Page 5, 11th November 1938

11th November 1938
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Page 5, 11th November 1938 — Could En lishme cad he ible In English efore The eformation?

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Locations: Rome, London


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Could En lishme cad he ible In English efore The eformation?


These questions have been exercising the minds of correspondents in the CATHOLIC HERALD, and the names of famous scholars, Coquet, Belloc, Fr. Pope, Dr. Coulton, have been invoked or attacked.

Fr. Herbert Thurston, S.J., the veteran Jesuit scholar (he is 82), whose whole life has been devoted to the scientific enquiry into challenged points in Catholic doctrine, tradition and history and whose reputation for accuracy and fairness is a byword, gives his answers.

QUITE a long time ago, in May, 1894, Fr. Gasquet, who had not then been elected Abbot President of the English Benedictines —much less, of course, been created Cardinal—delivered a lecture before what Was called the Historical Research Society, meeting at Archbishop's House in Carlisle Place. The lecture was concerned with the Pre-Reformation English Bible, and it produced a considerable sensation in Catholic circles.

"Another good old Protestant tradition gone!" was the comment of The Tablet at the time; and the same note further told how " with multiplied instance and careful detail Dom Gasquet worked up his subject till but one conclusion was possible, viz., that Wyclif's reputation as a translator of the Bible rests on very shadowy foundations, and that in a great majority of cases the so-called Wyclif translations which have been preserved to us, are sound orthodox versions, the work of unknown hands and loyally Catholic hearts."

I was present myself at the lecture, and like most young Catholics of that generation, I was still under the spell of Gasquet's book Henry VIll and the English Monasteries. This was a work of original research, everywhere well received, which won a considerable reputation for its author. Despite sundry shortcomings, which for the most part were only pointed out long afterwards, it provided a valuable correction for the prejudices regarding monastic life then so widely current in this Protestant country,

It was natural for any student of history, such as I then was, to look up to Dom Gasquet as a second Lingard, and, moreover, he had shown me much personal kindness, inviting me occasionally to come from the British Museum to lunch with him and Mr. Edmund Bishop at Great Ormond Street where they shared a flat together.

I may confess that to me, as to others. the case then presented against the Wyclifite Bible seemed fairly conclusive. Even now, I am not satisfied that Dom Gasquet was entirely in the wrong, though reviewing the matter later in the light of the criticisms of Mr. Ogle and Miss Deanesly, it seemed clear that there were certain flaws in the argument. Moreover, there were a few people, even among the lecturer's fellowBenedictines, who were not convinced.

For example, the late Dom Benedict Kuypers, writing in the Downside Review (May, 1929), mentioned that as far back as 1897 he had raised objections in the same journal.

"The thesis," he then said, " put forward by Dom Gasquet that what is called the Wyclifite Bible is not Wyclif's but an orthodox and recognised translation of the Holy Scripture, is a startling one, and, in my judgment, not proven."

• • • • On the whole, I do not think that we can do better than accept the conclusion long ago arrived at by Dr. James Gairdner.

He held that Wyclif's personal share in the work of translation was slight, and that there had been much exaggeration as regards the importance of what was attempted. On the other hand, he considered it most probable that the versions to which Wyclif's name had been attached were produced in the main by his followers, though often approved for the reading of orthodox Catholics, in so far as they contained nothing but a straightforward translation from the Vulgate.

In any case, the problem still remains which has been stressed by Professor Stockley—why is it that while nearly a score of translations of the Bible into German were printed before Luther completed his version, no English Bible issued from the press of Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, Pynson or any of our early typographers?

The answer, as I conceive, is to be found in a consideration to which Dom Gasquet himself gave prominence.

The fact is indisputable, that before Wyclif's time there was no prose literature in English speech, and indeed no demand for it. Nearly all Englishmen who had learnt how to read and write were as familiar with French as with their own native tongue, even apart from the fact that the majority of the educated classes also knew Latin.

It was Wyclif himself who made it a matter of complaint that " lords of England have the Bible in French," though not in English. It would be hard to exaggerate the prevalence of French (i.e., AngloNorman) among all but the peasants and serfs in Great Britain down to well beyond the middle of the fifteenth century. For example, William of Wykeham, writing in 1378 to the English Sheriff of Oxfordshire, Edmund Stonor of Stonor, writes, not in English, but in French, and there are scores of similar examples. Those who had the money to purchase, and sufficient education to be keen to acquire, a translation of the Bible, were satisfied to find it in the French language which such a married English layman as Gower, the friend of Chaucer, used for some of the longest of his compositions.

In Germany, moreover, there was not this alternative. The reading public, apart from what they might know of Latin.

spoke only German. If they wanted a translation of the Vulgate it had to be in Teutonic speech, Moreover, there seems reason to think that the vernacular German literature was relatively more advanced than any vernacular literature in this country, precisely for the reason that there were no bilingual tendencies in, say, Bavaria or Saxony, to create a diversion of interest.

Not less important was the restraining influence exercised by the wide-spread feeling that to read the Scriptures, not in the Vulgate, but in a translation, involved a certain desecration of a holy thing. Such an idea may seem to us utterly illogical,

but like many similar prejudices connected with nationality, creed or social status, it was real enough.

Loyalty to Rome and to the official language of the Church undoubtedly cast discredit upon the use of any tongue but Latin in matters of devotion.

Few people realise, what is nevertheless a certain fact, that down to the year 1536 no single officially authorised or generally received English translation of the Our Father existed in this country.

There were, of course, translations, but everyone was free to make his own. When the Our Father, the Hail Mary, Creed, etc., were said in church, as, for example, in the Bidding Prayers, they were said in Latin.

The learning of these in Latin, as many references prove, was not an easy thing

for the simple peasant. Witnesses like Jacques de Vitry complain that many rustics knew only the first few clauses of the Our Father. Gautier de Coincy paints the agonies of a devout client of Our Lady, who, do what he would, could never get beyond the benedicta to in mulieribus of the Ave Maria: Dix foiz disci: ou Nez ou No, N'onque ne sot ii vilains bus Outre le mulieribus.

St. Joan of Arc before her judges refused to say the Pater nosier in public, not because she did not know it, or because she was a witch, but because she feared that some verbal slip in the Latin words might furnish her accusers with a new weapon against her.

The English translation of the Pater, Ave, Credo and Gloria now in use amongst us is not a Catholic version, but is that adopted in Henry VlII's prayer book after the breach with the Holy See. By the time Mary came to the throne, these forms had become so familiar to all the people, that being substantially correct it seemed useless to attempt to replace them by other renderings. It was the same idea of respect for the Church's official language which led St. Pius V in 1571 to forbid any translation into the vernacular of even the

Little Office of Our Lady. Further, a feeling undoubtedly prevailed that there was something barbarous and unrefined about the speech of any but the Latin races. Richard Pynson, the London printer, seemed prepared to grant as much when he wrote in a set of verses prefixed to his edition of the Calendar of Shepherd, 1506:

Remember clerkds daily do their diligence Into our corrupt speech matters to translate;

Yet between French and English is great difference,

Their language in reading is douce and delicate; In their mother tongue they be so fortunate They have the Bible and Apocalypse of 'Divinity And other noble books that in English may not be.

English translations of the Scriptures were therefore permitted under allowance but not greatly encouraged, for in England, where French versions were procurable, it could hardly be said that they were necessary. What was still more important, the Lollard movement undoubtedly at that period gave cause for misgiving, and such versions might fall into hands which would use them to further social revolution or the exercise of private judgment in matters of religion.

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