Middle English Bible translations

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Middle English Bible translations (1066-1500) covers the age of Middle English, beginning with the Norman conquest and ending about 1500. Aside from Wycliffe's Bible, this was not a fertile time for Bible translation. English literature was limited because French was the preferred language of the elite, and Latin was the preferred literary language in Medieval Western Europe.

Early partial translations[edit]

The Ormulum, produced by the Augustinian monk Orm of Lincolnshire around 1150, includes partial translations of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles from Latin into the dialect of East Midland. The manuscript is written in the poetic meter iambic septenarius.

Translations of many biblical passages are included in the Cursor Mundi, written about 1300.

Richard Rolle of Hampole (or de Hampole) was an Oxford-educated hermit and writer of religious texts. In the early 14th century, he produced English glosses of Latin Bible text, including the Psalms. Rolle translated the Psalms into a Northern English dialect, but later copies were written in Southern English dialects.

Around the same time, an anonymous author in the West Midlands region produced another gloss of the Psalms — the West Midland Psalms.

In the early years of the 14th century, a French copy of the Book of Revelation was anonymously translated into English.

Wycliffe's Bible[edit]

In the late 14th century, John Wycliffe produced the first complete English language Bible — often called Wycliffe's Bible. His New Testament was completed in 1380 and the Old Testament a few years later. It is thought that a large portion of the Old Testament was actually translated by Nicholas Hereford. Some 30 copies of this Bible survive, despite the fact that it was banned. From the time of King Richard II until the time of the English Reformation, Lollards who read Wycliffe's Bible were persecuted. Wycliffe's Bible was revised in the last years of the 14th century, perhaps by John Purvey. This edition was also banned and became even more popular than the first. Some 130 copies exist, including some belonging to the British royal family. All dated copies are dated before the ban.

Sample of Wycliffe's translation:

Since the Wycliffe Bible conformed fully to Catholic teaching, it was rightly considered to be an unauthorized Roman Catholic version of the Vulgate text but with heretical preface and notes added. This slightly misleading view was held by many Catholic commentators, including Thomas More - and has continued to create confusion on the meaning of an authorised version of the Bible and the purpose of authorising an orthodox context for its translation.

Later partial translations[edit]

William Caxton translated many Bible stories and passages from the French, producing the Golden Legend (1483) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower (1484). He also printed The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ by Pseudo-Bonaventure, translated by Nicholas Love, OCart.


All translations of this time period were from Latin or French. Greek and Hebrew texts would become available with the development of the Johann Gutenberg's movable-type printing press which coincided with the development of Early Modern English, making English a literary language, and would lead to a great increase in the number of translations of the Bible in the Early Modern English era.

In the century just after Wycliffe's translation, two great events occurred which bore heavily on the spread of the Bible. One was the revival of learning, which made popular again the study of the classics and the classical languages. Critical and exact Greek scholarship became again a possibility. Under the influence of Erasmus and his kind, with their new insistence on classical learning, there came necessarily a new appraisal of the Vulgate as a translation of the original Bible. For a thousand years there had been little new study of the original Biblical languages in Europe. The Latin of the Vulgate was regarded nearly as sacred as was the Bible itself. But the revival of learning threw scholarship into debate regarding the sources of the text. The Catholic Church promoted, then as now, the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, but Erasmus regarded it as corrupt and Dean Burgon in the 1880s showed exactly why listing the thousands of corruptions in his research book, The Revision Revised.

However during the 20th Century there were more than one hundred English translations, and they were all based heavily on the Vaticanus Greek text in opposition to the New Testament Greek text that Erasmus viewed as pure and traditional.

In the early 16th century Erasmus published a single volume of the Greek texts of the New Testament books, and republished more precise editions of this volume until his death. He used only a few Greek manuscripts since in his view some Greek texts were more corrupted than others and demonstrated many changes by comparison with the traditionally received Greek N.T. texts. After decades of travel, writings, correspondence and studies to better prepare and present a worthy challenger to the Vulgate he had spent his life becoming the world's best textual critic. Since Erasmus was a world renowned scholar of his day as well as the chief reviser of the Latin Vulgate, other competing texts of the Greek Testament were not widely received and Erasmus's work was viewed as authoritative. Erasmus life work of commentating and eventually re-writing a Latin New Testament (prior to publishing the one volume Greek New Testament) disturbed the Vulgate's position as a final version. Erasmus did not want versions in the first place for serious study. He presented the Greek New Testament to the world so as to give a standard for all Bible students and teachers lest another version of the Bible (in other languages like Latin) would arise and seem to have similar if not equal authority to the traditional Greek New Testament manuscripts.

The other great event of that same century was the invention of printing with movable type. It was in 1455 that Johannes Gutenberg printed his first major work, an edition of the Latin Vulgate, now called the Mazarin Bible. These developments would lead to the more fertile time for English translations in the Early Modern English period.

See also[edit]