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The Middle Ages: a thousand years without the Bible

From the January 1994 issue of The Christian Science Journal

This illustrated monthly series in the Journal encompasses the dramatic history of how the world's scriptures developed over thousands of years. It focuses on the great reformers who wrote and translated the Bible. Many of these reformers gave their lives to make the Bible and its reforming influence available to all men and women.

A word about the Middle Ages

Most of us romanticize the Middle Ages. We picture knights of King Arthur's Round Table, castles, lords and ladies, wandering minstrels, and crusades to liberate the Holy Land. But these images weren't created until the last part of the medieval period. Actually, most of the Middle Ages—some eight hundred years of it—was largely a period of spiritual and cultural darkness.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, Germanic tribes from the north of Europe invaded the western Roman Empire and bit by bit brought down the great imperial state, eventually turning it into a collection of feudal kingdoms. The brilliant civilization that the Roman Empire once had been crumbled into an eight-hundred-year period of shadowy ignorance. It's no wonder that during this time the world almost lost its hold on Bible truth.


By the end of the second century a.d., classical civilization had come to an end. The Roman Empire was on the decline—weakened by corruption, economic disintegration, and the ever-present threat of barbarian invasion. The emperors became more despotic than ever—imposing military conscription and heavy taxes. And they persecuted Christians periodically, as they had almost from the beginning.

But by the fourth century, the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine signaled a dramatic shift in the relationship between Christianity and the state. The night before a major battle against his rival Maxentius, a vision told Constantine (who'd always worshiped the sun god) to put a Christian monogram on his soldiers' shields. When he won the battle the next day, his attitude toward Christianity changed forever. He began to give Christians special favors, restored their property, and granted them religious freedom. At the end of his life, Constantine himself was baptized a Christian.

Constantine's support gave the Church new strength. But it also introduced long-term problems for Christianity, particularly when Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in his own honor. This move created a power vacuum in Rome, which was quickly filled by a strong line of popes who created a kind of "papal monarchy."

Throughout the Middle Ages, this papacy was the ruling authority to which all Western Christendom was subject. The popes assumed not only religious but also secular control over much of the old Roman world. For all practical purposes, the Church of the Middle Ages was a church state—with absolute power to levy taxes, call up armies, make laws, and punish citizens who violated its laws.

With this secularization of the Christian Church, Bible study diminished dramatically. Gradually, the doctrinal teachings of the Church replaced the Bible in the hearts of Christians. As the people lost touch with the Scriptures, they moved farther and farther away from certain Christian practices—such as reading the Bible aloud in church services, preaching the gospel, and practicing spiritual healing. At the same time the actual text of the Bible became corrupted.


Jerome's translation of the Bible—completed in the early fifth century—was a far better text than the jumbled "Old Latin" Bible that preceded it. Yet for a couple of centuries the Roman world fought against the Vulgate, clinging to the Old Latin text as somehow purer and holier than Jerome's version. For this reason, people insisted on changing, or "corrupting," the Vulgate as it fanned out from Italy and southern France into Germany, Ireland, England, and Spain. Some scribes, as they recopied the Vulgate, inserted the familiar Old Latin wording into Jerome's text as they saw fit. Others continued to use the Old Latin text as their base but inserted some of Jerome's passages.

It was this sad situation that made the Roman author and monk Cassiodorus try to standardize the Vulgate text in the sixth century. So he turned out a new Bible that stayed as close as possible to Jerome's original wording and the ancient Hebrew Scripture.

Unfortunately, though, this improved version of the Vulgate wasn't popular. Instead, it was another text that Cassiodorus produced—one that was far inferior—that ended up having wide circulation. In fact, the British abbot Ceolfrid took it with him to England in the early eighth century. There it was recopied—with all its mistakes and corruptions—into another manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus. And in that form it found its way to monasteries all over Europe.

The Vulgate was also badly corrupted in Spain. Jerome himself had originally given his text to some Spanish scribes who'd come to Jerusalem to copy his Bible in 398. But the texts they copied didn't include some of Jerome's last and best revisions. Jerome may have sent these revisions on to Spain later, but they were never incorporated into the Vulgate text there. So, over the next two centuries, the Spanish Vulgate drifted even farther from Jerome's original. Eventually, so many flawed texts were circulating in Spain that it was hard to tell which ones were reliable.

Charlemagne tries to reform the Vulgate

During the reign of the Frankish King Charlemagne, nearly every major monastery in Europe had an Irish monk-in-residence to guide its Bible studies. (The Irish monasteries specialized in Greek and Hebrew studies.) Charlemagne strongly supported this, since he felt that improving the Bible text would bring order and culture to his vast kingdom.

Encouraged by Charlemagne, two major scholars devoted their talents to correcting the Vulgate. The first was Theodulf, bishop of Orleans and one of the most brilliant theologians of the Frankish Empire. Under Charlemagne's patronage, Theodulf turned out several exquisitely illuminated manuscripts of the Vulgate.

The other Bible scholar who worked to revise the Vulgate during Charlemagne's reign was the king's longtime religious adviser, Alcuin. Born and educated at York, in Britain, he met Charlemagne in 781 and soon became the king's royal tutor and abbot of Tours in France. Charlemagne commissioned Alcuin to revise both the Old and New Testaments.

Using texts he'd brought with him from England, Alcuin trained the monks under his supervision to correct errors in grammar and punctuation, and to return to Jerome's original wording. He produced a number of single volume Bibles, many of which were ornately decorated. But these were filled with Alcuin's marginal .. comments, all of which explained the theology of the Church Fathers. Then later scholars incorporated his comments into the text. This corrupted the Vulgate even further.

Scholasticism alters Jerome's Bible

In the twelfth century, a book by Peter Lombard, an Italian scholar, inadvertently caused more corruption of the Vulgate. Lombard's book, The Sentences, contained four volumes of teaching on theological subjects like the Trinity and the Sacraments. But the most striking thing about the book was its heavy quotation from the Church Fathers and its use of a complex method of theological reasoning that came to be known as "scholasticism." Eventually, this highly orthodox book became the standard statement of theology for the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Tragically, scholars in Paris interwove Lombard's scholastic commentary into a new edition of Alcuin's Bible in the early thirteenth century. The result was the "Paris Bible," an edition with layer upon layer of scholastic theology built into the text, Students at the University of Paris soon disseminated this new one volume Bible all over Europe.

By the early fourteenth century, the condition of Jerome's Vulgate was deplorable. Yet the seriousness of this situation was known only to the most elite scholars—those who had some knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The vast majority of lay citizens couldn't understand these languages. Hundreds of years earlier, the Latin language had died out. And gradually, a family of new languages—they were called "vernacular languages"—took its place.

New popular languages

The new vernacular tongues included the modern languages we use now in Western civilization: Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian; and Germanic languages like German, Swiss, and English. The important thing as far as the Bible is concerned, though, is that people who spoke these new languages in the Middle Ages were totally out of touch with Latin and with the Latin Bible that the Church doggedly maintained as its only official text—the one and only version of Scripture to be used in church services or to be read by the clergy.

But the fact remains that illiteracy prevailed among all but a few priests and nobles. And even if the common people had known how to read, the Church forbade them to read the Bible. At the height of its power in the early thirteenth century, Church authorities completely shut down any possibilities for the average person to become familiar with the Scriptures when they made it illegal for lay members to even own a Bible, much less read one.


It would be the task of the great heroes of the Reformation to give the people the Bible in ordinary spoken languages. And having the Scriptures available, at last, in their vernacular tongues, would provide a driving incentive for common men and women to learn to read. But even during the Middle Ages, a few fearless innovators gave the people portions of the Bible in language they could understand.

The early Gothic Bible

The first reformer to give the Bible to his people in their native tongue was the Gothic ... King Ulfilas in the fourth century. Born of a Gothic father and a Christian mother from Cappadocia (in what's now Turkey), Ulfilas's early education included the study of Greek and Latin, as well as Gothic. As a young man, he became involved in Christian missionary work. Later he was made a bishop. Often called the "Apostle of the Goths," Ulfilas eventually translated most of the Byzantine Greek Bible into the Gothic language. His Bible is the only major work of literature left from the Gothic civilization.

The Anglo-Saxon and English Bibles

The one Bible the Anglo-Saxon people knew about—and their contact with it was only indirect—was the Latin Vulgate text that Augustine and Ceolfrid brought to England from Rome in the early eighth century. Yet only the monks had direct contact with these manuscripts, and most of them couldn't read Latin.

People at that time felt it would profane the Scriptures to put them into common languages that anyone could understand—languages they believed simply weren't worthy of communicating the Word of God. Latin, they thought, was the only holy language.

The story of the English vernacular Bible actually begins in the late seventh century with Caedmon, the first Anglo-Saxon Christian poet. A cowherd with the monastery in the Whitby area, Caedmon saw an angel one night who told him to write a song about creation. The next morning, according to legend, he found that he could—for the first time in his life—write exquisite lines of poetry in the complicated Anglo-Saxon verse forms that were popular in the England of that time.

After he finished his hymn on creation, Caedmon (or someone writing in his name) wrote a whole series of poems retelling Bible stories from Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, as well as from the Gospels. These pieces sing with prophetic and mystical inspiration, but they wander far from the Bible itself.

Later, in the ninth century, the Midland poet Cynewulf told the story of Jesus' crucifixion in an even freer and more imaginative way than Caedmon had. ... And about that time, King Alfred the Great of Wessex sponsored a revival of learning that included translating parts of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. According to tradition, the king himself began the translation of Psalms just before his death. But Alfred's translations were only for the clergy and the nobility. He never believed that ordinary people should read them.

It took the priest and writer Aelfric—in the tenth century—to finally give the common people large chunks of the Bible. Inspired by his patron, Earl Ethelweard, Aelfric wrote a lively series of sermons filled with Bible quotations—all translated into good, clear Anglo-Saxon. And, with Ethelweard's sponsorship, Aelfric put these sermons, as well as the Pentateuch, into book form so other priests could use them.

But Aelfric was a reluctant pioneer. He refused to translate the Gospels into English, fearing reprisals from the Church. And he told Ethelweard in the preface to his translation of Genesis, "I dare not and I will not translate any book of the Bible after this book."

Fortunately, another Bible scholar (one who managed to remain anonymous) did dare to put the Gospels into English during Aelfric's lifetime. This translation, known as the West-Saxon Gospels, was never used in church services and had to be circulated privately. But it finally gave people the entire gospel story in their native tongue.

With the Norman invasion of 1066 came an enormous setback for the infant English Bible. As the Normans swept over the land, they took over the monasteries and other centers of learning, imposing French and Latin as the dominant languages.

Even so, an irrepressible strain began to develop in English thought about this time. It was an ardent desire—especially among women and other unlettered people with no opportunity to learn Latin—to read the Bible in their native language. Quietly, but inexorably, this group of prayer-minded Christians grew. And eventually, in the fourteenth century, the fervor of these English men and women boiled over into strident expression. And in the last decades of that century, this movement of the common people found its first great champion in an Oxford professor named John Wycliffe.

Early European Bibles

Running parallel to the development of a people's Bible in England were similar movements in Germany, the Low Countries, France, Italy, and Spain. In Germany, for instance, the first vernacular Psalters came in the ninth and tenth centuries, in the wake of Charlemagne's renaissance of learning. These appeared in a variety of dialects. Then, in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, a monastic schoolmaster named Notker turned out fine Bavarian German translations of the Psalter and the book of Job in a burst of affection for the newly developing German language.

In southern France, in the twelfth century, Peter Valdes, or Waldo, a well-to-do merchant with a passion for Bible reading, gave all his possessions to charity and launched a career as a preacher to the poor people of Lyons. Furious about the Church's restrictions on Bible reading, Valdes commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the language of Provencal. Then he gave this text to the people through his followers, all of whom were "poor" preachers like himself. When the pope told these "Waldensians" to stop preaching and handing out Bibles, Valdes retorted that he had to obey God—not man. The Church excommunicated him in 1184.

Valdes's followers branched out all over Europe and waged an underground campaign to give the Bible to the people. But eventually, the Waldensians—together with some related sects in Germany, Italy, and France—became the targets of a major inquisition by the Church. Dominican and Franciscan inquisitors traveled around Europe interrogating members of these Bible-reading sects and bringing them to trial for violating Church prohibitions against studying Scripture. But the Waldensians who were able to escape took refuge in the valleys of Italy, France, Spain, and Germany.

In each of these countries, people influenced by the Waldensians joined together in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to demand complete Bibles in their own languages. The Vulgate, they argued, had become hopelessly corrupt and was incomprehensible to a public that couldn't understand Latin. But more important, vernacular languages now had enough fluidity, precision, breadth of word choice, and beauty to support great and memorable versions of Scripture.

Outstanding scholars, poets, and writers were exuberantly pushing the limits of their vernacular languages. So it was natural that Bible scholars—thrilled with new break-throughs in Greek and Hebrew studies—would want to do the same. Maybe they sensed what now seems so clear—that the Middle Ages were over. And a golden age of Bible translation was at hand.

Associate Editor Mary Trammell is a Reformation Bible scholar, and Feature Editor William Dawley has a background in journalism.

Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you. That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear and have not heard them.

Matthew 13:16, 17

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