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Trevisa, John (b. c.1342, d. in or before 1402), translator, is of Cornish origins. Though his exact birthplace is unknown, his name implies that he came of a Cornish family from one of the places called Trevessa or Trevease. He was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1362 and remained as a fellow until 1369, when he became a fellow of the Queen's College. From this date he is referred to as magister. In 1370 he was ordained priest to the title of the Queen's College, where from 1376 he became involved in a movement of opposition to the appointment of a new provost, Thomas Carlisle. In 1379 he is named along with the former provost, Henry Whitfield, and others, as excluded from the college ‘for unworthiness’; they were required to return property (including twenty-four books whose titles are listed in a separate indenture) which they had removed from the college on their expulsion. Trevisa eventually returned to the college, renting rooms there between 1383 and 1387 and from 1394 to 1396.

It was probably in 1374 that Trevisa became vicar of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, and there is evidence for 1379 as the date of his appointment as the Berkeley family's chaplain in two papal bulls of that date (2 Urban VI) granting Lord Thomas and his wife, Margaret, licence to choose a ‘fit and discreet’ priest as their confessor. At Berkeley, Trevisa was also a canon of Westbury-on-Trym by 1390, in which year legal documents obscurely record a dispute in 1388–9 over Trevisa's right to his prebend of Woodford and his stall at Westbury; the dispute involved an alleged assault on the dean by a band of Trevisa's supporters, and armed occupation of the disputed stall in Westbury church and of the presbytery at Woodford. Also in 1390 Trevisa granted power of attorney to two fellow clerks in preparation for a journey abroad, the destination of which is unrecorded. This would not have been his first taste of foreign travel, for in two interpolations in his translation of Ranulf Higden's universal history, Polychronicon, he claims to have visited Aachen, Aix-les-Bains, and Breisach. It is known that Trevisa had died by May 1402, for a successor to the living of Berkeley, which had become vacant by his death, was appointed at that time. According to local tradition, he was buried in Berkeley church.

Trevisa's original writings are not extensive, comprising some 7000 words of prose interpolation in his translations and in addition the Dialogue between a Lord and a Clerk (a fictional representation of a dialogue about translation between his patron and himself) and the dedicatory Epistle, which together formed the prefaces to his translation of the Polychronicon. His style in these original pieces is strikingly direct, giving the effect of authority and plain-spokenness (in the Dialogue dramatically projected in the speech of the lord).

Trevisa's reputation as a writer, however, rests principally on his translations of encyclopaedic works from Latin into English, undertaken with the support of his patron, Thomas (IV), the fifth Baron Berkeley, as a continuous programme of enlightenment for the laity. The Polychronicon translation was completed in April 1387 and survives in fourteen manuscripts (of which the two earliest, though not autographs, are assigned a Berkeley provenance) and in a Caxton print of 1482. The scientific encyclopaedia De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus was completed in February 1399 and is extant in eight manuscripts; it was printed by Wynkyn de Worde c.1495. A third lengthy translation attributed to him, De regimine principum by Giles of Rome, was published in 1997 from the single extant manuscript.

The antagonism towards the regular orders and ecclesiastical establishment displayed in two shorter works translated by Trevisa, Fitzralph's sermon against the friars, Defensio curatorum, and the dialogue formerly attributed to William Ockham, Dialogus inter militem et clericum, on the limitation of the temporal power of the church, is echoed in some of his interpolations in the Polychronicon. In the 1370s and 1380s Trevisa's periods of residence in the Queen's College, Oxford, partly coincided with that of Wyclif and his associates, but there is no evidence that he worked with them on their translation of the Bible (or that he produced at any time a translation of the Bible himself). Like them, however, he was engaged in opening to the laity (in his case the baronial laity), through translation into the increasingly important vernacular, areas of knowledge formerly the preserve of ecclesiastical, Latin learning.

Ronald Waldron


D. C. Fowler, John Trevisa (1993) · Emden, Oxf. · Registrum Simonis de Sudbiria, diocesis Londoniensis, AD 1362–1375, ed. R. C. Fowler, 2 vols., CYS, 34, 38 (1927–38) · I. H. Jeayes, Descriptive catalogue of the charters and muniments in the possession of the Rt. Hon. Lord Fitzhardinge at Berkeley Castle (1892), 175, sel. charters no. 554, 555 [papal bulls] · Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden monachi Cestrensis, ed. C. Babington and J. R. Lumby, 9 vols., Rolls Series, 41 (1865–86), vol. 2, p. 61; vol. 6, p. 259 · J. Trevisa, Dialogus inter militem et clericum, ed. A. J. Perry, EETS, 167 (1925), lxxv · W. E. L. Smith, ed., The register of Richard Clifford, bishop of Worcester, 1401–1407: a calendar, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies: Subsidia Mediaevalia, 6 (1976) · J. Smyth, The Berkeley manuscripts, ed. J. Maclean, 3 vols. (1883–5), vol. 1, p. 338; vol. 2, p. 22 · A. McIntosh and others, A linguistic atlas of late mediaeval English, 4 vols. (1986), vol. 3, pp. 139f. [Berkeley provenance of MSS of the Polychronicon: BL, Cotton MS Tiberius D. vii, and Manchester, Chetham's Library MS 11379] · D. C. Fowler, C. F. Briggs, and P. G. Remley, eds., The governance of kings and princes: John Trevisa's Middle English translation of the De regimine principum of Ægidius Romanus (1997)


BL, Cotton Tiberius D.vii · Chetham's Library, Manchester, MS 11379