The New Testament…Translated out of the Latin Vulgat by John Wiclif
John Wycliffe (ca. 1330–1384) was Oxford’s leading Biblical scholar at the time, and the times were troubled. With the rise of Charles V in France, the war began to go badly, and England was growing increasingly factionalized under an aging Edward III. The great offices of state in England were held by clerics to the resentment of powerful nobles, including John of Gaunt, who would later be Wycliffe’s protector. With two competing popes, the Church was also divided. Wycliffe began to question the role of Church hierarchy and turned to the Bible. If it was Christians’ responsibility to obey the Bible, they ought to be able to read it. He began to translate the Bible and inspired traveling preachers to teach it. Authorities attempted to put him on trial in 1378 and failed. After the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, he was tried by a synod but not long after suffered a stroke and died. Later, authorities dug up his body and burned his bones.
How much of the Bible Wycliffe personally translated into English is uncertain. A version of the New Testament attributed to him was finished about 1380 and the whole Bible about 1384. About thirty copies survive. After Wycliffe’s death in 1384, his followers made major revisions and a newer version (ca. 1400) superseded the old. About 140 manuscripts have survived. The Wycliffe Bible, however, was not printed for centuries.
The 18th century saw the beginning of independent scholarship on the books and writers that brought about modern English language and literature. Nicholas Rowe produced a freshly edited edition works of Shakespeare in 1709 that included the first biography of the playwright. Joseph Ames, an English author, sent out letters of inquiry and gathered input to produce an account of printing in England from 1471 to 1600. His groundbreaking Typographical Antiquities (1749) was enlarged by William Herbert in the 1790s and by the famous Thomas Frognall Dibdin in the 1810s. And John Lewis, an Anglican clergyman, wrote biographies of William Caxton and John Wycliffe as well as other works. Most notably, in 1731 he first printed an edition of the Wycliffe New Testament (ca. 1400) using two manuscripts as sources, one of which he owned. As can be seen from the present copy, the volume also included a history of the Bible in English that he prepared. The entire Wycliffe Bible was not published until 1850.
Chrzanowski 1731b *