The usual story of how we got the Bible in the vernacular goes something like this: after casting off the husk of medieval Catholic tradition, superstition, and vestigial paganism, the Protestant Reformers went back to the original Hebrew and Greek and gave the people a Bible in their native language.
At least in the case of English. In the first place, the guy credited with producing the first English Bible, the 14th century heretic John Wycliffe, didn’t even go back to the Hebrew and Greek. Instead he—perish the thought!—went to the Latin Vulgate. As a result, his translation had Old Testament books like 1 and 2 Maccabees and Sirach that Protestants would later reject. It had a distinctly Latin-flavor, adopting many of the neologisms coined by St. Jerome, and even retained some surprisingly non-Protestant turns of phrases.
For example, in Wycliffe’s translation, Luke 1:28 reads this way: And the aungel entride to hir, and seide, Heil, ful of grace; the Lord be with thee; blessid be thou among wymmen (emphasis added).
It is true that credit for the first complete English translation of the Bible goes to Wycliffe. But we shouldn’t let that fact obscure the larger truth that Catholics had been translating portions of the Scriptures into English centuries before the first edition of Wycliffe’s Bible came out, in 1382.
In the beginning…
In fact, the history of English translations really begins in the 600s with a worker at an English monastery named Caedmon. One night as he was sleeping in the stable, so the story goes, a voice called to him in a vision, beckoning him to sing the story of creation. Caedmon, who previously had known no poetry nor had any ability as a singer, suddenly was able to starting singing the creation account of Genesis in hymn form. (One of his hymns is at the bottom of this page.)
He would go on to compose pious paraphrases of the major stories of Genesis, Exodus, and the life of Christ. While these were certainly not translations, they did make the content of these biblical stories available to the laity. This means that the average peasant certainly would have known their Bible in terms of its major stories and figures, even if they had not actually sat down and read an actual translation.
The deathbed translation of Bede
But the English world, such as it was back then, did not have to wait long for an actual translation. That came with the Venerable Bede, born in 672 or 673, around the time of Caedmon’s death. Bede is remembered as the author of a monumental history of the English and a giant of English theology in the early Middle Ages.
The last work of his life was his translation of the Gospel of John. Bede labored on this until the very moment of his death. As the ailing saint drew near to the end, he was told by the scribe to whom he had been dictating the translation that one chapter remained. Go on quickly; I do not know how long I shall hold out and whether my Maker will not soon remove me, Bede told the scribe, according to one account.
It came down to one last sentence. All is finished, Bede said to his companion. He rested his head on the floor of his monastic cell, calling upon his heavenly Father to take him home, as the monks around him sang the Glory Be. That was in 735. (Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies of his translation, which has led some to question whether Bede really produced a bona fide translation. Regardless, all the old accounts regard his work as a translation.)
The medieval king who was also a Bible translator
If anyone was going to produce an English version of Scripture, Bede is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to do it. The next translator is the last person you’d expect.
It was Easter season 878 and the Vikings had overrun much of the English kingdom of Wessex. While Vikings threatened Europe from the North, Muslim armies had advanced from the South into Spain and Italy. In the center, the institutions of government tottered. Between 867 and 910, Europe went through seven Holy Roman Emperors and fifteen popes—many dying unnatural deaths. The feudal system of decentralized government and economics was on the rise. If there ever was a Dark Ages—a term that historians do not accept today—this was it.
On the island of Athelney in a vast marshland known as the Somerset Levels, the king of Wessex, Alfred, huddled with his band of fighters. It was there that Alfred found strength in his Christian faith, according to Catholic historian Warren Carroll. He emerged from what was as much a military retreat as a spiritual one sometime between the feast of the Ascension and Pentecost to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandune. It would take a few more battles, but Alfred the Great was able to bring relative peace to his domain.
Alfred would go on to do the kind of things that would be expected from a good king trying to ride out the chaos of the early Middle Ages—he centralized the government, reformed the tax system, reorganized the military, promulgated laws, and promoted education. And he also translated some of the Bible—specifically portions of Exodus, Acts, and the first 50 Psalms.
Alfred did not just dabble in translation in his spare time—it was at the center of his public initiatives. His work served his goal of increasing education and his versions of Exodus and Acts were meant to bolster his legal reforms. (This is according to The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages, by Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly.)
Alfred would go on to also translation works of Church Fathers like Augustine and Pope St. Gregory the Great into the Old English vernacular was well, finishing one book a year until his death in 899, according to historian Warren Carroll, who concludes that “[t]hey shaped the English language and thought; they made the Faith and its explanations and practice more clear and real to his people.” (Source: The Building of Christendom.)
The monk, the mystic, and the heretic
There are two more bright lights of biblical scholarship before we get to Wycliffe.
One was Aelfric, a Bede-like figure who was abbot of a monastery near Oxford and lived from the mid-900s to the early 1000s, dying before the epochal Norman invasion of England in 1066.
He is commonly regarded as one of the most prolific Old English writers. Aelfric took on the translation of the first seven books of the Bible, producing a text known as the Heptateuch. He also produced a version of the four gospels. In addition voluminous work includes numerous homilies, a grammar, translations of two works St. Basil’s the Great’s works, and a treatise on the Old and New Testaments modeled after Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine.
Another notable Catholic Bible translator of this period was Richard Rolle, a hermit and yet another prodigious writer who authored one of the great yet little known works of English mysticism, The Fire of Love.
His translation work was less copious, but none the less notable: from him we have an English collection of the Psalms—just decades before Wycliffe came on the scene. Indeed, as the Catholic Encyclopedia well notes, “This work of translation is noteworthy in face of the persistent though discredited Protestant tradition ascribing all the credit of translating the Scriptures into English to Wycliffe.”
Wycliffe, then, really was the last, rather than first, in a long line of translators. His translation was not so much the breaking dawn of a new age of enlightenment as the glowing achievement of nearly a millennium of medieval Catholic biblical scholarship to which he was deeply indebted—despite his protestations to the contrary.