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Chapter 4 - Bible Translation and Controversy in Late Medieval England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2020

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Summary

The Two Versions of the Middle English Bible

It was not until the latter part of the fourteenth century that the whole Bible was translated into English, first in a very literal form (the Early Version), which was then revised into more fluent prose (the Later Version). Following the lead of the editors of the 1850 edition, Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden, the combined result is sometimes referred to as the “Wyclif(fe) Bible,” or the “Lollard Bible,” or, most frequently, the “Wycliffite Bible.” Sometimes, however, it goes by the neutral designation of “Middle English Bible,” which I follow, since I do not think that the case for Wycliffite content, origin, or reception has been made. Not a single word or phrase in either version has been identified as having heterodox import. Furthermore, although both Wyclif and two of his followers, Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey, used to be confidently considered to be among the translators, that is no longer the case. Finally, the texts were widely copied and used in impeccably orthodox circumstances, and, contrary to frequent assertions, neither version was prohibited by the Canterbury constitutions formulated at Oxford in 1407. These matters will be discussed below.

The Earlier Version of the Middle English Bible seems have been done at Oxford in the 1370s or so, with the Later Version revision probably occurring sometime in the 1380s. Both forms, but especially the Later Version, became very popular, surviving in many manuscripts. A number of theories have been put forth as to why the work of translation was done in stages. One is that the Early Version was originally designed to help the parish clergy that came to Oxford for a few years of study, in order to increase their understanding of the Latin Bible. Another is that it was done to ensure that the exact meaning of the Latin Scripture was being transferred into English before it was modified into less awkward idioms. Sven Fristedt has suggested that the revision was due to a change in translation philosophy, from grammatical and literal fidelity to a more elastic conception of meaning.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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