15.05.35, Kennedy, The Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible

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Laura Light

The Medieval Review 15.05.35

Kennedy, Kathleen. The Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible. Medieval Church Studies, 35. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. xiv, 234. ISBN: 9782503547527 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Laura Light
Les Enluminures (Paris, New York, Chicago)

There were probably more Bibles copied in the vernacular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than there were Bibles copied in Latin. This is a significant development in the history of medieval religious practice, and reflects the growth of a literate and active laity, eager to read the Bible in their own languages. (I should hasten to add that this did not mean that the Bible in Latin was not the primary text for the late medieval Church. The supply of thirteenth-century Latin Bibles seems to have been such that relatively few new copies in Latin were necessary to meet the needs of clerics and students; the earliest printed fifteenth-century Bibles were Latin.) The importance of vernacular Bibles in the pre-Reformation era is often absent from general surveys, and it is still not as well-known as it should be even to many medievalists, perhaps reflecting the traditional division of the field between historians writing about the Latin Middle Ages, and literary scholars writing about developments in the vernacular languages. This new study by Kathleen Kennedy aims to redress this point by surveying the surviving illuminated copies of the Wycliffite Bible, the first complete translation of the Bible into English.

Scholars today generally accept that this translation originated in circles associated with the reformer, John Wycliff (c. 1331-84) in Oxford in the final decades of the fourteenth century, c. 1370-1400. It survives today in about 250 manuscripts, despite the fact that article seven of the Constitutions issued by Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1409 appears to ban all unauthorized translations of the Bible into English, or any other language, and the ownership of these translations--"whether written recently by said John Wycliff, or to be written henceforth." If these Bibles were illegal, why do they survive in such robust numbers, and moreover--to get to the heart of Kennedy’s volume--why are so many of them carefully produced, illuminated volumes? In Kennedy’s own words, one of her aims is to explore the apparent contradiction of an "illegal bestseller" (7).

This study, the first to focus on the illumination of these books, fits well with modern studies by Anne Hudson, Mary Dove, Christopher de Hamel, Matti Peikola, Elizabeth Solopova and Eyal Poleg that emphasize that Wycliffite Bibles were widely read by an orthodox audience in England in the fifteenth century. (Kennedy is obviously familiar with the current research in her field, although she does not cite relevant articles by Peikola, Solopova and Poleg that must have appeared after her book went to press.) There is nothing unorthodox about the content of these Bibles, apart from a few statements in the General Prologue, which saw a very limited circulation (it is included in twelve manuscripts, but is complete in only five). Many survive with no evidence of ownership, although we do know that copies were owned by monastic establishments, members of the nobility and by three Kings of England, Henry IV, Henry VI and Henry VII.

Not quite half of the surviving 250 manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible, about forty percent, are illuminated (Kennedy uses this term broadly to include any manuscript with painted decoration of any type). Her study does not aim to be a comprehensive, and in her own words, she chooses to avoid a "theoretical superstructure" and instead presents her arguments as a series of exploratory essays. She begins with an examination of previous scholarship and the "rationalizations" that have been offered to circumvent this essential paradox ("Wycliffite Bibles Have Art?"). She then proceeds to a short chapter describing the function of decoration in Wycliffite Bibles, exploring questions related to hierarchy of decoration. Her comparison with illuminated Statute Books, although under-developed, is worth exploring further.

Although Wycliffite Bibles survive in numerous manuscripts, it is important to note that only twenty of these manuscripts include the complete Bible (an additional seventeen manuscripts may have once been complete). Most Wycliffite Bibles are in fact copies of either the complete New Testament or the Gospels alone. In chapter three, one of the most interesting in the volume, Kennedy explores the manuscripts that include single books of the Bible. Her argument that translations of popular biblical books (an interesting list: the Gospel of John, Tobit, and the Apocalypse), now bound singly or preserved in miscellanies, were copied commercially as independent pamphlets, is well-supported by her discussion of the physical evidence. I would note that her definition of manuscripts produced commercially seems somewhat too narrow, and even inexpensive pamphlets were likely produced to order for interested buyers, rather than being available already copied as stock.

Chapters four, five and six are more traditionally art historical, and focus on the illumination found in a broad range of copies. She convincingly links surviving manuscripts to the work of some of the most established artists working in London, as scholars have traditionally suggested, but also shows that some examples were provincial copies. Her careful study of small decorative elements in the illuminated borders of these books, based on the work of Kathleen Scott in Dated and Datable English Manuscript Borders c. 1395-1499 (London, British Library: 2002), serves as the basis for her attributions, and for her suggested dates. Kennedy successfully places the manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bibles within the broader context of fifteenth-century illuminated English manuscripts; her questioning of whether the lack of figurative decoration in these books should be seen as evidence of Lollard disapproval of devotional images is of particular note. The final chapter explores the question of the continued use of a small group of these Bibles by examining added images (both manuscript and printed). This reader would have appreciated a formal conclusion, although re-reading the first chapter helps to remedy its absence.

One innovative feature of Kennedy’s volume is her interest in digital images. Appendix I is a guide to digital images, and she encourages readers to follow along with her discussion by looking at digital images, a suggestion that makes sense given the varying quality of the fifty-eight black and white figures included here. Appendix II is a useful list of extant manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible, including brief notes of their content and whether they are illuminated. The volume includes a general index, but the lack of an index to the manuscripts discussed in the text is unfortunate.

This volume will serve as a useful introduction to the decoration found in Wycliffite Bibles. Certainly, the evidence gathered here demonstrates how mainstream these English Bibles were in the fifteenth century. Kennedy likes to view them as "hospitable manuscripts," suitable for use in a wide variety of devotional communities. It also raises the question of whether a robust re-evaluation of the impact of the Arundel Constitutions is needed. In his review of Mary Dove’s posthumous 2010 publication, The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible: The Texts of the Medieval Debate, Henry Ansgar Kelly correctly reminds us that the Arundel Constitutions did not prohibit translations, but rather specified that translations were subject to Church approval. The evidence of the surviving illuminated manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible presented in this volume supports his conclusion: "There is no evidence that EV and LV did not pass muster, and plenty of evidence that they did". [1]



1. Henry Ansgar Kelly, review of Mary Dove, The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible: The Texts of the Medieval Debate, in Speculum 88 (2013), 281.

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