Monday, March 23, 2015

The Bible in Richard III's day; and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?

The 1481 Amerbach Bible. Photo courtesy of the University of Leicester.
As part of yesterday's ceremonies, while Compline was sung at Leicester Cathedral, the University of Leicester's chaplain laid a Bible printed in the late king's day atop the coffin. You may read the related press release here.
A Bible printed in the late 1400's, you ask? Yes, this edition was printed by Johann Amerbach in 1481, a reprint of his original 1479 edition, which sold out. During Richard's reign, no Bibles were printed in England itself, but apparently, there was no problem acquiring ones made on the Continent.

You may know that Gutenberg printed his great Bible around 1455, and copies were sold throughout Christendom, even to England. Though the first printed Bibles were still substantially cheaper than the traditional hand-copied kind, they were still too expensive for private individuals to own. Gutenberg's customer base were chiefly the monasteries, universities, and cathedrals.

 

The printing press in England

William Caxton and Earl Rivers present
the first book printed in English to King Edward IV.
During the reign of Edward IV, a well-traveled English merchant by the name of William Caxton brought the printing press to England. In 1476 at Westminster, he printed the first book in England: a copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He went on to produce nearly a hundred other hits before his death in 1492, all artfully made, such as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and even Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, which was translated from French to English by Earl Rivers (Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law to Richard III, whom Richard put to death; and notably one of Robert Downey, Jr's earlier film roles in the 1995 version of Shakespeare's Richard III).
But what about the Bible? Caxton did print religious works, including indulgence certificates, the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, and a psalter based on the Latin Vulgate (the official edition of the Bible in the Roman Church, which the Gutenberg Bibles were also based on); but he never printed a complete Bible. The history of print isn't one of my specialties, so I don't know if he was specially forbidden from printing the Bible or if there just wasn't a market demand for it. The latter seems unlikely, so I'm more inclined to think Caxton just never got a license to print the full Bible, whether in Latin or in English.

The Lollard movement

In 1409, a church synod held in London under the authority of Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, issued a series of decrees against the Lollards, a sort of proto-Protestant movement inspired by Oxford scholar John Wycliffe. Wycliffe began his claim to fame by translating (or, perhaps, directing other scholars to translate) the Bible from Latin to English. It wasn't the first Bible in English, but it gained special notoriety because Wycliffe grew increasingly suspicious of corruption in the Church and emphasized a return to Scripture. Wycliffe's concerns about the Church's abuses of wealth were actually shared by many orthodox clerics as well, His followers, the Lollards (a derogatory term given by academics of the era to capture the mumbling sounds of the illiterate lay folk who came to dominate the movement) went further and challenged pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, the taking of oaths, and even the doctrine of the Eucharist, among many other beliefs, as "un-Scriptural". The denial of the Eucharist was, in my opinion, the last straw which prompted the Church to crack down on the Lollards. The year following the synod, John Badby was burned at the stake, the first layman to be executed for heresy in English history. It seems to have worked, since there were very few executions on account of Lollardy afterward. King Henry IV was eager to enforce the anti-Lollard decrees at least partly because he had the Church to thank for assuming the throne; and, in particular, Archbishop Arundel, a fellow exile who joined forces with him during Henry's banishment by Richard II.
Wycliffe's followers, the Lollards.
But getting back to the issue of the Bible, it was this synod that strictly regulated the translation and publication of the Scriptures. It did not, however, ban the printing or even the translating of Bibles outright. Rather, one had to have express permission from Church authorities to do so. From Arundel's Constitutions of 1408:
7. The translation of the text of Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another is a dangerous thing; as blessed Jerome testifies, because it is not easy to make the sense in all respects the same; as the same blessed Jerome confesses that he made frequent mistakes in this business, although he was inspired: therefore we enact and ordain that no one henceforth do by his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue or any other by way of book, pamphlet, or treatise. Nor let any such book, pamphlet, or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wicklif aforesaid, or since, or hereafter to be composed, be read in whole or in part, in public or in private, under pain of the greater excommunication, till that translation have been approved by the diocesan of the place, or if occasion shall require, by a provincial Council. Let him that do contrary be punished in the same manner as a supporter of heresy and error.

Was Richard III a Lollard?

I've noticed a few commenters on Richard-related posts throughout the web assert that the late king was a Lollard, or a proto-Protestant, because he owned a Wycliffe Bible. They are probably referring to the Wycliffe New Testament now owned by the New York Public Library. Richard owned quite a few books in his lifetime, of which about 13 are attributed to him today. We know this because he liked to sign his books (a relatively uncommon habit for his times). The Wycliffe New Testament in question is signed:
A VOUS ME LY -- Gloucestre
This was a motto in French, meaning, "I am bound to you". The signature, simply "Gloucester", is probably that of Richard III while he was still known as the Duke of Gloucester.
From a Wycliffe New Testament
in the British Library.
Now, while a faithful Protestant today might jump to the conclusion that Richard showed signs of early Protestant devotion (and a faithful Catholic might find Richard guilty by association for having even owned a Wycliffe NT), in truth, this doesn't tell us much other than that Richard had an interest in reading the Bible in English. This is because, believe it or not, the Wycliffe translation of the Bible itself was not banned by the Church. This is because the Wycliffe translations, or at least, the earlier ones made in Wycliffe's own lifetime, were faithfully, if not rather slavishly, translated from the Latin Vulgate. The Church, therefore, had no quarrel with the text itself. What caused a Wycliffe Bible to fall under the ban was if the Bible had one of the prefaces by Wycliffe or one of his followers attached. When succeeding Lollards issued newer, less literal translations with more leeway for interspersing their own interpretations, Church censors often had difficulty figuring out which Bibles were to be burned. A sure measure for them seems to have been whether the volume was dated before or after the year 1409. However, non-annotated Wycliffe Bibles still were found in the ownership of local churches everywhere, so it's highly unlikely that the ownership of one on Richard's part would suggest Lollard leanings. Further, we have a tremendous amount of evidence elsewhere, such as in Richard's book of hours, that the king expressed a traditional and quite non-Lollard Catholic faith; not the least of which was his extreme devotion to the offering of Masses and other prayers for the dead.
I hope to write more on the subject of Richard's religious practices soon, but for now, I'll leave with one great irony: since the Wycliffe Bible relied so heavily on the Latin Vulgate, which was inseparably associated with the Roman Church, it was considered tainted by later Protestant translators. This was the reason William Tyndale, a true early Protestant, went to work on his own Bible, favoring Greek and Hebrew source texts. Indeed, to the contrary, the Wycliffe Bible found a new lease on life as a reference for the Jesuits who produced the Douai-Reims Bible: the definitive Catholic translation of the Bible into English from its publication in 1610 until Vatican II in the 1960's.
Richard's coffin at Leicester Cathedral, with the Amerbach Bible at left.
 
 
Other entries during "Richard III Week":

-Today in history: Henry IV: the man whose claim to the crown started the troubles that led to the Wars of the Roses

-The first day: Richard on tour: select photos from the procession on Sunday, and the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster's Compline homily

-The Bible in Richard's day, and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?: on the king's reading habits and what to make of his Wycliffe New Testament

-A requiem for Richard: on the Requiem Mass, the king's faith, his book of hours, the cult of purgatory, and the chantry chapels of Richard's age

-Of hearses and hearse cloths: looking at Richard III's funeral pall and dressing the dead in medieval times

-Richard III's claim to the throne: sanguinity, statue, or sacrament?: Examining Richard's dynastic claims and what makes a king the king

-O God of Earth and Altar: a hymn by G.K. Chesterton, used at the reinterment on Thursday

-The poet laureate on Richard III: the poem at the reinterment. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.

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