It is interesting that the darkness of the Middle Ages lasted about as long as the Millennium’s light will last—a thousand years. The Middle Ages began in the mid-fifth century A.D. with the fall of the Western Empire and lasted until the mid-fifteenth century, when several momentous events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the invention of the printing press, brought these darker ages to an end and prepared the way for the Restoration.
Though the Middle Ages are noted more for retrogression than for progress, there were exceptions. Among the exceptions was a continuation of the spread of the Christian religion to distant lands, including Britain, which came to play a significant part in future struggles to make the scriptures available in the language of common men.
There is evidence that Christianity had reached England’s shores in the second century,1 but events, such as invasions by the Teutons, had stifled its flames. In the sixth century, however, St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, and others were sent to Britain to preach. Behind them came other missionaries. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History reports that Theodore of Tarsus, who was well read in the scriptures, came as a missionary about A.D. 700. He and his companion gathered the people and poured forth “rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers,”2 teaching them both scriptural and secular knowledge. One of the most important of their efforts was to teach any who were willing to read the scriptures. But the scriptures they used were in Latin, and usually those who chose to learn were those who became a part of the English clergy.
Through succeeding years, the majority of Britons were nurtured on Bible stories and principles of discipline and conduct. There was no real study of the scriptures. Worship, as elsewhere, was effected through ceremony, and in Latin. To remind the people of the Bible’s stories, biblical scenes were painted on church walls and carved into panels. Later, elaborate religious plays were devised.3
Because reading the scriptures in Christian worship services had long been discontinued, the lack of education on the part of the masses and the very limited availability of scriptures were enormous obstacles to significant scriptural understanding. There were, however, a few good shepherds who had sincere desires to feed the sheep with food they could truly digest.
One of the first steps toward translating the scriptures into a language the people could understand was made by a simple herdsman named Caedmon. According to Bede, Caedmon had a special gift for composing Anglo-Saxon verse based on the scriptures. His gift was so unusual that he was taken into a monastery where he learned scriptures and then turned them into verse, making “his masters in their turn his hearers.” Before the lowly and the powerful he sang the record of the Jews—about “the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis.” He sang the history of the children of Israel and the life and mission of the Lord.4 The value of his work was that he provided a people’s Bible that they could easily memorize and sing themselves.
Another who took the Christian religion to the common people in their own tongue was Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury. During and after mass, which was in Latin and therefore undiscernible to the people, he would stand upon a bridge and, disguised as a wandering minstrel, sing songs which contained much scripture.5
During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, there were several written translations into Anglo-Saxon of parts of the scriptures, usually the Psalms and the Gospels. But the common people generally had little access to these translations, although some of the clergy did continue to encourage more scriptural knowledge in the laity. The great scholar and clergyman Bede (A.D. 673–735) himself took some steps in this direction. In a letter to Bishop Egbert he wrote, “But make the unlearned … learn [some scriptural passages] in their own language, and carefully repeat them; and this should be done, not only in the case of laymen … but also in the case of monks and clerks, who know Latin.”6
In spite of such efforts, continual political upheavals prevented literacy in the scriptures from gaining much ground. When Alfred became king in 871 following a period of great upheaval, he lamented that although there had been some kinds of progress, there had also been great setbacks:
“I remembered also how I saw, before it had all been ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout the whole of England stood filled with treasures and books, and there was also a great multitude of God’s servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for they could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language.”7
Alfred was himself an educated man, unusual in those days for kings. Obviously he was much dismayed at the waste of books that could not be read because of destruction and ignorance. And so he set out to make changes. He himself translated and commissioned the translation of many books, including portions of the scriptures. And in establishing the laws which would govern his people, he began with a translated version of the Ten Commandments, to which he added the golden rule.
Limited as it was, Alfred’s use of the scriptures and his desire to educate his people resulted in a remarkable flowering of civilization. One historian observes:
“At the middle of the seventh century there was nothing to suggest the imminence of a great English achievement in learning and literature. The strongest of English kings was an obdurate heathen [probably Penda, c. 632–654]. The country was distracted by wars, which destroyed the peace of scholars. … The Christian faith, which was to carry imagination into new worlds, was only secure in the extreme south-east of the island. Within a hundred years England had become the home of a Christian culture which influenced the whole development of letters and learning in western Europe. … There is nothing in European history closely parallel to this sudden development of a civilization by one of the most primitive people established within the ancient Roman empire.”8
After King Alfred’s death, there were a few additional steps toward making scriptures more usable. “Interlinear glosses,” literal translations into Anglo-Saxon written between the lines of the Latin Bibles, were made—but these were quite rare. A greater step was taken toward the end of the tenth century when Aelfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, translated several Old Testament books into Anglo-Saxon. A little light had glimmered in the darkness.
And then the Normans conquered England. French became the language of the ruling classes, and though parts of the Bible were translated into French for use by some of the Norman rulers, little was done to make the scriptures available to the Anglo-Saxons. Further attempts to translate the Bible into the language of the common man had to wait another three hundred years.
The spread of Christianity to lands such as England proved in time to be one of the greatest challenges to the Roman church. The Greek church had continued its belief that knowledge was essential to salvation; therefore, when peoples of other cultures were converted, translations were made into their language—such as Russian and Bulgarian. The Roman church, on the other hand, did not encourage vernacular translations, even though the Latin Vulgate had itself been a translation into a language spoken by the people—before time and changing language had turned it into a “sacred language” used only in church services.
In fact, during the time of Pope Gregory VII (A.D. 1073–85) a policy against translations took shape. In a struggle with the Greek church for influence in certain disputed territories, Gregory saw that it was to the Roman church’s political advantage to promote reliance upon Latin in these areas. He also determined that it would be advantageous to create a sharper distinction between laity and clergy. The clergy thus became the teachers of the church, while the laity became receivers only. “From [Pope Gregory’s] time onwards,” asserts one scholar, “orthodox prejudice against lay knowledge of the Biblical text hardened.”9
Consequently, the stage was set for one of the greatest dramas in the history of man—the struggle over vernacular translations between a few courageous individuals and the Inquisition that swept Europe during the last centuries of the Middle Ages. In the earliest battles, the weight of advantage went definitely to the Inquisition.
Sometime during the 1170s in southern France, one of the first skirmishes of this battle was enacted. According to one account, it began this way:
“A certain rich man of the city [Lyons], called Waldo, was curious when he heard the gospel read [in Latin] since he was not much lettered, to know what was said. Wherefore he made a pact with certain priests, the one that he should translate to him the Bible: the other, that he should write as the first dictated. Which they did; and in like manner many books of the Bible … which when the said citizen had often read and learned by heart, he … sold all his goods, and despising the world, he gave all his money to the poor, and usurped the apostolic office by preaching the gospel, and those things which he had learned by heart.”10
Waldo’s “preaching” among the people consisted mostly of reciting passages from the scriptures in the common tongue. Evidently he did not set out with the intent to oppose the church, but merely to enlighten the people. An eyewitness at the Lateran Council of 1179 wrote of Waldo’s initial attempts to get church approval for his activities—and of the church’s negative reaction:
“We saw the Waldensians [supporters of Waldo] at the council celebrated at Rome under pope Alexander III. They were simple and illiterate men … and they presented to the lord pope a book written in the French tongue, in which were contained a text and gloss on the psalter, and on very many other books of both testaments. These besought with great urgency that authority to preach should be confirmed to them, for they thought themselves expert, when they were scarcely learned at all.”11
The writer then voices feelings which became entrenched as argument against giving scriptures to the common man:
“In every small point of the sacred page, so many meanings fly on the wings of virtue, such stores of wealth are accumulated, that only he can fully exhaust them whom God has inspired. Shall not therefore the Word given to the unlearned be as pearls before swine, when we know them to be fitted neither to receive it, nor to give out what they have received? Away with this idea, and let it be rooted out. The ointment ran down from the head, even to the skirts of his clothing: waters flow from the spring, not from the mud of public ways.”12
But the Waldensians were not easily dissuaded from seeking scriptural knowledge. Like their peers, they were not “lettered,” nor had they access to many copies of scripture, but they overcame this obstacle by memorizing surprising lengths of scripture when they were given the opportunity.
The Waldensians suffered because of their desire for knowledge. They were tried by the Inquisition, excommunicated, imprisoned, and burned as heretics. Their books were banned—and when found, burned. At their trials and in the tracts written against them, their great “crime” as stated was that they “translated the New and Old Testament into the vulgar tongue and this they teach and learn. For I have heard and seen a certain unlettered countryman who used to recite Job word for word, and many others who knew the whole New Testament perfectly.”13
“All men and women, cease not to teach and learn, night and day. The workman, who toils by day, learns or teaches at night. … They teach and learn without books … and even in leper-houses. … To those who excuse themselves, saying that they cannot learn, they say; ‘learn only one word a day, and in a year’s time you will learn three hundred, and thus you will grow proficient.’”14
In spite of attempts to stifle it, the Waldensian movement, and others similar to it, spread into neighboring Italy and Spain. And upon their heels followed official pronouncements against their work—banning the preaching, reading, memorizing, or even possessing of scriptures.15 Penalties for disobedience were extremely severe. According to one inquisitor general’s record in an area near Toulouse, France, 930 sentences against heretics were pronounced during a period of fifteen years, and 114 heretics were destroyed by flames.16
But even as the Inquisition tried to stamp out the Waldensian movement in France, Italy, and Spain, the hunger for scripture cropped up elsewhere, this time in England and Germany. The movement in England began in the mid-1300s. Unlike the Waldensian movement, which was begun by those totally outside the church’s power structure (though some clergy later joined it), the English movement was spearheaded by one of the most prominent and respected scholars and clergymen of his age—John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe is described as being frail in physical stature, but intellectually and spiritually he was a giant. He was the most prominant scholar at the most prestigious school of his day, Oxford, but his scholarship was unique for that time because it included a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the scriptures, earning for him a special title, “the evangelical doctor.” While his colleagues viewed the Bible as a “treasure-house of dead dogma,”17 Wycliffe grew to love it and drew his strength from it—and in later controversy, pled to be judged by its standards.
It was partly the social conditions of England in Wycliffe’s day which aroused him. For there was much amiss. The priests who were closest to the people were themselves ignorant, but the clergymen who had education lived in luxury and were insensitive to the wretched state in which the peasants lived. Often, those supposedly called to be exemplars of Christ sought and maintained their positions of power through corruption and bribery and were frequently guilty of other vices. There were incessant power struggles between arms of the church and between church and state.18
Wycliffe was troubled by what he saw, and his “inmost soul was stirred to its depth by the spectacle of social wretchedness which was rife.”19 But the catalyst which drove him to action was the papal schism of 1378. Because of his study of the Bible, Wycliffe felt confident that his religious convictions were consistent with the principles taught by the prophets and Apostles. He understood that the true standard for the church must be meekness, not worldliness; and when he saw two opposing popes fighting for status and power, he could not withhold his dismay.20
Disillusioned with the contemporary church and feeling that its actions were inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible, Wycliffe came to the conclusion that the only just guide which the people still had was the Bible. It was “God’s Law,” and he felt that under present conditions men should be held accountable only to it.21
But the people could not be held accountable for a law they did not know. The goal of his life, then, became taking “Goddis Lawe” to the people in the language they understood, which was English.
Wycliffe drew other men to help him in this work. Many were responsive to his lead because of his scholastic reputation and his high character. He organized them to be preachers and to take the scriptures to the people—not to churches, but to the common people in their streets, in their homes, in their fields, in their shops. There, in friendly conversation, they sought to read the scriptures to the people. They carried sheets of the New Testament which had been translated into Middle English, the language of that day.
The work of keeping the preachers supplied with scriptures was not easy. After being translated from the Latin, each sheet of scripture had to be copied by hand. Explanatory sheets were also handwritten so that the preachers could explain the scriptures while reading them.
The preachers sent out by Wycliffe actually held no official license to preach. Known as Lollards, they were students or clerks who did this work during their vacations. They seemed suddenly to spring up everywhere: “You cannot travel anywhere in England but of every two men you meet one will be a Lollard,” one man wrote.22
The work of Wycliffe and his Lollards certainly was not unopposed. But Wycliffe had not assumed it would be. In 1379 he published a treatise entitled On the Truth of Holy Scripture in which he admitted that he expected to be silenced eventually through some punitive form of death.
But in that regard he was wrong. He did not suffer death for his actions—usually attributed to his prominent position, his politically powerful friends, and the weakened condition of the papacy.23 Yet he did suffer. There were attempts to put him on trial, though they failed. He was publicly attacked from the most prestigious pulpits, was the subject of furious controversy in the schools, and finally was removed from his position at Oxford. He was severely isolated from any outwardly respectable role in society.
Deserted by all but the most faithful of his friends and followers, he nevertheless remained steadfastly anchored in his belief that in time truth would prevail. Perhaps, in a way, his forced retirement was a blessing, for it enabled him to complete his greatest work—the translation of the entire Bible into the language of the people.
As we have seen, there were several earlier translations of portions of the Bible; but to Wycliffe goes the honor for the first complete translation from Latin into English. Such a work, particularly in those days, was a tremendous undertaking. It isn’t clear how much of the work Wycliffe actually did himself and how many assistants he had, but there is evidence that he had the assistance of at least two other—Nicholas de Hereford, a Lollard leader, and John Purvey, Wycliffe’s talented secretary.24
The previous partial translations made in Britain were of little help in their work. According to Purvey, they were in “so olde Englische that unnethe [hardly] can any man rede them.”25 And so, before Wycliffe and the others began the work of translating from the Latin, they made careful studies of many copies of the Latin searching for the oldest and most reliable. In this, Wycliffe was most fortunate. Although England had taken an early lead in turning portions of the scriptures into its native tongue, it had also been a leader in its devotion to the Latin Bible. One writer shows that the most reliable existing ancient manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate were copied and preserved in England.26
Wycliffe and his assistants also studied commentaries and writings of biblical scholars so that they could begin on the surest footing. And then they made as near a literal word-for-word translation as possible, even keeping the order of the words the same as they would be in Latin, though the natural English order was different.
There are clues of tragic drama in the text of this translation. The original Old Testament version ends abruptly in the middle of Baruch 3:20 with this note: “Here ends the translation of Nicholas of Hereford.” Evidence suggests that the abrupt cessation of his work was due to his arrest; he and others were tried and excommunicated at Canterbury, and he spent the following five years in prison or on the Continent.27
In spite of the persecution, the work on the Bible continued and the New Testament was finally completed, followed by the Old. The work appeared in parcels rather than in one volume.
Wycliffe died soon after the completion of the entire work. “Towards the close of the year  the mental strain, under which he had long gone on working with all his indefatigable industry and courage, brought on a stroke of paralysis. Two years later came the end. While celebrating mass in Lutterworth Church he was struck for the second time, and the 31st of December he died.”28
Perhaps it is well that Wycliffe died so shortly after the translation was done. Because of its strong popularity among the people (and because knowledge of the Bible tended to increase dissatisfaction with the church), the translation soon stirred the fears and hatred of many people. An epitaph written at St. Albans called Wycliffe “the devil’s instrument, church’s enemy, people’s confusion, heretic’s idol, hypocrite’s mirror, schism’s broacher, hatred’s sower, lies’ forger, flatteries’ sink, who, stricken by the horrible judgment of God, breathed forth his soul to the dark mansion of the black devil.”29 The animosity toward Wycliffe grew to such a state that years later his body was ordered dug up, his bones destroyed by fire, and his ashes cast into the river.30
With the death of Wycliffe and the distribution of manuscripts of his Bible, the safety of those who had associated with him was greatly jeopardized. They were hunted, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, and burned. Yet somehow, during the early years of this persecution, Purvey and Hereford and others were able to complete in 1388 a second version of the translated Bible. Recognizing that the Latin-based form of the first version made it too difficult for the common man to read, they put their second version in a form much more compatible with the English usage of that day. Purvey, who led the project, explains their reasons for seeking to improve the translation:
“First, it is to be known that the best translating out of the Latin into English is to translate after the sentence and not only after the words, so that the sentence be as open, or opener [easy to understand] in English as in Latin, and go not far from the letter; and if the letter may not be followed in the translating, let the sentence ever be whole and open, for the words ought to serve to the intent and sentence, or else the words be superfluous or false.”31
Purvey was not unmindful of the great responsibilities his group bore in attempting to translate holy scripture. He took this work very seriously:
“A translator hath great need to study well the sense both before and after, and then also he hath need to live a clean life and be full devout in prayers, and have not his wit occupied about worldly things, that the Holy Spirit, author of all wisdom and knowledge and truth, dress him for his work and suffer him not to err. By this manner, with good living and great travail, men can come to true and clear translating, and true understanding of holy writ, seem it ever so hard at the beginning.”32
Like the first version, this second version of Wycliffe’s Bible appeared anonymously, for obvious reasons, though there was probably little doubt on the part of the authorities who was behind it. The people hungrily received it. Purvey had been correct in asserting that “the unlearned cry after Holy Writ to know it, with great cost and peril to their lives.”33
And people did indeed risk their liberties, their properties, and their lives to have as much as they could of this Bible, even if it were to possess or hear just a few pages. In 1414 a law was established which would cause those who read any scriptures in English to “forfeit land, catel, lif[e], and goods from their heyers [heirs] for ever.”34 The church was in earnest, and there were many prosecutions. One woman was accused of heresy simply for listening in the secret of the night to her husband read the words of Christ. Others suffered for memorizing the Bible’s passages, regardless of the content. Another woman was tried for teaching someone else “the Epistle of James, the first chapter of Luke, and the Sermon on the Mount.” She was strictly instructed to teach the Bible no more, especially to her children.35 Many men and women who were convicted were burned at the stake, often with their Bibles hung around their necks.
The principals of the movement were spared death but suffered imprisonment, evidently experiencing such horrors while in prison that they finally recanted, Purvey being the last to do so in 1401. It was recognized, however, even by the authorities, that his recantation was not sincere, and he was kept thereafter under close surveillance. As much as he dared, he continued to defend the need for English Bibles.
In spite of burnings, recantations, and severe penalties, the people’s hunger for the word of God was too great to squelch. The Wycliffe Bibles continued to circulate surreptitiously, and a surprising number of manuscripts (over 150) have been preserved even to modern times. There is evidence that one method used to preserve them from harm was to disguise them: in some of these manuscripts, the date of writing was deliberately changed (manuscripts written before certain laws were passed were not subject to those laws); others were falsely ascribed to other translators.36
The manuscripts, even detached sheets, were so valuable to the common man that they elicited sums which would surprise modern readers. It is reported that a whole load of hay (imagine the labor involved in those days in raising and harvesting a load of hay) was given in exchange for just a few chapters of St. James or St. Paul. One historian, writing in 1956, figured the cost for an entire Wycliffe Bible as equal to $150.00 in his day.37
Records show that trials for those accused of reading Wycliffe’s Bible continued throughout the 1400s. Even as late as 1496 there is record of five Lollards being burned at Paul’s Cross, “with the books of their lore hanging around them, which books were at the time of the sermon there burnt.”38
But as there is tragedy, so there is irony in this story. Because many of the Wycliffe Bibles were written without any indication whatsoever that they originated from Wycliffe and the Lollards, these sometimes came into the possession of influential orthodox members of the church. Although the official church position was that Wycliffe’s work itself was of the devil, no action was taken against these individuals for possessing it. In fact, it is claimed by some that when the first Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558, The work of Truth publicly presented to her at that time was actually the hated Wycliffe Bible, still officially banned.39
The church obviously felt justified in what seems to us a very unjust discrimination. The roots of this discrimination rest in several factors. First, there continued the belief that most of the Bible was allegorical and that the common man could not comprehend it without an interpreter. As one fifteenth century scholar said, “It is dangerous to put knives into children’s hands for them to cut bread with themselves, for they may cut themselves. So also holy scripture, which contains the bread of God.”40
Part of this discrimination also was due to a poor opinion of the commoner. Pope Gregory VII had written:
“It is clear to those who reflect upon it, that not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that holy scriptures should be a secret in certain places, lest, if it were plainly apparent to all men, perchance it would be little esteemed and be subject to disrespect; or it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error.”41
As another writer put it, “It was one thing for a King to have the Bible in French, or for English nuns to read the Psalms in English under the direction of their confessor; but it was quite another thing when ‘the very cooks who sod the pottage made good their claim to read the Bible in Wycliffe’s English.’”42
The church claimed the right to interpret the scriptures to the masses. But, having generally abandoned the scriptures as a basis of the faith, the church did not fulfill that duty. All church service was in ceremonial Latin, which few of the parish priests themselves understood. Nor did they understand any better their Latin Bibles.43 Consequently, the clergy could not feed the sheep, for they had no knowledge with which to feed them.
There were some exceptions, however, in Germany. In the thirteenth century the Waldensian movement had significant influence there; and in the following centuries, in spite of conflicts over translating the scriptures into native tongues, there was support for vernacular translations among some German clergy.
Generally this support came from groups such as the Friends of God who endeavored to educate interested laity. Such work naturally led to a desire to make some scripture knowledge available to them. But because these clergymen desired that many books of edification be translated, not just the Bible—and then only the “understandable” parts of the Bible—their translations did not become the lightning rod for controversy that the English translations became. Furthermore, at Cologne in 1398, a group of university scholars was called upon, because of the Inquisition, to give their opinions on vernacular translations. They concluded that translations could not logically be forbidden. Citing the number of languages into which the scriptures already existed—Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Gothic, Egyptian, etc.—they argued “what then is the reason that holy scripture may be read in the tongues of so many nations, yet not in the German language?”44
In 1430 another language was added to that list: a Spanish translation was made, though not for the common people. And in 1466 there finally emerged a German Bible, probably a composite of previously translated portions. Its preface included the following words:
“This is a foreword against him, who is opposed to the German writing, which is, nevertheless, useful and profitable for men’s souls, My enemies have up till now done violence to their own conscience, because they have till now been silent as regards my plan to translate the holy gospel into German. Now however they have taken a different stand, inspired by foolish pride, and they bring forward foolish counsels, and say: ‘But what shall we now preach, when men read and listen to the holy scriptures in the German tongue in their rooms and houses?’
“Him will I answer from holy scripture. … Woe to you who call good evil, and evil good: … and fight against the righteous truth: that is, they fight against the holy scriptures and hinder the spread of their revealing.”45
Although in Germany there were some orthodox leanings toward translations, the largest concentration of power was strongly opposed to it, especially as a book for common usage. There were those in Germany who suffered death for possessing Bibles, particularly the Beghards, who were considered heretical. After 1509 there is evidence that a few orthodox groups in Germany did allow limited study of parts of the translated Bible by members of the laity. But they were the exception. The many, everywhere, were denied.46
The weight of advantage in this great struggle may have remained in favor of those who opposed translation for centuries more, but in the fifteenth century came a remarkable event which shifted the advantage to the people—the invention of the printing press.
Still, the struggle for vernacular translations was nowhere over yet. Many individuals would still give their lives for its cause. But light had come out of darkness, and with it the hunger for more light.
And light is the essence of all good beginnings, as Wycliffe had revealed to the people through his quaint English Bible:
End of Part 5. To be continued.