Unique Wyclif

John Wyclif, Postilla in Biblia (England, early 15th century)   MS 171

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 171, fol. 210v: Commentary on Psalm 78

John Wyclif (d. 1384) is today best remembered for his connection with the first complete Bible translation into English. He is, however, also the author of a comprehensive commentary on the Bible, the Postilla in Biblia, which has survived only in parts dispersed over a number of institutions. Our MS 171 contains one of two known copies of Wyclif’s commentary on Job and the only known copies of five of Wyclif’s commentaries on the Old Testament, namely Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Song of Songs (commentary & tropological reading), and Lamentations.

This manuscript exhibits a rather unusual type of scribal marginal notes in the commentary on the Psalms. Wyclif adopted a system of symbols and cross-references first created by Gilbert of Poitiers (d. 1154) in his Media glosatura in order to ‘facilitate easy movement between non-adjacent but related Psalms’ (Kraebel, p. 188). The symbols represent categories of Psalms, Arabic numbers above it ‘[indicate] the psalm’s position in the relevant sequence, another to the left identifies the previous psalm in the sequence […] and another to the right points to the next psalm […]’ (Kraebel, p. 188). Wyclif’s symbols are a refinement of those in Media glosatura and at least some of them are visually connected to the categories they represent. For example, the symbol representing the category ‘Lamentations for Jerusalem’ is essentially a T and O map, and Jerusalem is always located at the cross of the T in those maps (Kraebel, pp. 189-90). Wyclif was ‘the first medieval commentator to adopt – and improve – the Media glosatura’s cross-index’ (Kraebel, p. 191).

The manuscript has several ownership inscriptions, all connected to Oxford. The latest previous owner was the priest Richard Butler (d. 1612), whose unfortunate claim to fame is his involvement in the burning of the last heretic at the stake in England. Clashing with the Puritans and being accused of adherence to the Catholic faith, Butler shared his religious beliefs with John Buckeridge (d. 1631) and William Laud (1573-1645) (Foster). Buckeridge, another alumnus of Oxford’s St John’s College had become Laud’s college tutor in 1598 (McCullough), the year in which today’s Old Library was completed. Butler bequeathed his books to Buckeridge, then bishop of Rochester (Foster), who gave them to St John’s College in 1613.


Foster, Andrew (2008), ‘Butler, Richard’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/65644 [accessed 20/04/2023]

Kraebel, Andrew B. (2020), Biblical Commentary and Translations in Later Medieval England: Experiments in Interpretation, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 109 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

McCullough, P. E. (2008), ‘Buckeridge, John’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3854 [accessed 20/04/2023]

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