John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

This morning, I read a lovely article in the GuardianHertford College, Oxford – which went mixed forty years ago – is celebrating by replacing its dusty old portraits of former male members with photographs of female alumnae.

I really like this. Especially because it doesn’t come across as a pompous policy decision, but something much more funny and, actually, suprisingly revealing of the history of the college. The article quotes Dr Emma Smith explaining that the college’s one-time reputation for being poor and academically undistinguished (back in the days when it formed the backdrop for Brideshead Revisited) made the decision easier to make:

“We have no glorious history, we’re not hidebound by ancient traditions, we have none. Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne.”

I can well belive this. And I find it pretty funny that Smith and her colleagues discovered, on removing a row of portraits of male clergy, that no-one actually had the faintest idea who these men were. It’s usually women who suffer this fate: immortalized on canvas, but with no-one bothering to remember their names. Presumably, the idea of men being anonymised in plain sight was so unthinkable to generations of Hertford people that no-one quite realized everyone else was wondering who the portraits represented.

Anyway, all of this was, as I say, rather nice. Most Oxbridge colleges have an embarrassment of portraits of dusty, long-dead men glaring down from the walls, and, I’ll admit, it doesn’t tend to make you feel at home. You’re constantly reminded that the place was built from the minds and purses of powerful men, that it excluded women for centuries.

However, I did have a quibble, both with the Guardian (oh, Guardian!), and with this version of history. The Guardian notes that one of the portraits consigned to obscurity is that of William Tyndale, ‘first translator of the Bible into English’. Now, Hertford does have a historic grudge against John Wycliffe – the man whose name is usually associated with the first complete English translations of the Bible (Anglo-Saxonists can argue over that one). Hertford’s pleasantly named ‘Black Hall’ is where Wycliffe was imprisoned while the authorities took their first and only known debate over whether or not this new fangled ‘change’ was a good thing.

Dear readers, I struggled with that Guardian article. Oh, who am I kidding? I rolled my eyes and then gleefully took recourse to academic snarking. Tyndale’s translation gets the credit over that carried out by John Wycliffe and his colleagues over a century earlier, because Tyndale belongs to the post-medieval, post-print sixteenth century. People don’t generally like to believe that English Bibles belonged to the medieval period – let alone that they were the English book that survive in (by far) the greatest numbers – because it doesn’t fit well with our nice image of the medieval Catholic Church as a sinister organization carrying out its operations in impenetrable Latin. It’s true the medieval Church wasn’t wild keen on Wycliffe’s Bible falling into uneducated hands, and after a certain point, you’d (technically) need special clearance to own a copy. But this didn’t stop kings, aristocrats and monasteries from buying copies. And in fact, one of the only copies to include a record that official permission for ownership was sought, belonged to a woman.

I’ve written before about the aftermath of John Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, and about how a heretical movement called Lollardy sprung up, demanding (amongst other things) that women be given the freedom to read the Bible, preach, and teach. And I’ve noted that, generally, we’re not taught about this minor attempt to give women more visibility in a historically male-dominated academic and religious culture.

Why does this matter? What does it mean to omit Wycliffe from the historical version of events – and therefore to omit the tantalizing possibility of women priests, and the factual existence of female Bible readers, from the record also?

Well, it matters because those portraits of dead white men at Hertford, and other Oxbridge colleges, are just occasionally varied with portraits of their female counterparts. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, we have Marie de St Pol. The Bodleian holds the portrait of Dervorguilla of Galloway, who part-funded Balliol. Queen’s College, Oxford, owns a rather dodgy post-medieval picture of its medieval patron, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Clare College, Cambridge, has a picture of its second founder, Elizabeth de Clare. Both Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville are credited with the founding of Queens’ Cambridge (hence the position of its apostrophe).

And so it goes on. For wealthy medieval women, donating money to an Oxbridge college was a perfectly normal act of piety, something for which they fully expected to be remembered. After Wycliffie, such activities would not have been incompatible with paying for a beautifully hand-copied manuscript of the English Bible. Some women even translated portions of the Bible for themselves, or read in Latin or French.

There is a continuity to women’s involvement in academia, even in Oxbridge. And sure, founding a college (or having a foundation named after you) isn’t remotely the same thing as being allowed to study there. So, I love Hertford’s new portraits, and I love the idea behind them. But I hope that, when they face the inevitable backlash of male voices shouting about the sanctity of tradition, they’ll keep in mind that there is also a long-forgotten history of women who deserve to be remembered.

Note

On the subject of the title of this post – well, no, not really. I doubt Wycliffe had a feminist idea in his life. But the idea tickles me.

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5 thoughts on “John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg.

  1. There’s a portrait of lady Dervorguilla in the dining hall at Balliol, too: http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/images/Portraits%20CPF/a013%20Dervorguilla.jpg The college is really quite excited about her at the moment. The archivist blogs about her, and there’s a scholarship and a seminar series named for her.

    I reckon that the first scholar in Oxford we know by name is a woman. Oxford’s patron saint, St Friðuswīþ (Frideswide), was the first abbess of a double monastery (i.e. one for both monks and nuns) on the location of the present Christ Church Cathedral, around about the time of Bede.

    (Caveat: I do literature, not history, so If there are any historians out there who know more about seventh century Oxford than I do and can name someone earlier, I’m happy to be corrected!)

    • Thank you for the Dervorguilla portrait. I think Kylie Murray at Balliol shared one of the blogs about her. She sounds an interesting character.

      I should have written more about monasteries and nuns in this post, really (I’m tight on time). I didn’t know, or had forgotten maybe, that there was a double monastery near Oxford. I love to think of Oxford’s first known scholar being a woman!

  2. There is fascinating evidence of Lady Dervorguilla’s book ownership right here in Oxford, at the Bodleian (MS Fairfax 5, which contains her ownership inscription, and was subsequently passed on to the Cistercian community she founded at Sweetheart Abbey). I have also found evidence of Boethius being read in her wider family nexus, and will be publishing on this soon.

    I’m giving a talk on Lady Dervorguilla and her books in early 2015, at Balliol. I will happily share that paper once it’s completed with anyone who is interested in this fascinating female figure.

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