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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.

III. The Beginnings of English Prose

§ 4. Polychronicon

His two great translations were made at the desire of Lord Berkeley. Polychronicon was concluded in 1387, De Proprietatibus in 1398. He executed several smaller translations, including the famous sermon of archbishop FitzRalph, himself an Oxford scholar, against the mendicant orders, and, probably, a translation of the Bible now lost.

Trevisa was a man of wide reading rather than exact scholarship; his explanation of the quadrivium is incorrect, and his Latinity was far inferior to Higden’s. But his robust good sense, his regard for strict accuracy and his determination to be understood, make him an interesting writer. He was fond of nature, he knew his De Proprietatibus well before he wrote it in English and he could even bring witness of additional wonders, told to him at first hand by trustworthy parishioners of Berkeley. Without historical acumen, he does not hesitate to level scathing criticisms at old writers, but, on the other hand, he sometimes clears away a difficulty by common sense. Why was Higden puzzled by the inconsistent descriptions of Alcluyd? was there not more than one Carthage, and is there not a Newport in Wales and another in the parish of Berkeley?

The explanations so frequently inserted in the text suggest that, though Polychronicon was translated in the first instance for Lord Berkeley, a wider public was in the maker’s mind. His notes are usually brief:

  • Ethiopia, blew men lond; laborintus, Daedalus his hous; Ecco is [char]e reboundynge of noyse; Gode genius is to menynge a spirit [char]at folowe[char] a man al his lyftime; Kent and Essex, Westsex and Mercia—[char]at is as hit were a greet deel of myddel Englond; theatres, places hi[char]e and real to stonde and sytte ynne and byholde aboute: Tempe Florida, likynge place wip floures.
  • It is but seldom that he is absurd, as when he renders matrones by old mothers, or gives a derivation for satirical: “som poete is i-clepede satiricus, and ha[char] [char]at name of satis, [char]at is inow, for [char]e matire [char]at he speke[char] of he touche[char] at [char]e fulle.” These lengthier ntoes, inserted “for to brynge here hertes out of [char]ou[char]t” he always signs “Trevisa.” We observe that he feels it advisable to explain in full a very simple use of hyperbole.

    As a translator, many more slips in scholarship might be forgiven him for the raciness of the style. Neither in terms nor structure does it suggest the Latin, but the interpolated criticisms are less wordy than the translation. Trevisa expands his original, not because he is a poor Latinist but partly because he wishes to be understood, and partly from that pleasure in doublets which would seem to be a natural English inheritance. Sometimes the synonymous words are accepted catch-phrases, sometimes they evince pure pleasure in language. We always get “domesmen and juges,” “tempest and tene,” “[char]is worlde wyde.” Not that Trevisa is enslaved by alliteration; he uses it less as the work proceeds, save in the regular phrases; but he loves balanced expression, and ruins Higden’s favourite antitheses. His picturesqueness is, perhaps, elementary, less that of an artist than of a child.

    It is Trevisa’s principle to translate every word: the Mediterranean is “[char]e see of myddel er[char]e.” Even when he cannot understand a set of verses he doggedly turns them into a jumble of pure nonsense which he asserts to be rime, adding, candidly, “God woot what [char]is is to mene.” The outspoken criticisms and occasional touches of sarcasm seem to betray a man impatient of conventions which he felt to be practical abuses, but scrupulously orthodox in every detail which could be held to affect creed. To the wonderful fable of the marble horses at Rome he appends the moral that it shows “[char]at who forsake[char] all [char]yng forsake[char] all [char]yng forsake[char] all his clo[char]es, and so it folowe[char] [char]at [char]ey [char]at bee[char] wel i-cloped and goop aboute and begge[char] and gadere[char] money and corn and catel of o[char]er men forsake[char] not al [char]ing.” On the other hand, he is shocked that Gregory Nazianzen tells “a ungodly tale of so worthy a prince of philosophes as Aristotle was.” A saying of the mythical Nectabanus: “No man may flee his owne destanye” is thus stigmatised: “Nectabanus seide [char]is sawe and was a wiiche, and [char]erfore it is nevere [char]e bettere to trowynge … for from every mishap [char]at man is i-schape in [char]is worlde to falle inne God may hym save [char]if it is his wille.” To the chariable miracle recorded of Dunstan and St. Gregory who, respectively, prayed the souls of Edwy and Trajan out of hell, he refuses credit—“so it my[char]te seeme to a man [char]at were worse [char]an wood and out of ri[char]t bileve.” At least once, he deliberately modifies his author: Higden observes, giving his reasons, that the Gospel of Matthew must, in a certain passage, be defective; Trevisa writes that here St.Matthew “is ful skars for mene men my[char]te understonde.” Yet, though punctiliously orthodox, Trevisa has scant reverence for popes or for fathers of the church, and none for monks and friars. Edgar, he says, was lewdly moved to substitute monks for (secular) clerks: and, in at least two of the early MSS., though not in all, a passage distinctly Wyclifite is inserted in the midst of the translation:

  • and nowe for [char]e moste partie monkes bee[char] worste of all, for [char]ey bee[char] to riche and [char]at make[char] hem to take more hede about seculer besynesse [char]an gostely devocioun … [char]erfore seculer lordes schulde take awey the superfluyte of here possessiouns and [char]eve it to hem [char]at neede[char] or elles, whan [char]ey knowen [char]at, [char]ey bee[char] cause and mayntenours of here evel dedes…for it were almesse to take awey [char]e superfluite of here possessiouns now [char]an it was at [char]e firste fundacioun to [char]eve hem what hem nedede.
  • Though this passage is not signed “Trevisa,” its occurrence in the copy which belonged to Berkeley’s son-in-law Richard Beauchamp suggests its authenticity. Trevisa was a positive man: he falls foul of Alfred of Beverley for reckoning up the shires of England “without Cornwall” and he cannot forgive Giraldus Cambrensis for qualifying a tale with si fas sit credere.