Martyrs of Reason: Bible translators once courted fiery deaths

Martyrs of Reason: Bible translators once courted fiery deaths May 28, 2019

In 1427, at the order of Pope John XI, the remains of an English priest named John Wycliffe were dug up — 40 years after his death — then unceremoniously burned and flung into the river Swift.

bible translations wycliffe death
“The trial of John Wycliffe A.D. 1377,” by Ford Maddox Brown, 1886. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Why was the pope so enraged by and disrespectful to this long-dead cleric?

Two words: Bible translation.

The pope wasn’t angered by how Wycliffe (1330-1384) had translated the authoritative Latin Bible into vernacular English, the common language of his country, but that he had done it at all.

In the Middle Ages, before Wycliffe, the Latin Vulgate Bible was the accepted universally authoritative scriptural text throughout Western Christendom, although only the elite, including Catholic clergy, understood Latin or, unlike most common people, could read. Still, the idea of translating scripture into various regions’ idiomatic languages was considered heretically novel at the time.

The first Bible in English

That was until Wycliffe, a theologian by training, began the first-ever English translation of the Bible in 1382, unnerving the pope and the rest of monolithic Catholicism.

A monopoly on being able to read Latin gave the medieval Catholic Church enormous spiritual and temporal power over the masses in the Western world, because clerics were the only source of spiritual guidance in societies bathed in religion. The vast majority of people were unable to read scripture for themselves so had no choice but to rely on the “received wisdom” of priests and monks.

But it wasn’t just his translation that landed Wycliffe in scalding hot water with the ecclesiastical elite but also “heretical” opinions he had disseminated for years beforehand among the faithful and which led directly to his translation project.

Church ‘reeked of corruption’

Like St. Francis of Assisi and other freethinking churchmen long before him, Wycliffe’s interactions with church officials in Rome left him increasingly “indignant.”

“The papacy, he believed, reeked of corruption and self-interest. He was determined to do something about it,” according to an interesting review in the BBC’s online magazine History Extra of The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning (2016) by Harry Freedman.

Wycliffe began publishing tracts suggesting that “rather than pursuing wealth and power, the church should have the poor at heart,” the article notes, and in one treatise he describes the pope as “the anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses.”

Eventually, in 1377, the Bishop of London demanded the Wycliffe appear before his religious court to explain, as he sarcastically put it, the “wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth.” Learning of Wycliffe’s insubordinations, the pope accused him in a papal “bull,” an official document, of “vomiting out of the filthy dungeon of his heart most wicked and damnable heresies.”

Wycliffe was formally accused of heresy, a capital offense at the time, and put under house arrest. He was later forced to retire as master of Balliol College in Oxford, saved from execution only by his fame as a spiritual advisor to the royal government and a leading English intellectual of the day, and by protection from political allies.

The translation begins

Once retired, he began work with confederates translating into English the Old and New testaments. It took 13 years to complete, starting in 1382, with translators continuing the work after Wycliffe’s death in 1384.

According to the History Extra article, Wycliffe believed the ideas in the Bible should be directly accessible to everyone:

He saw literacy as the key to the emancipation of the poor. Although parts of the Bible had previously been rendered into English there was still no complete translation. Ordinary people, who neither spoke Latin nor were able to read, could only learn from the clergy. Much of what they thought they knew — ideas like the fires of hell and purgatory — were not even part of Scripture.”

Even before the English translation was finished, opponents submitted a bill before Parliament, in 1391, to outlaw any Bible translation in English and to incarcerate anyone found with a copy. The bill failed to pass.

A ‘divine’ punishment

So, denied a legal cudgel, English Catholic authorities opted for a divine degradation: The Archbishop of Canterbury in 1427 decided to burn the bones of “that pestilent wretch … [who] invented a new translation of the scriptures into his mother-tongue.” The goal was to ensure his grave would not become a shrine for other heretics to visit.

It was another in what would become a long series of brutal, often lethal persecutions of clergy who sought to translate the Bible into local languages, including Czech reformist priest Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 (see my 2018 posts on Wycliffe and Hus). I plan to post historical articles on more of these martyrs in future months in my continuing series I call “Martyrs of Reason.”

The main take-away from this post is how monolithic Catholic authority, and the church’s monopoly on religious literacy and understanding in the Middle Ages was used to control the Western masses for centuries. Keep in mind that Christian evangelicals continue to disingenuously use the same tools today.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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