The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment

The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment

The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment

The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment


In the last quarter of the fourteenth century, the complete Old and New Testaments were translated from Latin into English, first very literally, and then revised into a more fluent, less Latinate style. This outstanding achievement, the Middle English Bible, is known by most modern scholars as the "Wycliffite" or "Lollard" Bible, attributing it to followers of the heretic John Wyclif. Prevailing scholarly opinion also holds that this Bible was condemned and banned by the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, at the Council of Oxford in 1407, even though it continued to be copied at a great rate. Indeed, Henry Ansgar Kelly notes, it was the most popular work in English of the Middle Ages and was frequently consulted for help in understanding Scripture readings at Sunday Mass.

In The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment, Kelly finds the bases for the Wycliffite origins of the Middle English Bible to be mostly illusory. While there were attempts by the Lollard movement to appropriate or coopt it after the fact, the translation project, which appears to have originated at the University of Oxford, was wholly orthodox. Further, the 1407 Council did not ban translations but instead mandated that they be approved by a local bishop. It was only in the early sixteenth century, in the years before the Reformation, that English translations of the Bible would be banned.


I first entered the Bible-translation field when studying the Douai-Rheims Version, which was completed by the English priest Gregory Martin in 1580, but was revised by Bishop Richard Challoner in 1750. We medievalists usually tell our students to use this translation rather than the King James because it renders the Latin Vulgate, and not the Hebrew and Greek texts, but in fact Challoner’s revision was largely in the direction of the King James language, which in turn was largely William Tyndale’s text. I decided that I should also examine the earlier complete translation of the Bible into English, produced at the end of the fourteenth century, now generally known as the Wycliffite Bible, and recognized as existing in two main forms, an original very literal rendering, call the Early Version, or EV, and a revision of it into a more idiomatic style, called the Later Version, or LV.

I soon found that the scholarship concerning this translation was affected by the same “wars of religion” that surrounded the history of the Protestant and Catholic Bibles of the sixteenth century and later. It seemed to me that there was need for a review of how it has been regarded over the years, and the points of controversy connected with it at each stage, especially concerning claims for and against its origin as a project of the religious dissident John Wyclif (d. 1384) and his followers.

Accordingly, in the first chapter below, I attempt to give a historiography of critical attention to the medieval translation, to which I give the neutral name of “Middle English Bible,” or MEB. I recount that, after seemingly being regarded as a straightforward rendering from Latin into English during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, notably in the report of Thomas More, it was first designated as Wyclif’s by John Bale in the middle of the sixteenth . . .

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