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The Avon to the Severn runs,

The Severn to the sea,

And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,

Wide as the waters be.

HE IS KNOWN AS THE MORNING STAR of the Reformation, its first light. He was the first to make a formal complaint, to write and speak about papal abuses. John Wycliffe was also the first to translate the Scriptures into English. Other than its Middle English, the main difference between Wycliffe's translation and William Tyndale's almost 150 years later was the source. Wycliffe's translation was taken not from the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but from Jerome's 4th century Latin Vulgate, a less reliable manuscript. In Tyndale's Bible, for instance, "God is Love." In Wycliffe, God is "charity," a nice sentiment but inaccurate and misleading. Tyndale particularly had issue with the Roman Church's use of the word. 

And finally, I say not, charity God, or charity your neighbor; but love God, and love your neighbor.


Still, first honors go to Wycliffe. Like Tyndale, his translation of a vernacular scripture made him an outlaw. Had Wycliffe not died of a stroke in 1384, he would have been burned at the stake for his labors.


In 1407, William Thorpe, a Lollard who had known Wycliffe at Oxford in 1377, told the Archbishop of Canterbury that Wycliffe was spare, thin, a man of moderate and harmless habits and able to win the affections of those who knew him. "They loved him dearly," Thorpe said. Not everyone held this opinion of the Oxford professor. To many, he was annoying. 

That wretched and pestilent fellow, son of the serpent, herald and child of Antichrist, filled up the measure of his malice by devising the expedient of a new translation of Scripture into the mother tongue.

—Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury (Roman Catholic)



To John Wycliffe, the Bible was the “sole authority for religious faith and practice and everyone had the right to read and interpret scripture for himself.” This was revolutionary (and heretical). He even dared to ask where in the Bible was such a thing as a pope anyway? His ideas eventually migrated to the German monk, Dr. Luther, but it was Wycliffe who made the fuss in the first place. By the time Martin Luther came along, more than a hundred and thirty years later, the world was prepared for the thunder he made. But even children know that before thunder there is a lightning that precedes it, that brief flash of power and dazzle that must by nature be brief. That honor goes to the Englishman. Wycliffe was the lightning to Luther’s thunder.


Wycliffe’s Middle English is primitive, or it will sound that way to you and me. But that is what makes it beautiful. The beauty lies in the lack of restraints, in its wildness. I KINGS 19:12 is one of my favorite Wycliffe translations (still small voice). 


And aftir the stiryng is fier; not in the fier is the Lord. And aftir the fier is the issyng of thinne wynd; there is the Lord.

—I Kings 19:12, The Wycliffe Bible, 1382/1395


"The issyng of a thinne wynd . . . " I love that. It is like reading Chaucer, as Chaucer wrote and imagined Chaucer. Which makes sense. Geoffrey Chaucer and Wycliffe were contemporaries. Both enjoyed the patronage of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and Chaucer may have been a student of Wycliffe's. Again, we do not know. The following are the first lines of the Bible in our common tongue:

In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe.

Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren

on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun

on the watris. And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was


—Genesis 1:1–3, The Wycliffe Bible, 1395


Concerning style, Wycliffe believed that “a flowery, captivating style of address is of little value compared to right substance.” Flowery or not, as only boldness and innovation can, John Wycliffe put into currency hundreds of words and constructions that first entered the stream of English in his Bible. The phrases an eye for an eye, salt of the earth (often attributed to William Tyndale), both make their first appearance in Wycliffe. Canopy, child-bearing, communication, crime, envy, frying-pan, godly, humanity, injury, jubilee, madness, menstruation, middleman, novelty, pollute, puberty, unfaithful, and zeal, all make their English debut in Wycliffe. The word glory, referring to the glory of God, was first introduced into English by Wycliffe. 



It is not difficult to see why the Roman Catholic Church hated Wycliffe so much. Hate was a preoccupation of the medieval and the early modern church. Reading the sources

you almost feel as if they could do no better than to hurl something at him. In 1382, a synod of bishops met at Blackfriars in London to discuss Wycliffe’s literary achievements. It was great theatre (Blackfriars actually became a theatre in Shakespeare's time), and not very good theater at that. Their minds were made up before the meeting began. Wycliffe’s translation was declared heretical simply because it was English. His followers, known as Lollards (a term of abuse that literally meant “mutterers”), many of whom were itinerant preachers, were captured, tortured, and put to death. This eventually led to a parliamentary ban on all English Bibles.

But burning his books wasn’t enough. It took a few years and one huge conclave that included a pope, an emperor, and thousands of priests and bishops, but in 1414, thirty years after his death, Wycliffe was finally declared a heretic, and not just for his English Bible but for his other efforts as well, all he taught and spread about. Still, in no real hurry, a few years after that (1428) they carried out the sentence. The remains of John Wycliffe, resting quietly in consecrated ground for forty-four years, were disinterred and borne along in solemn procession through the streets of Lutterworth, until they came to a hillside next to the River Swift.

Even as a dead heretic, Wycliffe was to be punished severely and condemned to an eternity in hell. I would guess, having been a priest, he was defrocked as a part of this ritual. The pretensions of the Roman church were replete and overwhelming. Because the Church could not shed blood (Ecclesisa non novit sanguinem), they called in the locals for the sentencing and execution of the condemned man. “After cursing the remains, Bishop Fleming therefore delivered them up to the high sheriff of the county.” The Sherriff then turned the long-dead Wycliffe over to the executioner.

Offering the executioner no resistance whatsoever, the condemned man was bound to a stake with chains, and then torched. As an added precaution, to make sure the skull and bones were burned to ashes, the executioner broke them up with a mattock. At last, the ashes were carefully swept into a barrow and taken to the little arched bridge and cast into the Swift, a tributary of the Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon).

The vexation was deep. And old. The Catholic Church understood exactly what Wycliffe’s presence meant, that there was something insidious and unstoppable about this troublemaking little man. Dispersing his ashes in the stream is a sufficient metaphor for Wycliffe’s contribution to our English. A poem remains that implies an influence that is deathless.

The Avon to the Severn runs,

The Severn to the sea,

And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,

Wide as the waters be.


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