The Long Reign of the Latin Bible
For over one thousand years, the only Bible available in Western Europe was the Vulgate (meaning ‘in the vernacular’ or ‘in the language of the people’). This was St Jerome’s (c. 340-420) translation from the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, into Latin, the spoken language of Italy and the Roman Empire. Jerome’s translation was one of Western Christianity’s watershed events. The Vulgate has arguably been the most influential of all versions of Scripture, having been used by the Roman Catholic Church exclusively throughout its history until modern times.
Even after Latin ceased to be spoken or understood by ordinary people, the Vulgate retained exclusive status and authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Although understood only by a small minority of people in the Church and in society who could speak and write Latin, it remained the sole permitted Bible of the Church with a virtually sacred aura.
The Vulgate was first printed in 1455, by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1397-1468) at Mainz in Germany (one of the 21 surviving complete copies is in the National Library of Scotland). Until the invention of printing, the Vulgate was copied by scribes, who could take months to complete just one copy.
A clandestine version of the Vulgate Bible in English circulated in manuscript form in England and parts of Scotland from the fourteenth century. This was associated with the names of John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384) and John Purvey (c. 1354-1414), religious dissenters.
The Wycliffe Bible was groundbreaking and the first complete Bible in English. Done before printing with moveable type was invented, the texts circulated in manuscript form and many Wycliffite Bibles were miniatures to enhance their portability for use by itinerant preachers.
Wycliffe was a controversial theologian who systematically attacked the abuses, some doctrines and practices of the medieval Church, insisting that it should give up its worldly wealth. His teachings were condemned by the Pope and the English Catholic Church and he was declared heretical by the Church Council of Constance in 1415.
His controversial views were propagated by the Lollards, a heretical group remarkable for its demand to read the Bible in English. Yet since Wycliffe’s Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, it was of little interest to the later Reformers and classical scholars who wished to ‘get back to the original sources’ of Hebrew and Greek.