fol. 77v, Gospel of John
New Testament in English. [Inspired by and sometimes attributed to John Wycliffe; translated by Nicholas Hereford(?); revised by John Purvey]. England, ca. 1430.
Manuscript on vellum. Octavo. 154 leaves, 8 x 5¾ inches. Black gothic script, double column, 36 lines. Initials in red and blue with penwork decoration in red and blue; chapter headings in red; some marginal corrections in a contemporary hand. Bound in off-white pigskin in 15th-century style, 5 double raised bands. § CD-ROM: 7.1, fol. 16r; 7.1, fol. 16r (detail); 7.1, fol. 77v, (detail).
In the early years of the fifteenth century all new translations of the Bible into English and even the reading of "any translation made in the times of Wycliffe or since" were outlawed by church authorities at a council in Oxford called by Archbishop Arundel. To be outlawed was a serious matter of English judicial procedure. It rendered a person unprotected and incapable of legal redress for any crime perpetrated against him or her. Outlaws also suffered active persecution when their status was known. Although the law kept any new translations from being produced for over one hundred years, it did not destroy the popular desire for the Bible in English as the existence of this manuscript indicates.
John Wycliffe (ca. 133084) was a philosopher and theologian whose teachings relied on the work of the early church writers, especially St. Augustine. Disturbed by ecclesiastical corruption, he denied the validity of sacraments performed by sinful priestsa view not held by the Church and specifically condemned in 1377. In his frustration with contemporary church authorities, he turned to the Bible as the only source for doctrine. This view led him to question the authority of the Pope, reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, and denounce the idea of monasticism because he claimed to find no basis for these things in the Bible. He was condemned by various church authorities, and finally declared heretical at the Council of Constance (141418), which ordered his bones exhumed and "scattered far from a burial place of the church." Forty-four years after his death, Wycliffes remains were burned at the stake and his ashes thrown into the River Swift as a sign of condemnation. The poet William Wordsworth described the event in a lyrical tribute to Wycliffe (from Ecclesiastical Sonnets, 17):
Wycliffe is disinhumed,|
Yea, his dry bones to ashes are consumed,
And flung into the brook that travels near;
Forthwith that ancient Voice which streams can hear
Thus speaks (that Voice which walks upon the wind,
Though seldom heard by busy human kind):
As thou these ashes, little Brook! wilt bear
Into the AvonAvon to the tide
Of SevernSevern to the narrow seas
Into main ocean they,this deed accurst,
An emblem yields to friends and enemies,
How the bold Teachers Doctrine sanctified
By truth, shall spread throughout the world dispersed.
Wycliffe preached in both Latin and English, and he supported the idea of producing an English version of the Bible in order to diminish the power of the clerics who interpreted Latin Scriptures for their parishioners. Far better, he maintained, to give the people the Bible in their own language so that all could return to the authority of the Word. Although often given credit for the translation of the Vulgate into English, it is now generally thought that Wycliffe was not directly responsible. Nonetheless, he certainly inspired his followers to undertake the project. Nicholas Hereford is most often named as the chief translator of this word-for-word translation from the Latin, but others may have been involved as well. About a decade after Wycliffes death, John Purvey revised the so-called Wycliffe version to make it more readablebut his version also suffers from the pious desire to stay as close to the Latin original as possible.
Regardless of its stylistic infelicities and the very real personal risk of possessing an English Bible, the people of England read this translation. The Lollards and other followers of the teachings of John Wycliffe continued to make manuscript copies like the one shown here throughout the fifteenth century. In fact, the Wycliffite Bible survives in more copies than any other medieval text in English (about 235 manuscripts).
The Ryrie manuscript was produced around 1430. Chapters are numbered in red and begin with large blue initials decorated with red filigree. Although pre-dating the use of verses by more than a century, this Bible uses sectional divisions (A, B, C, D) to facilitate the readers reference. The neat hand and decorations of this manuscript indicate the value its owner placed on it. And, indeed, the deep desire of the English people to read the Word of God in their native tongue is clear from accounts of trial proceedings against the Lollards. One case mentions a barter system in which the loan of a Wycliffite Bible for a few hours was traded for a cartload of hay. This illegal trade in English Bibles continued until the reign of Henry VIII.
Literature: Fristedt 195373, 1968; Hargreaves 1979, 17174; Hotchkiss and Price 1996, 14041; MacGregor 1968, 80; Tanner 1990, I:41116.