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

Middle English Versions Before Wycliffe

When English finally emerged victorious, towards the middle and latter half of the 14th century, it was for all practical purposes a new language, largely intermixed with French, differing from the language of the older period in sound, flexion and structure. It is evident that any Old English versions which might have survived the ravages of time would now be unintelligible, it was equally natural that as soon as French came to be looked upon as an aiien tongue, the French versions hitherto in use would fail to fulfil their purpose, and that attempts should again be made to render the Bible into the only language intelligible to the greater part of the nation--into English. It was also natural that these attempts should be made where the need was most pressing, where French had gained least footing, where parliament and court were remote, where intercourse with France was difficult. In fact in the Northern Midlands, and in the North even before the middle of the 14th century, the book of Psalms had been twice rendered into English, and before the end of the same century, probably before the great Wycliffite versions had spread over the country, the whole of the New Testament had been translated by different hands into one or other of the dialects of this part of the country.

At the same time we can record only a single rendering during the whole century which originated in the south of England, namely the text of James, Peter, I John and the Pauline Epistles (edited by A. C. Paues, Cambridge, 1904).

Of these pre-Wycliffite versions possibly the earliest is the West Midland Psalter, once erroneously ascribed to William of Shoreham. (1) It occurs in three MSS., the earliest of which, Brit. Mus. Add. 17376, was probably written between 1340 and 1350. It contains a complete version of the book of Psalms, followed by the usual eleven canticles and the Athanasian Creed. The Latin original is a glossed version of the Vulgate, and in the English translation the words of the gloss are often substituted for the strong and picturesque expressions of the Biblical text; in other respects the rendering is faithful and idiomatic. The following two verses of the first psalm may exemplify this:—

MS. British Mus. Add. 17376. (i. I.) Beatus vir, qui non abijt in consilio impiorum, & in uia peccatorum non stetit, et in cathedra i iudicio pestilencie i falsitatis non sedit. Blesced be þe man þat 3ede nou3t in þe counseil of wicked, ne stode nou3t in þe waie of sin3eres, ne sat nou3t in fals iugement. (2) Set in lege domini voluntas eius, & in lege eius meditabitur die ac nocte. Ac hijs wylle was in þe wylle of oure Lord, and he schal þenche in hijs lawe boþe daye and ny3t.

Before the middle of the century Richard Rolle (q.v.), the hermit of Hampole (+ 1349), turned into English, with certain additions and omissions, the famous Commentary on the Psalms by Peter Lombard. The work was undertaken, as the metrical prologue of one of the copies tells us (MS. Laud. misc. 286), "At a worthy recluse prayer, cald dame Merget Kyrkby." The Commentary gained immediate and lasting popularity, and spread in numerous copies throughout the country, the peculiarities of the hermit's vigorous northern dialect being either modified or wholly removed in the more southerly transcripts. The translation, however, is stiff and literal to a fault, violating idiomatic usage and the proper order of words in its strict adherence to the Latin. The following brief extracts may exemplify the hermit's rendering and the change the text underwent in later copies. (2)

    MS. Univ. Coll. 64.

(1) Blisful man þe whilk oway 3ed noght in þe counsaile of wicked, and in þe way of synful stode noght, & in þe chaiere of pestilens he noght sate. (2) Bot in laghe of lord þe will of him; and in his laghe he sall thynke day & nyght.
    MS. Reg. 18 B.21

Blessed is þat man þat haþ not gone in þe counsell of wicked men, and in þe weye of sinfull men haþ not stonde, and in þe chaire of pestilence sat not. 2. But in þe lawe of our lorde is þe wille of him; and [in] his lawe we shall þinke dday and nyght.

Approximately to the same period as these early renderings of the Psalter belongs a version of the Apocalypse with a Commentary, the earliest MS. of which (Harleian 874) is written in the dialect of the North Midlands. This Commentary, for a long time attributed to Wycliffe, is really nothing but a verbal rendering of the popular and widely-spread Norman Commentary on the Apocalypse (Paul Meyer and L. Delisle, L'Apocalypse en Francais au XIII siècle, Paris, 1901), which dates back as far as the first half of the 13th century, and in its general tenor represents the height of orthodoxy. The English apocalypse, to judge from the number of MSS. remaining, must have enjoyed great and lasting popularity. Several revisions of the text exist, the later of which present such striking agreement with the later Wycliffite version that we shall not be far wrong if we assume that they were made use of to a considerable extent by the revisers of this version.

To the North Midlands or the North belongs further a complete version of the Pauline Epistles found in the unique MS. 32, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, of the 15th century.

Commentaries on the Gospels of St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke, we are told by the heading in one of the MSS. (Univ. Libr. Camb. Ii. 2. 12), were also translated into English by "a man of þe north cuntre." The translation of these Gospels as well as of the Epistles referred to above is stiff and awkward, the translator being evidently afraid of any departure from the Latin text of his original. The accompanying commentary is based on the Fathers of the Church and entirely devoid of any original matter. The opening lines of the third chapter of Matthew are rendered in the following way:—

MS. Camb. Univ. Libr. Ii. 2. 12. (iii. I.) In þo dayes come Ihone baptist prechand in desert of þe Iewry, & seyand, (2) Do ye penaunce; forwhy þe kyngdome of heuyne sal come negh. (3) this is he of whome it was seide be Isay þe prophete, sayand. "þe voice of þe cryand in þe desert, redye ye þe way of God, right made ye þe lityl wayes of him." (4) & Ihone his kleþing of þe hoerys of camels, & a gyrdyl of a skyn about his lendys; & his mete was þe locust & hony of þe wode.

A version of the Acts and the Catholic Epistles completes the number of the New Testament books translated in the northern parts of England. It is found in several MSS. either separately or in conjunction with a fragmentary Southern Version of the Pauline Epistles, Peter, James and I John in a curiously compiled volume, evidently made, as the prologue tells us, by a brother superior for the use and edification of an ignorant "sister," or woman vowed to religion. (3) The translation of this, our only southern text, surpasses all previous efforts from the point of view of clearness of expression and idiomatic use of English, and, though less exact, it may be even said in these respects to rank equal with the later or revised Wycliffite version.

Apart from these more or less complete versions of separate books of the Bible, there existed also numerous renderings of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, accounts of the Life, Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, translations of the epistles and gospels used in divine service, and other means of familiarizing the people with Holy Scripture. It was the custom of the medieval preachers and writers to give their own English version of any text which they quoted, not resorting as in later times to a commonly received translation. This explains the fact that in collections of medieval homilies that have come down to us, no two renderings of the Biblical text used are ever alike, not even Wycliffe himself making use of the text of the commonly accepted versions that went under his name.

It is noteworthy that these early versions from Anglo-Saxon times onwards were perfectly orthodox, executed by and for good and faithful sons of the church, and, generally speaking, with the object of assisting those whose knowledge of Latin proved too scanty for a proper interpretation and understanding of the holy text. Thus Richard Rolle's version of the Psalms was executed for a nun; so was in all likelihood the southern version of the epistles referred to above. Again the earliest MS. (Harl. 874) of the Commentary on the Apocalypse gives the owner's name in a coeval hand as "Richard Schepard, presbiter," and the Catholic Epistles of MS. Douce 250 (4) were probably glossed for the benefit of men in religious orders, if one may judge from a short Commentary to James ii. 2, "& þerfore if eny man come into youre siyt, þat is, into youre cumpenye þat beþ Godes religiouse men in what degre so ye be." Nor do any of the remaining works contain anything but what is strictly orthodox.

The Wycliffite Versions

It is first with the appearance of Wycliffe (q.v.) and his followers on the arena of religious controversy that the Bible in English came to be looked upon with suspicion by the orthodox party within the Church. For it is a well-known fact that Wycliffe proclaimed the Bible, not the Church or Catholic tradition, as a man's supreme spiritual authority, and that he sought in consequence by every means in his power to spread the knowledge of it among the people. It is, therefore, in all likelihood to the zeal of Wycliffe and his followers that we owe the two noble 14th-century translations of the Bible which tradition has always associated with his name, and which are the earliest complete renderings that we possess of the Holy Scriptures into English. (5)

The first of these, the so-called Early Version, was probably completed about 1382, at all events before 1384, the year of Wycliffe's death. The second, or Later Version, being a thorough revision of the first, is ascribed to the year 1388 by Sir Frederic Madden and the Rev. Joshua Forshall in their edition of these two versions. (6)

It is a matter of uncertainty what part, if any, Wycliffe himself took in the work. The editors of the Wycliffite versions say in the Preface, pp. xv. ff. — "The New Testament was naturally the first object. The text of the Gospels was extracted from the Commentary upon them by Wycliffe, and to these were added the Epistles, the Acts and the Apocalypse, all now translated anew. This translation might probably be the work of Wycliffe himself; at least the similarity of style between the Gospels and the other parts favours the supposition." The Wycliffite authorship of the Commentaries on the Gospels, on which the learned editors base their argument, is, however, unsupported by any evidence beyond the fact that the writer of the Prologue to Matthew urges in strong language "the propriety of translating Scripture for the use of the laity." The Biblical text found in these Commentaries is in fact so far removed from the original type of the Early Version as to be transitional to the Late, and, what is still more convincing, passages from the Early Version, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, are actually quoted in the Commentary. Under such circumstances it would be folly to look upon them as anything but late productions, at all events later than the Early Version, and equal folly to assign these bulky volumes to the last two years of Wycliffe's life merely because the text used in them happens to be that of the Early Version. It is therefore at present impossible to say what part of the Early Version of the New Testament was translated by Wycliffe. (7)

The Old Testament of the Early Version was, according to the editors (Preface, p. xvii.), taken in hand by one of Wycliffe's coadjutors, Nicholas de Herford. The translator's original copy and a coeval transcript of it are still extant in the Bodleian library (Bodl. 959, Douce 369). Both break off abruptly at Baruch iii. 19, the latter having at this place a note inserted to the following effect: Explicit translacionem Nicholay de herford. There is consequently but little doubt that Nicholas de Herford took part in the translation of the Old Testament, though it is uncertain to what extent. The translator's copy is written in not less than five hands, differing in orthography and dialect. The note may therefore be taken to refer either to the portion translated by the last or fifth hand, or to the whole of the Old Testament up to Baruch iii. 19. Judging from uniformity of style and mode of translation the editors of the Bible are inclined to take the latter view; they add that the remaining part of the Old Testament was completed by a different hand, the one which also translated the New Testament. This statement is, however, not supported by sufficient evidence. In view of the magnitude of the undertaking it is on the contrary highly probable that other translators besides Wycliffe and Nicholas de Herford took part in the work, and that already existing versions, with changes when necessary, were incorporated or made use of by the translators.

The Early Version, apart from its completeness, shows but little advance upon preceding efforts. It is true that the translation is more careful and correct than some of the renderings noticed above, but on the other hand it shares all their faults. The translation of the Old Testament as far as Baruch iii. 19 is stiff and awkward, sometimes unintelligible, even nonsensical, from a too close adherence to the Latin text (e.g. Judges xx. 25). In the remaining parts the translation is somewhat easier and more skilful, though even here Latinisms and un-English renderings abound.

It is small wonder, therefore, if a revision was soon found necessary and actually taken in hand within a few years of the completion of the Earlier Version. The principles of work adopted by the revisers are laid down in the general prologue to their edition, the so-called "Later Version."

For these resons and othere ... a symple creature hath translatid the bible out of Latyn into English. First, this symple creature hadde myche trauaile, with diuerse felawis and helperis, to gedere manie elde biblis, and othere doctouris, and comune glosis, and to make oo Latyn bible sumdel trewe; and thanne to studie it of the newe, the text with the glose, and othere doctouris, as he miyte gete, and speciali Lire on the elde testament, that helpide ful myche in this work; the thridde tyme to counseile with elde gramariens, and elde dyuynis, of harde wordis, and harde sentencis, hou tho miyten best be vndurstonden and translatid; the iiij tyme to translate as cleerli as he coude to the sentence, and to haue manie gode felawis and kunnynge at the correcting of the translacioun.

It is uncertain who the revisers were; John Purvey, the leader of the Lollard party after Wycliffe's death, is generally assumed to have taken a prominent part in the work, but the evidence of this is extremely slight (cf. Wycl. Bible, Preface, pp. xxv. f.). The exact date of the revision is also doubtful: the editors of the Wycliffe Bible, judging from the internal evidence of the Prologue, assume it to have been finished about 1388. This Revised or Later Version is in every way a readable, correct rendering of the Scriptures, it is far more idiomatic than the Earlier, having been freed from the greater number of its Latinisms; its vocabulary is less archaic. Its popularity admits of no doubt, for even now in spite of neglect and persecution, in spite of the ravages of fire and time, over 150 copies remain to testify to this fact. The following specimens of the Early and Late Versions will afford a comparison with preceding renderings:—

Early Version.Late Version.
(Psalm i. 1.) Blisful the man, that that went not awei in the counseil of vnpitouse, and in the wei off sinful stod not; and in the chayer of pestilence sat not, (2) But in the lawe of the Lord his wil; and in the lawe of hym he shal sweteli thenke dai and nygt.(i. I.) Blessid is the man, that gede not in the councel of wickid men; and stood not in the weie of synneris, and sat not in the chaier of pestilence. (2) But his wille is in the lawe of the Lord; and he schal bithenke in the lawe of hym dai and nygt.
(Matthew iii. I.) In thilke days came Ioon Baptist, prechynge in the desert of Iude, sayinge, (2) Do ye penaunce, for the kyngdom of heuens shal neig, or cume nige. (3) Forsothe this is he of whome it is said by Ysaye the prophet, A voice of a cryinge in desert, Make ye redy the wayes of the Lord; make ye rigtful the pathes of hym. (4) Forsothe that ilk Ioon hadde cloth of the heeris of cameylis, and a girdil of skyn aboute his leendis; sothely his mete weren locustis, and hony of the wode. (iii. I.) In tho daies Ioon Baptist cam, and prechide in the desert of Iudee, and seide, (2) Do ye penaunce, for the kyngdom of heuenes shal neige. (3) For this is he, of whom it is seid bi Ysaie, the prophete, seyinge, A vois of a crier in desert, Make ye redi the weies of the Lord; make ye rigt the pathis of hym. (4) And this Ioon hadde clothing of camels heeris, and a girdil of skynne aboute his leendis; and his mete was honysoukis and hony of the wode.

The 15th century may well be described as the via dolorosa of the English Bible as well as of its chief advocates and supporters, the Lollards. After the death of Wycliffe violence and anarchy set in, and the Lollards came gradually to be looked upon as enemies of order and disturbers of society. Stern measures of suppression were directed not only against them but against "Goddis Lawe," the book for which they pleaded with such passionate earnestness. The bishops' registers bear sufficient testimony to this fact. (8) It would appear, however, as if at first at all events the persecution was directed not so much against the Biblical text itself as against the Lollard interpretations which accompanied it. In a convocation held at Oxford under Archbishop Arundel in 1408 it was enacted "that no man hereafter by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue, by way of a book, booklet, or tract; and that no man read any such book, booklet, or tract, now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe or since, or hereafter to be set forth in part or in whole, publicly or privately, upon pain of greater excommunication, until the said translation be approved by the ordinary of the place, or, if the case so require, by the council provincial. He that shall do contrary to this shall likewise be punished as a favourer of heresy and error." (9)

It must be allowed that an enactment of this kind was not without justification. The Lollards, for instance, did not hesitate to introduce into certain copies of the pious and orthodox Commentary on the Psalms by the hermit of Hampole interpolations of their own of the most virulently controversial kind (MSS. Trin. Coll. Camb. B.V. 25, Brit. Mus. Reg. 18. C. 26, &c.), and although the text of their Biblical versions was faithful and true, the General Prologue of the Later Version was interlarded with controversial matter. It is small wonder if the prelates and priests sought to repress such trenchant criticism of their lives and doctrines as appeared more especially in the former work, and probably in many others which since have perished in "faggots and burning."

For all this, manuscripts of Purvey's Revision were copied and re-copied during this century, the text itself being evidently approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, when in the hands of the right people and if unaccompanied by controversial matter.

Of the Lollard movement in Scotland but little is known, but a curious relic has come down to our times in the shape of a New Testament of Purvey's Revision in the Scottish dialect of the early 16th century. The transcriber was in all probability a certain Murdoch Nisbet, who also showed his reforming tendencies by adding to it a rendering of Luther's Prologue to the New Testament. (10)

1. K. D. Bülbring, The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter (E.E.T.S., No. 97), part i. (London, 1891); cf. A. C. Paues, A Fourteenth-Century English Biblical Version (Upsala Diss.) (Cambridge, 1902), p. lvi.

2. H. R. Bramley, The Psalter and Certain Canticles ... by Richard Rolle of Hampole (Oxford, 1884); cf. H. Middendorff, Studien über Richard Rolle von Hampole unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Psalmen-Commentare (Magdeburg, 1888).

3. A. C. Paues, A Fourteenth-Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1904), pp. xxiv. ff.

4. See Paues, op. cit. p. 210.

5. For a different view as to the authorship of the Wycliffite versions, see F. A. Gasquet, The Old English Bible and Other Essays (London, 1897), pp. 102 ff.

6. Sir F. Madden and Rev. J. Forshall, The Holy Bible ... made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and His Followers (4 vols., Oxford, 1850), pp. xix., xxiv.

7. Cf. A. C. Paues, The English Bible in the Fourteenth Century.

8. See Foxe, Acts and Monuments, iv. 135 ff. (ed. Townsend, 1846).

9. Wilkins Concilia, iii. 317.

10. T. G. Law, The New Testament in Scots, being Purvey's Revision of Wycliffe's version turned into Scots by Murdoch Nisbet, c. 1520 (Scot. T. S., Edinburgh, 1901-1905).