Medieval Writing
Vernacular Bibles (4)
While the church was getting itself all upset about Cathars in France, England had been largely free of heretical movements. Its turn came during a time of social unrest during the late 14th century, at the end of a century of famine, plague, war and the Peasants' Revolt. John Wycliffe, a cleric and theologian at Oxford, began a campaign of hostility to the established church. He tottered over the brink into heresy not so much for his attacks on the popes and the friars, but for refuting the doctrine of transubstantiation. That is, he maintained that the great mystery of the mass, the conversion of bread and wine into the actual body of Christ, was a fraud. The whole line of thinking led to the concept that many established Catholic practices were fraudulent and unnecessary, priests were useless and the text of the Bible was the means for salvation.
John Wycliffe
The Bibles that were brought out in the English language in the late 14th and 15th centuries are thus referred to as Wycliffite Bibles. It seems that Wycliffe himself did not translate them, but they emanated from the circle of likeminded individuals who shared his mode of thinking. These people, for reasons which are unclear, became known as Lollards. (There are theories about the etymology of the term, but nothing that really convinces.) In the early 15th century, Lollards were tried and, if found guilty of heresy, were burned to death, although most who were tried escaped this nasty fate by recanting their heresy.
An excerpt from the proceedings of the heresy trials held in Norwich between 1428 and 1431 gives an idea of what they are on about. Ricardus Fleccher of Beccles has admitted the following errors and abjured from his erroneous beliefs. Taken from Norman P. Tanner (ed.) 1977 Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich 1428-31 London: Royal Historical Society, pp.86-87.

  That the sacrament of Baptem doon in water in forme custumed in the Churche is nother necessarie ne vailable to mannys salvacion.

 Also that confession shuld oonly be made to God, and to noon other prest.

 Also that only consent betuxe man and woman, with consent of the frendys of bothe parties, suffiseth for matrimony, withoute expressyng of wordis or solennizacion in churche.

 Also that every Cristen man is a prest.

 Also that the pope of Roome is Antecrist, and other prelates and persones of the Churche ben disciples of Antecrist.

 Also that no man is bounde to kepe the holydays, but that it is leful everybody to do all bodyly werkes on Sundays and other festival days boden be the Churche.

 Also that no man is bounde to offre in churches.

 Also that no man is bounde to paye mortuaries to churches, for suche payng of mortuaries and other thinges to the Churche makyn prestes proude.

 Also that no worship shuld be do to ony ymages, but that all ymages owyn to be destroied and do away.

 Also that holy water and holy bred ben of noon vertu, and that it were better prestes to halwe wellis and flodis ordeyned for mannys mete and drynk than to blesse water in churche whiche men springe on here clokes.

 Also that every prayer shuld oonly be made unto God, and to noon other seynt.

 Also that commune blessyng that men use and make with here right hand, it availeth to nothing elles but to skere away flies.

 Also that in no maner it is lefull to sle a man, nether be processe of lawe to dampne a man that is gulty of thefte or of manslawght.

 Also that it is not leful in ony case to swere ne to lye.

 Also that no pilgrimage shuld be do but oonly to pore puple.


So there you have it. All the practices and mystical beliefs of the church are a load of old pigswill, priests have no moral or spiritual authority, and the pope is the anti-Christ. No wonder the church authorities didn't like it. In this context, a Bible that not only the upper crust French-speaking aristocracy could read, but also the unruly English-speaking peasantry, might pose a problem. The church had spent many centuries teasing out subtle meanings and interpretations from the sometimes enigmatic and often sparse words of the Bible. They had fed them to the laity through preaching, visual imagery and paraphrased Bible stories. What might this mob do if they got into the basic text for themselves?
A whole chapter on Wycliffite Bible manuscripts is to be found in De Hamel 2001. Samples from a Wycliffite digital facsimile can be found on the web at Wycliffite Manuscripts: The New Testament, while the full text is reproduced on John Wyclif's Bible (ed.1395).
Wycliffite Bible Two separate versions of the Wycliffite Bible were produced. The first was a very literal, sometimes to the point of incomprehensible, translation from the Latin Vulgate, following the standard inclusions and ordering of books as those produced in Paris. One copy was carted off to Rome by Nicholas Hereford, one of the translators, to prove to the pope that it was not in itself heretical. The manuscript, scruffily written in cursive script, illustrated at left, may be that autograph work.
Sample from the earlier version of the Old Testament by Nicholas Hereford and collaborators, of c.1382 (Bodleian Library, Oxford, Bodley MS 959). (From Thompson 1912)
Sample from a Wycliffite Bible of the earlier version, from before 1397 (British Library, Egerton 617, 618). (From Thompson 1912)
Wycliffite Bible
Despite their association with liturgical desperados, these English language Bibles were not all hastily scribbled and read in secret under the bed or in dark forests. The above example was produced for Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and youngest son of Edward III. While it does not exactly rival the Luttrell Psalter in its production values, it is written in a large and quite smart Gothic textura of liturgical type, as the old paleographers say. It was produced in two large volumes, and was more likely for reading aloud than for tucking surreptitiously under one's robes.
A more grammatically correct version of the Wycliffite Bible was produced in the 1390s. It came equipped with a very long prologue, which was left out of most copies as it could have been perceived as political and inflammatory. Nevertheless, in 1409 the translation of any Biblical text into English was banned and the reading of translations from the time of Wycliffe or later and unapproved by the local bishop was forbidden. Consequently the dates on later English Bibles were erased or fudged. Despite this, hundreds of such Bibles survive, containing partial or complete Bible texts, in modest copies and in elegant versions with historiated initials and borders. The authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the possession and use of such works by respectable folks who were not known Lollards or rabble rousers. You can't burn everyone.
reading the Wycliffe Bible Indulging my warped passion for old schoolbook images, here is a representation of a bunch of souls surreptitiously reading Wycliffe's Bible in a forest. Note the sturdy yeoman on the left and the poncey aristocrat on the right of the reader. England secretly breaks down her social barriers with a good book. If only.
Of course, the Lollards weren't the only people getting aggravated with the pope. In the following century, when Henry VIII found him interfering with his social life, the whole structure of Christianity in England was changed. And they translated the Bible officially into English, to demonstrate the new bonds between church and state. Have we heard this song before?
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