Throughout the Middle Ages literacy rates were extremely low in Europe, and hand copied manuscripts were expensive. The Bible and many legal documents were written in Latin or Greek, which were becoming increasingly dead languages used only by the church. Moreover, the statute of Valencia and other statutes had made it illegal for anyone not authorized by the Church to have even the Latin and Greek versions of the of the Bible.
The laity therefore had to rely on the Church, government and powers that be for understanding and interpreting these documents. With the invention of the printing press, one of the first books to be printed was the bible, which was soon translated into several languages, often badly. The errors were due in part to ignorance and in part by attempts to use the Bible to further sectarian political or theological goals. A few small parts of the Bible had been translated into vernacular at different times. King Alfred translated the ten commandments, and Bede had translated the gospel of St John into Saxon language, but the translation was lost. In the fourteenth century.
Wyclif had translated parts of the Bible and this work was completed after his death. Many copies of this “Lollard” bible in middle English were distributed before the invention of printing. The Genesis narrative opened:
?In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynne and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt.?
The Wyclif (or Wycliffe) bible was completed in 1388, four years after Wycliffe’s death. Wycliffe himself had translated the New Testament , relegating the Old Testament translations to assistants with the necessary language skills. These Wycliffe bibles were laboriously copied out and distributed at great risk. The Catholic Church was horrified at the possibility that everyone would be able to read the Bible.
In 1399, alarmed at the spread of Lollardy, the convocation of Oxford passed the statute De Heretico Comburendum, “Of the burning of heretics.” This law was passed in Parliament by King Henry IV in 1401. It provided for burning of all those who held Lollard opinions, or possessed illegal books, including the translated Bible apparently, though it is a common misconception that it was directed only against the Bible.
The De Heretico Comburendo statute stated:
…that none…presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also that none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.
The Lollards did not believe that the wine and wafer of the communion were transsubstantiated into the blood and body of Jesus, they refused to worship the cross as an object, and held many other such “dangerous” doctrines in addition to translating the Bible.
The first person to be executed under the law was Sir William Sautre, who refused to abjure, among other heresies, the following:
1. he will not worship the cross on which Christ suffered, but only Christ that suffered upon the cross.
2. he would sooner worship a temporal king, than the aforesaid wooden cross.
3. he would rather worship the bodies of the saints, than the very cross of Christ on which he hung, if it were before him.
4. he would rather worship a man truly contrite, than the cross of Christ.
5. he is bound rather to worship a man that is predestinate, than an angel of God.
6. if any man would visit the monuments of Peter and Paul, or go on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas, or any whither else, to obtain any temporal benefit; he is not bound to keep his vow, but he may distribute the expenses of his vow upon the alms of the poor.
7. every priest and deacon is more bound to preach the word of God, than to say the canonical hours.
Wyclif himself had been executed in 1388. The Catholic authorities later desecrated his grave.
While the new statute was not exclusively aimed at translated bibles, it was used to suppress them. Quite a few of these bibles, used by Lollard preachers, nevertheless remained.
In the 1490?s the personal physician to King Henry the VII and VIII, Thomas Linacre, an Oxford professor, studied Greek. After reading the Gospels in the original Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary, ?Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel? or we are not Christians.? In the same period, John Colet, another Oxford professor, translated the New Testament into English for his students, and later it was read for the public at Saint Paul?s Cathedral in London. He escaped prosecution owing to his friends in high places.
Presently, the vernacular Bible became a political weapon against temporal rulers too, because it could be used to show that the claims of kings to “divine right” were a fiction. William Tyndale was the main translator of the English Bible, in the early sixteenth century. He did not use Wyclif’s version, but started anew. Wyclif had written in Middle English, which was rapidly being transformed. Printing was standardizing and altering spelling. Wyclif had translated the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale knew Hebrew and Greek, and translated from the original. The Tyndale bibles were printed in Europe and smuggled into Britain. There, they were bought up eagerly by the Lord Bishop of London, to prevent their distribution. In this way, the church subsidized the work of Tyndale and it prospered. Tyndale boasted to learned Catholics:
“I wyl cause a boy that driveth ye plough shall know more of scripture than thou doest.”
This idea was surely terrifying both for churchmen and for the crown, for the notes in many editions of these bibles, published by Calvinists, repudiated the divine right of kings.
The work was continued after his death. Based on these translations, Miles Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in English in 1535. John Rogers published a revision called Matthew’s Bible in 1537. A revision of the Matthew’s Bible, printed in 1539, was known as The Great Bible. A later revision reflected the participation of eight Anglican Bishops and was called The Bishop’s Bible. It was printed in 1568. The frontispiece of this bible is shown at right.