Wednesday, August 15, 2001

John Wycliffe's English Bible Translation: Glimpses of Truth

Though most English-speaking people today take English Bible translations for granted, the Bible was not always available in the peoples' common language. Indeed, the medieval Catholic Church held a tight grip over English peasants, allowing the Holy Scriptures to be printed and read only in Latin: which by the late-fourteenth century was only known by the well-educated, an elite club of Catholic clergy and English noblemen. Into this scene entered John Wycliffe, who made the first translation of the complete Bible into English, a first step towards the later King James Version of the early 17th century.

Yet for many years, English people were persecuted, even killed, for possession of a Bible in English. Such is the setting of Glimpses of Truth, a historical fiction novel by Jack Cavanaugh, set in England of 1384. Thomas Torr, an English peasant and probably the illegitimate son of Lord Harborough, has been educated and now works as a copyist and translator for John Wycliffe. He teaches Felice and her father, Howel, how to write English letters so they can also copy scripture, and soon they are also busy writing scripture verses on pieces of cloth--something so strange that many peasants think the writing a type of magic incantation with power to effect miracles.

Glimpses of Truth effectively captures the spirit of medieval England, showcasing several different characters, both peasants and nobility, in an adventurous story of romance, betrayal, and persecution. The peasants, including a revolutionary named Cale, distrust the authorities, and with good reason. Thomas, raised among the peasants but educated like the nobility, lives alternately among both worlds. Though in love with Felice, he struggles with pride, seeking out great opportunities such as an Oxford education as well as praise from Bishop Pole. John Wycliffe and others warn him to "beware the bishop," but Thomas must learn things the hard way.

John Wycliffe is the only historical character in the story, having a minor part interacting with Thomas and other copyists in Lutterworth, an actual English village in which Wycliffe operated one of his scriptoriums. Thomas, along with his guests Felice and Howel, also witness Wycliffe's last sermon in December 1384, when Wycliffe collapsed, dying a few days later. Reference is also made to the Lollards, itinerant preachers that went about the countryside preaching, reading and teaching Wycliffe's translation to the common folk. Other highlights include entertaining scenes of Christ's Mass, the medieval version of our Christmas, and its customs such as "blind man's bluff" games and the "Lord of Misrule" (in which the people voted one of their own to be the ruler for a day).

The book includes several pages of additional information from the author and another commentator, with explanations as to which parts of the story were historical versus fiction. An overview of English history relating to the translations of the Bible, from Wycliffe's first translation to the one still familiar today, the 1611 King James translation, is also included. As Cavanaugh explains, Wycliffe's translation, though English, was very Latinized, even in its grammar and syntax and when English idioms would have better expressed the words. Thus, Glimpses of Truth includes several parallel versions of scripture that show the original Latin text and the King James English equivalent. The characters also quote from the later translation, for ease of understanding by modern-day readers.

Glimpses of Truth is the first of a series of four books about the early English Bible translations, but the following books have been delayed. The author's second book, Beyond the Sacred Page, is currently in progress and will hopefully be available within the next few months.

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