Page 6, 25th November 1938

25th November 1938
Page 6
Page 6, 25th November 1938 — COULD ENGLISHMEN READ THE BIBLE?

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Locations: Cambridge


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Professor Coulton And Fr. Thurston

Silo—Since you invoke me in your introduction to a " scientific enquiry " by a veteran of 82 whose " reputation for accuracy and fairness is a byeword," you will doubtless permit this junior of 80 to reply. In the first place Fr. Thurston misrepresents the learned Dr. Gairdner, who in one passage thus sums up his attitude towards the question: " Wyclif's chief bequest to posterity was his English Bible": " his," that is, in the sense that he was at least the driving force behind it (" Lollardy and the Reformation," I, 12). But it is more important to follow Fr. Thurston when he is speaking for himself. He undertakes to answer the question at the heading of his article by making two main points.

(1) He writes: " The fact is indisputable, that before WycIirs time there was no prose literature in English speech, and indeed no demand for it." Fr. Thurston evidently knows nothing of Prof. R. W. Chambers's epoch-making " Continuity of English Prose" (E.E.T.S., 1932). " Of all the peoples of modern Europe," writes Chambers, " the inhabitants of these islands had been the first to win for themselves a scholarly narrative prose. By the eleventh century this prose had progressed so far that we may believe that, if fate had been more kind, we should have anticipated by a century or two the achievements of the great mediaeval historians of France " (n. 58). " The voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, as recorded by Alfred, are, in one sense, modern literature " (p. 59), " In the remarkable development of an official language England preceded the nations of Western Europe by some centuries " (p. 77). Again, concerning the famous

" Ancren Riwle " (about A.D. 1200). " Whoever the maidens for whom the Riwle ' was written, they were the cause of great things in English prose " (p. 100). Again, Richard Rolle, who died long before any surviving English works of Wyclif, was, with Hilton, our greatest mystic. " Anyone who reads [his] tracts must see that, despite their fourteenth century Yorkshire dialect, we have in them modern English prose " (p. 101). As for Fr. Thurston's " no demand," let us again hear Professor Chambers: " Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all : yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English " (p. I01). He points out the manifest inferiority of Wychrs English style to that of orthodox predecessors or contemporaries; though he does not, so far as I remember, suggest the fairly obvious cause, that this awkwardness comes from Wyclif's desire to cling slavishly to the Latin original. It is well known that the orthodox Douay translators often erred on that same side, and that their style has been smoothed down by later editors. When excellent English prose could be written wherever men were deeply interested, why could not some learned and pious ecclesiastic, if not some Bishop, officially have supplied England with at

least a translation of the Gospels? Fr. Thurston writes " it would be hard to exaggerate the prevalence of French (i.e., Anglo-Norman) 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 F.'nglish, but in French, and there are scores of similar examples." Yet he himself has brilliantly achieved that difficult feat of exaggeration : for his suggestion that the majority of the upper classes could scarcely have read any English version presented to them is absurd. He quotes a courtier-bishop writing officially to a noble sheriff in the language of French courtesy; and it is very likely (though far from certain) that they would have talked French together at table. But how many cases can he find in which well-to-do citizens, or country squires, addressed each other in French?

(2) Far more important is his second point, that there was no " authorised" translation even of the Lord's Prayer throughout the Middle Ages; that Henry

VIII made the first just at the moment when he dissolved the monasteries. I was discussing this a year or two ago with Dr, R. H. Robbins, co-Editor with Prof. Carleton Brown of the encyclopaedic register of English religious lyrics. There are many rhymed Paternosters among these, and scarcely any two are identical. Neither Dr. Robbins nor any Roman Catholic whom I have consulted has been able to supply any other than the apparently obvious explanation, that neither Pope nor Bishop nor energetic Churchman of any kind took any interest in supplying the common folk with such a simple and accurate translation as the English vocabulary could certainly have supplied. Therefore, from at least the thirteenth century onward, the vernacular Bible became a bitter party question in Europe. Two of the most energetic inquisitors, at least, contrasted the extraordinary Biblereadiness of heretics with the supineness of Catholics who " did not even teach their household the Paternoster." St. John Chrysostom, in the Eastern Church, had impressed Bible-reading upon his lay hearers yet the original Hebrew was as unintelligible to them as the Greek was to our mediaeval ancestors. No missionary, except the Arian Ulphilas, translated for the converted barbarians. As The Catholic Encyclopaedia puts it: " What prevented the earliest English missionaries from translating the Scriptures into the vernaeular, or what caused the loss of such immediate translations, if any were made, is hard to determine at this late date " (xv., p. 374). Equally puzzled on this point was St. Thomas More, who, in that Dialogue from which Cardinal Gasquet tried to prove his Case by garbled quotations, wrote : " And surely how it bath happened that in all this while [since 1408] God hath either not suffered, or not provided that any good and virtuous man bath had the mind in faithful wise to translate it, and thereupon either the clergy or, at the least wise, some one Bishop to approve it, this can I nothing tell."


St. John's College, Cambridge.

Fr. Thurston writes:

Dr. Cannon's tone, as millet, is that of the superior person who expects to find nothing but ignorance in those outside hie own particular circle, Why should he ae.sume that I am not acquainted with the essay on English prose which Professor Chambers has prefixed to Ilarpsfield's " Life of More "? And why ehould he suppose that I know nothing about the Aneren Riwle or Richard Rolle? If Dr. Cannon Cares to take the trouble to look at The Month for July, 1878, be will learn from an article of mine there printed that sixty years ago I was already interested in the Aneren Riwle and was dienuesing the prevalence of French in England 'before the time of Wyclif. My friend. Miss Hope Allen. was kind enough to semi rue her big book on Richard Rolle when it appeared, and some little time back Professor Chambers told me that when he was appealed to in the controversy between Miss Allen and Fr. McNabb regarding a ceremonial detail in the Aneren Biwte, he extricated himself from the difficulty by turning then on to me. Of course, everyone knows the good tradition of AngloSaxon prose started in the days of King Alfred, but that very qualification " if fate had been more kind," introduced by Prof. Chambers, shows that the early promise had not been fulfilled.

Apparently Dr. Coulton is prepared to scrap The Cambridge History of k;nglish Literature. Chapter a in the second volume of that important work is devoted to " The Beginnings of English Prose " and assigns those beginnings to the time of Vyclif. " Before the close of the fourteenth century," says the writer, " it could rto longer be assumed that all who wished to read wroth' read French or Latin." Rolle died in 119.9 but practically all the MSS. which preserve his English works were copied not in the fourteenth century. but in the fifteenth, when admittedly a generation had grown up which wented to read English. " It is a striking fact." says Nfisa Allen." that not a single MS. of Ifolle's works survives from his time. or earlier than perhaps twenty years after his deeth."

But this Bort of discussion is endless, and I can only ask those interested to read Dr. Gairdner or the other authorities cited for themselves. The charges made against Cardinsl Gesquet in Dr. Coulton's previous letter of September 30 T hope to deal with at some length in the forthcoming (December) number of The Month..

[This correspondence is now closed.— EDITOR.]

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