Saturday, October 27, 2007

Puzzled over English bible ban

To the Sacred exhibition at the British Library last month. A real wow. It's too late for me to recommend this exhibition, as it's now finished. My apologies for this.

Korans, Bibles and Torahs were laid side by side so you could see the artistic influences.  For example, the decoration on the Lindisfarne Gospel reminded me of a Koran. I want to say more about that, but first I'll need to look further into it, so for now I'll just have to let the images speak for themselves.  Here's the Lindisfarne Gospel. Has to be seen to be believed. The image is rather disappointing I'm afraid. Date: between 698 and 721.

Carpet page from Lindisfarne Gospel, England, between 698 and 721 (British Library)
Compare this to a Jewish illuminated manuscript from 1482
Carpet page from the Lisbon Bible, Portugal, 1482 (British Library)
The next thing that intrigued me was an English Bible of around 1020. Also Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian bibles of the same period. And a note beside the Lindisfarne Gospels contained a surprise too. Around 970 an Anglo-Saxon translation was added in red ink beneath the original Latin, and this is the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of English.
I was becoming puzzled. In 1523 John Tyndale wanted to translate the bible into English, he was refused permission, did it anyway, and got burnt at the stake for it.  So what I wanted to know was: exactly what happened between 1020 and 1523 to bring this state of affairs about? 

The awful irony is that Tyndale’s bible of 1534 (I have a copy of his New Testament) forms the basis of the King James Bible of 1611, justly regarded as one of the pinnacles of the English language.  I could digress on this theme at length, but back to the English and Armenian bibles on display. Now, I suppose you could say these vernacular bibles shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. After all, the very first bibles were in demotic Greek, which anyone could read, or have read to them.

The fly in the ointment seems to be the Latin Vulgate bible, dating from the 4th century. Here's a 13th century copy of a type of Vulgate bible which was mass produced and portable, even though before the age of print.

Latin Vulgate Bible, manuscript on parchment copied in France, c. 1250 (Newberry Library Chicago)
In Tyndale’s day the Vulgate was the only bible allowed, therefore none but priests and the educated elite could read it.  So the next question is: what, in the 4th century, was the Vulgate originally for?  Was it put into Latin with the express purpose of making it obscure?  No, it turns out.  Hannah Jenkins at the British Library tells me:

“St Jerome's Latin Vulgate (from the Latin vulgate, meaning 'common' or 'popular') was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382. Based on translations then in use, it employed the everyday written Latin style of the fourth century, in contrast to the more formal, elegant Latin of Cicero. Jerome's Vulgate became the standard version of the Bible in the West for over a thousand years.”

So here’s the picture that's emerging. In the 4th century, and for hundreds of years after that, the hierarchy wanted the whole populace to read (or hear) the bible: the Vulgate was made for those who spoke popular Latin; and Syriac, Armenian, English versions for the rest.  And this was so up till at least 1020, the date of this English bible:-

The first six books of the Old Testament in Old English, c. 1020. Adam naming the beasts.
But at some time during the next few centuries the hierarchy made an about face. When? Why? Instead of wishing the bible to be accessible, they now wished it inaccessible. The Vulgate, no longer understood even in Italy, France and other Romance language regions, came to be used not to impart biblical knowledge, but to deny biblical knowledge.  The populace came to rely on the priest telling them what was in the bible without being able to check for themselves, and the hierarchy liked it this way. How so?

The answer, again from the British Library’s Hannah Jenkins, is the “Constitutions of Oxford”.

Under the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford, it was strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into the native tongue. This ban on vernacular bibles was a reaction to the English religious reformer Wyclif. The Constitutions of Oxford remained in effect for nearly 130 years until King Henry VIII licensed the Matthews Bible to circulate in 1537. More information from Hannah Jenkins and some links in this pdf file.

Turning to the Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature I find that the tradition of Englishing the Bible was kept alive, and the issue wasn’t actually that it had to be in Latin; the issue was the suspect motives and theology of the translators. 

I still don't feel I've got to the bottom of this.  If the authorities didn't like the vernacular bibles issued by Wyclif and other dissidents, what prevented them issuing modern translations of their own?  Henry VIII after all was no protestant.  And when, exactly, did the church authorities become opposed to the populace being able to read the bible?  Suddenly in 1408?  Or had a prejudice against knowledge of the bible been brewing for a long time?  There's a whole lot more to be found out.

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