14th century Surprise!

William Cooper
5 June 2003

It is amazing how the history of the English Bible throws out surprises, and the biggest surprise for me recently was to find that there still exists a 14th-century English version of the New Testament which has nothing to do with John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers. Having worked on the Tyndale Society’s modern-spelling edition of The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 (published in 2002), I thought that I knew pretty much all there was to know about this area of the English Bible. How wrong I was!

In 1904, Anna Paues published her doctoral thesis on five remaining manuscript fragments of the English New Testament, and these contain a version that is quite distinct from those that are so well known to us from the 14th century - Wycliffe A & B.[1] The translation does not appear to have fallen under the ban that lay so heavily upon the Lollard Bible, doubtless because it was never intended for - and was never used for - public circulation. Indeed, it was made at the request of a nun, perhaps a sister in the same order to which the translator belonged as a monk, and thus was kept within the confines of the cloister.

Paues thinks that two translators are detectable in the version, one a Kentish man and the other from the Midlands, but there is no reason why two such diverse English monks should not both end up in the same monastery. The fact that an English version of the New Testament was asked for at all - with all the expense in time, money and materials that that entails - belies the popular image that has come down to us of pre-Reformation monks indulging in an endless round of riotous living and debauchery (well, most of them anyway). Cromwell’s commissioners (who were the king’s men and therefore not encumbered by sins of the flesh) are known, after all, to have made inventions as well as inventories. But it is a surprise nonetheless which raises the question of how many other attempts to translate the Bible into Middle English were made (albeit within the confines of the cloister), but which have long since perished - thanks in great part to Cromwell and his commissioners.

Part of the Sermon on the Mount Part of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of St. Matthew chapter V from a 14th century English Bible translation (MSS Douce 250, Bodleian Library, Oxford). Reproduced with permission.

Surprisingly, Paues - speaking subjectively - thinks that the translation before us is not, over all, as “good” as Wycliffe B, though doubtless its recipients were happy enough with it - and they are the important ones in all this. We will make up our own minds on this point in a moment or two. But rather than descend to technicalities at this time, let us sit back and enjoy some extracts of what remains, and let the version speak for itself. After all, whoever made it, deserves some fame and appreciation after all this time. Unlike our edition of the Wycliffe New Testament, I will not modernize the spelling. With just a little effort (and comparison with a later version if need be), all becomes clear. The New Testament references are given in the footnotes. We can start with the Beatitudes:

& he openynge his mowthe techinge hem, seyenge, Blessyd be pore in speryte, for here is the rewme of heuenes. Blessyd be the mylde, for thei schal haue the lond of lyf. Blessyd be thei that waylen, for thei schal be comfortyd. Blessyd be thei that hungren and thrusten ryghtwysnys, for thei schal be fulfyllyd. Blessyd be mercyful men, for thei schal swe mercy. Blessyd be men of clene herte, for thei schal se God. Blessyd be pesyble men, for thei schal be cleped Godes chyldren....[2]
The Lord’s Prayer in St Matthew’s Gospel from a 14th century manuscript (MSS 434 Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Reproduced with the permission of the Master and Fellows. The Lord's Prayer

“Blessed be they that wail...” - lovely! A little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, they have the following exchange:

Thanne come Iesus fro Galyle into Iordan to Ion that he schulde be baptyzed of hym. Sothly, Ion forbeed hym, seyenge, I fel to be baptyzed of thee, & thou comest to me? Sothly, Iesus ansuerynge seyde to hym, Suffre now, for on this manere it besemeth us for to fulfylle al ryghtwysnesse.[3]

This is excellent stuff! The quality is not lost in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews:

For thes Melchysedek, kyng of Salem, and a preste of the heyeste God, that mette with Abraham whenne he come ageyn fro the sleynge of kynges, & blessed hym, to who Abraham departed the tenthinges of al his good, & he was furst y-cleped Kyng of ryghtfulnesse, & afturward Kyng of Salem, that is, Kyng of pees, withouten fadur, withouten moder, withouten kynrede, nouther hade he bygynnynge of his dayes ne ende of his lyf, bote y-lykned to Godes Sonne, he duelleth stille an eferlastynge prest.[4]

In my opinion, the chap who translated this was something of a master of the English language - and must have been known for such, which is doubtless why he was asked to undertake the work in the first place. But consider this short passage from Paul to the Thessalonians:

Bote of the tymes & of the momentes, my bretheren, it nedeth noght that y wryte to you. For ye wyteth you-selfe that the day of oure Lord schal come as a thef by nyghte. For whanne me(n) seith that ther is pees and sekernesse, thanne schal ther come a sodayn deth, as the sorows of a womman that bereth a chylde. Bote thei schulen noght flen awey. Bote, bretheren, ye be not in derknesse, that thilke day take yow as a thef, for alle ye beth chyldren of lyght, & Goddes chyldren, & ye beth nouther of nyght ne of derknesse. And therfore ne slepe we noght as other men, bote wake we & be we sober.[5]

And finally, to return to Matthew let us see what our author has made of the Lord’s Prayer. This is one of those testing grounds for any translator, and if this is right then all else is usually good and acceptable:

Oure Fader that art in heuene, halewed be thi name. Thi kyngdom come to us. Thi wylle be don, as in heuene, & in erthe. Oure eche dayes breed geue us to day. & forgeue us oure dettys, as we forgeue oure dettourys. And ne lede us not in temptacyon, but delyuere us of yuel. Amen.[6]

Familiar? It certainly is. Its language is a long way forward from the Early English (Anglo-Saxon) form of this prayer, and is almost word for word what we find in the later 16th century versions of the New Testament, Coverdale and Geneva in particular. In short, this otherwise unknown version of the English Bible is a truly remarkable piece of work, and it certainly does not deserve the oblivion into which it has been allowed to sink. The pity is that we do not know the author’s name, nor the monastic house to which he belonged. Nor do we know the name of the nun who commissioned the work. But humble anonymity is something for which they both would have strived, having shunned fame and fortune in the hope of finding that peaceful inner life that eludes so many. That they found that peace in the study of the Scriptures is the most reassuring thing of all.


[1]Paues, Anna C. A Fourteenth Century English Biblical Version. C.U.P 1904 (AMS reprint 1974)
[2]Matthew 5:2-9.
[3]Matthew 3:13-15.
[4]Hebrews 7:1-3.
[5]I Thessalonians 5:1-6.
[6]Matthew 6:9-13.

For those who wish to examine the manuscript copies for themselves, Paues lists these as: Selwyn College 108 L. 1.; Parker 434, Corpus Christi College; University Lib Dd. XII. 39. Douce 250, Bodleian Library; & Holkham Hall 672, Bodleian Library. Some of these shelf-marks might have changed in the last hundred years, but all should be traceable. All in all, there is a great deal of work to be done on them, and if anyone out there is looking for an exciting and new project for their dissertation or thesis, then this should answer that need beautifully.

Acknowledgements and editor’s notes
The author is grateful to the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for allowing him to reproduce the illustration from the last leaf of 14th century English translation of the Bible in the Parker Library (Parker MSS 434). The catalogue entry reads

‘English version of N.T. vellum.ff. 1+ 159, 22 lines to a page. Cent. xiv late, clearly written. A dialogue in old English between a brother and his sister, in which the latter expressing her desire to be instructed in the faith, her brother translates for instruction the epistles, acts of the apostles, and part of St Matthew’s gospel’. The entry also notes in Latin that each verse differs from Wycliffe’s version.

He also extends his thanks to the Bodleian Library, Oxford who gave him permission to reproduce a part of MSS Douce 250. The catalogue note entry reads ‘In English on parchment: written in the second half of the 14th century: 86 leaves. Parts of a translation of the New Testament into English, containing Matth. i. 1-v 34, Acts i. 1-19, iv. 7-xxviii, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude. Matth.v beg ‘Sothly Crist seynge the peple he wente up in to an hylle. And when he had sette downe his disciplis come to hym: & he openynge his mouthe techinge hem seyinge.’

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