Connected from the outset with other religions or other churches, the Semitic languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic – were approached in early modern Europe with all the ambivalence that has characterised Western attitudes to the East through the ages. In the first part of his Opus majus, written shortly after 1266, the Franciscan Roger Bacon, the ‘doctor mirabilis’ noted for his thirst for knowledge, pleaded for the ‘study of tongues’. Among the reasons he listed was ‘the correction of errors and false statements without end’ in the fundamental theological texts, but he also added another one: the importance of languages ‘for the conversion of unbelievers’. Both arguments induced the participants in the Council of Vienne, which ended in 1312, to proclaim that chairs in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Greek should be founded at the main European universities: Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Salamanca, and the seat of the papacy which was then Avignon.
On the one hand, therefore, there was a desire to read the Bible in the original languages, to improve on the existing translations, and to establish the most reliable text possible. On the other, there was a wish to confute the rival monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, and to argue against the Christian churches of the East. The object was ultimately to convert the Jews and the Muslims to Christianity, and to bring the Eastern Christians back to the single Catholic fold. In order to achieve this goal it was essential to become acquainted with their beliefs and their customs, and that could best be done by reading their literature.
Some of the finest theologians of the Middle Ages had aspired to the knowledge of Hebrew – men such as Bede, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, eager to tread in the steps of Origen and Jerome. In the thirteenth century the Mendicant orders had been interested in Hebrew for missionary purposes, and the Spanish Dominican Raimundo Martini had assembled material on the Jews in his notorious attack, the Pugio fidei, completed in 1278. Certain monastic orders, notably the Victorines in Paris, attempted to cultivate Hebrew studies, and an increasing number of monastic libraries tried to collect Hebrew texts. Nevertheless, few Christian theologians knew any Hebrew, and those who did seldom had more than a smattering. Many years passed before the proposals made at Vienne were actually carried out.