Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2012
German and Netherlandish Bibles to the advent of printing
Despite centuries of specialised scholarship on vernacular Bibles, abiding preconceptions cloud public and even scholars’ ideas about the availability of scripture in the common tongue and the access of laypeople to the Bible in the Middle Ages. Germanic versions of the entire Bible, such as Ulfilas’ Gothic Bible, of individual books or parts of books (such as Psalms) and of biblical retellings (the Diatessaron, or ‘gospel harmony’, for example), appeared in the first centuries of Germanic Christianity. The Bible has almost always been available in Germanic (and other European) vernaculars, and accessible to a range of people starting with, but not limited to, the clergy and nobility. By the later Middle Ages, German burghers were being exhorted by preachers to keep (printed) Bibles in their houses and to read aloud from them regularly; preachers translated the Gospels aloud into the common language during Sunday church services, and had been doing so for some time.
Other than in England, actual bans on making or owning translations of the Bible into the vernacular were generally local and temporary, or even equivocal: the decree of the archbishop of Metz of 1199 against ‘Waldensians’ and their Bibles was confirmed by Innocent III but without expressly prohibiting Bible translations, even though that was how many theologians and churchmen understood Innocent’s letter, Cum ex iniuncto, for some time. Local and sporadic attempts to control the distribution of scriptural material among the common people during outbreaks of ‘heresy’ (in the Languedoc and the Rhineland among Cathars and Waldensians, for example) or periods of religious tension have been taken by (mainly Protestant) church historians as proof that the medieval Roman church officially opposed vernacular Bibles. Yet those same proscriptions, almost all limited in scope and intent, can in fact be read as proving the opposite: that vernacular scriptures circulated freely among lay and clerical readers alike, at least by the high Middle Ages, and that the church was concerned merely to ensure that the Bible should not be interpreted ‘incorrectly’ by less-educated and less ‘reliable’ readers (who could also be understood as ‘heretics’ for their independent reading practices and concomitant rejection of clerical authority).