26 May 2011

Ancestry of the King James Version # 9: John Wycliffe and the First English Bible

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, John Wyclif, King James Version

Other posts on Ancestry of the King James Version #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7; #8;

Something new was being passed around in the 1380’s, in a world lit only by fire. It was an eagerly copied, extremely large book – a book the English language had never had before. It was the Bible, the whole Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate. It was believed to be the primary work of Oxford scholar John Wycliffe.

Morning Star of the Reformation

Scholars are not sure of the exact date of Wycliffe birth but sometime around 1330 A.D. is often suggested as reasonable. Not much is known of his early life but we know he participated in a revival of learning and was thus educated at Oxford University receiving his Master’s in 1358 and his Doctorate in 1372.

Barbara Tuchman has christened the 1300s as the “calamitous century” [1]. It was the age of the “Black Death” when all thought the Apocalypse had finally arrived. Over a third of the population of Europe died in two short years from 1348 to 1350. Over 200 people a day were dying in London alone from the plague. It was the century of the Hundred Years War. It was the day of the Avignon Papacy and the great Papal Schism in 1378 with two, and then three, Popes at the same time. The institutional church was powerful and corrupt.

The fears and hopes of the age are captured well by Wycliffe’s younger contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. In this dark and dangerous world John Wycliffe emerged as a political and religious reformer in England. He had both powerful allies and powerful enemies. The “establishment” tried him for heresy in 1378 but failed. Undaunted they tried again in 1382 and he was condemned and forbidden to teach and preach. He would enter the joys of his Lord on Christmas Day 1384. But Wycliffe had the last laugh over against the powerful bishops who felt the sting of his attack on their power. His disciples, the “Lollards”, were busy copying and distributing the Bible … soon it would be illegal in the extreme to even own an English Bible. The powers of the “church” ordered his bones exhumed and burned in 1415 … his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

Wycliffe’s Bible

Wycliffe’s Bible is in Middle English. Anyone who recalls memorizing portions of Chaucer in high school or college immediately knows the language of Wycliffe’s Bible. The history of the English language is usually divided into three major eras: Old English (from the invasion of the Angles to 1066 – the Battle of Hastings); Middle English typically dated from 1066 to 1500; and Modern English from 1500 to the present. Each of these periods witnessed great changes in the vernacular. Old English is so foreign requiring translation to understand. Middle English is often very difficult to read or understand without “learning it.” Even so called Modern English from the earlier time can be considerably different from the language of Harry Potter today.

David Daniell notes four prominent characteristics accompanying the Lollard Bible movement. First is that the manuscripts are not “romantic” expansions of Bible stories mixed in with the lives of the saints but rather the Bible itself. Second is the large number of Wycliffe Bible manuscripts or partial manuscripts. This is even more surprising given “the whole Bible with Apocrypha is a text of great size, disguised by modern techniques of paper making and printing.” Third is there is nothing to identify the translator of the text.

Fourth the manuscripts produced violent opposition from the institutional church [2]. Indeed such opposition has been described as “unprecedented.” Every confiscated Bible was burned along with its owner. Many Lollards (a pejorative term meaning “poor preachers,” used to describe those who supported Wycliffe) were burned alive. William Sawtre was martyred in 1401. A special prison was erected for Lollards at Lamberth Palace in which many were burned in the name of God. One such disciple was Sir John Oldcastle who was murdered in 1414. Since possessing a Wycliffe Bible became a capital offense it is surprising the large number that survive. There are 250 manuscripts or partial manuscripts of the Wycliffe Bible known. Since there were massive Bible burnings by the bishops and the price to be paid for owning one was high the number of surviving manuscripts is shockingly high. Just for comparison Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which endured no such systematic suppression, survives in only 64 manuscripts!

Wycliffe’s Bible, as noted earlier, was translated from the Latin Vulgate not from the Hebrew or Greek. Few scholars had the ability to read either of the original languages of the Bible – however Wycliffe was an excellent and thorough scholar. The surviving manuscripts are divided up by scholars into two “versions” of the Wycliffe bible creatively known as the “Early Version” and the “Later Version.” The EV is so literal as to be nearly what is today dubbed an “Interlinear” while the LV is much more of a translation into readable and fluent Middle English.

Though the contemporary witnesses are uniform in attributing this Bible to John Wycliffe, a number of older scholars believed he was not part of it, especially the Old Testament. Yet there is a growing consensus that he had more of a direct hand in the Gospels and perhaps the New Testament as a whole but the Old Testament was the work of his disciples Nicholas of Hereferd, John Purvey and others. On this matter the words of Medievalist and illuminated manuscript scholar Christopher de Hamel are apropos

There is quite good evidence that he was credited with the translation in the late Middle Ages, but we must balance two historical trends. One is the medieval passion for dogmatically linking texts with the names of famous authors. The other is the modern mania for downgrading the personal achievements of popular heroes of the past.” [3]

Translating the Bible into Middle English was the crowning touch of Wycliffe’s reforming career. He had challenged medieval doctrinal and devotional practices like Transubstantiation, secular authority of the church, the efficacy of pilgrimages and praying to saints … putting the Bible itself in the language of his contemporaries was the crown jewel. For Wycliffe the Scriptures are the ground for the church as a whole and the individual disciple as well. Salvation and grace need not be mediated through the priest and the church. Wycliffe wrote

[T]he New Testament is of full authority, and open to understanding of simple men, as to the points that have been most needful to salvation … That men ought to desire only the truth and freedom of the holy Gospel, and to accept man’s Law and ordinances only in as much as they have been grounded in holy Scriptures.”

The powerful, and threatened, church did not let Wycliffe go unanswered. Wycliffe was summoned to appear before a council of bishops on February 19, 1377 to hear charges of heresy brought against him. The council failed in its attempt to condemn him because of his powerful friends. In the following years five papal bulls were issued against Wycliffe and his teaching. In 1382 he was summoned again and was condemned as a heretic.

In the years following his condemnation any person found with a copy of the “Lollard” Bible would be condemned as a heretic and promptly burned at the stake. The so-called Arundel Constitutions (written by Archbishop Arundel) of 1408 states clearly:

no one henceforth do by his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue or into any other, by way of book or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe, or since, or hereafter be composed, be read in whole or in part, in public or private, under pain of the greater excommunication … He that shall do contrary to this shall likewise be punished as a favorer of heresy and error.”

Remember there were no printing presses. It took about ten months to reproduce a single full copy of the Wycliffe Bible and cost between 30 and 40 pounds. It is reported that two pennies would buy a chicken and four a pig. Forty pounds was 9,600 pennies – an enormous sum. John Fox wrote that people would provide a load of hay for the privilege of having the New Testament for one day! Some would save for a month to purchase a single page. These people were willing to die to see a copy of God’s word. The pervasive attraction of Wycliffe’s tome prompted Bishop Arundel to write to the Pope in 1411 …

This pestilent and wretched John Wyclif [sic] of cursed memory, the son of the old serpent … endeavored by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of the Holy Church, devising – to fill up the measure of his malice – the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue.”

The idea of translating the Bible into English was anathema to the English church of Wycliffe’s day. They forgot that the very reason Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate was that so many simply did not and could not read Greek or Hebrew anymore. Wycliffe’s greatest justification for translating was, ironically, the existence of the Vulgate itself.

Wycliffe’s Bible opened to the Gospel of John

Peering Inside the Bible

When we peel the cover back on a Wycliffe Bible we learn there is an extensive general prologue to the Bible written by John Purvey. The prologue calls upon all people to read “Godis lawes.” Then there is a remarkable overview of the story of the “Old Testament” followed by some guidelines or rules of interpretation for the “lewed” reader (common reader). In the prologue the most highly recommended of all Old Testament books for “symple men of wit” to read or hear was the book of Tobit with its wholesome wisdom on marriage and familial relations. Recognizing that Jerome placed the book among the Apocrypha Purvey nonetheless commends it as “profitable to the symple puple to maken hem … to take wyues in [the] drede of god, for loue of children and not al for foul lust.” [4].

The contents of the first English Bible are essentially those of all ancient manuscript Bibles. The books of Moses, what we call the historical and wisdom books, and the prophets are all to be found. Typical of ancient manuscript Bibles, scattered among the writings and the prophets are works Protestants have come to call “the Apocrypha.” Thus Baruch, the Maccabees, Tobit, Judith and the like were all in Wycliffe’s Bible. None of this surprises us. What will surprise most readers is that Wycliffe’s Bible also contained a book called “The Epistle to the Laodicians.” This medieval forgery found its way into a number of Vulgate mss and obviously in the one used by Wycliffe and his disciples. Laodicians is about the same length as Philemon and seems to be a pastiche of Pauline soundbites put together from various sources.

Here are some texts of more familiar passages as they appear in cyberspace font from Wycliffe’s Bible …

Blessed ben pore men in spirit, for the kyndom of heaenes is herne. Blessid ben thei that mornen, for thei schulen be coumfortid … Blessid ben pesible men, for thei schulen be clepid goddis children … (Matheu 5.3ff)

Britheren, what schulen we do? And Petre seide to him, Do e penaunce, and eche of ou be baptisid in the hame of Jhesu Crist, in to remissioun of oure synnes; and e schulen take the ifte of the Hooli Goost” (Dedis of Apostlis 2.38)

For God louede so the world that he yaf his ‘oon bigetun sone, that ech man that beleueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.” (Joon 3.16)

I quote Salmes One in full. I have separated the “verses” to ease reading.

Blessid is the man, that yede not in the councel of wickid men; and stood not in the weie of synneris and sat not in the chaier of pestilence.

But his wille is in the lawe of the Lord; and he schal bithenke in the law of hym dai and nyyt.

And he schal be as a tree, which is plauntid bisidis the rennyngis of watris; which tre schall yyue his fruyt in his tyme. And his leef schal not falle doun; and alle thingis which euere he schal do schulen haue prosperite.

Not so wickid men, not so; but thei ben as dust, which the wynd castith awei fro the face of erthe.

Therefor wickid men risen not ayen in doom; neithir synneres in the councel of iust men.

For the Lord knowith the weie of iust men; and the weie of wickid men schal perische.

Wyclif and his followers laid the foundation for our Bible. Even some of his renderings have distinct echoes in William Tyndale … and the King James Version.


[1] Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978). Tuchman’s work is an outstanding and lively gateway into the world in which Wyclif lived.

[2] David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 66-68.

[3] Christopher de Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (London: Phaidon, 2001), 170.

[4] For a fascinating study of the prologue and its guidelines, especially in relation to the Song of Songs, see Mary Dove’s “Love ad litteram: The Lollard Translations of the Song of Songs,” Reformation 9 (2004): 1-23.

6 Responses to “Ancestry of the King James Version # 9: John Wycliffe and the First English Bible”

  1. Gardner Hall Says:

    Now the comment section is working for me Bobby. Probably a glitch on this end. At any rate, this is fascinating history, showing what sacrifices have been made to give us the word in an understandable form. Especially enjoyed the quotes from the middle English.

  2. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    Thanks Bobby! Great reading! —JLP

  3. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Gardner thank you for the kind words. Indeed the history is fascinating. What amazes me sometimes though is that opposition to the word in translation stems so often from Christians themselves. Bible burning has not been limited to powerful bishops in the dark days of Wyclif either. Baptist preachers publicly burned Alexander Campbell’s Living Oracles, there were public burnings of the RSV and the KJV onlyites happily embrace the ideological position of the bishops. Sad.

    Ahh the Middle English. I probably should add some more. I just did not want to overwhelm anyone but like you I love it.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Thank you for reading Joshua.

  5. Alan S. Says:

    Bobby, good article except for a minor error. Wyclif’s remains exhumed, burned, and the ashes dumped into the River Swift, the river that runs through Wyclif’s home of Lutterworth, England where he preached and was orignally buried. The church and churchyard are still there.

    God bless

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Alan you are quite correct. Thank you for catching my mistake. I will correct that info immediately.

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