Wycliffe and Wycliffite Bibles

People of the Middle Ages knew the Bible text only in its Latin form. Those who could read used the Bible, or portions of the Bible, in Latin; illiterate individuals might memorize Latin texts like the Psalms through recitation in various worship services. Though parts of the Bible were translated into the vernacular (especially for aristocrats) across Western Europe, only in England did there arise a popular interest in accessing the Bible in the vernacular, in response to the teachings of John Wycliffe in the late 14th century.

Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384), an Oxford University theologian, taught that the Bible comes directly from God and provides inerrant truths which should guide religious and political government. He and his followers, called “Lollards” by their contemporaries, pressed for ecclesiastical and social reforms throughout the late fourteenth century. Wycliffe’s emphasis on the Bible’s unique authority naturally led to the Lollards’ assertion that the Bible should be available to all people in their own language – in the case of the peasants and middle class, English. Scholars disagree as to whether Wycliffe actually participated in translating the Vulgate Bible, but the earliest versions of the Wycliffite, or Lollard, Bible certainly originate from Oxford in the 1380’s.

In the fourteenth century, English was one of three languages spoken in medieval England. Latin was at the top of the linguistic hierarchy – it was the language of literacy and formal education across Europe. Everyday speech was further stratified by class; the aristocracy spoke Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French, while commoners spoke Middle English. Since the Wycliffite Bible was translated into common English during a period of social and political unrest, as well as religious dissent, English-language Bibles became symbols of heretical beliefs. Wycliffe's teachings were condemned in 1382. In 1409, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, issued thirteen Constitutions which prohibited the translation of any biblical text into English as well as the public or private reading of such texts. Violators were excommunicated and charged with heresy, which was punishable by death. English-language Bible manuscripts were pushed underground throughout the next 130 years, kept carefully by lay readers. Over 250 Wycliffite Bibles have survived to the present.

Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections

Wycliffite New Testament (English, copied ca. 1600).

This Wycliffite New Testament was copied in a cursive script by a man named Richard Robinson, several centuries after Wycliffe and about 60 years after English-language Bibles became legal in England. Readers interested in the Wycliffite Bible had access to the text only in manuscript form until 1850, when the translation first appeared in print (see Wycliffite Versions of the Holy Bible, below).

Call number: Vault Collection 091 B47en

Wycliffite Bible, digital facsimile on CD-ROM.
A facsimile of the Wycliffite Bible manuscript (ca. 1400-1450) held by the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. The disc is available for viewing only in Special Collections.

Call number: Rare Book Collection AC 1100 .A1 no. 15

Wycliffite Versions of the Holy Bible. Ed. Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1850.
This four-volume set marks the first printed edition of the Wycliffite translation of the Bible, with a side-by-side comparison of what scholars call the “earlier” and the “later” versions of the text.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 220.51 W97 1850 v. 1-4

Selected online resources

Two Wycliffite Bibles in the Huntington Library: HM 134 and HM 501
Each site includes a description of the manuscript with digital images of selected page openings.