Expert Answer Forum
Bible reading prohibited QUESTION from Carl Arpon October 17, 1999 2 different priests, at different times, during conversations implied that the Church at one time did not allow Bible reading. I don't believe that on at least on a universal level. Was there ever a local region that did forbid Bible reading at least for a limited time? I seem to recall there may have been something in France centuries ago. Are you aware of any situation like this? Where can I go on the internet or what book do I need to look this up? Thank you and God bless!
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on October 26, 1999 Dear Mr. Arpon
The Church never prohibited anyone from reading the Bible so long as there was no danger of heresy. By saying this I may be playing into the hands of anti-Catholics, but of course, further explanation is necessary.
Anti-Catholics will cite, as evidence of their charge, the canons of the Council of Toulouse, held in 1229. Sometimes Fundamentalists will claim this council was held in Valencia, Spain. This is incorrect. (This only goes to show the poverty of historical knowledge among the most extremist anti-Catholic groups-- they can't even get the basic facts straight!) The Council of Toulouse did ban the possession of vernacular Bibles for the laity without a license; not because the Church wished to discourage the authentic study of Scripture, but because the Bible was used as a tool for the promotion of the Albigensian heresy. In the Middle Ages, Bibles contained glosses, either in between verses or in the margins. These glosses served to guide the reader's interpretation of the text. A decently translated Bible could contain glosses which might lead the reader to reject the Church. Or the translation of the Bible could be perverted to support a heretical doctrine. For these reasons, some bibles were burned.
The anti-Catholic will then think: Ah! Guilty as charged! because the Church would not allow Bible-reading. The anti-Catholic presumes that if the laity of the Middle Ages would have read the Bible for themselves, they would have naturally discovered Fundamentalist Protestant Doctrines. This is completely wrong of course, since anyone with an education could read the Bible (since an educated person was someone who knew Latin) and there was no widespread movement to reject the Church until 1517. The anti-Catholic also assumes that the pursuit of heresy was carried out purely for religious reasons. Heresy was seen as undermining the social order, since the social order was founded on religious belief. People with a shallow understanding of the Middle Ages scoff at this notion because they can't or don't want to relate to it, but we've lived in a similar situation in our own lifetimes. I remember when I was a girl, communist and socialist beliefs were suppressed and censored as much as possible in the West-- why? Because it was thought that if these beliefs would spread, then our freedom would be endangered. The threat to democracy seemed to be very real, even though the number of committed communists was very small on the North American continent. They were tracked by the CIA. In Canada, where I'm from, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police used to break into the offices of left-wing groups with impunity (and I am certain the CIA did similar things). All this seemed absolutely normal to us. Left-wingers accused the conservative-minded of being thought police-- it was just beliefs and that exercising this absolute freedom was more important than protecting it. Ironically, anti-Catholics, the same type of people who were in favour of suppressing communism, are, in essence, saying the the same thing-- the Church was the thought police, and it's more important to be able to exercise freedom than to protect it. The feudal order of the day required a religious foundation. Political bonds were conferred through personal relationships and oaths, not through constitutions and juridical laws as they are today.
Through the charge that the Church prohibited Bible-reading, the anti-Catholic tries to create the impression that Medieval Catholics were ignorant of Scripture, and that that is the reason why they were duped into believing the doctrines of Rome. It's true that Bibles were not readily available to the average person in Europe especially before the invention of the printing press. The average layperson could not purchase a softcover bible containing the 73 books of the Bible for for $20 like we can today. When discussing the Medieval vernacular Bible, we have to discard our modern picture of what a Bible should look like. A vernacular bible in the Middle Ages did not necessarily have all 73 books. It might contain The Gospels and the Psalms in one collection; or it might just be one book (like the Song of Songs). Before the printing press, a whole Bible was extremely expensive (which is why they were chained to the lecterns of churches), and even one book cost a lot. Pages were made of vellum (sheepspkin), which was expensive, so the person who commissioned the translation or the copying of a manuscript had to be rich enough to pay for the material. The use of paper and the invention of the printing press (1453 A.D.) diminished the cost of a book considerably because books could be easily produced in masses. Another factor to take into consideration is that for most of the Middle Ages, a man who could read in the vernacular could probably also read Latin. And even if one knew how to read only in the vernacular, it didn't necessarily mean that one knew how to read well. A layman might only read at a first- or second-grade level. In the end, he might not want to read the whole Bible--just those parts he was familiar with.
The above factors explain why vernacular Bibles were relatively scarce during the Middle Ages. However, during the 15th and 16th centuries, a convergence of two factors resulted in the production of more vernacular Bibles by orthodox translators. First, the literacy rate rose and secondly, the printing press made books cheaper and available in greater numbers. It is in these periods that we see a sharp rise in the number of vernacular editions. The Germans produced 18 versions of the Bible from 1466 up to the beginning of the Refomation in 1517; the Earliest complete Italian Bible dates from the 14th century (Italians were more literate). England (Douai Bible), Belgium (Louvain), Poland, Italy and Germany produced their own Catholic versions of vernacular bibles in the 16th century.
The uncritical anti-Catholic also assumes that because there were relatively few bibles, knowledge of Scripture was limited. That was hardly the case. Catholics transmitted biblical knowledge in other forms. There were books which paraphrased stories in the Bible as is done today in children's books. The visual arts abounded in Scriptural themes. Stained-glass windows were the poor man's Bible. There were Miracle plays, which were the forerunners of modern Western theatre, as well as poems recounting Bible stories. Even the illiterate had access to the Bible through their families. Only a minority of people were literate during the Middle Ages, but sometimes one person in the family could read (often a woman) and the Bible, being the most widely-owned book in the Middle Ages, was read aloud.
The assumption driving this myth of bible-banning is that the Church, during the Middle Ages, was a big bad oppressor who wanted her flock to be ignorant so that it wouldn't challenge her power and her doctrines. Mind you, perhaps the priests you overheard were merely repeating conventional wisdom on this subject, and not attempting to put down the Church, although it's really sad that their knowledge of history is so poor and unsophisticated that they could repeat such things.
So the charge that the Church was against knowledge of Scripture is entirely unfounded. It's true that in some periods and some places vernacular versions of the Bible were rare or non-existent, but that's not the same thing as saying that the Church did not want the laity to read the Bible.
Thank you and God Bless,
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