‘The Naked Text’?: the Wycliffite Bible Controversy

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The Wycliffite Bible (CCCC MS 147)

Language can be exclusive. When a text is unavailable in one’s own language, one feels barred from understanding its meaning. This concern allows us insight into the thinking behind the production of this highly controversial manuscript from the Parker Library collection: the Wycliffite Bible (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 147). The Wycliffites, followers of the divisive church reformer John Wycliffe, were the first to translate the Bible from Latin—which the clergy read—into the vernacular, the language of the people: English. This particular manuscript is of the later version of the Wycliffite Bible, and was likely produced between 1410 and 1430. In its prologue is the pronouncement that ‘no simple man of wit be aferd vnmesurabli to studie in the text of holy writ, for whi tho ben wordis of euerlastyng lif’[1] [no man simple in wit should be unreasonably afraid to study in the text of holy writ, because those are words of everlasting life]. While researching the fiery Late Medieval debate surrounding this manuscript and others like it, I discovered that era’s contention regarding textual, and especially biblical, translation and interpretation.

I began by looking at the language the Wycliffites themselves used to describe their project of producing the first ever English Bible. I found that one particular phrase—‘the naked text’—was ‘intimately linked with the Wycliffite project of Bible translation’.[2] This phrase originated from medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, in which Chaucer summarises his intention to translate his classical sources in order to declare ‘[t]he naked text in English’.[3]

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The prologue to the later version of the Wycliffite Bible

But what is a ‘naked text’? Chaucerian scholars can help to shine a light on this obscure phrase. Sheila Delany reads Chaucer as describing ‘a text bare of rhetoric, a text faithfully translated, a text devoid of gloss, or a text completely transparent to meaning’.[4] D. S. Brewer similarly contends that ‘[t]he plain or naked text, without the ‘glose’ – without, that is, the interpretation that came to signify falsification or flattery or deceit – appealed to Chaucer, and he always uses the word ‘glosing’ unfavourably’.[5] The Chaucerian idea of ‘the naked text’, therefore, refers to a text that requires no interpretation; one can read its meaning directly. The compelling idea of a Bible ‘completely transparent to meaning’—and whether this could be a reality—lies at the heart of the Wycliffite Bible controversy.

The bizarre imagery of textual nakedness is worth analysing. Sheila Delany offers both positive and negative connotations in her analysis of this Chaucerian phrase. She notes that, because ‘naked’ is ‘the past participle of a transitive verb: to naken or to nake an object, meaning to make bare, to expose, to strip someone or something of covering or protection’, the ‘naked text’ can be seen as something ‘impoverished, stripped of what had properly covered or adorned it’.[6] On the other hand, she writes: ‘nakedness is a natural condition: the pristine condition, after all, of the human race and the human individual’.[7] This duality of connotation made the ‘naked text’ phrase fruitful for both the proponents and critics of the English Bible. For the anti-Wycliffites, the phrase could be used unfavourably, as nakedness does not usually suggest something meant to be public and widely accessible, but rather something that should remain private (in this case, ‘the naked text’ of the Bible should remain in the hands of the clergy). Meanwhile, for the Wycliffites themselves, ‘the naked text’ of the English Bible symbolised freeing God’s Word from its stifling and elitist Latin clothing.

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Marginal criticism of the translation of ‘erodius’ as ‘gefauken’

The direction reception of an English Bible by ordinary people certainly seems to involve less interpretative work than the reception of the Latin Bible by the clergy—highly trained in biblical interpretation—who then pass on their interpretations to their congregations. The English masses, having had no interpretative training, certainly would not feel as if they were interpreting, but simply reading. However, the possible naivety of Wycliffite optimism starts to show through here. Even the untrained common man could not help interpreting as he read; even the illusive ‘naked text’ would be quickly clothed in his own interpretation. Moreover, the unavoidable interpretive work involved in all translation—including that of the Latin Bible by the Wycliffites—cannot be ignored. The Wycliffite Bible in the Parker Library bears witness to the supposed dangers of translating into the vernacular, as this very manuscript contains the earliest comment on the inaccuracy of the Wycliffite translation; in the margins of Psalm 103, Wycliffe’s competence in Latin is criticised when he translates the Latin word ‘erodius’, meaning stork, into the Middle English word ‘gefaukun’, referring to a type of falcon.[8] Modern critic Mary Dove deems this comment to be ‘finicky’ and ‘clutching at anti-Wycliffite straws’,[9] yet the comment’s triviality demonstrates the immensity of underlying tensions regarding biblical translation.

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A small marginal gloss

As mentioned above, Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ idea seems to reject the inclusion of glosses—that is, explanations and paraphrases that could guide textual interpretation. Similarly, for the Wycliffites, ‘the Bible had to be reclaimed from the discourse of glossing’.[10] While rejecting that academic and exclusive ‘discourse’, they believed that ‘the Christian life well and tenaciously lived […] is the highest and most authoritative form of biblical glossing’.[11] Consequently, the Parker manuscript, like other Wycliffite Bibles, only contains minor and infrequent glosses, such as ‘intertextual glosses’ which usually ‘appear in the margins, outlined in red’.[12] This scarcity of explanation led the clergy to worry about the spiritual endangerment that might arise from allowing ordinary people to read difficult parts of the Bible themselves. The Dominican friar Palmer, who argued against vernacular translation, supported circumlocution—the method by which priests gloss and interpret scripture in a roundabout way for the laity—and warned that the naked, uninterpreted text of the Bible had given rise to multiple heresies among untrained people in the early church.[13] For Palmer, ‘the naked text’ was an ominous danger, as the laity are incapable of properly understanding what they read; his opinion undercuts the Wycliffite hope for a Bible ‘transparent to meaning’ for ordinary people.

Even now, there is a diversity of views on the value or naivety of the Wycliffite project. There is a degree of irony in the Wycliffites’ adoption of Chaucer’s ‘naked text’ phrase, as critics such as Delany read the original phrase as ironic, suggesting that Chaucer himself knew ‘there is no such thing as true nakedness whether of texts or of people or of ideas’.[14] Moreover, Chaucer omitted the phrase from a later version of his own text, seemingly in ‘response to the increasingly controversial Wycliffite project of Bible translation in the late 1380s and 1390s, which claimed to be able to produce just such a “naked text”’.[15] A few years later, in 1409, the English Church introduced the following interdictions: ‘no vernacular scripture translated recently enough to be clearly understood […]; no vernacular theology; no lay access to clerical learning’.[16] What is intriguing here is the Church’s concern that a text might actually be ‘clearly understood’; this is a worry about clarity rather than the lack of it. Perhaps the Wycliffite idea of producing a truly ‘naked text’—with an accessible meaning outside of clerical interpretation—was too optimistic, but rather than laughing at its naivety, the Church in fact seemed desirous to prevent the Bible from becoming too ‘naked’. It seems that the Wycliffites had, at the very least, tapped into a latent anxiety about how the Bible was read and who read it.

—Julia Dallaway (julia.dallaway@worc.ox.ac.uk)


[1] Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden (eds.), The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books, in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1850): 2.

[2] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 41.

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Legend of Good Women,’ in Chaucer’s Works, Volume 3, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Project Gutenberg, 2014): p.72, l.86.

[4] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 75.

[5] D. S. Brewer, A New Introduction to Chaucer (London and New York: Routledge, 1998): 249.

[6] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 118.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 175.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kantik Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and The Interpretation of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1.

[11] Michael P. Kuczynski, ‘Glossing and glosses,’ in The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016): 367.

[12] Ibid., 348.

[13] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 10.

[14] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 1.

[15] Michael N. Salda and Jean E. Jost (eds.), Chaucer Yearbook: A Journal of Late Medieval Studies, Volume 4 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1997): 99.

[16] Mary Dove, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 37.

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