History of English Bible Translation 03 The Bible in Latin 4th to 14th Century

History of the English Bible - Chapter 3 

The Bible in Latin 2nd to 14thBible Timeline Latin century AD The Bible is written for the common people but becomes a relic of an unknown tongue.English Bible History

Greek remained the language of the small Christian community during the first century, but with the spread of the faith through the Roman Empire, a Latin version of the Bible texts was needed in western regions. By the second century there is one Latin version in use in North Africa and another in Italy.

These versions became corrupted through much copying.  In other words, there were a wide variety of variations of the reading from one branch of copies to the next.  Versions were continually added, until by the 4th century - in the words of St Jerome, the leading biblical scholar of the time - there were 'almost as many texts as manuscripts'.  In 382 the pope, Damasus, commissions Jerome to provide a definitive Latin version, the Vulgate, which was completed by 405. 

A restricted Bible: 8th - 14th century AD

The intention of St Jerome, was that ordinary Christians of the Roman Empire should be able to read the word of God. 'Ignorance of the scriptures', he wrote, 'is ignorance of Christ'.

Gradually this perception was altered. After the collapse of the western empire, the people of Christian Europe spoke varieties of German, French, Anglo-Saxon, Italian or Spanish. Latin was understood only by the educated class, most of whom are priests. They monopolized the Bible, keeping for themselves the privilege of interpreting it for the people. Translation into common languages was discouraged. However, there were exceptions to this prohibition. In the late 8th century Charlemagne commissioned a translation of parts of the Bible for the use of his missionaries in the drive to convert pagan Germans. In the 9th century the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius, sent from Constantinople to Moravia at royal request, translated the Gospels and parts of the Old Testament into Slavonic.

These were missionary translations, promoted by rulers as an act of government when pagan Europe was being brought into the Christian fold. In the later fully catholic centuries there was no equivalent need to publish the Bible in the common language.  In fact, to read the Bible in any language other than Latin became point of conflict in later centuries. John Wycliffe and his followers produced translations into what was then the English language in the late 14th century against the church’s wishes. At the same period the Czechs had their own vernacular Bible, subsequently much improved by John Huss. These translations were acts of reform within the church which sowed the seeds for the full reformation a hundred years later.

Printing Style

Latin Bible Leaf 
About the picture – This page, taken from a Bible produced in France during the 13th century.

Up into the 1100’s century Bibles were large and imposing volumes, often grandly decorated and designed for liturgical use. They sat on a lectern and were used for readings in church, as objects of public performance. The reproduction of these works by manual copying was undertaken in monastic scriptoria. Sometimes the basic text had an accompanying commentary, known as a gloss, built into the design of each page. Such weighty works were often divided into several volumes.

In the 1200’s century portable Bibles were produced by commercial manuscript copyists rather than by monks. These were the first Bibles to be systematically set out with books in a standard format and with the text divided into numbered chapters. The Gothic script of these volumes was tiny, simplified and neat. The smaller size made the volumes portable. 

Illuminated Manuscripts are books which were written and decorated by hand. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts were written and painted on parchment (vellum) made from the skins of animals. The color and texture of the parchment varies according to the method of preparing the skins and the type of animal used. Cows, sheep, goats, squirrels and possibly even dogs and cats were used to make the parchment. The beautiful, handwritten texts were created by scribes (either professional individuals or monks) who learned to write in many different types of script. The adornment of the book, or illumination, depended on the skill of the illuminator and the wealth of the person who commissioned the book. Individual pages could receive such decorations as: decorated initials, borders, line endings, drolleries (human or animal figures in the borders of a page, often fantastical) and miniatures (fine small paintings). The artist worked with natural substances, such as red clay, the woad plant and brazil wood. Gold, silver and lapis lazuli were also used. Gold was applied to the page in two ways, either burnished (the shiny form of gold, polished with an animal tooth) or liquid (applied as paint in a liquid suspension).

In the 1300s and 1400’s these small bibles were overtaken in production again by large Bibles designed for public use in church; weighty and significant ritual objects in their own right. By the late 15th century these could be reproduced by the printing process and were one of the first works in production.