12.05.15, Dove, The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible

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Richard Marsden

The Medieval Review 12.05.15

Dove, Mary. The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible: The Texts of the Medieval Debate. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2010. Pp. 236. ISBN: 978-0-85989-852-2.

Reviewed by:
Richard Marsden
University of Nottingham

The importance for later medieval English history of the long-running disputes about the desirability of a Bible in English--with the Wycliffite Bible the most concrete representative of this phenomenon--has long been acknowledged, although (with a few exceptions) it was not until the later decades of the twentieth century that the subject began to get the rigorous and wholehearted scholarly attention it deserves. Anne Hudson became the most prominent scholar of what she would call "the English heresy." By the time Mary Dove died in 2008, however, she had firmly established her own authority in the field. Her 2007 monograph from Cambridge University Press, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions, set out with admirable clarity what can be established about the history of the Wycliffite Bible project. One of her achievements was to sweep away many of the obfuscations which have accumulated over centuries in respect of the nature of the project and the identities of the personnel involved in it.

This posthumous volume (whose preparation for the press has been overseen by Anne Hudson) complements Dove's earlier work. Eight texts, or compilations of texts (twenty-three discrete pieces in all), have been edited, chosen as key documents for an understanding of the arguments in favour of an English Bible. Often they were composed to counter the specific objections of those who strove to stifle the very idea of free, unmediated access to scripture for the layperson, opposition which culminated in 1407 in the Council of Oxford. Most of the texts have been printed in one form or another previously, but they have been widely scattered and not always critically edited. Dove's introduction, rather briefly, surveys each text in turn, recording what is known about origin and authorship (most are in fact anonymous), describing manuscript sources and listing previous editions. It is of course a mistake to assume that advocacy of an English Bible in the late fourteenth century and beyond was exclusively a "Wycliffite" phenomenon. This is made clear by Dove in her carefully worded title, in which Wyclif does not feature specifically. The followers of Wyclif were simply the most prominent advocates of an English Bible, their voices among the most strident and persistent, making them an obvious focus for attacks by opponents such as Archbishop Arundel, who feared the potential power of translations to become a vehicle for planting tendentious interpretations and thus to foment heresies. Of the texts edited here, the prologues to the Wycliffite Bible itself and to the so-called "Glossed Gospels" are of self-evidently attributable to the Lollards, along with a few others, such as the substantial Pater Noster II and several of the Cambridge Tracts. Many others, however, are certainly not--mostly obviously the tract First seiþ Bois, which is based on the writings of the orthodox Oxford theologian Richard Ullerston.

Nevertheless, the celebrated Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible is the first and probably the most influential of the texts printed here. For many scholars, it has always been of far more interest than the Bible translation itself, because of what it says about the Wycliffite project and about English Bible translation in general. And as Dove notes, it fuelled the great debate on English scripture that led to Arundel's constitutions of 1407, with their largely ineffectual aim of preventing the spread of English scripture. It is in fact only chapter 15, the last in this almost 40,000-word document, which is controversial. The first fourteen chapters contain orthodox and conventional material, helpful to any reader navigating through the great volume of scripture: analysis of the content and structure of the two testaments, the arrangements of the books, synopses of the books, and standard, largely Augustinian, material on the senses of scripture. This is the first edition of the full Prologue since that in Forshall's and Madden's four-volume edition of the Wycliffite Bible, published as long ago as 1850. Chapter 15 (extracts from which have commonly been printed) raises the age-old problem of whether to translate word-for-word or sense-for-sense and comes out unequivocally in favour of the latter: indeed, its anonymous author insists that translators sin if they fail to convey the sense of scripture as established by the fathers. One of the most interesting features of the chapter for historians of translation is a discussion of the difficulties of rendering certain Latin constructions, such as present participles and absolute ablatives, for which practical strategies are offered. The Prologue is dated on sound evidence by Dove to between 1387 and the beginning of 1388. It did not appear in copies of the Wycliffite Bible from the start of production (when Latin prefaces and prologues were being used) and in fact only five complete copies survive. Dove bases her edition on that of Princeton University Library, William H. Scheide MS 12, which can be dated no more precisely than c. 1395-1410. Eleven manuscript fragments and two early printed editions have also been consulted.

The Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible is text 1 in this volume, as noted. The other texts are as follows:

2. The Prologue to Isaiah and the Prophets. This is the only prologue written for a specific Old Testament book. It supplements the discussion of the prophets in the general Prologue with a longer account of Isaiah, which serves also as a general introduction to the other prophetical books. It emphasises above all the primacy of the literal sense of scripture.

3. The Twelve Cambridge Tracts. Probably these were brought together as a response to the debates at the Council of Oxford. All are anonymous, and some echo the content of other well known exhortatory or polemical texts in Middle English. Varying in length from a few hundred words to nearly seven thousand, all are committed to the idea of open access to scripture, with several, as their headings make clear, more specifically advocating scripture in English (e.g. Tract V, "Anoþer sentens schewynge þat þe þeple may haue holy writ in her moder-tunge lefully [lawfully]"). Objections are met head-on: to the concern that ignorant people given direct access to scripture may err doctrinally, comes the response that to deprive all people of access because of occasional heresies would be like starving everyone of food because a few fools are gluttons; and besides (to reiterate a favourite Lollard gripe), priests are just as likely to err in their interpretation of the Latin scriptures as ordinary people in their interpretation of the English.

4. First seiþ Bois [i.e., Boethius]. The title of this tract is supplied by the opening words, which introduce a reference to Boethius's De disciplina scolarium. Loosely structured, it is based in the main on a determinacio of 1391 in which Richard Ullerston argues unequivocally in favour of a Bible in English, despite his orthodoxy in other respects. The tract seems to have had quite a wide circulation.

5. The Holi Prophete Dauid. Opening with a reference to Psalm 118, this tract has as its main target those "proude clerkis" who boast of their learning instead of teaching by example. It selects three of the objections to popular access to the Bible regularly put forward by such clerks and demonstrates systematically how they misinterpret passages of scripture to suit their prejudices.

6. Pater Noster II. This exposition of the meaning of the Lord's Prayer is prefaced by the question: if it is permitted that this universal prayer be taught in English, why should not the whole gospel be so taught? It counters opponents by claiming that it would in fact be heresy and blasphemy if the gospel were not to be written and preached in English.

7. Glossed Gospel Prologues and Epilogue. This section has two prologues and an epilogue, all to Matthew, taken from the so-called "Glossed Gospels," versions of the Wycliffite Bible which provided the scriptural text with extensive exposition in English, based on the church fathers.

8. In þe biginnyng. This curious eight-line statement compares the present time with situation in the early church, when it is claimed that the use of a language unknown to the hearers was expressly forbidden.

Dove consulted some sixty manuscripts in all for this collection. The texts are admirably edited. Editorial procedures are (sensibly) those of most modern editors of medieval texts: apart from the silent expansion of abbreviations, the original spelling and orthography are retained, but modern conventions of initial capitals, word-division and punctuation are introduced. The reader unfamiliar with Middle English is offered ample help, first by means of the first block of the critical apparatus, which gives glosses to difficult words or phrases, and second by the end-of-volume glossary of the most important Middle English words. The first block of the apparatus also cites biblical references. A second block gives, where appropriate, corrections made by either the scribe or the editor, along with the major variant readings in the manuscripts relevant to each of the texts. In addition, at the end of the volume a section of notes for each text gives cross-references or explanations. It is a pity that there is no indication in the texts themselves when such a note is available for consultation; this could have been done discreetly and would have eliminated the rather onerous necessity for the reader to keep checking the notes just in case. As the publisher's preface points out, there are a few inconsistencies in the presentation of the critical material which Dove had not ironed out before her death, but these are minor and cause no inconvenience to the reader. Unusually ragged line-breaks are preserved on the text pages, as the publisher also notes, so that Dove's line-references remain valid, but are a minor blemish. Indeed, in the clarity of its presentation and a generous use of space, this is a most user-friendly volume (on the same lines as Exeter's excellent The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory 1280-1520, published in 1999). It is one of the most useful I have come across for some time--the sort that prompts the question, why has this not been done before? It should become an essential sourcebook for future work on the Bible in English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and is a fitting tribute to a fine scholar, who died with so much more still to give.

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Author Biography

Richard Marsden

University of Nottingham