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very least, the tacit consent of the ecclesiastical authori. ties. When to this is added the fact that texts from the then known English Scriptures were painted on the walls of churches, and portions of the various books were used in authorised manuals of prayer, it is impossible to doubt that the hostility of the English Church to the vernacular Bible has been greatly exaggerated, if indeed its attitude has not altogether been misunderstood. This much may, and indeed must, be conceded, wholly apart from the further question whether the particular version now known as the Wycliffite Scriptures is, or is not, the version used in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century by Catholic Englishmen. That a Catholic version, or some version viewed as Catholic and orthodox by those who lived in the sixteenth century, really existed does not admit of any doubt at all on the distinct testimony of Sir Thomas More. It will be readily admitted that he was no ordinary witness. As one eminent in legal matters, he must be supposed to know the value of evidence, and his uncompromising attitude towards all innovators in matters of religion is a sufficient guarantee that he would be no party to the propagation of any unorthodox or unauthorised translations.
Some quotations from Sir Thomas More's works will illustrate his belief better than any lengthy exposition. It is unnecessary, he says, to defend the law prohibiting any English version of the Bible, “ for there is none such, indeed. There is of truth a Constitution which speaks of this matter, but nothing of such fashion. For you shall understand that the great arch-heretic Wycliffe, whereas the whole Bible was long before his days by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people and with devotion and soberness well and reverently read, took upon himself to translate it anew. In this translation he purposely corrupted the holy text, maliciously planting in it such words, as might in the reader's ears serve to prove such heresies as he went about' to sow. These he not only set forth with his own translation of the Bible, but also with certain prologues and glosses he made upon it, and he so managed this matter, assigning probable and likely reasons suitable for lay and unlearned people, that he corrupted in his time many folk in this realm. ..
“After it was seen what harm the people took from the translation, prologues, and glosses of Wycliffe and also of some others, who after him helped to set forth his sect for that cause, and also for as much as it is dangerous to translate the text of Scripture out of one tongue into another, as St. Jerome testifieth, since in translating it is hard to keep the same sentence whole (i.e., the exact meaning): it was, I say, for these causes at a Council held at Oxford, ordered under great penalties that no one might thenceforth translate (the Scripture) into English, or any other language, on his own authority, in a book, booklet, or tract, and that no one might read openly or secretly any such book, booklet, or treatise newly made in the time of the said John Wycliffe, or since, or should be made any time after, till the same translation had been approved by the diocesan, or, if need should require, by a Provincial Council.
“ This is the law that so many have so long spoken about, and so few have all this time sought to look whether they say the truth or not. For I hope you see in this law nothing unreasonable, since it neither forbids good translations to be read that were already made of old before Wycliffe's time, nor condemns his because it was new, but because it was 'naught. Neither does it prohibit new translations to be made, but provides that if they are badly made they shall not be read till they are thoroughly examined and corrected, unless indeed they are such translations as Wycliffe and Tyndale made, which the malicious mind of the translator has handled in such a way that it were labour lost to try and correct them."
The “ objector," whom Sir Thomas More was engaged in instructing in the Dialogue, could hardly believe that the formal Provincial Constitution meant nothing more than this, and thereupon, as Sir Thomas says: “I set before him the Constitutions Provincial, with Lyndwood upon it, and directed him to the place under the title De magistris. When he himself had read this, he said he marvelled greatly how it happened that in so plain a matter men were so deceived." But he thought that even if the law was not as he had supposed, nevertheless the clergy acted as if it were, and always “ took all translations out of every man's hand whether the translation was good or bad, old or new.” To this More replied that to his knowledge this was not correct. “I myself,” he says, “have seen and can show you Bibles, fair and old, written in English, which have been known and seen by the bishop of the diocese, and left in the hands of laymen and women, whom he knew to be good and Catholic people who used the books with devotion and soberness.” He admitted indeed that all Bibles found in the hands of heretics were taken away from them, but none of these, so far as he had ever heard, were burnt, except such as were found to be garbled and false. Such were the Bibles issued with evil prologues or glosses, maliciously made by Wycliffe and other heretics. “Further,” he declared, “no good man would be so mad as to burn a Bible in which they found no fault." Nor was there any law whatever that prohibited the possession, examination, or reading of the Holy Scripture in English.'
| English Works (ed. 1557), pp. 233-4. This positive declaration of Sir Thomas More is generally ignored by modern writers. In a recently published work, for example (England in the Age of Wycliffe, by George Macaulay Trevelyan), it is stated that “we have positive proof that the bishops denounced the dissemination of the English Bible among classes and persons prone to heresy, burnt copies of it, and cruelly persecuted Lollards on the charge of reading it” (p. 131). In proof of this statement the author refers his readers to a later page (p. 342) of his volume. Ilere he culls from Foxe (Acts and Monuments) the depositions of certain
In reply to the case of Richard Hunn, who, according to the story set about by the religious innovators, had been condemned and his dead body burnt “ only because they found English Bibles in his house, in which they never found other fault than because they were in English,” Sir Thomas More, professedly, and with full knowledge of the circumstances, absolutely denies, as he says, “ from top to toe," the truth of this story. He shows at great length that the whole tale of Hunn's death was carefully examined into by the king's officials, and declares that at many of the examinations he himself had been present and heard the witnesses, and that in the end it had been fully shown that Hunn was in reality a heretic and a teacher of heresy. “But," urged his objector, “though Hunn were himself a heretic, yet might the book (of the English Bible) be good enough; and there is no good reason why a good book should be burnt.” The copy of this Bible, replied More, was of great use in showing the kind of man Hunn really was, “ for at the time he
witnesses against people suspected of teaching heresy. Amongst these depositions it is said by a few of the witnesses that some of these teachers were possessed of portions of the Scriptures in English. Mr. Trevelyan assumes, because witnesses speak to this fact, that it was for this they were condemned, or, as he puts it, “cruelly persecuted,” by the ecclesi. astical authorities. Had he examined his authority, Foxe, more carefully, he would have found the actual list of articles formulated, against these teachers of heresy. These alone are, of course, the charges actually made against them; and the mere depositions of witnesses in those days were not, any more than they are in ours, the charges upon which the accused were condemned. In the articles or charges we find no mention whatever of the English Bible, and, according to the ordinary rules of interpretation of documents, this absence of any mention of Bible-reading in the indictment, formulated after the hearing of the evidence, and when witnesses had testified to the fact, should be taken to show that the mere possession of the vernacular Scriptures, &c., was not accounted an offence by the Church authorities. The real charge in these cases, as in others, was of teaching what was then held to be false and heretical, teaching founded upon false interpretations of the Scripture text, or upon false translations.
Ibid., p. 235.
was denounced as a heretic, there lay his English Bible open, and some other English books of his, so that every one could see the places noted with his own hand, such words and in such a way that no wise and good man could, after seeing them, doubt what 'naughty minds' the men had, both he that so noted them and he that so made them. I do not remember the particulars," he continued, “nor the formal words as they were written, but this I do remember well, that besides other things found to support divers other heresies, there were in the prologue of that Bible such words touching the Blessed Sacrament as good Christian men did much abhor to hear, and which gave the readers undoubted occasion to think that the book was written after Wycliffe's copy, and by him translated into our tongue."
More then goes on to state his own mind as to the utility of vernacular Scriptures. And, in the first place, he utterly denies again that the Church, or any ecclesiastical authority, ever kept the Bible in English from the people, except “such translations as were either not approved as good translations, or such as had already been condemned as false, such as Wycliffe's and Tyndale's were. For, as for other old ones that were before Wycliffe's days, they remain lawful, and are in the possession of some people, and are read.” To this assertion of a plain fact Sir Thomas More's opponent did not dissent, but frankly admitted that this was certainly the case,» although he still thought that the English Bible might be in greater circulation than it was. Sir Thomas More considered that the clergy really had good grounds not to encourage the spread of the vernacular Scriptures at that time, inasmuch as those who were most urgent in the matter were precisely those whose orthodoxy was reasonably suspected. It made men fear, he says, “that seditious people would do
Ibid., p. 240. ? Ibid., p. 241.
Ibid., p. 240.