New Testament in English, 1731

London: John Marsh, June 6, 1731

By the end of the fourteenth century vernacular translations of the Bible based on the Latin Vulgate had been produced in all the major languages of Western Europe and were circulating in handwritten form. When Gutenberg invented the process of printing from movable type in the early 1450s, most of these texts were among the earliest printed books. Before 1500, during the age of the incunabula, complete Bibles were published in German, Italian, Czech, Low German, and Catalan, while the New Testament was printed in French and Dutch, and the Old Testament in Hebrew. The first English version of the entire Bible followed a different trajectory.

The version is ascribed to the Oxford scholar and theologian John Wyclif (or Wycliffe, c. 1330 – 1384) and was completed in 1384 and revised around 1388. While it is unlikely that Wyclif had any part in the actual process of translating, there is no doubt that the translators were his followers and disciples. The Wyclif translation survives in some 250 manuscripts, of which 20 have the complete Bible and about 100, the New Testament. No other literary text in English is preserved in so many copies. A manuscript of the Wyclif New Testament is currently on display at MOBIA in the exhibition “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum” on view through June 8, 2014.

Starting in the late fourteenth century, the Lollards, a large group of dissenters who had adopted Wyclif’s doctrines and were actively persecuted as heretics, used the new translation in their preaching. By 1409 the translation itself had been condemned in England as heretical and reading it had become a capital crime unless expressly allowed by a bishop. The Bible, however, found its way into the libraries of princes and aristocrats who were rarely suspected of heresy. With almost no exception, the 250 surviving manuscripts, including the one in the ABS collection on loan to MOBIA, are expensive artifacts, copied on vellum rather than paper and embellished with elaborate initials, some in gold. They have never been the property of poor preachers. In fact, one of them can be traced back to King Henry VI (1422-71) and another to the future Richard III, who signed it while he was still Duke of Gloucester (prior to 1483).

The Wyclif New Testament was first printed in 1731 and went through several reprints during the nineteenth century. The complete Bible was printed only once, in 1850, when the 500th anniversary of the text was approaching. The 1731 edition described here was prepared by John Lewis (1675-1747) based on two fifteenth-century manuscripts. Lewis provided a substantial introduction dealing with the history of the Wyclif version and the history of English translations of the Bible, and added marginal notes to the text and several other features. His mezzotint portrait is displayed as a frontispiece to the volume. The frontispiece of the New Testament represents an aged Wyclif dressed in full regalia as Rector of Lutterworth. The engraving was executed by George White after a painting in the collection of the Duke of Dorsett. A third engraving is placed against the description of the Great Bible of 1539 and provides a modified image of its title page. The name of the printer is mentioned only in the colophon, after the last verse of Revelation.

The Wyclif New Testament was printed in 160 copies that sold unbound for one guinea each. A list of subscribers, placed after the Dedication, has some 95 names. In addition to many members of the clergy, it includes several ladies, a number of libraries, and Sir Hans Sloane (1669-1735), physician to the King and a famous collector. His treasures were later acquired by the nation and formed the early foundation of the British Museum’s collection.

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