The paragraphs below are excerpted from the article “Bible, English” by Anna C. Paues in the 11th edition of the Ecyclopædia Britannica (1911).

Old English Bible Versions

The first essays in Biblical translation, or rather paraphrasing, assumed in English, as in many other languages, a poetical form. Even in the 7th century, according to the testimony of Bede (Hist. Eccl. iv. 24), Caedmon sang “de creatione mundi et origine humani generis, et tota Genesis historia, de egressu Israel ex Aegypto et ingressu in terram repromissionis, de aliis plurimis sacrae Scripturae historiis, de incarnatione Dominica, passione, resurrectione et ascensione in coelum, de Spiritus Sancti adventu, et apostolorum doctrina.” It is, however, doubtful whether any of the poetry which has been ascribed to him can claim to be regarded as his genuine work.

The first prose rendering of any part of the Bible — and with these we are mainly concerned in the present inquiry — originated in all probability in the 8th century, when Bede, the eminent scholar and churchman, translated the first portion (chs. i-vi.9) of the Gospel of St John into the vernacular, but no part of this rendering is extant. His pupil Cuthberht recorded this fact in a letter to a fellow-student, Cuthwine: “a capite sancti evangelii Johannis usque ad eum locum in quo dicitur, ‘sed haec quid sunt inter tantos?’ in nostram linguam ad utilitatem ecclesiae Dei convertit” (Mayor and Lumby, Bedae Hist. Eccl. p. 178).

The 9th century is characterized by interlinear glosses on the Book of Psalms, and towards its close by a few attempts at independent translation. Of these “glossed Psalters” twelve MSS are known to exist, and they may be ranged into two groups according to the Latin text they represent. The Roman Psalter is glossed in the following MSS: (I) Cotton Vesp. A. I (Vespasian Psalter); (2) Bodl. Junius 27; (3) Univ. Libr. Camb. Ff. I. 23; (4) Brit. Mus. Reg. 2. B. 5; (5) Trin. Coll. Camb. R. 17. 1 (Eadwine’s Psalter); (6) Brit. Mus. Add. 37517. The Gallican Psalter in the following: (I) Brit. Mus. Stowe 2 (Spelman’s text); (2) Cotton Vitell. E. 18; (3) Cotton Tib. C. 16; (4) Lambeth 48; (5) Arundel 60; (6) Salisbury Cath. 150. 1

The oldest and most important of these MSS is the so-called Vespasian Psalter, which was written in Mercia in the first half of the 9th century. It was in all probability the original from which all the above-mentioned Old English glosses were derived, though in several instances changes and modifications were introduced by successive scribes. The first verse of Psalm c. (Vulg. xcix. 2) may serve as a specimen of these glosses.

Roman Text.
MS. Vespasian. A. 1.

Wynsumiað gode, all eorðe
ðiowiað Dryhtne in blisse;
ingað in gesihðe his in

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra;
servite Domino in laetitia;
intrate in conspectu eius in

Gallican Text.
MS. Stowe. 2.

Drymað drihtne, eall eorðe;
ðeowiað drihtne on blisse;
infarað on gesyhðe hys
on bliðnysse.

Jubilate Domino, omnis terra;
servite Domino in laetitia;
introite in conspectu eius
in exultatione.

To the late 9th or early 10th century a work may be assigned which is in so far an advance upon preceding efforts as to be a real translation, not a mere gloss corresponding word for word with the Latin original. This is the famous Paris Psalter, 2 a rendering of the first fifty Psalms (Vulg. i.—l.10), contained in the unique MS. lat. 8824 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. The authorship of this version is doubtful, being by some scholars attributed to King Alfred (d. 901), of whom William of Malmesbury writes (Gesta Regum Anglorum, ii. 123), “Psalterium transferre aggressus vix prima parte explicata vivendi finem fecit.” This view is, however, denied by others.

In the course of the 10th century the Gospels were glossed and translated. The earliest in date is a Northumbrian Gloss on the Gospels, contained in a beautiful and highly interesting MS. variously known as the Durham Book, the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Book of St Cuthbert (MS. Cotton, Nero. D.4). The Latin text dates from the close of the 7th century, and is the work of Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698—721). The English gloss was added about a century and a half later (s. 950) by one Aldred, whom Dr Charles O’Conor (Bibl. Stowensis, 1818—1819, ii. 180) supposes to have been the bishop of Durham of that name. The Lord’s Prayer is glossed in the following way:—

Matthew vi. 9. Suae ðonne iuih gie bidde fader urer ðu arð ðu bist in heofnum + in heofnas; sie gehalgad noma ðin; (10) to-cymeð ric ðin. sie willo ðin suae is in heofne J in eorðo. (11) hlaf userne oferwistlic sel us to dæg. (12) J forgef us scylda usra suae uoe forgefon scyldgum usum. (13) J ne inlæd usih in costunge ah gefrig usich from yfle 3

Of a somewhat later date is the celebrated Rushworth Version of the Gospels (MS. Bodl. Auct. D. ii. 9), which contains an independent translation of the Gospel of St Matthew, and a gloss on those of St Mark, St Luke and St John, founded upon the Lindisfarne glosses. From a note in the manuscript we learn that two men, Færman and Owun, made the version. Færman was a priest at Harewood, or Harwood, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and to him the best part of the work is due. He translated the whole of St Matthew, and wrote the gloss of St Mark i.—ii. 15, and St John xviii. 1-3. The remaining part, a mere transcript, is Owun’s work. The dialect of the translation of St Matthew is Mercian. 4

A further testimony to the activity which prevailed in the field of Biblical lore is the fact that at the close of the century—probably about the year 1000—the Gospels were rendered anew for the first time in the south of England. Of this version—the so-called West-Saxon Gospels—not less than seven manuscripts have come down to us. A note in one of these, MS. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 140, states, ego Ælfricus scripsi hunc librum in Monasterio Baðþonio et dedi Brihtwoldo preposito, but of this Ælfric and his superior nothing further is known. 5

The Lord’s Prayer is rendered in the following way in these gospels:—

West-Saxon Gospels—MS Corpus 140. Matthew vi. 9. Eornustlice gebiddað eow ðus; Fæder ure þu þe. eart on heofonum; si þin nama gehalgod (10) to-becume þin rice; gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. (11) urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg, (12) J forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. (13) J ne gelaéd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

Towards the close of the century the Old Testament found a translator in Ælfric (q.v.), the most eminent scholar in the close of the 10th and the opening decades of the 11th century. According to his own statement in De vetere testamento, written about 1010, he had at that period translated the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Kings, Job, Esther, Judith and the Maccabees. 6 His rendering is clear and idiomatic, and though he frequently abridges, the omissions never obscure the meaning or hinder the easy flow of the narrative.

Dietrich, Ælfric’s most competent biographer (Niedner’s, Zeitschrift für historische Theologie, 1855-1856), looks upon the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges as a continuation of his Lives of Saints, including as they do in a series of narratives the Old Testament saints. Genesis is but slightly abridged, but Job, Kings, Judges, Esther and Judith as well as the Maccabees are mere homilies epitomized from the corresponding Old Testament books. Judith is metrical in form.

The 11th century, with its political convulsions, resulting in the establishment of an alien rule and the partial suppression of the language of the conquered race, was unfavourable to literary efforts of any kind in the vernacular. With the exception of Ælfric’s late works at the very dawn of the century, we can only record two transcripts of the West-Saxon Gospels as coming at all within the scope of our inquiry.

In the 12th century the same gospels were again copied by pious hands into the Kentish dialect of the period.

The 13th century, from the point of view of Biblical renderings into the vernacular, is an absolute blank. French—or rather the Anglo-Norman dialect of the period—reigned supreme amongst the upper classes, in schools, in parliament, in the courts of law and in the palace of the king. English lurked in farms and hovels, amongst villeins and serfs, in the outlying country-districts, in the distant monasteries, amongst the lower clergy, amongst the humble and lowly and ignorant. There were certainly renderings of the Bible during the 12th, 13th and early 14th centuries, but they were all in French. Some of these translations were made in England, some were brought over to England and copied and recopied. Amongst the latter was the magnificently illuminated Norman Commentary on the Apocalypse, some of the earliest copies of which were written in an English hand. In fact before the middle of the 14th century the entire Old Testament and the greater part of the New Testament had been translated into the Anglo-Norman dialect of the period. (MSS. Bibl. Nat. fr. 1, 9562, Brit. Mus. Reg. I.C. iii. Cf. S. Berger, La Bible francaise au moyen age, Paris, 1884, pp. 78 ff.)


1. See A. S. Cook, Biblical Quotations in Old English Prose Writers, with an introduction on Old English Biblical Versions (London, 1898-1903), vol.i.pp.xxvi. ff.; H. Sweet, The Vespasian Psalter in “Oldest English Texts” (E.E.T.S., No. 83, London, 1885); F. Harsle Eadwine's Canterbury Psalter (E.E.T.S., No. 92, London, 1892); John Spelman, Psalterium Davidis Latino-Saxonicum Vetus (London, 1640); Fr. Roeder, Der altengl. Regius Psalter (Reg. II. B. 5), Halle, 1904).

2. Benjamin Thorpe, Libri Psalmorum versio Antiqua Latina cum paraphrasi Anglo-Saxonica (Oxford, 1835); cf. J. D. Bruce, The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Book of Psalms ... known as the Paris Psalter (Baltimore, 1894).

3. K. W. Bouterwek, Die vier Evangelien in alt-nordh. Sprache (Gütersloh, 1857), id. Screadunga (Elberfeld, 1858, prefaces to the Gospels); J. Stevenson and E. Waring, The Lindisfarne and Rushworth Gospels (Surtees Soc., 1854-1865); W. W. Skeat, The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian and Old Mercian Versions (Cambridge, 1871-1887).

4. See Stevenson, Waring and Skeat, op. cit.

5. W. W. Skeat, The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, &c. (Cambridge, 1871-1887); J. W. Bright, The Gospel of Saint Luke in Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1893); for earlier editions see Cook, op. cit, p. lx.

6. C.W.M. Grein, Ælfrik de vetero et novo Testamento, &c.—Bibl. d. Angels. Prosa (Cassel and Gottingen, 1872), p. 6; E. Thwaites, Heptateuchus. Liber Job, et Evangelium Nicodemi; Anglo-Saxonice (Oxon., 1698).