The Middle English Bible

Translated shortly before 1400, the Bible became the most popular medieval book in English. Prevailing scholarly opinion calls it the Wycliffite Bible, attributing it to followers of the heretic John Wyclif, and claims it was banned in 1407. Henry Ansgar Kelly disagrees, arguing it was a nonpartisan effort and never the object of any prohibition.

The Middle English Bible
A Reassessment

Henry Ansgar Kelly

2016 | 368 pages | Cloth $75.00
Literature / Religion
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. A History of Judgments on the Middle English Bible
Chapter 2. Five and Twenty Books as "Official" Prologue, or Not
Chapter 3. The Bible at Oxford
Chapter 4. Oxford Doctors, Archbishop Arundel and Dives and Pauper on the Advisability of Scripture in English
Chapter 5. The Provincial Constitutions of 1407
Chapter 6. Treatment of the English Bible in the Fifteenth Century
Chapter 7. End of the Story: Richard Hunne and Thomas More


Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


I first entered the Bible-translation field when studying the Douai-Rheims Version, which was completed by the English priest Gregory Martin in 1580, but was revised by Bishop Richard Challoner in 1750. We medievalists usually tell our students to use this translation rather than the King James because it renders the Latin Vulgate, and not the Hebrew and Greek texts, but in fact Challoner's revision was largely in the direction of the King James language, which in turn was largely William Tyndale's text. I decided that I should also examine the earlier complete translation of the Bible into English, produced at the end of the fourteenth century, now generally known as the Wycliffite Bible, and recognized as existing in two main forms, an original very literal rendering, call the Early Version, or EV, and a revision of it into a more idiomatic style, called the Later Version, or LV.

I soon found that the scholarship concerning this translation was affected by the same "wars of religion" that surrounded the history of the Protestant and Catholic Bibles of the sixteenth century and later. It seemed to me that there was need for a review of how it has been regarded over the years, and the points of controversy connected with it at each stage, especially concerning claims for and against its origin as a project of the religious dissident John Wyclif (d. 1384) and his followers.

Accordingly, in the first chapter below, I attempt to give a historiography of critical attention to the medieval translation, to which I give the neutral name of "Middle English Bible," or MEB. I recount that, after seemingly being regarded as a straightforward rendering from Latin into English during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, notably in the writings of Thomas More (matters to be studied in greater depth in due course), it was first designated as Wyclif's by John Bale in the middle of the sixteenth century, an attribution that was repeated and elaborated subsequently. Its identity as Wycliffite was monumentalized in the elaborate edition of 1850 by the Reverend Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden, as by "John Wycliffe and his followers." The most significant early challenge to this status came in 1894 from a figure almost forgotten today, the Benedictine historian Francis Aidan Gasquet. I conclude with an account of the most recent developments and trends.

In Chapter 2, I analyze the treatise Five and Twenty Books, which Forshall and Madden printed at the beginning of the Bible and referred to as the "General Prologue" to the translation, the author of which claims to be the main translator of the Middle English Bible. I conclude on the basis of linguistic and content analysis that the author most probably did participate in the final production of LV, perhaps supervising a few of the later books of the New Testament, and then joining the Old Testament LV team and producing a prologue to the major prophets, which was accepted by the leader or leaders of the translation "task force," before going on to compile Five and Twenty Books, which he submitted as a prologue to the Old Testament. I speculate that it was not accepted by the translators because of its stridently Lollard (Wycliffite) sentiments. Thereupon, I further conjecture, the author, characterizing himself as "a simple creature," supplemented his treatise with an account in which he took the chief credit for the entire translation enterprise.

Chapter 3 takes up the study of the Bible at Oxford and Wyclif's role in it and offers considerations on the production of EV and LV there, different from the account given in Five and Twenty Books (the latter shows the author, Simple Creature, not to be familiar with Oxford procedures). I will then consider some of the possible purposes for the two versions, especially EV, which may have been intended not primarily as a preliminary version but as an aid to the weakly Latinate clergy to understand the Vulgate text properly. Finally, I will offer a suggestion that EV and LV could each have been accomplished in a relatively short time with only a few participants.

In Chapter 4, I discuss controversies over the advisability of translating the Scriptures into English, from the point of view of three Oxford doctors of theology: the Dominican Thomas Palmer, the Franciscan William Butler, and the secular master Richard Ullerston, together with a report about Thomas Arundel when archbishop of York, and, finally, the views of the friar who wrote the dialogue Dives and Pauper and the Longleat Sunday Sermons Commentary.

Chapter 5 takes up the provincial constitutions formulated at Oxford in 1407, especially the seventh, Periculosa, which called for episcopal oversight of new biblical translations, and I discuss whether EV and LV were intended to be included in this supervision.

Chapter 6 attempts to trace the ways in which Periculosa was understood and enforced and examines alleged instances of persecution or the fear of persecution for the possession of EV and LV.

Finally, in Chapter 7, I take up Thomas More's assessment of the history of the vernacular Bible in England and his opinion of the trial of Richard Hunne, as compared with verifiable trial records, which demonstrate that Hunne was in fact accused of fostering English biblical translation and was convicted (posthumously) of approving of the Wycliffite sentiments in Five and Twenty Books, which was affixed as a prologue to his copy of the English Bible. More seems to have assumed that the rest of Hunne's Bible was Wycliffite as well, while he believed that the EV or LV Bibles that he had seen were orthodox translations produced before Wyclif's time.

In the Conclusion, I sum up the results of my investigations and speak of some of their implications.

The Middle English Bible was a highly significant project in its time, and it is surprising that the persons responsible for it left so few indications of how it was accomplished. Rita Copeland calls it "perhaps the greatest achievement of textual culture in medieval England." I agree; but whether it was "the central and monumental achievement of the Wycliffite Lollard movement" remains to be seen.

A Note on the Texts Cited in This Study

EV and LV are printed in parallel columns in Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden, eds., The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books, in the Earliest English Versions Made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and His Followers (FM); they are searchable in The Bible in English (970-1970) (BIE) online, without variants, however, and with the letter thorn transformed to th, and the letter yogh changed to y (which I change to gh where appropriate). I also regularize the allographs i/j and u/v, and also usually regularize i and y, which were normally interchangeable in Middle English, except where it is important to preserve the original forms for purposes of scribal identification or the like. See my "Uniformity and Sense in Editing and Citing Medieval Texts," Medieval Academy News, Spring 2004, pp. 8-9; and "Letter," Medieval Academy News, Spring 2005, p. 6. In the main text, for the sake of clarity or ease of reading I sometimes modernize the spelling of biblical passages, but quote the original spelling in the notes and examples. For other texts I sometimes modernize the spelling and verbal forms for clarity and ease of reading. All translations are my own, unless otherwise specified.