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Middle English Bible translations

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The Bible in English
Old English (pre-1066)
Middle English (1066-1500)
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Modern Christian (1800-)
Modern Jewish (1853-)
Miscellaneous

Middle English Bible translations (1066-1500) covers the age of Middle English - it was not a fertile time for Bible translations but saw the first major translation, Wyclif's Bible, from John Wyclif. The period of Middle English begins with the Norman conquest and ends about 1500. The influence of French as the preferred language of the elite, and Latin preferred for most literary purposes as was the norm in Medieval Western Europe, limited English literature of all types.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the English language underwent extensive change, evolving into the Middle English best known in the works of Chaucer; until whom Middle English was not considered a written language. Middle English still existed as several dialects.

Early partial translations

The Ormulum, produced by the Augustinian monk, Orm of Lincolnshire, includes translations into the dialect of East Midland of some passages from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles used in the Mass in a lengthy set of homilies. The manuscript may have been written about 1150. It is written in the poetic meter iambic septenarius. Richard Rolle of Hampole (or de Hampole) was an Oxford-educated hermit and writer of religious texts. He translated several parts of the Bible including the Psalms in the early 14th century. Rolle's Psalms was translated into a Northern English dialect but later copies have been adapted into Southern English dialects. Rolle's Psalms was written as a Latin gloss with English appearing between the Latin text. At the same time another version of Psalms, the West Midland Psalms, was translated by an anonymous author in the West Midlands region. This version is also a gloss. In the early years of the 14th century, an English translation appeared, also by an anonymous translator, of the French language version of Revelation which was popular in England as well as France.

Wyclif's Bible

  • John Wyclif produced the first complete English language Bible in the late 14th century, often called Wyclif'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 translated by Nicholas Hereford with Wyclif completing it and translating the New Testament himself. Some 30 copies of this Bible survive, despite the fact that it was banned. From the time of King Richard II almost until the time of the English of the English Reformation, the Lollards who read Wyclif's Bible were persecuted. Wyclif's Bible was revised in the last years of the 1300s, perhaps by John Purvey. This edition was also banned and became even more popular than the first. Some 130 copies still exist, including some belonging to the British royal family.

Sample of Wyclif's translation:

Be not youre herte affraied, ne drede it. Ye bileuen in god, and bileue ye in me. In the hous of my fadir ben many dwellyngis: if ony thing lasse I hadde seid to you, for I go to make redi to you a place. And if I go and make redi to you a place, eftsone I come and I schal take you to my silf, that where I am, ye be. And whidir I go ye witen: and ye witen the wey. (John 14:1-4)

After the controversy was begun by Wyclif, an unauthorized Roman Catholic version of the New Testament was produced in English. The oldest remaining copy dates to about 1400. William Caxton translated many Bible stories and passages from the French which appeared in the Golden Legend which he published in 1483 and in The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484.

Legacy

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 Wyclif'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 no 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 back on the sources of the text. Erasmus and others published versions of the Greek Testament which disturbed the Vulgate's position as a final version.

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.

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