The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts

By Kantik Ghosh | Go to book overview

3
Vernacular translations of the
Bible and 'authority'

An emphatic recognition of the power of interpretation — 'glossing' — in determining the 'meaning' of authoritative texts, particularly the scriptures, and perhaps 'perverting' or 'negating' them, formed the basis of Wyclif's programme of reform. The dependence of what is understood by 'faith' on an ultimately arbitrary hermeneutic dictated by a politicalecclesiastical authority the exact status of which had been always open to question 1 led him and his followers to postulate an unmediated absolute faith as an achievable ideal. A crucial factor in such a faith would obviously be the availability of an unmediated, 'naked', Biblical text in an accessible language. This formed the matrix of the Lollard involvement with translation. 2

Wyclif's theoretical disjunction of human authority and scriptural interpretation provides the context for many of the contemporary disputes relating to issues raised by the Lollard heresy. One of the most significant of these was centred on the validity or otherwise of Biblical translations into the vernacular. Important insights are afforded when one compares a cluster of similar texts written at around the turn of the fourteenth century, before Archbishop Arundel's censorship laws — the Constitutions3 — drafted in 1407, and promulgated in 1409, categorically prohibited all disputation on this issue. The texts are in the form of academic determinationes; and at least two of them were written at Oxford. The first is by Master Richard Ullerston 4 possibly written c. 1401; the second by William Butler 5 written in the same year; the third perhaps by Thomas Palmer probably written at around 1400, and certainly before 1407. 6 It is important to recognise at the outset — as Anne Hudson points out 7 — that debating or even defending Biblical translations at this time was by no means an indication of heresy.

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