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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

II. Religious Movements in the Fourteenth Century

§ 11. The Bible in English

It was this appeal to the Scriptures that gained Wyclif his name of Doctor Evangelicus. In the Bible he found a source of spiritual strength, an inspiration of moral energy as well as a guide to conduct. For these reasons he wished to spread its use. He pointed to other nations with translations of it in their own tongue and asked why England should not have the same: the faith should be known to all in the language most familiar to them. The same impulses that led him to found his poor priests made him wish to spread a knowledge of the Bible in England.

But in De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, while there are already complaints that preaching is interfered with, there are no complaints that the Bible in the vernacular is prohibited: indeed, the history of the English translations before Wyclif show that such was not the case. We have already seen in the case of Rolle how translations were made for dwellers in religious houses; one of the independent versions—edited by Miss Paues—has an interesting prologue in which a “brother” and “sister” “lewed and unkunnynge” ask a more learned “brother” to teach them: “I preye you pur charite to techen us lewed men trewlyche pe sope aftur oure axynge.” The reply is “Broper, y knowe wel pat y am holde by Cristis lawe to parforme pyn axynge: bote napeles we bep now so fer y-fallen awey from Cristis lawe, pat [char]if I wolde answere to pyn axynge I moste in cas underfonge pe dep.” The translation of the Bible into English was not prohibited, but the use now made of it was leading to a claim for stricter control. Much controversy, however, has arisen lately as to the share of Wyclif in the versions which go by his name. We have express statements by the chronicler Knighton—nearly contemporary and also anti-Wyclifite—and Hus—a little later (1411)—that Wyclif had translated the whole Bible into English. Archbishop Arundel, in a letter to the pope asking for Wyclif’s condemnation, speaks (1412) of Wyclif having filled up the measure of his malice by the design to render the Scriptures into English; and a general tradition, the value of which may be much or little, confirms this statement. There are two “Wyclifite” versions: one, a little earlier than the other, stiffer and inferior in style, closely following the Vulgate, from which both translations were made without the use of Greek. The prologues, some for the whole work, and some for commentaries upon individual books, are certainly Wyclifite in tone, although none of them can be assigned to Wyclif himself; specially important is the general prologue to the second version, giving an account of the writer’s method of work; and the writer of this was certainly a Wyclifite. On the other hand, we have the curious fact that Wyclif himself never uses the translation that goes by his name, but gives an independent translation from the Vulgate. Too much, however, should not be made of this, for, no doubt, Wyclif knew the Latin better than the English, and he would, therefore, translate incidentally and afresh instead of referring to a manuscript: in acting thus he would be only following the usual course. More importance, however, belongs to a statement, made independently by Foxe and Sir Thomas More (in his Dialogue), that there were translations dating before Wyclif; to which the latter adds that the whole Bible had been then translated by “virtuous and well-learned men.” The whole question has been complicated by over-inference from actual statements on either side, by the ascription of everything Wyclifite to Wyclif himself, and by confusing two matters quite distinct—the existence of English translations and their permission or condemnation by the church.

We cannot cast aside the express association of a translation with the name of Wyclif; his own works and feelings make such a translation probable, although they give us no express evidence. As to the part he himself took in it, nothing is known, although very definite statements are sometimes made. There were already in circulation many copies of isolated books of the Bible, and the whole of the New Testament could be read in English translations which had been made mainly for the inmates of monastic houses, especially for nuns; the impulses which had produced these copies had been felt more in the north and the midlands than in the south, where French was understood and used down to a later date. Some of these earlier works, which prepared the way, may have been used by the Wyclifite translators; among them are translations, such as one of the Apocalypse, and an English version (with preface) of the Latin Harmony of the Gospels by Clement of Llanthony, wrongly ascribed to Wyclif himself. But the Wyclifite versions were due to a more general impulse and were meant for a wider public. Their literary history needs much further study, and when criticism, textual and linguistic, has been further applied, some more certain conclusions may be drawn. But it does not appear likely that the statements made here will be largely affected.