18.04.08, Kelly, The Middle English Bible

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David Lawton

The Medieval Review 18.04.08

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. xiv, 349. ISBN: 978-0-81224-834-0. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Lawton
Washington University in St Louis

This scintillatingly revisionist study will send many of us scurrying back to scholarly first principles, and thence to review documents and texts that Kelly would argue have been interpreted by consensus for too long. Kelly brings to his work all his formidable expertise in medieval Latin, in Church history and canon law, in paleography and documentary history, and, not least, in English philology and the analysis of prose style. He reads texts exactingly and pursues his argument with a rigorous if at times relentless logic. His work is greatly to be welcomed for its challenge to foundational scholarship both from the nineteenth century (Forshall and Madden) and from modern times (he engages particularly with the work of Anne Hudson and Mary Dove). It will cause much re-examining of all the extant evidence, whether or not that will eventually support the strong case Kelly sets out here.

In brief and in broad outline, that case is as follows: interest in the Bible was in decline in fourteenth-century Oxford until Wyclif arrived. Perhaps because--according to Kelly in hyperbolic mode--Wyclif was a poor Latinist, and "his academic style may have been the worst in medieval Christendom" (33), he eschewed writing sententially in favor of postils on the Bible, which proved highly successful. It was Wyclif's inspiration, perhaps before he became famous or notorious for his controversial views, that led to the Oxford project of translating the Early Version (EV) of the Middle English Bible, perhaps for the benefit of parish priests taking study leave there to improve their biblical knowledge for preaching purposes. This was not a preliminary to the Later Version (LV)--that was a separate project, responding to "a change in translational philosophy" (42), and which resisted Latinizing innovations of EV such as an Englishing of the ablative absolute. Neither EV nor LV need have involved a large team of scholars, and need not have involved any followers of Wyclif into heterodoxy; so both may be called "Wycliffian" but not "Wycliffite". Both EV and LV were orthodox, and neither was ever condemned by the English Church. Suspicion was directed at Wycliffite use, and putative translation, of Scripture subsequent to EV and LV; Arundel's Constitutions merely stipulated that those reading new versions of English biblical texts (not EV or LV) needed to submit them for clerical authorization, just as, according to Arundel in his funeral oration (1394), Queen Anne had submitted her English Bible (though this was presumably EV) to Arundel, and having examined its writings "'he said they were good and true'" (64). Regulation of such submissions was by diocese, and so there were local variations in understanding of what was entailed and its enforcement, but nothing until Archbishop Bouchier (1458) that could be called prohibition.

This case is supported by a detailed "history of judgments on the Middle English Bible" (chapter 1); an account of "the Bible at Oxford", making the case for Wyclif's originary influence (chapter 3); a reading of Arundel's Constitutions themselves, and debate surrounding them (chapter 5); an examination of a range of views on the advisability of English biblical translation by orthodox academic theologians (Palmer, Butler, Ullerston), and in vernacular theology, Dives and Pauper (chapter 4); a detailed account of the "treatment of the English Bible in the fifteenth century" (chapter 6), and a less satisfactory concluding chapter on "the end of the story" concerned with Sir Thomas More and his version of the trial of Richard Hunne in 1514 (less satisfactory because one might have expected something about the Reformation itself, and even the English Bibles of the sixteenth century; Kelly's account had to stop somewhere, but why not look a little further, given what follows?). There is a range of appendices, some of them textual (including helpful editions of William Lyndwood's Commentary on Arundel's Constitutions, and of the preface to the Longleat Sunday Gospels in Longleat House MS 4), the bulk of them concerned with rendering of particular Latin words and constructions in EV, LV and elsewhere. "Elsewhere" here means, above all, the text commonly known since Forshall and Madden as the General Prologue to LV, which Kelly prefers to call Five and Twenty Books, after its opening, though having made this case in chapter 2 he unhelpfully reverts in chapter 7 and appendix L to calling it "GP" (a sign perhaps of Kelly's book's genesis in separate papers that have here not been perfectly melded).

Kelly's sustained assault on the author of this text--whom he wittily but unkindly calls "Simple Creature" after the author's reference to himself--is the cornerstone of his entire enterprise. He shows, albeit on a very small sample, that "Simple Creature" has features of prose style that differ from those adopted by the translators of LV, and presses his contention from this that "Simple Creature" cannot have been an original member of the LV team, but was at best a "Johnny-come-lately" (45). Kelly is also keen to refute scholarly arguments that "Simple Creature" refers to Oxford academic issues of the late 1380s, offering evidence instead that he is entirely ignorant of Oxford academic and curricular practice. This seems to suggest that the author is a Lollard interpolator, a cuckoo in an orthodox nest, appropriating the whole Bible as Lollards appropriated Rolle's Psalter. It is Kelly's key move, and will require careful analysis by scholars responding to his work, for without the polemics of the (so-called?) General Prologue there are no signs, still less announcements, of unorthodoxy about LV. When Forshall and Madden gave this text its modern name, and placed it at the head of the "Wycliffite Bible", they were either reinstating a text that had been elided from most manuscripts because of its controversial nature, or they were, if inadvertently, misrepresenting the real situation. It is a crucial question, and one on which we should expect to see more. Without the "Simple Creature", there is nothing in the text of LV to make reasonable prelates suspicious--if their suspicion was ever of texts, rather than of readers.

It is axiomatic for Kelly that most prelates were in fact reasonable. Arundel was not an enemy of vernacular Bible translation but rather a supporter, intent on allowing its reading while keeping it free from the taint of heretical mistranslation. Kelly makes exactly the same case about Sir Thomas More. The great scholarly hero of Kelly's book is Cardinal De Gasquet, who in the nineteenth century argued against the valorizing of Wycliffite rebellion and for the inclusiveness of fifteenth-century orthodoxy. Given the common but by no means always unconscious Protestant bias of modern Wycliffite studies--the impulse to see their textual traces as a 'premature Reformation'--one might fairly see Kelly's book as a well-researched, finely tuned and timely Catholic corrective. So, for example, he argues that the business of translating EV and LV may have taken fewer people and less time than is normally assumed. It is plausible, I think, that the unconscious model for the standard account was a committee of the size taken to produce the King James Bible over a period of six years or so; whereas Kelly turns to the example of Gregory Martin, who singlehandedly translated the Douai-Rheims Bible of 1582 in a little over twenty months.

How to respond to this exhilarating challenge? With gratitude, and also with focused attention to the specific points that Kelly joins together in the chain of his subtle yet emphatic argument. I share his desire to speak of the Middle English Bible rather than the Wycliffite Bible, but I would not thereby accept all the implications of Kelly's argument. On Arundel's Constitutions, the Oxford conference of 2008 (as collected in the volume After Arundel, 2011) charted a nuanced path through a thicket of possibilities, from an adamant restatement of Nicholas Watson's position on Arundel as censor to something like the version of local difference put forward by Kelly. It is not always clear what legislation means, though the fact of it always matters (as British efforts at Brexit are so far exemplifying); enforcement may in any case have a different view of it--especially without strong agencies for centralized government--from place to place and from time to time, or from person to person. (For the English Bible in the fifteenth century, try substituting medical marijuana in the USA in the twenty-first.) Temperament plays a part here no less historically than in modern scholarship. If one is inclined to see bishops as kindly and rational, one may be less perturbed by their efforts at surveillance than, say, women Lollards would have been. Kelly's argument is largely innocent of gender and class. It does not really answer the point it quotes from Diarmaid MacCulloch: "only the most respectable could get away with open possession of a vernacular Bible, and indeed, their respectability seems itself to have made their copy of the text respectable" (109). This has been a fundamental view of scholarship since K. B. McFarlane: it is not the text that is being controlled, but who is doing the reading. What was the point of passing such legislation at all? If it is not to discourage vernacular Bible translation and its reading, Kelly's argument must prevail; and it stands or falls on his emphasis on the Constitution's use of the word new, and his contention that this refers not to EV or LV but to subsequent work. This in turn depends on his maintaining that Arundel and his peers made the mistake that Sir Thomas More was to make more than a century later, of thinking that EV and LV were, so to speak, always already there. While one can understand More's making such a mistake, how likely is it the well-connected Arundel and his fellow churchmen would have been so ill-informed about contemporary texts produced in Oxford? If they did know, what of the reading of these texts did they set out to regulate, and why? Where X is vernacular Bible translation, are the Constitutions a version of the parentally not-quite-censorious line: naturally we support X, just not this particular form of X?

Hugely impressive as Kelly's work is, such questions have not gone away. Moreover, for all the intense and admirable detail and sweep of his scholarship, there is about his very positive argument--as my summary of it above may show--more than traces of what Ezra Pound called "damn perhapsing." This not a criticism of his work or anyone else's, just an indication of where scholars in the field are and remain: on (sometimes separate) islands of fact surrounded by seas of conjecture.

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