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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

§ 5. Bartholomaeus

The translation of Bartholomaeus, also made for Lord Berkeley, though doubtless as popular as the chronicle, has, perhaps, not survived in so authentic a form; moreover, embodying the accepted learning of the Middle Ages, it gave less scope for Trevisa’s originality. History anyone might criticise but novelty in science was only less dangerous than in theology. The style of the original, too, is inferior to Higden’s; there are already duplicate terms in plenty, and, though Trevisa contrived to increase them, he got less opportunity for phrasing.

This encyclopaedia, in nineteen books, is a work of reference for divine and natural science, intermixed with moral and metaphor. Beginning with the Trinity, the prophets and angels, it proceeds to properties of soul and body, and so to the visible universe. A book on the divisions of time includes a summary of the poetical, astrological and agricultural aspects of each month; the book on birds in general includes bees, and here occurs the edifying imaginary picture of these pattern creatures which was the origin of so much later fable, including Canterbury’s speech in King Henry V. There are a few indications of weariness or haste as Trevisa’s heavy task proceeds, but it is especially interesting for his rendering of scriptural quotations. Like the writers of Piers the Plowman and like Mandeville, Trevisa expects certain Latin phrases to be familiar to his readers, catchwords to definite quotations; but he translates the texts in full in a version certainly not Wyclif’s and possibly his own. Always simple and picturesque, these passages cause regret for the loss of that translation of the Bible, which, according to Caxton, Trevisa made. Caxton’s words in the prohemye to Polychrnicon imply that he had seen the Berkeley gave to James II an ancient MS> “of some part of the Bible,” which had been preserved (he said) in Berkeley Castle for “neare 400 years.” It probably passed to the cardinal of York, and may have been that copy of Trevisa’s English Bible said once to have seen in the Vatican catalogue, but now unknown.

The dialogue between a lord and a clerk—Lord Berkeley and John Trevisa—prefixed to Polychronicon is really Trevisa’s excuse for his temerity. It gives a somewhat humorous picture of the doubts of the man of letters. Ought famous books and scriptural texts to be put into the vulgar tongue? Will not critics pick holes? Lord Berkeley brushes his objections aside. Foreign speech is useless to the plain man: “it is soo longe to scole.” The clerk gives in, breathing a characteristically alliterative prayer for “Wit and wisdom wisely to work, might and mind of right meaning to make translation trusty and true.” He has only one question to put: “whether is sou lever have a translacion of pese cronykes in ryme or in prose?” We ought to be grateful for Lord Berkeley’s reply:—“In prose, for comynlich prose is more clere than ryme, more esy & more pleyn to knowe & understonde.”

To be certain in any given instance exactly what words Trevisa used is not always possible, for the four MSS. which have been collated for the Rolls edition of Polychronicon show a surprising variety. Even in the same MS., old and new forms come close together, as “feng” and “fong,” and other variations of past tenses and participles, though the sentence is always the same.

Most of Trevisa’s vocabulary is still in common use, though a few words became obsolete soon after he wrote, for instance: “orped,” “magel,” “malshave,” “heled,” “hatte,” which stand for “brave,” “absurd,” “caterpillar,” “covered,” “called.” He used “triacle” sarcastically for “poison”—“Nero quyte his moder that triacle.” He usually distinguishes between “pewes” (manners) and “manere” (method) and between “feelynge” (perception) and “gropynge” (touching). “Outtake” is invariably used for “except,” which did not come into use until long after. Perhaps in “Appollin,” as the equivalent of Apollo Delphicus, we may recognise the coming appearance of a later personage. Trevisa’s translation needs only to be compared with the bungling performance of the later anonymous translator, in order to be recognised as a remarkable achievement of fluency. Where Higden tried to be dignified, Trevisa was frankly colloquial; this characteristic marks all his translations and gives them the charm of easy familiarity. His use of the speech of the masses is often vigorous—a “dykere,” for a “dead stock,” the “likpot,” for the “first finger,” “he up with a staff pat he had in hond.” He had, too, a fine onamatopoeic taste: Higden’s boatus et garritus (“talk of peasants”) becomes a “wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge and garryge grisbayting”; and to this sense of sound is, no doubt, owing the alliteration to which, though southern by birth and education, he was certainly addicted—a curious trait in a prose writer. His work would seem to have been appreciated, the number of MSS. still extant of Polychrnicon and its production by the early printers proving its popularity; and his Description of England formed the model for later accounts. The chroniclers of the sixteenth century who quoted from Polychornicon as from an unquestionable authority were, perhaps, not altogether uninfluenced by the copiously vigorous style of this first delineation of England and her story in native English.