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The Reluctant Romans

At Douai in Flanders, Catholic scholars translated the Bible into English as an alternative to the Bible of the heretics.
2001This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

King James may have felt threatened by the Puritans and their anti-monarchist Bible. But he was equally afraid of the opposite religio-political fringe, the Catholics, and any Bible they might produce. Just as the Protestant scholars had fled to the Continent during the persecutions of Mary Tudor and there translated the Geneva Bible, so the Catholic scholars fled to Flanders during the reign of Elizabeth and began their own Bible project.

At Douai in Flanders, William Allen had established an English College in 1568. Ten years later, Catholic scholars there began to translate the Bible into English. This was a reversal of long-standing church policy. The great Spanish biblical scholar Cardinal Ximenes had in 1492 discouraged a fellow bishop from translating the Scriptures into Arabic. "It would be throwing pearls before swine," he said, "for the Word of God should be wrapped in discreet mystery from the vulgar, who feel little reverence for what is plain and obvious." The Council of Trent later followed suit, heaping scorn upon vernacular translations as "unholy and impure."

But the English Catholics at Douai knew they needed to offer an alternative to the Bible of "the heretics." And so, by 1582 they had published a New Testament, and by 1609-10 (just a year before the King James Version appeared) they made available a complete English Bible.

To say it was a vernacular Bible would be to claim too much. Though the translation was often excellent, it was studded with Latinate terms, many of which were merely borrowed and lightly Anglicized. Some of these terms have stayed with us: adulterate, allegory, evangelize. Others have remained obscure: inquination and supersubstantial, for example. "Protestants charged that the language ...

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