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THE ENGLISH BIBLE
WYCLIF TO COVERDALE
AMONG all our national treasures the greatest is the English Bible. Its primary appeal, as every one would admit, is to our common Christianity ; but it appeals also, and with scarcely less power, to our common patriotism. Transcending every difference and distinction of rank, and sect, and party, it unites us all as Englishmen. Historically it is interwoven with the growth of our political liberties, and its successive versions are indissolubly linked with names for ever memorable in our annals. In its oral and social influence it lies at the root of what is strongest and best in the national character. Unique among books in its unapproachable dignity and grandeur, it holds amongst us an undisputed pre-eminence as the most splendid literary monument that we possess of the genius of our native tongue.
For nearly eight hundred years the only Bible from which paraphrases or metrical versions could be made was the Latin Vulgate, the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew being during that period practically non-existent. In the famous abbey on the cliffs at Whitby, Cædmon had sung the scripture story of man's creation and of his fall, of Israel and of Christ. The dying hours of Bæde, the grand old monk of Jarrow, had been devoted to the completion of a translation into English of the Gospel according to St. John. Aldhelm had made a version of the Psalter, King Alfred of the four Evangelists, Elfric of the seven first books of the Old Testament. But for our present purpose we may set on one side the merely fragmentary renderings that have come down to us. Adaptations rather than translations of the more familiar portions of the Vulgate, they are full of interest as witnessing to the continuity of our literature; but what with the costliness of early manuscripts, the tardiness with which copies were multiplied, and the absence of any reading public, their circulation must have been practically confined to circles of private friends or of brother ecclesiastics. It is not until we reach the fourteenth century that we find a really close translation of any one complete book of scripture. Dating from the first half of that century we have two such translations of the Psalms, the one by William de Schorham, the other by Richard Rolle, the author of The Pricke of Conscience, and better known as the Hermit of Hampole. To the last half of the century belong two works whose widespread and lasting influence it would be difficult to exaggerate, and which, by their rapid dissemination among the common people, contributed in no inconsiderable degree to that great religious revolution in England which we call the Reformation. The one is Langland's Vision of Piers the Ploughman, the other is Wyclif's Bible (1380). The extent of his own personal share in it is not quite satisfactorily determined, but the greater part of the New Testament and part of the Old are from his pen. His friend Nicholas de Hereford is responsible for the first portion of the Old Testament as far as the book of Baruch, iii. 20. At this point his manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, breaks off abruptly, owing no doubt to the peremptory action of the ecclesiastical authorities, for we know that in the summer of 1382 he was excommunicated. What remained to be done was most probably done by Wyclif. This first edition was soon seen to be in many ways defective, and Wyclif was still working at a revision of it in December 1384, when he died from a stroke of paralysis. It was completed under the direction of his faithful friend and curate, John Purvey, with myche trauaile,' as he tells us, and with the aid of diuerse felawis and helperis,' not earlier, it is supposed, than 1390.
Both the original and the revised version are reproduced in parallel columns in the splendid work of Forshall and Madden which issued from the Clarendon Press in 1850. Two short quotations will show how comparatively little our language has changed in the course of five centuries.
But in o day of the woke ful earli thei camen to the grave and broughten swete smelling spices that thei hadden arayed, and thei founden the stoone turnyd away from the grave. And thei geden in and founden not the Lord Jhesus.—(Luke xxiv.)
And after these thingis he seide to his disciplis, Go we eft in to Judee. The disciplis seien to hym, Maister, now the Jewis soughten for to stoone thee and eft goist thou thidir ?-(John xi.)
Wyclif's Bible was indeed a notable beginning, but it could lay no claim to finality. As a translation it is a noble work, but it lacks uniformity of style and is of very uneven merit. The diction is homely, rugged, and primitive, for our language was only in process of formation, and the expressions are often of refreshing naivety and quaintness. Furthermore, the whole version is at best but a translation of a translation. Yet with all its blemishes it is of imperishable interest. Many of its phrases, the straight gate,' the narrow way,' the beam and the mote,' have passed for ever into our language.
It is, above all things, our first and oldest Bible. Even
were it of less literary merit than it is, it would still be secure of immortality as an integral part of English history. It was born in an age of intense national excitement. It is the 'provocatio ad populum' of our first Reformer. It is the dying legacy to the people of England of the sturdiest fighter of his day. It is from the hand of the father of English prose. It embodies the great principle that the Bible is the people's book, and should speak the language of the people.
The fourteenth century, if we stand back and endeavour to take a comprehensive view of it, may be best described as a time of transition. Mediævalism was slowly passing away, but the new world was not yet plainly in sight. We are reminded, as we watch the sweep of events, of a dissolving view where the picture that is departing is fading into indistinctness, while the lines of the picture that is to take its place have still to come into focus. We seem to be looking at a blurred image which is neither picture because it is both. Pope and Emperor are both there, but not the empire or the papacy as they were of old. The Emperor has become a mere shadow of his former self. The Pope is a fugitive from Rome. Under many forms and in many lands a spirit of disquiet and unrest, be it social, political, or religious, is moving over the long stagnant waters, and ruffling their repose. Rome is confronted with rising nationalities impatient of her authority and claims. The long supremacy of the Latin tongue is threatened by the rivalry of modern languages, for it is the century of Petrarch, of Froissart, and of Chaucer. The old order and the new stand face to face. Over against the king stands the parliament, over against the mailed knight and the feudal lord stand the burgess and the merchant, the artisan and the peasant. Under the influence of great political thinkers and writers like Marsilius of Padua and William of Occam, there is dawning in men's minds the idea of an orderly independent state organised with a view to the common weal. All along the line there is an awakening of the human spirit to a sense of individuality, a feeling not of the moral impotence but of the moral dignity of man. The supernatural claims of a sacerdotal hierarchy from whom all spirituality and unworldliness seem to have died out are being challenged by an appeal to the instincts of the conscience and the heart. Everywhere great principles are in antagonism, Latin Christianity and Teutonic, tradition and Scripture, realism and nominalism, authority and experience, capital and labour.
In an age thus profoundly agitated John Wyclif's lot was cast, and it is his attitude towards the papacy, with its materialised oligarchy of luxurious and lazy ecclesiastics, which gives the key to his life. “I take it as a holesome counsell,' he says, 'that the Pope leeve his wordly lordship to wordly lords as Christ gave him and move all his Clerks to do so.'
In 1360 he was Master of Balliol, and waging unceasing war against the Mendicant Orders, whose shameless eavesdropping and brazen-faced beggary made them the target of poet and preacher and pamphleteer alike. It was in 1366 that, famous already as an Oxford divine, he came first into public and political prominence. The papacy had fallen on evil days. It was the period of the Babylonish captivity. Exiles from Rome, the Popes at Avignon were at a threefold disadvantage. There had been a magic and a witchery in the very name of Rome. Avignon was only Avignon. But besides the loss of prestige there was the material loss of the Italian revenues, and, finally, there was the humiliating descent from the proud position of the world's umpire to that of a mere tool of the King of France. Still the Court at Avignon was prodigiously expensive, and England had long occupied the unenviable position of the milch cow of the papacy. Urban the Fifth accordingly preferred a demand on Edward the Third for all the arrears of the tribute to the Papal See annually due since the death of King John. The demand was referred to Parliament. It was the last straw. Half ruined by the awful ravages of the Black Death, owing to which the population had been reduced from five millions to two millions and a half, and by the slow drain of the never-ending wars with France, the Estates were not unnaturally disposed to rebel against sending out English gold for the support of the liegeman of their hereditary foe. ' Ils resisteront,' they unanimously decided, 'et contre esteront ove toute leur puissance.' This decision was expanded and supported by Wyclif, then one of the King's chaplains, in a most vigorous and able pamphlet. That he should have had this task imposed on him by the Court shows in what reputation he was held, and how his antipapal opinions were even then notorious. In 1378 occurred the Great Schism. The moral effect on Wyclif was electrical. It was of the very essence of the papacy that the supreme Pontiff claimed to personify the indivisibility of truth. In him men saw the symbol and the guarantee of religious unity. Suddenly to exhibit to the world the seamless vesture of Latin Christianity as rent in twain, and the papacy as a self-advertised imposture, was to give to religious faith a shock such as, at this distance of time, we can scarcely realise. Torn from its old moorings, spiritual obedience drifted away into a divided allegiance, with no better bond of cohesion than the mere accident of country. Wyclif's impetuous spirit at once urged him to the only logical inference. If there could be two Popes why not twenty? Why any Pope at all? The whole system was a fraud. It was not of God but of man. It had no warranty of Holy Scripture. It was Antichrist. They who should have been the faithful shepherds of the sheep had not only fleeced but had deceived their flocks. The accredited guide of Christendom had been tried and found wanting. Whither then in their bewilderment of mind were men to turn? Wyclif's answer was to translate the Bible.
When we remember that his heretical tracts and pamphlets, written in pithiest English, were being scattered broadcast over England, and that in 1381 he went on even to assail the central citadel itself, and to deny the doctrine of Transubstantiation so far as it included miraculous power in the consecrating priest, it is astonishing that he should have died in his bed.
It is because in Wyclif we have the embodiment and the representative of the great cause of independence, whether in Church or State or in the tribunal of conscience, the champion of intellectual and spiritual freedom from the tyranny of foreign dominion, the voice that gave due form and utterance to what thousands of smaller minds were thinking, that his Bible, which is in a sense himself, is of such abiding interest to a nation to whom freedom and independence are as the very breath of life.
Let us briefly summarise the objects that Wyclif had in view in organising his army of poor preachers' to distribute the Scriptures among his fellow-countrymen. He was anxious in the first place that a fragmentary Bible should be superseded by a complete one. He was convinced that the best remedy for the sybaritism of the Church was to go back to the simplicity that was in Jesus Christ and in His apostles. He believed that a study of the Christian records would satisfy any honest mind that the papal claims, the position taken up by each and every grade of the Pope's representatives, the existing system of miracleworking priests, of compulsory penances, compulsory confessions, compulsory pilgrimages, and the like, had no Divine right behind them to support them. He hoped that the many-sided disorders of his age might in some degree be abated by bringing men face to face with the inspired source of purity and simplicity, of loyalty and justice. No doubt he was over-sanguine, was in no sense a ‘wise master-builder,' was not sufficiently alive to the revolutionary tendency of his abstract doctrine of Dominion. But he was a brave, single-hearted, sincere man, and the keenness of his intellectual powers was happily allied with a character against which not even his enemies ventured to throw a stone. His influence, transmitted though it was through Huss to Luther, did not long retain prominence in England. He was before his day. A reaction against his opinions soon set in, and the constitution of Archbishop Arundel was so far successful that no new translation of any book of Scripture was published in this country for a hundred years. But if the flames were extinguished the embers smouldered on. The prohibited tracts and pamphlets passed secretly in many a quiet parish from hand to hand, and when in 1529 a royal proclamation appeared against unorthodox books, it is not surprising to find 'Lollardies' grouped with other heresies and errors.' With the reign of Henry the Eighth