The Wycliffite Bibles in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

In the later half of the fourteenth century a group of Oxford scholars, associated with the theologian John Wycliffe (c.1330-84), set out to translate the Bible from Latin into English. This Bible, known as the Wycliffite Bible, was banned by the hierarchy in the early 1400s and for the next 125 years anyone caught owning such a Bible could, in theory, be condemned for heresy. Despite these restrictions, the Wycliffite Bible was one of the most extensive productions of the Middle Ages, of which there are over 250 extant manuscripts. The Library of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) holds nine of these manuscripts.

The nine manuscripts in TCD offer some insight into the various stages of production. The first attempt at the Wycliffite Bible, for example, was a direct translation from the Latin and it reads rather awkwardly, more like a word-for-word translation because the Oxford scholars were keen to demonstrate that the English version was as trustworthy as the Latin text from which it came. It is usually referred to as the Early Version (EV). Towards the end of the fourteenth century, a later group of scholars decided it was time to improve upon this Early Version so that the English would read more fluently. Both the EV and LV version of the Wycliffite Bible can be found in the Trinity collection.

To talk about 250 manuscripts is a bit misleading because it indicates only the number of manuscripts that contain the Bible in whole or in part; it does not indicate the survival of so many complete Bibles. For example, MS 66 begins with Genesis, but concludes with the introduction to the Psalms. Mary Dove holds that its sister manuscript or the second volume of the same Bible, which begins with Proverbs and ends with Revelations, is London, British Library MS Additional 15580. It would be interesting to know how the manuscripts came to be separated and what became of the missing Book of Psalms.

Some manuscripts contain extra bits of information that illustrate the use that was made of the Bibles. For example, MS 75 is one of a hundred manuscripts to contain a set of tables setting out the sections of the Bible which are to be read at Mass each Sunday. [See images of ff. 9 & 100 below].

TCD MS 75, folio 9 r

Each table is laid out in a series of columns that lists the Sunday or feast day, the chapter of the relevant Bible passage, a letter of the alphabet to mark the passage in the main Bible, and the opening and closing words of the Gospel passage. If we compare the images of folios 9 [image above] and 100 [image below] from MS 75, we see that the ‘a’ in the margin of f. 100 occurs beside the words ‘be not ȝour hertes destorbled’ [marked with a red arrow].

TCD MS 75, folio 100r

This corresponds with the entry for ‘holy rode day’ on f. 9 of the table [green arrow], which indicates that the Gospel for that feast day is taken from John 14, where it will be highlighted in the main part of the Bible by the letter ‘a’ in the margin. We can also see that the opening words in the table correspond with those marked on f. 100, ‘be not ȝour hertes destorbled’ [blue arrow], which conclude with the closing lines of the Gospel passage ‘I schal do it’ [black arrow]. This kind of table opens up the debate on who were the actual readers and owners of the Wycliffite Bibles. Were these tables indicative of an enthusiastic lay readership, preparing the readings before or after the liturgical service as the translators intended? Do they suggest, on the other hand, that the Bible remained in the hands of the less Latinate clergy who were glad to access the Bible in English rather than Latin?

The Wycliffite Bible manuscripts in Trinity provide a valuable insight into the changing attitudes to religion among certain sectors of society in the lead up to the Reformation.

Further Reading:

Christopher de Hamel, The Book. A History of the Bible. Phaidon, 2001. Chapter 7 (pp. 166-90).

Mary Dove. The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions. CUP, 2007.

Matti Peikola. ‘Tables of Lections in Manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible’ in Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible. Eds Eyal Poleg and Laura Light. Library of the Written Word 27; The Manuscript World 4. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 351-78.

John Scattergood and Guido Latré, ‘Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 75: A Lollard Bible and Some Protestant Owners’, in Manuscripts and Ghosts: Essays on the Transmission of Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature. Four Courts Press, 2006. (pp. 163–80.)

Elizabeth Solopova. The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation. Brill, 2016.

Dr. Niamh Pattwell, University College Dublin.

Dr. Pattwell is currently working on a volume of the Index of Middle English Prose for Trinity College Dublin with Prof. V.J. Scattergood.

Link to IMEP volumes: https://boydellandbrewer.com/index-of-middle-english-prose-index-to-volumes-i-to-xx-hb.html