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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Wycliffe (c. 1324–1384)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LITERARY significance of the great English churchman and reformer, John Wycliffe, is to be found in his splendid rendering into the mother tongue of the sacred Scriptures. The King James Version of the Bible has for so long been the accepted form,—that in which all literary association centers,—that there is danger of overlooking the importance and merit of this earlier work of Wycliffe. His may be called the first English version of the Book having a high literary value; and this gives it importance in the literary development of the tongue. Wycliffe’s translation is a fine example of the marrowy vernacular of the fourteenth century, the time of Chaucer; and it is not extravagant to say that the prose of Wycliffe did for the English of that period what the verse of the first great poet of the race did for it,—namely, set the stamp of literary genius upon a native instrument hitherto unstrung and uncertain of sound. This was Wycliffe’s service; and he—more than later laborers in Biblical translation, like Tyndale and Coverdale—had the gift as a writer necessary to give to the English Scriptures a power and beauty endearing them to the people, and making them treasure-trove for the students of literature. Without Wycliffe’s work, the King James Version would never have been what it is. He was a mighty pioneer, blazing the literary path at a crucial time in the history of the evolution of the English speech and literature.  1
  In the face of this his great achievement for literature, his other writings, however important in their polemical and reformatory aspects, sink into relative obscurity. His tracts and sermons were many,—they number upwards of 200,—and can be now consulted in the edition of the Wyclif Society. These polemical writings are part of his career and influence as a reformer: here he played a striking rôle. Wycliffe was a scholar and thinker, a noble idealist in thrall to a high purpose,—this despite the practical nature of much of his labor and the variety of his accomplishment. He was born at Spreswel—probably the modern Hipswell—in Yorkshire: his birth year fell before 1324, and is not accurately known. Wycliffe was successively scholar and fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and before 1361 a master there, since in that year he accepted the college living of Fillingham; exchanging it in 1369 for that of Ludgershall, and again in 1374, by the gift of the Crown, for the more important living of Lutterworth. As early as 1363 he was reading lectures on divinity at Oxford.  2
  By 1361, when he was still a man well under forty, Wycliffe had begun his attacks on the Church: first assailing the mendicant orders, and later aiming his shafts at the papal power; whence came a charge of heresy in 1378, from which he only escaped persecution through the intervention of the Princess of Wales. The papal schism in the same year shows that Wycliffe was not alone in his contentions. Indeed, the English folk were beginning to arouse. The rapid multiplication of Wyclifites,—or Lollards, as his followers were styled by their opponents,—and the quick spread of similar views in Hungary under Huss, are signs of the times. In 1381 Wycliffe passed from the criticism of conduct and government to that of doctrine. He attacked transubstantiation, with the result that he was condemned by a synod, debarred from lecturing at Oxford, and forced to retire to his Lutterworth living; where he continued to promulgate his views with the pen, and where death overtook him December 31st, 1384. In 1415 the Council of Constance condemned his doctrines, and ordered his bones to be thrown on a dunghill. But his influence was continually broadening. A forerunner of Luther and Calvin, he is a mainspring of the great religious reformatory movement. His translation of the Bible was made in 1382,—about the time Chaucer was publishing his ‘Prologue.’ Wycliffe’s pupil, Nicholas of Hereford, did the Old Testament version, while Wycliffe did all or most of the New. Entirely aside from his place as the “morning star of the Reformation,” John Wycliffe’s yeoman service in this translation of the Book entitles him to rank high as a fourteenth-century worthy of literature. The speech he uses, contemporaneous with Chaucer’s, is “bottomed on the vernacular,” in Hazlitt’s phrase; and an interesting specimen of plain, strong, effective English. It is far more representative of the common folk than is Chaucer’s courtly style. In the extracts which follow, a specimen of the Bible version is given first unchanged, then the same and other selections are modernized; enabling the reader to realize that aside from the archaic spelling, there is very little to-day unintelligible about the fourteenth-century style of Wycliffe.  3
 
 
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