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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

§ 12. Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey

As to Wyclif’s fellow-workers, not very much is known. The names of two have come down to us—Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey. The former had worked with Wyclif at Oxford and is spoken of by the mendicants at Oxford in an appeal to John of Gaunt (18 February 1382) as their chief enemy; he was then a Doctor, paginae sacrae professor, et utinam non perversor, words which may refer to his share in the translation. One of the manuscripts directly attributes the translation to Hereford, and the fact that it breaks off suddenly at Baruch iii, 20 implies a sudden interruption. Owing to tumults in the university, which had arisen out of his sermons (1381–2), he was summoned to appear in London, and was there excommunicated (1 July 1382). He appealed to Rome and went thither only to be imprisoned. Wyclif, in his Opus Evangelicum, which he was writing at his death, speaks indignantly of this imprisonment. In 1385, he escaped, and, in 1387, was back again in England: we find him, with Purvey and others, prohibited by the bishop of Worcester from preaching in his diocese. In 1391, he was promised protection by the king, and, in 1394, he became chancellor of Hereford, but, in 1417, he retired to be a Carthusian monk at Coventry.

So far as language is concerned, the revision ascribed to Purvey deserves higher praise than the first translation. John Purvey was born at Lathbury, near Newport Pagnell. In 1387, with Hereford, Aston, Parker and Swynderby, he was inhibited from preaching by the bishop of Worcester; they were said to be leagued together in a certain college unlicensed and disallowed by law. He submitted and recanted his errors on 6 March 1401, and, in August of that year, became vicar of West Hythe, Kent; he held this post for two years, but, in 1421, we again find him in prison. He was the author of Regimen Ecclesiae, a work from which Richard Lavenham (1396) collected his errors. In his prologue to the Bible, he describes the method which he, “a poor catiff lettid fro prechyng,” took for finding out the exact meaning and faithfully rendering it with “myche travile, with diverse felawis and helperis.” But his work was far more than that of a mere scholar: he understands (and expresses in words that remind us of Colet) how a labourer at Scripture hath “nede to live a clene lif, and be ful devout in preiers, and have not his wit occupied about worldli thingis”; only “with good livyng and greet traveil” could men come to “trewe understonding of holi writ.” The comparisons so often drawn between these two revisions make clear the superiority, in idiom and all that makes a language, of Purvey’s revision. The earlier, ascribed partly to Wyclif, is the roughest of renderings, and its English is unlike that of Wyclif’s sermons, which may, however, have undergone revision. But it must be repeated that the history of these early translations has yet to be deciphered and written; the literary tendencies of the Middle Ages, spoken of before, have thoroughly hidden from us the workers and much of their work. We can say that Wyclif, as the centre of the movement, was, probably, the source of its energy; more, we cannot assert as yet. It is likely that, when this history is made out, the importance of pre-Wyclifite translations, fragmentary and incomplete, will appear greater. It is also likely that we shall be led to assign less to individual labourers and more to successive labours of schools of writers. But the name of Wyclif will probably still be left in its old connection even if his individual share be uncertain or lessened.

This translation can claim to be the first complete rendering of the Bible into English; but it is quite possible that its effect upon the language has been sometimes over-estimated. The reason for this lies in its history and in the history of Wyclifism. For some years after 1381 or so, there is no hint of any hostility to the Scriptures on the part of ecclesiastical rulers; it is only Lollard preaching that is checked. The translation of Purvey is so far free from having any bias, that it has lately been even claimed for an authorised translation; MSS. of it were certainly owned by obedient churchmen and by bishops themselves. Purvey does add a few simple glosses, but they are free from any party colour and are taken from Nicholas de Lyra (1340). His version seems to have superseded others, even he Vulgate itself; Henry Bradshaw stated that he had not come across a single Latin MS. copied after its appearance. The question of prologues was a different matter; a Lollard prologue was often added to anything, as, for instance, to works of Rolle. But the church was not hostile to the translations themselves, nor did it forbid their being made. Lyndwood and Sir Thomas More both spoke to the fact that translations made before Wyclif were not prohibited nor forbidden to be read. Cranmer also said that “if the matter should be tried by custom, we might also allege custom for the reading of the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue.… For it is not much above one hundred years ago, since Scripture hath not been accustomed to be read in the vulgar tongue within the realm.” Archbishop Arundel himself praised queen Anne of Bohemia because of her love towards the Bible and her study of it, exceeding that of some prelates. The Wyclifite version did not become the property of a mere section of the people, such as the Lollards were. Possession of a copy of it, however, by a person not under religious vows, needed an ecclesiastical licence, which was freely granted. But the changed attitude of the church—the way in which it laid stress upon its right of controlling the reading of vernacular translations and was led to regard popular literature, when likely to supersede its own teaching, with suspicion—was due to the history of Lollardy.