Illegal English Bible


  • Intro

    Throughout medieval times the English church was governed from Rome by the Pope. All over the Christian world, church services were conducted in Latin. It was illegal to translate the Bible into local languages. John Wycliffe was an Oxford professor who believed that the teachings of the Bible were more important than the earthly clergy and the Pope. Wycliffe  translated the Bible into English, as he believed that everyone should be able to understand it directly.


    Wycliffe inspired the first complete English translation of the Bible, and the Lollards, who took his views in extreme forms, added to the Wycliffe Bible commentaries such as this one in Middle English. Made probably just before Henry IV issued the first orders for burnings to punish heretics in 1401, this manuscript escaped a similar fate.


    Wycliffe was too well connected and lucky to have been executed for heresy, although the archbishop of Canterbury condemned him. The support of his Oxford colleagues and influential layman, as well as the anti-clerical leanings of King Richard II, who resisted ordering the burning of heretics, saved his life. Forty years after his death, the climate had changed, and his body was dug up, and along with his books, were burned and scattered. Nonetheless the English translations had a lasting influence on the language. 'The beginning of the gospel of Ihesu Crist the sone of god,' opens the Gospel of Mark, its first letter decorated with the Mark's symbol, the lion. The commentary begins, 'Gospel: the gospel is seid a good tellyng.' Red underscores pick out the gospel text, while the commentary is written in slightly smaller script. The gold frame decorated with flowers and leaves and presentation of text and commentary are completely conventional for their time.


    More than 1100 words are recorded for the first time in the Wycliffe Bible. Wycliffe is the earliest known writer to use the word ‘abominable’ to describe other people. It appears in these pages from the Book of Psalms, in the final column. The full phrase is: 'þei ben corupt and maad abhominable in her wickednessis' (they are corrupt and made abominable in their wickednesses).


    John Wycliffe and others (translators), Bible, late 14th century.

    Shelfmark: Arundel MS 104, ff.349v–350.

Find out more about the Illegal English Bible Here

Explore more timeline content: