Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 2. Early Translations

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

III. The Beginnings of English Prose

§ 2. Early Translations

Before the close of the fourteenth century, therefore, it could no longer be assumed that all who wished to read would read French or Latin. There was a dearth of educated clergy after the Black Death; disaster abroad and at home left little inclination for refinement, and, when life was reduced to its essentials, the use of the popular speech naturally became universal. Thus, in the great scene of Richard II’s deposition, English was used at the crucial moments, while, at the other end of the scale, king Richard’s master cook was setting down his Forme of Cury for practical people. In the same way, on the continent, “Sir John Mandeville” was writing in French before 1371 for the sake of nobles and gentlemen who knew not Latin, and there, as at home, Latin books and encyclopaedias were so far ceasing to be read that he could venture to plagiarise from the most recent. In England, the needs of students, teachers and preachers were now supplied in the vernacular by the great undertakings of John Trevisa, who translated what may be called the standard works of the time on scientific and humane knowledge—De Proprietatibus Rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus and Higden’s Polychronicon. These great treatises are typically medieval, and the former a recognised classic in the universities. The minorite friar Bartholomaeus, who must have been born an Englishman, was a theological professor of the university of Paris, and his De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopaedia of all knowledge concerned with nature, was compiled in the middle of the thirteenth century, possibly during his residence in Saxony, whither he was sent, in 1231, to organise the Franciscans of the duchy. Ranulf Higden was a monk of St. Werburgh’s Chester, and wrote his Polychronicon about 1350. It is compiled from many authorities, and embraces the history of the entire world, from the Creation to Higden’s own times; the different countries are described geographically, and all the favourite medieval legends in the histories of Persia, Babylon and Rome are introduced. There are many points in which Higden, Bartholomaeus and the later “Sir John Mandeville” accord, revealing some common predecessor among the earlier accepted authorities; for the object of the medieval student was knowledge and no merit resided in originality: he who would introduce novelty did wisely to insert it in some older work which commanded confidence. Naturally, therefore, translations of books already known were the first prose works to be set before the English public, namely the two great works of Trevisa, and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a book which, under a thin disguise of pious utility, was really a volume of entertainment.

The translators of these works aimed at being understood by a wider class of readers than the audience of Chaucer or even of Piers the Plowman. The style, therefore, though simple, is by no means terse. Where any doubt of the meaning might arise, pairs of words are often used, after a fashion not unknown to the poets. This usage prevailed during the following century—and with some reason, for the several dialects of England still differed so much that a southern man could scarcely apprehend what Trevisa calls the “scharpe slitting, frotynge and unschape” speech of York. The translators desired only to convey the meaning of their originals and their renderings are extremely free; they omit or expand as they choose, and this saves early English prose from the pitfall of Latinism, giving it a certain originality, though at the cost of tautology. Trevisa, in the introduction to Polychronicon, explains to his patron that though he must sometimes give word for word, active for active, passive for passive, yet he must sometimes change the order and set active for passive, or “a resoun” (a phrase) for a word, but he promises that, in any case, he will render the meaning exactly. These translations became recognised authorities among the reading public of the fifteenth century and may reasonably be considered the corner-stones of English prose. All three were accepted as absolutely veracious; the adventures of Mandeville, the legends of Polychronicon, the fairy-tale science of quotations or hints on health. The information, all the same, seems to be conveyed with an eye to entertainment; little effort of thought is required in the reader; paragraphs are short, statements definite and the proportion of amusing anecdote is only equalled by the trite moralising, couched in common-place phrases, which had become a required convention in a materialist age. Books were distributed to the public by means of professional scribes; but, since there lay no sanctity in exact phraseology, the translators themselves were at the mercy of copyists. Cheaper copies were sometimes produced by curtailing the text, or newer information might be added. Trevisa’s Bartholomaeus was probably brought up to date by many a scribe, and the different MSS. of his Polychronicon, though unaltered as to the narrative, present a variety of terms. Mandeville, too, appears in (probably) three distinct translations, the most popular of which was multiplied in shortened forms. It is, therefore, dangerous to base theories upon the forms found in any one MS.; for we can rarely be sure of having the actual words of the author. Often, though not always, the MS. may be inconsistent with itself, and, in any cas, few MSS. of philological interest exist in many copies; in other words, they were not popular versions, and, as most of the MSS. are inconsistent with each other in spelling and in verb-forms, it seems that the general reader must have been accustomed to different renderings of sound. Caxton need hardly have been so much concerned about the famous “egges or eyren.”