Creating a 14th Century Manuscript: Call me a Faux Scribe

It is amazing how traveling down an arbitrary path can send you on a journey you never expect. While researching Middle English texts on the Internet, through some haze of click-frenzy madness, I ended up reading about the first English versions of the Bible. Up through the 14th century, significant portions of the Bible were available only in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Between c.a. 1382 and 1395 John Wycliffe and his followers translated the Latin Vulgate into English, which was considered a vulgar tongue. This translation of was not without controversy and led to Wycliffe being branded a heretic by the church. Just owning a copy of one of these translations could mean grave consequences for the owner.

There were two versions of the translated Bible, the earlier was translated during the life of Wycliffe, while the author of the later version is John Purvey, one of Wycliffe's followers. There are few existing copies of the earlier version, which is why I chose to reproduce this translation as a manuscript. This manuscript would be something that is not readily seen, even in a museum.

All of the Wycliffe translations through the 14th century are written documents copied from various sources. It appears that no two copies are the same illustrating the difficulty in reproducing books in the Middle Ages. The first challenge in creating a facsimile of this manuscript is the reproduction of the written script.

I examined several digital images of Wycliffe translations to get an idea of the shape and form of the script in use. While each manuscript differs slightly, they all employed the same basic style and structure in the written characters. Not having the skills (or time) to become a scribe, I used FontForge to create a font that emulates the characters in the manuscript.

A digital image of manuscript text from a Wycliffe translation of the Bible.

A digital image of manuscript text from a Wycliffe translation of the Bible.

Manuscript text from above reproduced using a custom font to emulate the script.

Manuscript text from above reproduced using a custom font to emulate the script.

The full version of the Wycliffe manuscript is available here.