18th century, upon no good evidence, that it was the work of John Purvey, the 14th century Lollard priest and Wycliffite apologist. The quality of the ‘evidence’ that prompted this attribution was abysmal in the extreme. As A.W. Pollard points out to us: “...Waterton [Waterland] says himself that he merely guessed and ‘pitched upon’ Purvey as the author...”.[1] Waterland’s uninspired guess was then taken up by Forshall and Madden in 1850 in their otherwise invaluable printing of both Wycliffite versions of the English Bible, and that is how the attribution has come down to us with such an indelible stamp of authority.

This has left the field in great confusion, for the 19th and 20th centuries have seen such pre-eminent Bible scholars as F.F.Bruce speaking unquestioningly of Purvey as Wycliffe B’s translator, and Alfred Pollard casting serious doubts about it, suspecting Trevisa to be the author, but being left uncertain how to offer sufficient and cogent proof that he was. Here might be a good place to supply that proof, and to set the record straight at last.

What About Purvey?
John Purvey (ca. 1353-1428) was an ordained priest who later became a follower of Wycliffe, preaching and disseminating Lollard doctrines until his arrest and imprisonment in 1390. In 1401 he was forced to recant, and for his reward was given the living of West Hythe in Kent, where he distinguished himself by making the same voracious demands for tithes as those corrupt churchmen whom he had formerly and very loudly denounced. Archbishop Arundel, who had supervised his recantation at Saltwood Castle in Kent, was scandalized by his conduct:

“...I knowe none more couetouse shrewes that ye [Lollards] are, when that ye haue a benefice. For lo I gaue to John Puruay a benefice but a myle out of this Castel [Saltwood], and I heard more compleintes about his couetousnesse for tythes & other misdoings than I did of all men that were auaunced within my diocesse.”[2]

However, it is most significant that while Purvey was examined on many other articles of heresy, there exists not the hint of a suspicion on the part of Arundel, or his informants, that Purvey had ever translated the Scriptures into English, or even had had a hand in the project.[3] Foxe lists some of the articles of heresy laid against Purvey, and notes the more literary complaints against him of Walden.[4] They are the usual mix of not subscribing to the doctrines of transubstantiation or auricular confession, saying that those responsible for such doctrines were “fooles & Blockheades, Heretikes, Blasphemers, and Seducers of the Christian people..!” But not a word, from either Walden or Arundel, about translating the Scriptures. Walden complains only that he, Purvey, had openly defended Wycliffe’s doctrines in writing, calling him the very “...librarie of Lollardes, and gloser [commentator] upon Wicklieffe.”

Had it been known then that Purvey had translated the Scriptures, surely Knighton, Walden or Arundel (and hence Foxe) would have mentioned it. The one man who did compile a list of Purvey’s heretical words and works at that time was Richard Lavenham, and he is notably silent on the subject of Purvey translating the Bible.[5] None of which seems to have troubled Waterland (if he ever bothered to consider the matter). The identity of those who had translated the Scriptures into English was a matter of great interest to the Archbishop, and if he could have nailed the man or men responsible, he certainly would have, rewarding their industry by burning them alive. Yet he seemed to know that whoever the pernicious individual was, it was not John Purvey.

Indeed, it does not seem that Purvey was even asked if he knew who had translated the Scriptures. Which tells us something of just how far removed from the centre of things Arundel knew him to be. As Arundel was doubtless aware (and it was an easy enough matter for him to confirm) Purvey never was a student or fellow at Oxford, the place where much of the translating of the Scriptures had been inspired and carried out.

The only occasion that seems to tie Purvey to Oxford in any sense is his examination in that city on certain articles of heresy.[6] But as the city of Oxford lay within the then very large diocese of Lincoln, Purvey could then have expressed his ‘heresies’ anywhere within that diocese and still have been examined at Oxford. According to John Bokyngham, one time bishop of Lincoln, on 13 March 1377 Purvey was known to be living and working at Lathbury, which certainly precludes him from being found amongst the student fellowship of Oxford at that time, whose records in any case, while they mention certain of his fellow Lollards, are silent concerning him.[7] Had he indeed belonged to one of the colleges, especially Queen’s Hall where Wycliffe taught, then he might well have been suspected of having had a hand in the Lollard Bible. But he was simply never there, and hence was never suspected.

When we add these points to the fact that, before Waterland, no scholar or even contemporary critic (Knighton, Walden, Lavenham or Arundel for instance) ever thought of attributing the Lollard Bible to Purvey, they become highly significant, and together they remove Purvey from the Bibletranslating scene altogether. We must therefore look to another as the translator of the later Lollard Bible.

John Trevisa: A Survey of Past Opinions
In order to appreciate better the length of time over which Trevisa’s authorship of Wycliffe B was acknowledged, and by whom, we should consider the following extracts and statements. In 1482, Caxton, who printed in that year Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon, says in his ‘prohemye’ or foreword to the book:

“...[Trevisa] atte request of thomas lord barkley translated this sayd book [Polychronicon], the |bi| byble |ib| and bartylmew de proprietatibus rerum out of latyn into english.”[8] (Emphasis mine)

Caxton is correct in several historical details here concerning Trevisa, so it is unlikely that he is wrong in attributing such an important translation as the Bible to his author, especially when there were those still living who would remember if it had been John Purvey or some other who had translated it. We may further rely upon it that Caxton, whose life’s interest was English literature, was something of an authority on the Lollard Bible, for there is very good evidence indeed that, in spite of the deadly ban on its ownership or use then extant, he possessed and read closely at least one copy of it. This is evidenced by a particular sentence that appears in his Chronicles of England, but which seems to have gone unnoticed by students of Caxton. In this sentence, he quotes from Isaiah 24:18 in the following words:

“...who that fleeth fro the face of drede he shall fall in to the diche And he that wendeth hym oute of the diche he shall be hold[en] & teide with a grenne.”[9]

The importance of this sentence is that it is lifted virtually word for word out of that proscribed translation of the Bible, Wycliffe A:

“He that shall flee fro the face of drede shall falle in to the dich and he that taketh hymself out of the dich shal be holden with the grene.”[10]

That Caxton interested himself in the Lollard Bible to the extent that he would risk his livelihood, if not his very life, by buying, owning and publishing portions of either (or both) of its two main versions tells us something of the authority with which he was able to speak on the subject of who had translated it. Though no ‘heretic’, he was in every sense a dedicated scholar, and it would be interesting at some future date to compare certain portions of his Golden Legend (1483) with their Wycliffite counterparts to see just how much (or little) of the Lollard Bible was incorporated into this work. But suffice it to say here that, unlike Waterland, Caxton was no careless guesser who would merely have “pitched upon” the identity of his author. As far as Caxton was concerned, there was no question about it. Trevisa, who had died only twenty years before Caxton was born, was its translator.[11] We shall come to consider in the course of this paper further evidence which Caxton could not have known about, but which more than corroborates his statement concerning Trevisa’s translating the Bible.

Later, in 1557, John Bale adds his testimony to the fact that Trevisa had translated the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, into English, going so far as to cite the incipit of the copy that he was consulting: “Ego Ioannes Treuisa, sacerdos...” [“I, John Trevisa, priest...”].[12]

There is a strange fashion abroad today which assumes that earlier writers existed only to deceive their readers, and it seems also to be supposed that 20th century scholars exist only to expose the fraud. The treatment that John Bale’s entry has received concerning the Trevisa Bible is an excellent case in point, of which it is said that, rather than tell the simple truth, he must have falsified this entry and tried to pull a proverbial ‘fast one’ in order to elevate his hero in the eyes of his readers.[13] But really, what would have been the point?

Trevisa, in Bale’s day, was sufficiently regarded as a scholar not to need any artificial ‘leg-up’ on to the pedestal of fame. All his major works (the Bible excepted) had been printed and admired in England, and all the world held Trevisa in the highest esteem. So why should Bale have risked his own considerable reputation by making a statement that was patently unnecessary, and which many of his readers would have known to be false? It would be an interesting assumption if it made any sense. But it doesn’t. However, our body of information is further added to in 1577 by Holinshed, who informs us that:

“Iohn Treuise a Cornish man borne, and a secular Priest & Uicar of Berkeley, he translated the Byble...and diuerse other treatises.”[14]

It is well to note here that neither Caxton nor Bale, nor any other published author of the time, had yet stated that Trevisa was Cornish. Nor does anyone before Holinshed state that he was a secular priest or vicar of Berkeley. So clearly Holinshed was not relying upon any previously published authority for his information. Yet all three facts are entirely accurate. Why then should Holinshed be so ill-informed as to wrongly attribute the important translating of the Bible to Trevisa, when he was so right on other more minor and hitherto unpublished points? This is not explained by those who cast a fashionable doubt on his statement.

But then, in 1611, comes the Preface to the King James Version of the Bible, in which it is said against a backdrop of other Bible translations that had taken place on the Continent:

“Much about that time, euen in our King Richard the seconds dayes, Iohn Treuisa translated them [the Scriptures] into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seene with diuers, translated as it is very probable, in that age.”

“King Richard the seconds dayes” is entirely accurate, for the appearance of Wycliffe B did take place in his reign, ca 1388, the importance of which date will soon become evident. But it is insinuated that even this statement attributing the translation of the Bible to Trevisa cannot be trusted, because its author may have been swayed by earlier authorities like Bale and Caxton. Yet even if he had been ‘swayed’ by them, would this automatically make his statement unreliable? Of course not, especially when it can be demonstrated that the authorities so swaying are themselves reliable enough - as are Bale and Caxton in this instance. However, it has to be said that the author of the above Preface to 1611, neither alludes to, nor quotes from, either Bale or Caxton. Which leaves us wondering why the insinuation is ever made in the first place.

A considerable advance on our knowledge is made in the year 1662, by Thomas Fuller. He, it appears, had studied the Lollard Bible in sufficient depth to recognize that two distinct versions existed, the earlier of which he attributes to Wycliffe himself, and which we would call Wycliffe A, and the later improved version which we know as Wycliffe B, and which Fuller ascribes without hesitation to Trevisa. Fuller tells us:

“Some much admire [that] he [Trevisa] would enter on this work [of translating the Bible], so lately John Wickliffe....Secondly, the time betwixt Wickliffe and Trevisa was the crisis of the English tongue, which began to be improved in fifty, more than in three hundred years formerly. Many coarse words (to say no worse) used before are refined by Trevisa, whose translation is as much better than Wickliffe’s, as worse than Tyndal’s.”[15]

To be brief, it is interesting to see that long after Waterland made his guess on Purvey, other authors were still convinced that Trevisa was responsible for translating the Lollard Bible, none more august than the compilers of the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“As to the English versions of the Bible, the most ancient is that of John de Trevisa, a secular priest, who translated the Old and New Testament into English, at the request of Thomas lord Berkley: He lived in the reign of Richard II. and finished his translation in the year 1357 [read 1387].”[16]

Thereafter, however, Waterland’s guess becomes gradually more respectable, until finally it is taken on board, as we have noted, by Forshall and Madden in 1850, and thence is cast in stone. But why should Waterland have been so interested in accrediting Purvey with the translation of Wycliffe B? That is a question which Pollard set his mind to answering. Writing in 1903, Pollard tells us:

“The readiness with which the conjecture [of Purvey translating Wycliffe B] was accepted can only be accounted for by the desire to make the work of translation centre at Lutterworth instead of, as I believe to be the case, at Oxford. It seems to be considered that we shall be robbing Wyclif of his due unless the translations are connected with him as closely as possible.”[17]

“...a professional translator, well equipped...”
Pollard goes on to tell us how Trevisa was “a professional translator, well equipped” to undertake Bible translation.[18] Though he might have added that as well as being well equipped (which we shall consider shortly), Trevisa was also well placed to do his work. Where he was when the Bible was first being translated into English (Wycliffe A) is crucial, and if we examine the college records of his day, we shall see a striking pattern emerge that places Trevisa (unlike Purvey) right at the centre of things where Bible translation is concerned.

Our knowledge of his whereabouts begins at Canterbury Hall in Oxford, where the record shows that two men were expelled from that Hall in 1369. Their names were William Middleworth and John Wycliffe. Middleworth then joined and was promptly expelled from Exeter College, and another was expelled with him that same year (1369) who was our author, John Trevisa.

Both Middleworth and Trevisa then joined in that same year, Quenehalle, today’s Queen’s College, where they were joined by none other than the translator-in-chief-to-be of Wycliffe A, Nicholas Hereford.[19] These three then remained at the college where they in turn were joined, five years later in 1374, by John Wycliffe himself.[20]

In other words, John Trevisa was at Queen’s College in the very years when his fellow Nicholas Hereford at least made a beginning on translating the Bible into English, and was seemingly still at the very centre of things when the translation (Wycliffe A) was finished by another hand, possibly his own.[21] But even that is not the end of the matter, for at this point events take a most curious and illuminating turn.

The Books and the Parchments
Trevisa was expelled (temporarily) from Queen’s College in 1378 by order of the king.[22] This had to do with a certain colourful episode of Trevisa’s life and those of his fellows that space allows no discussion of. What is important as far as this study is concerned is the list of books that Trevisa had filched from the college library the previous year (1377), but which, long after his expulsion, the college had to fight - tooth and proverbial nail - to recover.[23]

The list of books is long, but it includes Higden’s Polychronicon in Latin, which Trevisa later translated into English (1385-7); a Latin Bible (Unum bibliam); a concordance (concordancia); a commentary on Genesis (Librum super Genesim a diuersis tractatoribus); a commentary of Chrysostom on Matthew’s Gospel (Crisostomum super Matheum); Nicholas of Lyra on Proverbs (Doctorem de Lira super prouerbia Salomonis); and Nicholas of Lyra on the Psalms (Liram super salterium).[24]

These books are almost certainly the ones obliquely referred to in Wycliffe B’s Prologue, as “old Bibles and other doctors and common glosses...especially Lira on the Old Testament,” and it is with them, it seems, that Trevisa retired to Berkeley where he set about the translation of the Bible known to us as Wycliffe B.[25]

A Matter of Words
Whilst at Berkeley, Trevisa certainly expressed the proper sentiments of a man who had attempted one translation of the Bible but would like to produce a better:

“Clerkes knowe well ynough yt no synfull man dothe soo well that it ne myght do better/ne make so good translacion yt he ne myght be bettter [sic]. Therfore Origenes made two translacions. And Iherom translated thryes the Psalter. I desyre not translacion of these the best yt myght be for yt were an ydle desyre for ony man that is now a lyue. But I wolde haue a skylfull translacion that myght be knowe and understonden.”[26]

This fits well enough with the supposition that Trevisa, having had a hand at least in producing Wycliffe A, was unsatisfied with it. But is there any evidence at all, outside the Prologue to Wycliffe B, in which Trevisa betrays a familiarity with this version’s as yet unpublished text, but which could only have come from the translator himself? Indeed there is. It is a most illuminating passage from the ‘Dyalogue’ of his translation of Higden’s Polychronicon, in which Trevisa summarizes the Creation of the World. The crucial importance of the passage seems to have been overlooked, the comparison never having been made before. But the passage is reproduced below, with the key words and phrases which are peculiar to itself and Wycliffe B set in bold type:

“[God]...made heuen & erthe & lyght for to shyne/& departed light & derkenes. And called lyght daye & derknes nyght /and soo was made euetyde & morowe tyde one daye /[27] that had noo morowe tyde. | The seconde daye he made the fyrmament bytwene waters. And departed waters that were under the fyrmament fro the waters that were aboue the fyrmament . And called the fyrmamente heuen. | The thyrde daye he gadred waters yt ben under the fyrmament in to one place & made the erthe unheled/& named the gaderyng of waters sees /and drye erthe londe/& made trees & gras. | The fourth daye he made sonne & mone and sterres & sette [28] hem in the fyrmament of heuen there for to shyne [29] and to be tokenes & sygnes to departe tymes & yeres nyght and daye. | The fyfthe daye he made fowles & byrdes in the ayre and fysshes in the water. | The sixte daye he made bestes of the londe & man of the erthe & putte hem in paradyse for he sholde wyrche and wonne therin.”[30]

A Matter of Time
The latest year in which these words could have been written is of immense importance. The Polychronicon itself was completed by Trevisa on 18th April 1387 - so its ‘Dyalogue’, in which the above passage appears, could not have been written after that date, and may indeed have been written as early as 1385.[31] However, the Wycliffe B version of the Bible was not issued and circulated until 1388 at the earliest (according to modern wisdom - earlier sources say 1387), and this would place Trevisa’s intimate familiarity with the text of Wycliffe B at a time before its publication date. Such a familiarity at such a time is something that we could only reasonably expect from the translator of Wycliffe B himself, which stamps Trevisa’s authorship on that translation as forcefully as any fingerprint.

If we accept the modern dating of 1388 for the earliest appearance of Wycliffe B, then this gives Trevisa some eleven years after running off with the college library in 1377 to work on the translation. The work on Wycliffe A had been interrupted in 1382 when its original translator, Nicholas Hereford, was summoned to London to answer charges of heresy, after which Hereford disappears from the Oxford scene altogether, leaving Trevisa, the only one that we know of at Oxford with any surpassing skill at translating and who had returned after his temporary expulsion to work on alone seemingly and hurriedly completing Wycliffe A in the very year of its disruption, 1382.[32] In the ‘Dyalogue’ to the Polychronicon, moreover, he gives a veiled but unmistakable expression of dissatisfaction regarding an earlier attempt at translating the Bible, and yearns for a better, justifying the second attempt by alluding to the historical precedents of Origen and Jerome. It would seem from all that we have considered, that he fulfilled that yearning.

To conclude, were Trevisa and Purvey to be jointly charged with having translated the Lollard Bible, then on the evidence surveyed it is clear that Purvey would have no case to answer, whilst Trevisa would be sent down for a very long time indeed. The weight of evidence that makes Trevisa answerable to such a charge is overwhelming, and it is astonishing that in the face of it modern scholars should still think of Purvey as the ‘culprit’ who did the deed. On the strength of a previous bad guess, they would send Purvey down and acquit Trevisa, a miscarriage of justice if ever there was one. Perhaps the time has come to lay the proverbial blame where it is really due.

In many respects, this article is a tribute to Professor David Fowler of Washington University. Professor Fowler (who considers Trevisa’s authorship of Wycliffe B an open question) has made it his life’s work to bring Trevisa, his writings and his world to light, and without his sterling researches, untiringly carried out over some forty years, this present study would simply not have been possible. My thanks must also go to Professor David Daniell for his active encouragement in pursuing this subject to fruition, and for recovering a vital piece of information that I had carelessly lost - thus saving me much pains and labour! Thank you both.


[1]Pollard, Alfred W. Records of the English Bible. 1911. Henry Frowde (for OUP). p. 2. citing Waterton’s Works. vol. X, p. 361.
[2]Foxe, John. Actes & Monuments. 1563. John Day. Aldersgate, London. p. 150.
[3]Foxe, pp. 140-1.
[5]DNB. vol. 47. p. 52.
[6]Foxe, p. 140.
[7]DNB. vol. 47. pp 51-3.
[8]Caxton. ‘Prohemye’ to Trevisa’s Polychronicon. Westminster. 1482.
[9]Caxton. The Chronicles of England. 1480. Westminster. folio 128r. (unpaginated). The verse is far too obscure to have filtered down into common usage as a proverb, and it betrays Caxton’s reading and knowledge of the Lollard Bible to have been very close indeed.
[10]Wycliffe B has it: “He that shal fle fro the face of ferdfulness schall falle in to the diche: and he that schal delyuere hym silf fro the dich, schal be holdun of the snare.”
[11]Fowler, David. The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar. 1995. University of Washington Press. Seattle & London. p. 85.
[12]Bale, John. Scriptorum Illustrium Maioris Brytanniae. 1557. Basel. cit. Fowler, p. 214-5.
[13]For a fair and fascinating treatment of the subject, and the confusion that has arisen through the newly conceived fashion of doubting everything in it, see Fowler, pp. 213-21.
[14]Holinshed’s Chronicle. vol. 2. p. 509.
[15]Fuller. History of the Worthies of England. 1662. cit. Fowler, p. 216.
[16]Enc. Brit. 1768. Vol 1. p. 550.
[17]Pollard. Fifteenth Century Prose and Verse. 1903. p. xxij. cit. Fowler, p. 219.
[18]ibid, p. xxiv.
[19]It seems that Middleworth and others aided Hereford to some extent, so it is inconceivable that Trevisa, with his professional and active interest in translation, would not have had some hand in Wycliffe A. (See Fowler, p. 227).
[20]These records are cited and discussed by Fowler, pp. 24-32.
[21]Hereford, it is known, translated Wycliffe A as far as Baruch 3:20 - his original manuscript has survived, and is housed at the Bodleian. From then on, another takes over whose identity must remain a mystery - unless we consider the by no means improbable possibility that Trevisa made his first foray into translating the Bible at this point. His ‘Dyalogue’, by citing certain historical precedents for repeated and revised translations (Origen and Jerome), suggests strongly that he made more than one attempt.
[22]Fowler, p. 28.
[23]ibid, pp. 221-8. Apart from the books, the items on ‘unauthorized loan’ include the college seal, a chalice, some indentures and plate. It is interesting that this removal of certain key items from the college took place in the very year that Wycliffe was summoned to St Paul’s in London to answer certain charges, but from which the London mob delivered him. Unaware of his deliverance, did his flock at Queen’s Hall sense that it was about to be scattered?
[24]ibid, pp. 226-7. Here Fowler gives the full list of works as originally cited.
[25]Bruce, p. 221.
[26]See Caxton. ‘Prohemye’ to Trevisa’s Polychronicon. Westminster. 1482.
[27]Wycliffe A has euen and moru.
[28]Wycliffe A has putte.
[29]Wycliffe A has gyue lyght.
[30]See Appendix.
[31]Fowler, p. 119.
[32]Guppy, Henry. The History of the Transmission of the Bible. Rylands Library. 1935. p. 8.

Bruce, F F. The Books and the Parchments . 1975. Pickering & Inglis. London.

Caxton, William. The Chronicles of England. 1480. Westminster.

Fowler, David. The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar . 1995. University of Washington Press. Seattle & London.

Foxe, John. Actes & Monuments. 1563. John Day. Aldersgate, London.

Holinshed’s Chronicle. 1587. London. (2 vols).

Pollard, Alfred W. Fifteenth Century Prose and Verse. 1903.

Pollard, Alfred W. Records of the English Bible . 1911. Henry Frowde (for Oxf. Univ. Press).

Trevisa, John. ‘Dyalogue’. Polychronicon. 1495. Wynkyn de Worde. Westminster.