Medieval Studies John Trevisa
Michael Twomey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0279


The English translator John Trevisa (b. c. 1342–d. 1402) was an exact contemporary of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. As is the case with Chaucer, very little of Trevisa’s life can be reconstructed from extant documents. Like Chaucer, Trevisa observed social and political events but referred only obliquely to them, and like Chaucer he staked his legacy to a body of work in English only. If Chaucer’s achievement was to elevate English poetry to a status rivaling that of poetry in Latin, Italian, and French, Trevisa’s was to prove English prose capable of conveying nuanced theological, political, and historical arguments. Trevisa’s known translations are of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus; the Dialogus inter militem et clericum (“Dialogue between a knight and a cleric”), a defense of temporal power; Archbishop Richard FitzRalph’s antifraternal sermon, Defensio curatorum (“Defense of secular priests”); Aegidius Romanus’s De regimine principum (“On the rule of princes”); Ranulph Higden’s universal history, Polychronicon; and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum (“On the properties of things”). Early modern antiquarians believed that Trevisa translated the Bible into English, but hard evidence is lacking (see under Trevisa, the Bible, and the Wycliffite Movement). Under his own name, Trevisa wrote a Dialogue between a Lord and a Clerk on Translation and an Epistle to Lord Berkeley upon Translation as prefaces to his translation of the Polychronicon. He also composed one original poem, with which he prefaced his translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus. No longer attributed to Trevisa are the Middle English version of the Revelationes of Pseudo-Methodius, a translation of Vegetius’s De re militari that accompanies De regimine principum in its sole manuscript witness, and Apocalypse texts in Anglo-Norman French painted on the ceiling and walls of Berkeley Chapel, Gloucestershire, England.

General Overviews

Two book-length studies (Beal 2012, Fowler 1995) treat Trevisa’s life and work comprehensively and in depth within their 14th-century intellectual, religious, social, and political contexts. Beal 2010, Beal 2004, Edwards 2004, Edwards 1984, and Perry 1925 are highly useful as introductions that direct the reader to scholarly consensus, with minimal speculation about Trevisa’s ecclesiastical and secular politics or his possible involvement in the Wycliffite movement. Edwards 1984 and Perry 1925 conveniently list manuscripts and editions of Trevisa’s works; see under Major Prose Translations: Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon. Aaron Jenkins Perry’s argument against attributing Pseudo-Methodius, Revelationes (Þe bygynnyng of þe world and þe ende of worldes), to Trevisa has met with general acceptance. Since 2009, Shensu University, Tokyo, has sponsored the International Centre for Polychronicon Studies, whose website features a bibliography of scholarship about Trevisa’s translation of the Polychronicon.

  • Beal, Jane. “John Trevisa (ca. 1342–1402).” In British Writers, Supplement 9. Edited by Jay Parini, 243–260. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

    Cautious, reliable, and brief introduction to Trevisa. Reconstructs Trevisa’s biography from early life in Cornwall to education at Exeter and Queen’s Colleges, Oxford, and service to the Berkeley family in Gloucestershire. Summarizes Trevisa’s original works and major translations (Polychronicon and De proprietatibus rerum) as well as his four minor translations and works erroneously ascribed to him. Concludes with a section on Trevisa’s worldview as inferred from his works.

  • Beal, Jane. “Trevisa, John.” In Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle. Vol. 2, J–Z. Edited by Graeme Dunphy, 1446–1447. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2010.

    Brief statement of Trevisa’s career and aims as translator, with focus on the Polychronicon; includes list of manuscripts and early printed editions plus select bibliography of primary and secondary sources. For more information on manuscripts, see under Major Prose Translations: Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon.

  • Beal, Jane. John Trevisa and the English Polychronicon. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance 37. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2012.

    The only book-length study of Trevisa since Fowler 1995. Indulging less in biographical speculation than does David Fowler, Beal surveys Trevisa’s life and works, his biblical understanding of world history, his motives and rhetorical strategies for translating Latin learning into English, and the revisions made by William Caxton to Trevisa’s English Polychronicon in the first printed edition. Although it lacks an index, this is still the starting point for study of Trevisa.

  • Edwards, Anthony S. G. “John Trevisa.” In Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres. Edited by A. S. G. Edwards, 133–146. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1984.

    Reviews scholarship up to 1984 within an overview of Trevisa’s life and works. Lists manuscripts of each of Trevisa’s works. Proposes directions for future work, such as completing a critical edition of the Polychronicon, determining the base texts for Trevisa’s translations, determining the chronology of Trevisa’s minor works, and ascertaining Trevisa’s possible involvement with the Wycliffites. This agenda remains unfulfilled. Bibliography of secondary literature to 1984, pp. 145–146.

  • Edwards, A. S. G. “John Trevisa.” In A Companion to Middle English Prose. Edited by A. S. G. Edwards, 117–126. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

    Overview comprising brief discussions of Trevisa’s biography, the roles of Oxford University and patron Thomas Berkeley in Trevisa’s career, and Trevisa’s aims as a translator. Sees Trevisa’s literary career as the result chiefly of Berkeley’s patronage; describes Trevisa’s translation principles as fidelity to the source, allowing syntactical changes only in word order and the voice of the verb, and permitting some elaboration for the sake of clarity.

  • Fowler, David C. The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

    Fowler’s reconstruction of the contexts of Trevisa’s life and career in Cornwall, Oxford, and Berkeley Castle has inspired much subsequent research. It is now out of date, but Fowler’s biography was the first study of Trevisa after Perry 1925 to give serious attention to Trevisa’s minor works, and it is still an essential resource on the life of Trevisa.

  • International Centre for Polychronicon Studies.

    Founded in 2009 at Shensu University, Tokyo, the International Centre for Polychronicon Studies declares its purpose as collecting microfilm, producing facsimiles, sponsoring lectures and seminars, and assembling publications about Trevisa’s translation of the Polychronicon. The convenient bibliography on its website must be checked for typos and supplemented by other bibliographical resources.

  • Perry, Aaron Jenkins, ed. Dialogus inter militem et clericum, Richard FitzRalph’s Sermon “Defensio curatorum” and Methodius: “Þe bygynnyng of þe world and þe ende of worldes.” Early English Text Society, Original Series 167. London: Oxford University Press, 1925.

    Still the only modern edition of Dialogus and Defensio. Texts based on London, BL, Harley MS. 1900, correlated with four other manuscripts. Reconstructs Trevisa’s biography on the basis of surviving documents (pp. lv–lxxv); describes manuscripts and printed editions (pp. xv–liv); analyzes the language of the manuscripts (pp. cxxxiii–clvi). Perry’s argument for unattributing (Pseudo-)Methodius (pp. cxi–cxv) is universally accepted. Trevisa’s other works are discussed on pp. lxxv–cxxxii.

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