Special Collections’ Wycliffite Bible manuscript
October 3, 2011
One of the more unique Bible manuscripts held by Special Collections is this copy of the Wycliffite New Testament. It is currently on display in the exhibit “The Life and Legacy of the King James Bible.” Special Collections’ Wycliffite New Testament was copied in a cursive script by a man named Richard Robinson around the year 1600 – several centuries after Wycliffe and about 60 years after English-language Bibles became legal to own or publish in England.
What is the Wycliffite version of the Bible? It is a late 14th century translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English. The translation was inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384), an Oxford University theologian, who believed that the Bible comes directly from God and provides inerrant truths which should guide religious and political government. He and his followers, called “Lollards” by their contemporaries, pressed for ecclesiastical and social reforms throughout the late 14th century. Wycliffe’s emphasis on the Bible’s unique authority naturally led to the Lollards’ assertion that the Bible should be available to all people in their own language – in the case of the peasants and middle class, English.
People of the Middle Ages knew the Bible text only in its Latin form. Those who could read used the Bible, or portions of the Bible, in Latin; illiterate individuals might memorize Latin texts like the Psalms through recitation in various worship services. Scholars disagree as to whether Wycliffe actually participated in translating the Vulgate Bible, but the earliest versions of the Wycliffite, or Lollard, Bible certainly originate from Oxford in the 1380’s.
In the 14th century, English was one of three languages spoken in medieval England. Latin was at the top of the linguistic hierarchy – it was the language of literacy and formal education across Europe. Everyday speech was further stratified by class; the aristocracy spoke Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French, while commoners spoke Middle English. Since the Wycliffite Bible was translated into common English during a period of social and political unrest, as well as religious dissent, English-language Bibles became symbols of heretical beliefs. Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned in 1382. In 1409, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, issued thirteen Constitutions which prohibited the translation of any biblical text into English as well as the public or private reading of such texts. Violators were excommunicated and charged with heresy, which was punishable by death. English-language Bible manuscripts were pushed underground throughout the next 130 years. Over 250 Wycliffite Bibles have survived to the present.
Readers interested in the Wycliffite Bible had access to the text only in manuscript form until 1731, when a version translation first appeared in print. Special Collections owns a copy of another important printed version, “Wycliffite Versions of the Holy Bible,” edited by Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden and published by the Oxford University Press in 1850. This four-volume set marks the complete edition of the Wycliffite translation of the Bible, with a side-by-side comparison of what scholars call the “earlier” and the “later” versions of the text.
To find these books and other copies of the Wycliffite New Testament in the HBLL, perform a title search in the library catalog for “Bible English Wycliffe.”