Henry Ansgar Kelly. The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment

Henry Ansgar Kelly. The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. xiv, 349 p. ISBN 9780812248340. US$ 69.95 (hardcover and e-book).

In 135 pages of text and 18 technical appendices, Henry Ansgar Kelly reassesses the translations of the Middle English Bible to produce an interesting monograph on the subject. The translations he compares are primarily the Lollard or Wycliffite Bibles (pre-fifteenth century), which pre-date incunable vernacular bibles. Interestingly, Kelly devotes much of the slim text to scholarship about the history and translation of the Wycliffite Bible. He assesses pertinent scholarship from the fifteenth century to the present, paying considerable attention to contemporaneous commentators. At first glance, this intriguingly-titled book might seem attractive to scholars and students studying the history of the book or the history of the Bible through time. In particular, Kelly’s opus will be useful for those immersed in the study of translations and textual analysis of various editions of the Middle English Bible.

An interesting part of this monograph is Kelly’s discussion and analysis of Five and Twenty Books as well as its place within commentaries and prologues. A comparison of the ten manuscript copies thereof constitutes the content of the second chapter. The author compares various editions and translations from Latin to English of Five and Twenty Books and the use of vocabulary within the text. More importantly, Kelly searches for similarities in the use of specific terminology in both the Late Version of the Middle English Bible and Five and Twenty Books. Useful comparison charts illustrate this extensive second chapter.

Subsequently, Kelly proceeds in his study with a discussion of the Bible as a central focus for the study of theology at Oxford. This chapter is followed by an even more complex analysis of various religious arguments and treatises supporting and challenging the translations of the Bible into the vernacular, most particularly in the 1300s. While touching upon earlier translations into the vernacular, that is the Septuagint and the Vulgate, Kelly looks closely at  various religious arguments in favor of and against translation into English. He then wraps up his study of the Middle English Bible through complex comparisons of treatments and translations in the fifteenth century.

The extensive appendices and bilingual notes comprise the second half of the book. Those who intend to dig into the primary sources quoted in the notes must be comfortable with Latin texts, although many are translated. The bibliography includes a wide range of subjects including primary sources, history, biblical exegesis, and religious commentaries.

The lack of illustrations showing manuscript texts narrows the audience for this book to scholars of medieval and Middle English bibles. There are numerous comparison charts of translations of specific terms and contextualized use of vocabulary within each chapter. These charts will be of interest to scholars of biblical translation and textual analysis. Many of the chapters can stand on their own as specialized, in-depth studies on a given topic.

Convoluted and lengthy sentences require the reader’s undivided attention to the minute details within each chapter and all the appendices, but despite this challenge, the monograph is worth reading. Given the narrow focus of this work and its extensive asides and bilingual notes, this book is suitable for specialists in the field as well as graduate students writing on the subject. There are more general books on bibles and their history, including Christopher De Hamel’s The Book: A History of the Bible (Phaidon Press, 2001), suitable for beginners and non-specialists. Kelly’s reassessment of the Middle English Bible may be of particular interest, however, to students in the history of the book, religion, and biblical translation.

Miriam Kahn
Kent State University