The English Bible before the Reformation

The English Bible before the Reformation May 4, 2016

Literally steps from where the Great Fire of London began in 1666, at Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse on Pudding Lane, stands the small church of St. Magnus the Martyr. It was the second church destroyed by the fire and the most expensive church to be restored under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren.

Unfortunately its pricey steeple today is almost overshadowed by the buildings looming around it, including the Monument to the Great Fire itself and London’s first “sky-scraper” Adelaide House.

But, if you are ever in the neighborhood on Lower Thames Street, I urge you to stop and take a peek inside St. Magnus. On the east wall, near the altar, stands a 19th-century dedicatory plaque marking the remains of Miles Coverdale. A former rector at St. Magnus, Coverdale is best known for his English Bible translation printed in 1535.

As the inscription reads:

“TO THE MEMORY OF MILES COVERDALE:

WHO, CONVINCED THAT THE PURE WORD OF GOD OUGHT TO BE THE SOLE RULE OF OUR FAITH AND GUIDE OF OUR PRACTICE LABOURED EARNESTLY FOR ITS DIFFUSION; AND WITH THE VIEW OF AFFORDING THE MEANS OF READING AND HEARING, IN THEIR OWN TONGUE THE WONDERFUL WORKS OF GOD, NOT ONLY TO HIS OWN COUNTREYMEN, BUT TO THE NATIONS THAT SIT IN DARKNESS, AND TO EVERY CREATURE WHERESOEVER THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE MIGHT BE SPOKEN, SPENT MANY YEARS OF HIS LIFE IN PREPARING A TRANSLATION OF THE SCRIPTURES.

ON THE IV OF OCTOVER, MDXXXV. THE FIRST COMPLETE ENGLISH PRINTED VERSION OF THE BIBLE WAS PUBLISHED UNDER HIS DIRECTION.”

 

Two things about this inscription give me pause.

First, my medieval ears balk at how often the Coverdale Bible is referenced as the “first” complete English Bible. Yes, it was definitely the first complete printed Bible in English….but this doesn’t mean (as it is often understood) that complete English Bibles did not exist before the sixteenth century.  Which leads me to my second point.  This inscription, although technically accurate, paints a picture of the vernacular Bible as a creation of the Reformation. The phrase “affording the means of reading and hearing, in their own tongue the wonderful works of God” suggests that medieval people before Coverdale could not do this.

This is a myth.

Frans van Liere in his book An Introduction to the Medieval Bible suggests the myth that ordinary medieval people “did not read the Bible” probably originated in sixteenth-century church histories. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, for example, regaled audiences with tales of Protestant martyrs guilty of nothing more than owning English Bibles. Hence was formed the popular and lasting impression of an evil Catholic church so intent on restricting lay access to the Bible that they would kill to do so. Yet, even though “the Protestant Reformation did achieve a change in the way the Bible was read and the way it functioned within Christian spirituality,” as van Liere writes, “this change was largely due to a long medieval tradition of lay access to biblical texts.” 

In other words, not only did medieval people have biblical literacy, they benefited from a Catholic church which actively encouraged biblical literacy. (I will talk about those famous prohibitions against vernacular bibles in a future post; sorry! not enough time today….although I will say the problem was not so much fears about lay people reading the Bible but more fears about lay people preaching the Bible….)

Let’s just take a quick look at some pre-Reformation Bibles in England. 

First, by the 11th century, English translations had been made of the Psalms, the first six books of the Old Testament, and the Gospels. Although these certainly circulated in clerical circles, scholars argue that they were also intended for use by “literate laymen.” Indeed, van Liere notes how these texts were used by Matthew Parker in the sixteenth-century to prove “historical precedents” for English Bible translations and thereby substantiate his case to produce more translations.

Second, we know that by the late fourteenth century, followers of John Wycliffe had translated the entire Bible into English. Modern Protestants often think of this as a “heretical” Bible used only by those dissatisfied with English Catholicism. But more than 250 extant copies of the Wycliffite Bible still exist today (from New Testaments to complete Bibles), suggesting that it was in common use. Catholic sermons from the fifteenth century confirm this, as–like the fifteenth-century Dominican sermon cycle–they quote directly from the Wycliffite Bible. In other words, the “heretical” Wycliffite Bible was used by Catholic clergy, showing a much broader approval for English Bibles across the medieval Christian spectrum. It was also used by medieval people who were not clergy. For example, we know that prominent nobility owned copies of the Wycliffite Bible, and, as van Liere states, “there is no evidence that they incurred their owners the suspicion of heresy.” 

What does this all mean?

While certainly the Reformation ushered in broader use of the vernacular Bible and made it a “hallmark of true Christianity,” the Reformation emphasis on the Bible was built on a solid foundation of biblical access by medieval Christians.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will provide context for the often misquoted and misunderstood medieval “prohibitions” against Bible translations. Also, for those of you who want to read further on this topic, I highly recommend: Frans van Liere, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 3rd edition, 1978).

 


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