Did Medieval Catholicism Forbid All Vernacular Bibles?

Did Medieval Catholicism Forbid All Vernacular Bibles? May 11, 2021

An anti-Catholic Protestant blog called Evangelical Miscellanies produced a lengthy article entitled, “Was the Bible Forbidden by the Roman Church?” (5-10-21). Presently, I shall be dealing with portions having to do with the Middle Ages. The article states (in blue):

Council of Toulouse (1229 A.D.):

Council of Toulouse, Canon XIV: 

We prohibit the permission of the books of the Old and New Testament to laymen, except perhaps they might desire to have the Psalter, or some Breviary for the divine service, or the Hounrs of the blessed Virgin Mary, for devotion; expressly forbidding their having the other parts of the Bible translated into the vulgar tongue. 

(Pierre Allix, Remarks Upon the Ecclesiastical History of Ancient Churches of the Albigenses, [Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1821], p. 213). Here . . .

Council of Tarragona (1234 A.D.): 

Council of Tarragona, Canon II:

Also we decree that no one shall have in his possession any books of the Old or New Testament in Romanic (i.e., vernacular). And if anyone has them, within eight days after the publication of such constitution from the time of the sentence, let him give them over to the Bishop of the place that they may be burned: and unless he shall do this, be he clergyman or layman, let him be esteemed suspected of heresy, until he shall have cleared himself. 

(“Does the Roman Catholic Clergy Discourage the Reading of the Bible by the Laity,” In: The Christian World, Volume XXVI.—January to December 1875, ed. Henry M. Baird, [New York: Published by the American and Foreign Christian Union, 1875], p. 43). Here . . .

Synod of Béziers (Concilium Biterrense 1246 A.D.):

Synod of Béziers, Chapter 36:

Concerning theological books not to be held in possession by laymen in Latin, and neither by them nor by clergymen in the vulgar tongue.  

(“Does the Roman Catholic Clergy Discourage the Reading of the Bible by the Laity,” In: The Christian World, Volume XXVI.—January to December 1875, ed. Henry M. Baird, [New York: Published by the American and Foreign Christian Union, 1875], p. 43). Here . . .

Archbishop Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions against the Lollards (1408 A.D.):

Archbishop Arundel’s Constitutions against the Lollards:

6. The translation of the text of Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another is a dangerous thing, as blessed Hierome testifies, because it is not easy to make the sense in all respects the same; as the same blessed Hierome [St. Jerome] confesses that he made frequent mistakes in this business, although he was inspired: therefore we enact and ordain that no one henceforth do by his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue or any other by way of book or treatise. Nor let any such book or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wicklif aforesaid, or since, or hereafter to be composed, be read in whole or in part, in public or in private, under pain of the greater excommunication, till that translation have been approved by the diocesan of the place, or if occasion shall require, by a provincial council. Let him that transgresseth be punished as a fautor of heresy and error. 

(7. W. Lynd., p. 286). See: (A Collection of the Laws and Canons of the Church of England, from Its First Foundation to the Conquest, Vol. II, trans. John Johnson, [Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1851], pp. 466-467). Here

As already noted in my previous reply to the first part of this article: the Cambridge History of the Bible stated that “no universal and absolute prohibition of the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular nor of the use of such translations by clergy or laity was ever issued by any council of the Church or any pope” (p. 391). The 1910 New Catholic Dictionary (“Bible Reading by Laity”) reiterates the opinion of the non-Catholic work above:

In the history of the Church there never has been a general prohibition against the reading of the Bible by the laity. While the Church does not consider Bible reading necessary for salvation, she has always approved such reading under proper conditions. In consequence, we find that any restrictions which the Church has placed on the reading of the Bible were aimed at the use of heretical or corrupt versions, or versions without proper notes or authorization, and not against the reading of the Bible itself. The Albigenses and Waldenses who appealed to unauthorized and, at times, corrupt versions in their disputes with Catholics, gave occasion for the first restrictive decrees. These decrees, edited by the Synods of Toulouse (1229), Tarragona (1234), and Oxford (1408), aimed to restrict the reading of the Bible in the vernacular. [my bolding]

As an example of what the Catholic Church was reacting to, here is a pocket history of the Waldenses or Waldensians:

Other medieval heresies continue to challenge the church in a worldly sense, particularly the clergy’s monopoly of the Bible. In the twelfth century, most Bibles were in Latin which severely limited the numbers of people who could read and interpret Christian texts for themselves. [Dave: far greater factors were the extreme expense of books before the printing press, and widespread illiteracy] This situation changed in 1177 when a wealthy Lyons merchant called Peter Waldo had a crisis of faith and conscience. . . . Waldo paid for a translation of the Bible into his native Provencal. This vernacular Bible allowed him to preach the word of God as a layman– and enable other people to read it for themselves. Quickly, a group of like-minded people began to follow Waldo’s example. Known as the Waldenses, they dedicated themselves to a life of Christ-like simplicity. They also observed their leader’s example and began to preach the word of God from a vernacular Bible.

After only a couple of years, Waldo and his movement had managed to attract the attention of Rome. In 1179, Waldo attended the Third Lateran Council in Rome in an attempt to get Pope Alexander III to recognize his right to preach and promote his beliefs. Alexander accepted Waldo’s vow of poverty and Waldo himself made the profession of Faith that acknowledged the Church’s supremacy in religious matters. However, the Pope did not sanction the Waldenses right to preach as Waldo had hoped. So, with Rome unwilling to accept a compromise, the Waldensians set themselves on the path to all-out heresy. [my bolded emphases; a few typos were also corrected] (“10 Ancient and Medieval Christian Heresies the Catholic Church Tried to Stamp Out”, Natasha Sheldon, History Collection, 5-26-18; my bolding)

The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Scripture”; subsection: “Attitude of the Church towards the reading of the Bible in the vernacular”) explains the Catholic position, which is assuredly not “forbidding [vernacular] Scripture” period:

The attitude of the Church as to the reading of the Bible in the vernacular may be inferred from the Church’s practice and legislation. It has been the practice of the Church to provide newly-converted nations, as soon as possible, with vernacular versions of the Scriptures; hence the early Latin and oriental translations, the versions existing among the Armenians, the Slavonians, the Goths, the Italians, the French, and the partial renderings into English. As to the legislation of the Church on this subject, we may divide its history into three large periods:

(1) During the course of the first millennium of her existence, the Church did not promulgate any law concerning the reading of Scripture in the vernacular. The faithful were rather encouraged to read the Sacred Books according to their spiritual needs (cf. St. Irenæus, Against Heresies III.4).

(2) The next five hundred years show only local regulations concerning the use of the Bible in the vernacular. On 2 January, 1080, Gregory VII wrote to the Duke of Bohemia that he could not allow the publication of the Scriptures in the language of the country. The letter was written chiefly to refuse the petition of the Bohemians for permission to conduct Divine service in the Slavic language. The pontiff feared that the reading of the Bible in the vernacular would lead to irreverence and wrong interpretation of the inspired text (St. Gregory VII, “Epist.”, vii, xi). The second document belongs to the time of the Waldensian and Albigensian heresies. The Bishop of Metz had written to Innocent III that there existed in his diocese a perfect frenzy for the Bible in the vernacular. In 1199 the pope replied that in general the desire to read the Scriptures was praiseworthy, but that the practice was dangerous for the simple and unlearned (“Epist., II, cxli; Hurter, “Gesch. des. Papstes Innocent III”, Hamburg, 1842, IV, 501 sqq.). After the death of Innocent III, the Synod of Toulouse directed in 1229 its fourteenth canon against the misuse of Sacred Scripture on the part of the Cathari: “prohibemus, ne libros Veteris et Novi Testamenti laicis permittatur habere” (Hefele, “Concilgesch”, Freiburg, 1863, V, 875). In 1233 the Synod of Tarragona issued a similar prohibition in its second canon, but both these laws are intended only for the countries subject to the jurisdiction of the respective synods (Hefele, ibid., 918). The Third Synod of Oxford, in 1408, owing to the disorders of the Lollards, who in addition to their crimes of violence and anarchy had introduced virulent interpolations into the vernacular sacred text, issued a law in virtue of which only the versions approved by the local ordinary or the provincial council were allowed to be read by the laity (Hefele, op. cit., VI, 817). [my bolding]

As we can see, none of these decrees were universally binding and none was seeking to “forbid the Bible” altogether as our friend’s article wrongly implies right in his title. They were all local declarations specifically in reaction to distorted translations or interpretations of Holy Scripture by heretical and/or schismatic groups. The entire population of Toulouse was only about 32,000 in 1229. The estimated population of Europe in 1200 was 68 million, and 72.9 million in 1250. Thus, the decree of the synod of Toulouse in 1229 (using the European population of 1250) affected approximately only one out of 2278 Europeans (or, 0.04%): hardly a blanket condemnation / prohibition of Scripture! Likewise, Beziers had only about 10,000 people at this time, etc. The more we know, the more the central thesis of the article I am critiquing is exposed as ludicrous.

Beyond all these factors, it should also be pointed out that early Protestantism was fully behind censorship of views that each particular sect disagreed with. We grant that each had sincere and defensible views as to a proper Bible translation, just as the Catholic Church did and does. But their suppression of “dissenting” views was certainly no less strong than corresponding Catholic efforts, and arguably more severe in many instances: not to mention more hypocritical, since the myth of the so-called “Reformation” is supposed “freedom of the individual and their conscience” all-around. That was never true, ands it’s not true with regard to censorship, either.

For example, one of Martin Luther’s Catholic debate partners, Jerome Emser, produced a German version of the New Testament in 1527 [see its cover above]. Ironically, it was scarcely different from Luther’s translation. His Wikipedia article states that “his own version is merely Luther’s adapted to Vulgate requirements.” So that shouldn’t have been a big deal, right?  But how did Luther react to it?:

Luther . . . set his pen in motion concerning this Catholic translation of the Bible. ‘The freedom of the Word,’ which he claimed for himself, was not to be accorded to his opponent Emser . . . When . . . he learnt that Emser’s translation . . . was to be printed . . . at Rostock, he not only appealed himself to his follower, Duke Henry of Mecklenburg, with the request that ‘for the glory of the evangel of Christ and the salvation of all souls’ he would put a stop to this printing, but he also worked on the councillors of the Elector of Saxony to support his action. He denied the right and the power of the Catholic authorities to inhibit his books; on the other hand he invoked the arm of the secular authorities against all writings that were displeasing to him. (Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A. M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [originally 1891], vol. XIV, 503-504)

Not only were Catholic Bibles forbidden and censored in many Protestant districts, but all Catholic works whatever, as Janssen noted:

[I]n Protestant districts all Catholic books, were strictly prohibited, and the printers forbidden under penalty to publish them. (Janssen, ibid., p. 502).

I’m not denying that Catholics acted similarly (as Janssen notes in the same context). My point is that these practices (like the larger issue of religious intolerance and persecution) were well-nigh universal at the time. The big problem I have is that we always hear about Catholic censorship: which is twisted and exaggerated a hundred times over, while hearing next to nothing about Protestant censorship, which was in some ways more massive and autocratic and arbitrary than Catholic supervision of Bible-reading and other reading that the Church thought was proper or improper.

In fact, the Catholic Church has always been a big advocate of vernacular Bibles. The true facts are quite contrary to the negative image that the anti-Catholic sector of Protestant polemicists have tried to create and foster these past 500 years. In my article, Was the Catholic Church Historically an “Enemy” of the Bible? I took a sledgehammer to the myths:

Perhaps the best and most decisive response to this myth is to cite the preface of the Authorised or “King James” 1611 English translation of the Bible, which describes the long history of vernacular translations in England long before Protestantism ever arose:

Much about that time [1360], even our King Richard the Second’s days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age . . . So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, . . . but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any Nation; no doubt, because it was esteemed most profitable, to cause faith to grow in men’s hearts the sooner, . . .

The history of English Bible translation (preceded earlier by editions in the earlier common language of Anglo-Saxon) is very long, starting with Caedmon in the 7th century, Aldhelm (c. 700), the Venerable Bede (d. 735), followed by Eadhelm, Guthlac, and Egbert (all in Saxon, the vernacular language of that time in England). King Alfred the Great (849-99) translated the Bible, as did Aelfric (d. c. 1020). Middle English translations included those of Orm (late 12th century) and Richard Rolle (d. 1349).

Vernacular Bibles in many languages appeared throughout the early and late Middle Ages (after Latin ceased being a common, widespread language). Between 1466 and 1517 fourteen translations of the Bible were published in High German, and five in Low German. Raban Maur had translated the entire Bible into Teutonic, or old German, in the late 8th century. Between 1450 to 1520 there were ten French translations, and also Bibles rendered in Belgian, Bohemian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Russian. 25 Italian versions (with express Church sanction) appeared before 1500, starting at Venice in 1471. The Wikipedia article, “Bible translations into German” recounts the rich history of pre-Luther German Bibles . . .

The Catholic Church, as the guardian of Holy Scripture, opposed only unauthorized translations, which is no different from many Protestants today who protest against various translations as “liberal” or inaccurate, due to a perceived bias based on the religious beliefs of the translator(s). This flows from a praiseworthy concern for the accurate transmission of God’s word. . . .

Protestant Church historian James Gairdner confirms what I have written above:

The truth is, the Church of Rome was not at all opposed to the making of translations of Scripture or to placing them in the hands of the laity under what were deemed proper precautions. It was only judged necessary to see that no unauthorized or corrupt translations got abroad; and even in this matter it would seem that the authorities were not roused to special vigilance till they took alarm at the diffusion of Wycliffite translations in the generation after his death.

. . . To the possession by worthy lay men of licensed translations the Church was never opposed; but to place such a weapon as an English Bible in the hands of men who had no regard for authority, and who would use it without being instructed how to use it properly, was dangerous not only to the souls of those who read, but to the peace and order of the Church. (Lollardy and the Reformation in England, Vol. 1 of 4, 1908, 105, 117)


Related Reading

Were Vernacular Bibles Unknown Before Luther? (Luther’s Dubious Claims About the Supposed Utter Obscurity of the Bible Before His Translation) [6-15-11]

Dialogue: “Obscure” Bible Before Luther’s Translation? [7-24-14]

Catholic Church: Historic “Enemy” of the Bible? [9-11-15]

Catholic Church: Superior to the Bible?: Does the Catholic Church Claim to be ‘Above’ the Bible and Its “Creator”? [9-14-15]

Was the Catholic Church Historically an Enemy of the Bible? [National Catholic Register, 3-27-17]

Armstrong vs. Collins & Walls #5: The Church “Gave” the Bible? [10-19-17]

Did Luther Rescue the Bible in German from Utter Obscurity? [National Catholic Register, 10-30-17]

The Catholic Church Does Not Claim Superiority Over the Bible [National Catholic Register, 8-13-18]

Did Pope Innocent III Forbid the Bible in 1199? (+ Does the Bible Itself Teach That it Should be Read Without Need of Any Authoritative Interpretation?) [5-11-21]


Photo credit: title page of the Catholic Bible translation of the New Testament into German from Hieronymus Emser; published 1527 in Dresden, Saxony. Martin Luther opposed its publishing and urged Lutherans to outright ban it (see the text above) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: The anti-Catholic site, “Evangelical Miscellanies” tried to make out that the Catholic Church desired to “forbid the Bible”. I present the actual historical facts & set the record straight.

Browse Our Archives