Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 2: Bibles

Incipit of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, Anglo-Saxon gloss

Allow me to base this post about medieval vernacular Bibles on two anecdotes. One is me being cheeky, the other is me having a realisation.

A few years ago, my father-in-law was looking at a wee booklet from the Canadian Bible Society about where our Bible came from, and he quizzed me, asking who first translated the Bible. I said St Jerome. He said they were looking for the vernacular. I cheekily responded that Latin was the vernacular in the year 400. To their credit, CBS did discuss Jerome elsewhere in the booklet. If memory serves me correctly, though, John Wycliffe was the right answer, as he usually is in these scenarios.

But even if we are discussing ancient translations of the Bible, we don’t actually know who first put the Bible into Latin in the third century, or Syriac in the second and third, the final stage being Philoxenus of Mabbug translating Revelation in the 500s. There is a similar time frame for Coptic, I believe. The (incomplete) Gothic Bible is fourth- and fifth-century, presumably much of it by Ulfilas. A number of translators put the Bible into Armenian in the early 400s — Mesrop Mashtots, John of Egheghiatz, Joseph of Baghin, from what I can see. About a year ago we learned about an illustrated Ethiopian Bible that was written between 330 and 650 in Ge’ez; tradition attributes the Ge’ez translation to Abba Garima in 494.

Besides Gothic, these are all Eastern, and they’re all Late Antique.

And we all know the story about the ‘Heresy of the Three Languages’, don’t we? The story is that in the 860s Sts Cyril and Methodius were happily translating Bibles and liturgies into Slavic, and then ran into Frankish missionaries who believed that the worship on God could only occur in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. In 867 (54 years after the formal approval of vernacular preaching in Frankish realms at Tours) they went to Rome where Pope Hadrian II approved their mission and their use of Slavic liturgy.

Nonetheless, weren’t the Latin Middle Ages a time when western Europe’s Christians were forbidden from hearing God’s Word in their own language? We all know about how much trouble John Wycliffe (1330-84) got in; we are told that his English Bibles were banned, and that this proto-Reformer, medieval ‘Protestant’ was condemned, and that he was the inspiration for the next pre-Protestant Jan Hus (burned at the stake at the Council of Constance, 1415). Most of the things Wycliffe got in trouble for were not his English Bibles for.

We also all know the story of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and the fact that he had to go to the Continent to freely translate and print the New Testament in English.

And is England in the late 1300s and early 1500s the same thing as all of Western Europe, 500-1500?

No, it is not. And this narrative may have made me uneasy, but I didn’t question it.

Until I visited the magnificent exhibition Verbum Domini II, a free exhibition about the history of the Bible put on by the Vatican in 2014. This was a magnificent exhibition, celebrating the Bible throughout its history, from Greek papyri to digital versions. There were ancient Bibles on display in different languages, as well as medieval Bibles — and not just Latin or eastern languages, but German and Italian ones!

This interested me. Medieval vernacular Bibles!

I then learned what my English Protestant ecclesiastical history had missed out. The English aspect of Wycliffe and Tyndale’s endeavours. Both of them were resisted by local English ecclesiastical authorities, for one thing. Wycliffe’s condemnation at the Council of Constance says nothing about translating the Bible into the vernacular. And although Tyndale was not allowed legitimately to pursue his program of translation, an English translation authorised by the Roman church was published in 1582, 1609, and 1610 (the Douay-Rheims Bible).

Various vernacular translations were made in the Middle Ages. Pre-Conquest England (before 1066) saw Anglo-Saxon translations, versifications, and interlinear glosses of the Latin text. About 1000 manuscripts or fragments from medieval German Bibles exist. Various French translations also occurred in the Middle Ages, and the Roman Church had no trouble with some made in the 1500s in Belgium. 1471 gave us our first printing of the Bible in Italian.

Now, I’m not saying that there were no issues surrounding vernacular Bibles, especially in England, especially in the later Middle Ages. These measures were usually to try and control Protestants by restricting their access to God’s Word. Nonetheless, the Bible translations into the 16th-century vernaculars of Europe by Protestants were not the first, and the Catholics were doing the same thing.

Once again, this matters, especially in the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We need to ask ourselves what was being reformed, and if the reforming looked the same in every nation. But some of the problems arising in some places, such as England, were ultimately dealt with by the Roman Church itself — such as vernacular Bibles.

The Middle Ages were a varied and long period in Christian history (fully 1/2). If we wish to be strong in our faith, and if we believe that we are right to be out of communion with the Bishop of Rome, let’s ensure that we’ve done it for the right reasons — and understanding the Middle Ages is a key part of doing so.

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