The complete Latin Vulgate Bible was first translated into English in a very literal rendering, which I call the Early Early Version (EEV). This version was then systematically but conservatively revised into the Early Version proper (EV), and it in turn was revised more radically into a more fluent and less Latinate English, known as the Later Version (LV). Together the three versions constitute the Middle English Bible (MEB). EV must have been in existence by 1395 or so, since an elaborate copy of it, the Egerton manuscript, was found in the library of Thomas Duke of Gloucester at his death in 1397, and the earliest provable LV copy is the Fairfax Bible, dated 1408, but the manuscript that preserves the Old Testament portion of EEV, namely, Bodley 959, dated “ca. 1380-90,” or “certainly before 1390,” or “ca. 1400,” seems to have corrections from LV. We have no idea about the termini post quem of the three versions.
The only clue as to the identity of any of the versionists comes in a manuscrpt slightly later than Bodley 959, namely, Douce 369.1, containing most of the EV Old Testament: an added line says that the translation was done by Nicholas Hereford; he was an adherent of doctrines of John Wyclif. Near the end of the fifteenth century, William Caxton attributed a Bible translation to John Trevisa, and in the sixteenth century John Bale credited both Trevisa and Wyclif himself with Bible translations. By the twentieth century, the consensus was that EV and LV were both done by “Wycliffites.”
The most striking thing about the whole translation project is that it was referred to by only one writer of the time, namely the Wycliffite author of the treatise Five and Twenty Books, an account of the books of the Old Testament. In an addendum describing the process that was supposedly used in translating the Bible, this writer, styling himself as “a simple creature,” claims to have been the mastermind behind the whole undertaking and the sole or chief translator. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he was identified as John Purvey, supposedly Wyclif’s secretary, and, in the 1850 edition of the MEB by Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden, the treatise was considered to be the “General Prologue” to LV, or at least to the LV Old Testament, and Purvey to be the translator of LV. By the end of the twentieth century, however, it was concluded that there was nothing to connect Purvey to the MEB. But the author of Five and Twenty Books (“Simple Creature”) has remained in place as a main player in the translation project.
In Chapters 2 and 3 above, I tried to cast doubt upon Simple Creature’s centrality: his claim of an elaborate pre-translation preparation of the Latin text was imaginary; his description of an immediate translation from the Latin to a participle-free English rendering belied the actual process, that EV was produced before it was converted to LV; and his advocacy of other translation preferences are not borne out in LV. Furthermore, his unfamiliarity with academic procedure at Oxford University showed him to be an outsider to the main undertaking. Ironically, however, the only person whom I can conjecture to be a candidate for Simple Creature is John Purvey. He was a non-university scholar who possessed Latin books of the Bible and biblical commentaries, and may have shared the treatise-author’s dialectal preference for “either” over “or.”
In considering the translation and revision projects in the context of the study of the Bible at Oxford University, study that was unquestionably stimulated by John Wyclif’s emphasis on biblical rather than “sentential” theology, I have suggested that EEV may have been a relatively simple undertaking, quickly achieved, designed to assist the clergy of the realm in understanding the Latin Bible. Converting EEV to EV need not have taken long, and LV too may have been accomplished in a relatively short period of time by virtue of teamwork. I have indicated some of the ways in which we may be able to distinguish teams by studying various linguistic features, for instance, the systematic substitution of one preposition for another.
Even though the two versions of the Middle English Bible survive, in whole and mainly in part, in over 250 manuscripts, there are almost no external references to it or its manuscripts before the seventeenth century. This is not surprising, since the same lack of reference will be found for most other medieval works, for instance, the mid-fourteenth-century Prick of Conscience, which exists in nearly 130 manuscripts in two rescensions. Around 40% of the MEB manuscripts, including Egerton and Fairfax, are fitted out for liturgical use, indicating a general acceptance of the translations by the faithful at large.
But there were signs of worry on several fronts: one was that the English language could not adequately render the meaning of the Scriptures; another was that followers of Wyclif might produce distorted or heterodox translations; and a third, seen in Thomas Palmer’s treatise, was that access to the vernacular Scriptures would provide occasion for untrained readers to make erroneous interpretations of the Word of God. These worries resulted in the Canterbury legislation of 1407, the constitution Periculosa: because it is difficult to translate without error, any rendering of the Bible made from the time of Wyclif onwards must be first approved and allowed by the local bishop or a provincial council.
It is the almost universal judgment of scholars today that the Middle English Bible in both its major forms was considered to be Wycliffite, and they bestow upon it the designation “Wycliffite Bible,” a term that came to life only at the end of the nineteenth century; and they assume that the provincial legislation constituted a strict prohibition of it. This interpretation is affirmed even though it is admitted on all hands that there is nothing erroneous or tendentious about it, in either version: meaning, therefore, that there would be no reason to prohibit it. More literal and accurate interpretations of Periculosa were produced throughout the ages, by William Lyndwood in 1434, Thomas More in the sixteenth century, Archbishop Ussher in the seventeenth century, and, most forcefully, Cardinal Gasquet at the turn of the twentieth century, but without noticeable effect on scholarly opinion.
Since EV and LV had already been in circulation by 1407 and were undoubtedly familiar to many of the clergy, especially to someone like Philip Repingdon, who may have had a hand in the translation, and who was probably involved in formulating the constitutions, it is not likely that they were being targeted by the mandate. Another likely participant in the Oxford council was Dr. Richard Ullerston, a known proponent of translating the Scriptures. One of the addenda that he made to his treatise on the subject was that all such translating should be subjected to the counsel of prelates, which corresponds to the mandate.
All of the constitutions of 1407 (including the one on Bible translation, Periculosa) were reaffirmed two councils later, in 1409, and ordered to be put into effect by every bishop of the eighteen dioceses of the province. We have seen some records of the promulgation of the legislation into local jurisdictions, but so far no survival of the required follow-up reports. But if the word was out that possessors of the older translations, that is, the EV and LV texts, were exempt from turning in their books, then there would have been few or no results at all, since, as far as we know, no new translations were made in recent years, except for works like the Longleat Sunday Gospels (by the author of Dives and Pauper), and it is probable that this is the sort of smaller work of translation that Periculosa was aimed at. But doubtless some owners of EV and LV texts would have wanted to make sure that they were in the clear and have them checked, and, if the authorities were doing their duty properly, their Bibles would have been returned to them.
If the EV and LV texts were recognized as good renderings, then it would not matter whether the Bibles that Lollard suspects were found in possession of were in Latin or English; but, of course, the authorities would have to be on the alert for heretical glossings or interpolations. It could well be that when one heresy suspect, the priest John Galle, was brought before convocation in 1428, and was found to be in possession of the Gospels in English, it may have added to the suspicion in the minds of some of the clergy, but hardly in the mind of William Lyndwood, who acted as the promoter in the trial held during that convocation of another priest, Ralph Mungin. Lyndwood understood the purport of Periculosa accurately, as set down in his Provinciale (already nearly finished at this time, but not released until he completed his index to it, in 1434). I tried to convey a likely exchange of views at this time in my invented dialogue in Chapter 6.
The bishops and other clergy of convocation did, however, proceed in 1431 to pass another constitution requiring all English Scripture to be turned in for inspection, under penalty of automatic excommunication. We see that mandate being enforced by Bishop Stafford of Bath and Wells, but later on, in 1441, he reverted to the terms of Periculosa. And surely, when Lyndwood became a bishop himself (of St. David’s, in 1442), he would not have mis-enforced Periculosa, and he would have felt comfortable in citing LV himself, as did another slightly later bishop in a Welsh see, Reginald Pecock.
Stafford went on to become archbishop of Canterbury, without returning to the subject of English Bibles, as far as we know. But his successor, Thomas Bourchier, in an order sent to the whole province, went further than the 1431 constitution in his early overinterpretation and ordered all works of English Scripture brought in (with no suggestion that they would be returned), accompanied by a warning that those who delayed in turning them in for over sixty days would be held as equivalently guilty of heresy. However, this search was mandated in conjunction with the ordered confiscation of Bishop Pecock’s works.
As I have noted, EV and LV were widely used in the province of Canterbury, notably in connection with the liturgy. There are no certain examples on record of EV and LV texts being handed in to bishops for approval. In Thomas More’s time, bishops were not being asked to approve English Bibles, which were accepted as orthodox, but rather they were asked to approve particular persons as readers of such Bibles. More stoutly maintains that Periculosa did not mandate a ban on English Bibles, but his own bishop, Richard FitzJames of London, who had received his doctorate in theology at Oxford as early as 1481, prosecuted the merchant-tailor Richard Hunne for heresy, based largely or entirely on the assertion of such a ban, which was allegedly violated by Hunne’s possession and use of a Bible with Wycliffite prologue attached. Hunne was charged with holding the prologue’s errors, one of which was declared to be that translation of the Bible into English was prohibited by the Church. This was the only article that was proved by witnesses, and yet he was found guilty of numerous unnamed heresies. More himself was present at the proceedings, and was deceived into thinking that they had made their case.
More’s interpretation of Periculosa was accurate; but, as his discussion with the Messenger makes clear, it was often misinterpreted, to be more stringent than it actually was, and even More did not reallize that the faulty understanding of the statute reached to Church authorities like Bishop FitzJames and his subordinates. It has been misinterpreted in similar ways in modern times, as I noted in Chapter 5—and the instances cited could be multiplied.
The issue of religious heterodoxy in connection with the Middle English biblical translations turns out to be something of a red herring in need of side-lining, so that we can get down to the important work of analyzing the astounding achievement of systematically rendering into English the entire Old Testament and New Testament, first in a way that preserves the Latin structures so as to leave ambiguities intact and the grammatical forms obvious; and then to subject the whole to a complete overhaul, interpreting away ambiguities and substituting expressions more familiar and suitable to the idioms of the day.
This enterprise of first producing a literal translation from the Vulgate and then a stylistic revision seems to have been centered at Oxford, but it is noteworthy that no record of its planning, inception, and execution has been preserved. Many scholars have assumed that this was due to its being a hush-hush operation, a samizdat affair carried on in fear and trembling. But we must realize that this project was about as far as imaginable from the clandestine assemblage of political pamphlets. There was no prohibition against doing it, and it had been done before, in recent memory, by Richard Rolle, at least for the psalms.
Earlier on, especially from the time of Forshall and Madden through that of Margaret Deanesly, it was all thought to have been a rather simple affair, with two or three persons producing EV and one person doing the LV revision. But of late, it has been objected that it would have had to be a vast undertaking, entailing a great deal of scholarship and labor by many persons. It is true that a good deal of time and searching through libraries was required for producing the Glossed Gospels, which came after EV was produced; but this enterprise went its own way, and ignited no sparks, falling into almost total oblivion. A good deal of time and library work would also have been necessary if the program claimed to have been followed by Simple Creature, the author of Five and Twenty Books, had actually been put into play, by first producing a meticulous edition of the Latin Bible. But once we dismiss this notion, we can see our way to imagining a more streamlined process, similar to that undertaken by Gregory Martin and his colleagues in producing the Douai-Rheims Bible in under two years’ time, with almost no fanfare. Much work is still to be done in estimating the number of persons actually involved in first achieving EV and then transforming it into LV. Clues can be had from different linguistic usages in the manuscripts, so long as they can be separated from the vagaries of mere copyists. I have offered a few methods of attempting this task, which will no doubt need refining, if there is any validity to them.
Why is it important to study these translations? I would like modern students of those times to expand their interest from questions of religious orthodoxy to include other important subjects, including the uses that were made of the texts by persons of all levels and persuasions, as determinable from the surviving copies, from decorative elements, or devotional indications, or explanatory additions, polemical or not. Much good work has been done in studying liturgical markings, illuminations, and glosses, but much more remains.
There is even more opportunity for linguistic research. We have here an unparalleled situation in the history of the English language: to see academics of the latter part of the fourteenth century putting their minds to work on deciding the best ways to render meaning in English from Latin, and the best ways of making it sound like acceptable English. The discourse of the author of Five and Twenty Books, when he emerges as “a simple creature in the last chapter, gives a good insight into the sort of topics that must have been discussed. In Chapters 2 and 3, we saw that his observations were on target for some of the favored usages of LV, and sometimes not. Furthermore, we saw that he betrays no awareness of the actual method that was used, of a two-step process, first taking care for literal accuracy, and then making it more acceptable “to pious English ears.”
In Chapter 2 we were able to see many of the varying choices made by translators in the various parts of the Old Testament and New Testament in both EV and LV, in connection with the practices of claims of Simple Creature, with further such choices outlined in the Appendices. It is my hope that these examples will stimulate others to analyze these under-studied texts and to formulate some conclusions about their influence in the formation of the English language.
It is time to clear the books of the long-entrenched misunderstandings that have stood in the way of our appreciation of the most popular and successful of all Middle English writings. In so doing, I suggest that we give a belated salute to the Benedictine historian Dom Francis Aidan Gasquet, who attempted to show the way over a century ago, when the world was not ready to follow. Gasquet as an English Benedictine was destined to spend his life in humble pastoral work rather than monastic intellectual labor, but he managed to escape from this devolution of their tradition and to prepare the way for the sort of work manifested by Dom David Knowles in a later generation. As Knowles demonstrates, Gasquet was self-trained as a historian, not having had the advantage of going to university, and I conjecture that this unconventional career path may have contributed not only to the many minor flaws in his work but also to his numerous novel and important insights into the religious culture of the Middle Ages.
I would like to nominate Gasquet as a patron saint of revisionism, specifically of a “fresh look” into religious and literary history; and he can also stand as a patron of linguistic studies, because of his work as head of the papal commission that produced the magisterial eighteen-volume edition of the Vulgate Old Testament, which he continued even after becoming Cardinal Librarian of the Vatican. Gasquet had a guardian angel of sorts in each of these enterprises. Knowles reminds us that Gasquet’s housemate during much of the time that he produced his work on the pre-Reformation Church in England was the accomplished medievalist Edmund Bishop, who served as his scholarly advisor and guide. When Gasquet was appointed to head the Vulgate commission in 1907, he called to Rome to assist him the brilliant monk from the abbey of Solesmes in Paris, Dom Henri Quentin, who assured the scholarly basis of the ensuing production. Cardinal Gasquet deserves to live in honor (and not in some manufactured scandal), not least for his clear vision of the nature of the Middle English Bible.
See Ralph Hanna and Sarah Wood, eds., Richard Morris’s Prick of Conscience: A Corrected and Amplified Text (Oxford 2013), pp. 378-83.