Mary Raschko

title.none: Dove, The First English Bible (Mary Raschko )

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.004 08.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Raschko , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Dove, Mary. The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 313. $99 978-0-521-88028-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.04

Dove, Mary. The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 313. $99 978-0-521-88028-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary Raschko
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mary Dove's The First English Bible makes a significant contribution to study of religion in late medieval England. Nearly 90 years have passed since the publication of the last book dedicated to the Wycliffite Bible, which in its own right would merit reassessment of the production, textual content, and effects of the translation project. Yet in the last several decades, scholarship on Wyclif and his followers has boomed, greatly increasing our understanding of both Wycliffism itself and its interaction with mainstream religion. Dove's book does not break new ground in its approach to the Wycliffite Bible, but rather engages traditional questions regarding clerical opposition and the project's importance as the first comprehensive translation of the Bible in English. Yet her answers to these recurrent questions are informed by prominent, recent research on Wycliffism and by thorough, attentive study of manuscripts. As a result, the book makes a compelling case that scholars underestimate both the complexity of Wycliffite engagement with scripture and the wide circulation and impact of the text.

In her introduction, Dove acknowledges that her approach to the Wycliffite Bible must be considerably more cautious and less partisan than many that precede her, most notably Forshall and Madden who claimed that the English Reformation was a forgone conclusion after the publication of the Wycliffite Bible. Her efforts result in a conscientiously balanced assessment of the manuscript evidence, in which she often confirms previous claims about the Wycliffite Bible while providing a more complex, detailed explanation of its production. She asserts, for example, that Wyclif played a role in instigating and coordinating the project, but she ultimately concludes that the translation was a group effort conducted by six or seven main translators. Dove reaffirms that the Wycliffite Bible circulated in two main forms, an Earlier and a Later Version, but she discusses the ongoing, sometimes irregular, patterns of revision that occurred on both versions and advances a convincing theory that translators lost control of the production of the Earlier Version, which they never intended to circulate. Finally, through extensive textual criticism, Dove highlights the accuracy of the English translation and lauds the translators' accomplishment in bringing a faithful rendition of Latin originals (often with corrective readings from Lyra and other commentators) into Middle English.

Structurally, The First English Bible progresses from the context surrounding biblical translation to details of the text itself. It begins with consecutive chapters on translation debates and censorship of the Wycliffite Bible in the Constitutions of 1409. To determine contemporary ideas about the possible effects of an English Bible, Dove looks to the Oxford translation debates represented by the writings of Thomas Palmer , William Butler, and Richard Ullerston and places these opinions in conversation with Wyclif's Postilla in Totam Bibliam and Middle English treatises in defense of translation. Her account of the debates examines questions of both who should read the Bible and whether translators could create an authoritative text. The first chapter concludes with a description of the Constitutions and a declaration that despite strong arguments, those who advocated translation did not successfully persuade church officials to support it, in no small part due to its association with Wyclif. In the discussion of censorship that follows, Dove begins with reference to Nicholas Watson's claim that the Constitutions had widespread effects on vernacular religious writings, but she devotes most of her chapter to manuscript evidence for ownership and licensing. She points to ownership of Wycliffite Bibles not only by royals but also members of religious orders, secular clerics, and laymen and describes the scant evidence for the licensing of biblical translation required by the Constitutions. Lectionaries present in many volumes indicate that owners used the Wycliffite Bibles in preparation for and sometimes even within the context of mass. Although the majority of her evidence points to relatively open use of unlicensed Wycliffite Bibles, Dove remains cautious not to depict ownership as without risk. She concludes that possession of Wycliffite Bibles still left a person open to suspicion of heresy and argues that the Constitutions inevitably link Wycliffite translation with the history of the English Reformation.

Moving from controversy over translation to its actual execution, Dove dedicates a brief chapter to the translators. Here she lays out her argument that Wyclif initiated and supervised the group project beginning in the early 1370s. The evidence she considers ranges from contemporary statements about translators within surviving manuscripts, to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attributions and the opinions of recent scholars. Dove names Nicholas Hereford as the only confirmed translator. While she considers John Trevisa's involvement "not unlikely," she questions the evidence for naming John Purvey as a translator of the Later Version and author of the Prologue.

Proceeding to the contents of the Wycliffite Bible, chapter four on "the canonical scriptures" outlines the specific books included in a complete Old and New Testament, their order, and the prologues that accompanied them. Dove describes the Wycliffite production as similar to contemporary Latin bibles in order and layout, considering matters such as chapter division, rubrication, and decoration. Complete Wycliffite Bibles included the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, following Jerome's determination that such books were read for edification but not for doctrine. In manuscripts with the Earlier Version, Jerome's prologues and rubrics explain their apocryphal status. Although Later Version manuscripts do not include Jerome's prologues, the Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible contained the same message in abbreviated form. Most copies of the Later Version, however, did not have the Prologue and therefore contained little indication of precisely which books the church and the translators considered canonical.

The contents of the Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible, along with a prologue translators wrote for the prophetic books of the Old Testament, receive more extensive consideration in chapter five. Dove describes both documents as important statements of Wycliffite hermeneutics, which simultaneously declare the accessibility of biblical text and provide necessary guides for interpretation. Within this chapter, Dove explains the translators' understanding and privileging of the literal meaning of the text, which, following Wyclif and Lyra, refers to the sense the author intended and can include Christological interpretations of the Old Testament. The prologues also occasion further analysis of the political context surrounding translation. Dove suggests that the writers added a prologue before the prophetic books to insert their own historical/political situation into the text and argues that the particularly polemical passages of the main Prologue likely prevented it from circulating with the majority of copies.

Addressing the actual text of the Wycliffite translation, Dove begins with a consideration of revision processes. She rejects Conrad Lindberg's claim that an interlinear translation was the first stage of the project and even disagrees with his description of the first translation as slavish imitation of Latin. Wycliffite translators, she insists, "will have wanted to make Latin English rather than mimic Latin in English" (137). While some translations may have begun as close renderings of Latin originals, Dove argues that at least some translators (the author of the Prologue among them) never intended the Earlier Version to circulate as a translation in its own right. Yet the Earlier Version not only circulated, it underwent revisions independent of the Later Version and provided the gospel text for the Glossed Gospels. Dove therefore hypothesizes that translators continued to revise the Earlier Version and Later Version independently, possibly in two different locations: Oxford and Lutterworth respectively. The remainder of the chapter on the text is a detailed and at times dense consideration of particular manuscripts that help Dove discern how thoroughly the Wycliffite translators achieved their aim to provide an open and accurate text. She examines the nature of textual glosses to determine the former and compares the translation to Latin originals to determine the latter. Appendix three complements this last project, as it provides select readings from the Earlier and Later Versions of the Wycliffite Bible, along with the same passages in Latin, French, and Anglo-Norman bibles. Other appendices provide content that could also fall under the heading of "the text," as she lists the contents of the Wycliffite Bible (showing books in order and potential prologues) and provides additions and emendations to Forshall and Madden's edition.

Dove's concluding chapter on the translation's effects returns to two scholarly conversations on the context of the Wycliffite Bible: its relation to the English Reformation and its potential censorship by Arundel's Constitutions. With regard to the Constitutions, she concludes that the council attempted to prohibit a biblical translation associated with a declared heretic but they did so only after copies circulated for nearly 20 years. Dove therefore suggests that the surviving number of manuscripts may not have differed much without the Constitutions. While she describes the effects of the Wycliffite Bible on the Reformation as outside the scope of her study, she argues that translators in the sixteenth century were more influenced by late medieval discussions of biblical interpretation than the text of the Wycliffite Bible itself. Perhaps the most important contribution Dove's study makes to the understanding of Wycliffites and their relation to mainstream religion pertains to this issue of interpretation. Although Wycliffites valued the literal sense of scripture, they did not define "literal" as indicating only one, plainly apparent meaning of a text (what James Simpson has described as an "evangelical" approach to biblical text). On the contrary, Dove demonstrates throughout her book that Wycliffite translators recognized the importance of interpretive tradition and created a translation that "encourages its readers to engage with the full complexity of the biblical text" (197).

Throughout the volume, Dove emphasizes the importance of the Wycliffite translation project as the first English translation of the whole Bible. This value she places on the Bible as a cohesive book, as opposed to scriptural translation in its variety of forms, is evident in the appendices related to manuscripts. Dove provides detailed descriptions of select manuscripts: those with the whole Bible and a number of others she considers textually significant. She indexes by location all 253 manuscripts considered copies of the Wycliffite Bible, whose contents vary considerably, both in terms of which books of the Bible appear and what texts accompany them. Dove often lists other texts that circulated with Wycliffite scriptural translation, such as the gospel harmony Oon of Foure or Rolle's Psalter commentary, but she does not do so in every relevant case or with the same degree of specificity across the various manuscripts. Given that fewer than ten percent of Wycliffite Bibles contain the whole of the Old and New Testaments, exploration of the relative popularity of individual books, the combination of biblical texts within a particular manuscript, and the other texts accompanying Wycliffite translation could substantially increase our understanding of the Wycliffite Bible in its pre-Reformation context. While The First English Bible certainly makes an impressive, valuable contribution to our knowledge of the production and impact of the Wycliffite Bible, it will hopefully be the first of a number of studies to explore a field ripe with possibility for new directions.