This is a manuscript copy of the ‘Wycliffite Bible’ – the first complete copy of the Bible in the English language.
In the Middle Ages, the Bible was only available to people in Latin and the Church had great power. At the end of the 14th century, John Wycliffe, a philosopher and Oxford professor, wrote a series of works which argued against what he saw as the corruption of the Church and the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (which was made up of priests, bishops and ultimately the Pope in Rome). He also objected to the fact that so few people could understand the Bible. After this some people around Wycliffe – possibly at his instigation – began to translate the Bible into English. The effect of this English Bible was a permanent and radical change in English religious culture.
The Church was very concerned about Wycliffe’s ideas, which were varied and complex. Although today he is most associated with the project to translate the Bible into the vernacular, in his own day he was infamous for the other aspects of his writing that explicitly criticises the Church.
Beginning in 1382, the Church attempted to crack down on Wycliffe’s teachings. The vernacular Bible was banned, but many people flouted the law. Around 250 manuscripts of the Bible in varying states of completeness survive. Wycliffe had powerful friends at the court of Richard II, including the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt (1340–1399).
This particular manuscript testifies to the support which the Bible had in the upper echelons of society. This copy belonged to Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (1355–1397), who was the youngest son of Edward III.
This manuscript is the earliest complete copy of the Bible in English which can be securely dated. There were two versions of the ‘Wycliffite Bible’ produced – known slightly unimaginatively as the Earlier and Later Versions. This manuscript contains the Earlier Version, which is a more literal translation of the original Latin text. The English is awkward in places, especially where the translators have translated the Latin word-for-word, sometimes keeping the Latin word order.
This is a beautiful copy of the Bible, containing 23 decorated borders and many illuminated (i.e. decorated) initials which show fantastical animals and flowers in gold and coloured inks. The second page contains the heraldic arms of Thomas Woodstock (f. 2 – digitised image 1).
View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.