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.

Church Post-Constantine 2b: Medieval church targets

This is the second part of the second part of a series on the messy reality of Church History After Constantine. The others are: The Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History and Church After Constantine 2a: The Late Antique Targets, with An Excursus on the Synod of Whitby, AD 664

Jan Hus is burned at the stake

This series of posts is considering those groups targeted by the official engines of the Church (be it ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox’) following Constantine’s conversion in the early 300s. My main contentions, if you haven’t guessed by now, are:

  1. The church has been policing its doctrinal boundaries since long before Constantine
  2. Most of the groups targeted by the post-Constantinian Church are groups who would be considered heretical by the more doctrinally conservative Protestants who support the idea of the True Church having gone Underground in response to Constantine
  3. The use of force and encouragement of secular authorities to police the boundaries of doctrine and dogma are not, if you ask me, Good Ideas

So, who are the groups and persons whom the mediaeval church targeted? The Middle Ages are, after all, when we imagine the hard, vice-like grip of power by the papacy and its goons to really come down on worship and belief. Who are their victims? I have to admit that this is a much longer period than Late Antiquity, and I am less well-acquainted with it. However, here are some of the many groups and persons the mediaeval ecclesiastical hierarchy targeted. Is any of them the Underground Church?

Cathars/Albigensians. The Cathars were hailed in something I read (I forget what) as ‘the first Protestants’. I have a number of problems of trying to call a whole host of pre-Luther people ‘Protestant’, not least of which is the fact that the Cathars are, in fact, actual heretics, and not a reform movement. Their teaching is not unlike that of the Manichees. Indeed, experiments in dualism of one sort or other are an ongoing temptation in for adherents of the Christian faith.

Berengar of Tours and eucharistic controversies. I bring up Berengar of Tours (late 10th century) to make it clear the breadth of people who could fall under the hierarchy’s censure. In this case, an esteemed theologian who, while believing in the Real Presence, did not believe in a change of substance. For this, he got in trouble. He is not the only one. To see champions of differing views of the Eucharist as the Underground Church or Proto-Protestants is, nevertheless, problematic — they may have disagreed with the official organs of the Church over this issue, but were ‘Catholic’ in all other respects.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was, besides being lover of Heloise of father of Astrolabe (actual name of their son), a controversial philosophical theologian. I, personally, doubt Abelard was ever a real heretic, but his cleverness and eloquence and outspokenness got him in trouble as he sought to reconcile philosophical concepts and theological truths. Although some of his teachings were condemned, overall, I think Abelard was more of a dangerous thinker who danced too close to the edge of the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Peter Waldo (1140-1218) and the Waldensians. Waldo and the Waldensians were a group of people who believed in lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict Biblicism, as well as championing the vernacular Bible. Although they were condemned and excommunicated, their willing visit to the Pope reminds us that most of these movements, even when they espoused ideas compatible with much modern Protestantism, were more than willing to operate within existing church structures.

Joachim of Fiore and the Spiritual Franciscans. If you like your Christianity heavily sprinkled with apocalypticism, then Cistercian Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) and the Spiritual Franciscans who are sort of a 13th-century successor movment are the people for you. Joachim was regarded as a prophet in his own lifetime. That we’re all still here proves him a false one.

Wycliffe and the Lollards. If anyone has been hailed as a Proto-Protestant in Anglophone literature, it has been John Wycliffe (1328-1384). Wycliffe lived and died a son of the church, although his promotion of lay preaching and vernacular Bibles puts him in a similar camp as Waldo. He and the spiritual movement inspired by him, the Lollards, were condemned as heretics at a church council.  I can’t find the docs right now, but much of what he was condemned for was to be taken up by many Reformers. Note, however, that he was no congregationalist!

Jan Hus (1369-1415). If you’re ever guaranteed safe passage to Constance, Germany, by a friendly-looking papal representative, run the other way. At least, if your name is Jan Hus, the outspoken Bohemian follower of Wycliffe’s teachings who found himself executed at the Council of Constance for heresy.

I think one of the things that typifies the only people here whom most Protestants would sympathise with — Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus — is that they were not Underground or parallel or congregationalist or any sort of modern Free Church-style adherent. They were trying to reform the Church into which they were born, from within, and would probably appeal more to Anglicans and Lutherans than to Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites.

What were Eastern Christians/Byzantines up to in this period? After Iconoclasm was settled with the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, Eastern Christianity spent a lot of its energy coping with its proximity to (or existence under) the Caliphate and then the Seljuqs and then the Ottomans. And sometimes they were in disputes with Latin Christians, especially when they turned up ruling bits of the Middle East, Cyprus, and Greece. Their own, homegrown controversy was the Hesychastic Controversy, which the Hesychasts, as it turns out, won (the great champion hesychast was Gregory Palamas, subject of this blog post). I’m sure there were other controversies, but I’m not sure about them — except for this exciting Russian one:

Patriarch Nikon (r. 1652-1666) introduced various reforms into the Russian liturgy. Included in these was the adoption of the Greek practice of crossing oneself with the first two fingers and thumb together, other two fingers on your palm, like this:

This way of holding one’s fingers was introduced in the Greek Church as a response to Monophysism, the three fingers representing the Trinity and the two on the palm representing the dual nature of Christ. There was great protest in Russia when Nikon attempted to introduce such radical reforms. In 1666, the protesters divided from the Russian Orthodox Church and are called Old Believers. Here’s a famous photo of what looks to be a rude gesture but is, in fact, promotion of the old, two-finger way of crossing oneself:

That sums up my brief, whirlwind tour of this issue up the modern age. Although I, personally, do not believe in the use of force (to be dealt with soon), I do not believe that there was an ‘Underground Church’ hiding away from Constantine’s conversion until the Reformation when it sprang into view with the Radical Reformation. And if we follow the Trail of Blood that marks the groups and persons targeted by the Church, they are either full-blown heretics or bear little resemblance to modern evangelicals.

Of course, this is the messy reality we’re talking about in these posts, so a couple things remain:

Part three: Orthodox victims of imperial/secular governmental activity besides Athanasius.

Part four: Also, the Inquisition (Spanish and otherwise; did you expect that?). And thoughts on ecclesiastical-governmental relations at large.

Sixth Day of Christmas, Commemoration of John Wycliffe

Although not Christmas-themed, here’s a pithy saying attributed to John Wycliffe (1320-1384) to get you through the sixth day of Christmas:

Englishmen learn Christs law best in English. Moses heard Gods law in his own tongue; so did Christs apostles.

Indeed, one could easily join Wycliffe in this and point out that the Scriptures were put into Latin as a task of translation so the common folk could understand them. And they were similar put into Old English in the Early Middle Ages.

So John Wycliffe and his successors such as Tyndale and Coverdale stand in line with Christian tradition, with the anonymous Latinisers and Jerome, with the anonymous translators of the Coptic Bible and the Syriac Peshitta, with Cyril and Methodius.

He was, in this respect, a very Catholic man.

Huzzah for English Bibles! Let us thank the Lord for Wycliffe, whose endeavours would come to full fruition in Tyndale and beyond.