Friday, March 29, 2013

Was Reading Or Owning The Vulgate Ever Forbidden To Anyone By The Catholic Church?

I kinda doubt it, with the possible exception of one regional ban in southern France in the early 13th century, lasting a few years. Possible, but in my opinion even that is unlikely. I'll discuss that possibility below.

Yes, many people, even some very bright people, will tell you that for centuries, throughout Western Europe, the Catholic Church forbade lay people, non-clergy, to read any version of the Bible, including that revered standard Catholic Latin translation, the Vulgate. But sometimes it happens that many people, including very bright ones, are all wrong about something.

First off, no one disputes that the Catholic Church has at times discouraged, forbidden, condemned, and persecuted, tortured and killed writers, readers and possessors of copies of, translations of the Bible into vernacular tongues, after Latin had ceased to be the native tongue of almost anyone outside of the Church or academia. (And for a long time in Catholic Europe, the Church and academia were very close to the same thing.) And unlike a Catholic apologist, I will not offer you any justification for anyone's ever having banned or destroyed any book. All I'm interested in here is the claim about access to the Vulgate having been restricted.

That claim just doesn't make sense to me. For one thing, large portions of every Catholic Mass until the 1960's were taken -- that's right: straight outta the Vulgate. And during the Middle Ages, when these prohibitions of the laity reading the Vulgate were supposedly taking place, that same laity was encouraged, and often enough forced, to attend those Masses on a regular basis. It was essential that they hear the words of the Vulgate, and forbidden that they read those same words? Really?

A less serious objection to the claim that laity couldn't own the Vulgate is the existence of books of scripture, some time just one or several of the 66 books of the Bible in a small volume, occasionally the whole Vulgate in a huge volume, which were owned by lay members of Medieval royalty and lesser aristocracy, and which still exist today because they are particularly ornate and beautiful. I refer to this as a less serious objection because royalty and other aristocracy could ignore prohibitions much more easily than peasants could. Still, it is an objection. All the more so when we consider that is was the more pious lay members of the upper classes who would tend to own such volumes, and the more pious ones would naturally also be more likely to observe prohibitions laid down by the Church.

Claims that the Vulgate was forbidden to lay people seem to come down remarkably often to references to the Council of Toulouse in 1229 and the Council of Tarragona in 1234. One fact somewhat damaging to these claims is that there was no Council in Tarragona in 1234. Google "council of tarragona in 1234" in quotation marks and see how often that exact phrase is repeated, and notice how often the phrase is repeated by somewhat unhinged anti-Catholic Protestants. Note the many references to "the apostate Church." Okay, okay there was a council in Tarragona in 1242, they only missed by eight years. Still, it makes you wonder about the accuracy of the translation of the canon from Tarragona which supposedly bans the Bible. I haven't yet found and examined the original Latin text of the canons of the Councils of Toulouse and Tarragona, but the translations on those somewhat unhinged websites look to me as if it is quite possible that only translation from the Vulgate to the vernacular are being banned. I don't think it's particularly adventurous of me to assume that in early 14th century Toulouse and Tarragona, no one was translating the original Hebrew and Greek into French or Spanish. but if they were, that, too, would have been forbidden by these Councils. As I said above, I don't condone any banning of any books. I'm not going to try to convince you that the banning of bible translations ever has been a reasonable thing. There are plenty of Catholic apologists who will be glad to try to convince you of that. I'm strictly, obsessively, autistically concerned here with the claim that Vulgate was banned to laypeople.

And now to the possible temporary regional ban which I mentioned at the top of this post. It must also be emphasized that these two Councils, at Toulouse in 1229 and Tarragona in 1242, NOT 1234, were regional Councils, not Oecumenical Councils. Their rulings, their canons, had effect only locally, not throughout Catholic Christendom. And in Toulouse in 1229, the local authorities were busy wiping out the Albigensians, one of those early Protestant denominations who are not usually referred to as Protestants, but as heretics, because they did not survive. It's conceivable that the Albigensians, like later Protestants, wished to read the Bible in the vernacular, and that the authorities, in a local provision of martial law, forbade the local Albigensian clergy, who naturally had been excommunicated and therefore were laypeople in the eyes of the Catholics, from possessing copies of the Vulgate, for fear that they would make such translations.

But given the quality of the sources I've seen thus far who are making such claims -- well actually, they're claiming much more than that, based on their dubious readings of what might possibly be accurate translations of a canon from that local Council in Tououlse -- I'm skeptical even of a local temporary ban of the Vulgate in this case. I'll see if I can find some of the primary documents, and get back to you. (And for me, "primary" always means "untranslated.")

Postscript: I was wrong, owning some portions of the Vulgate was forbidden to laypeople at least at Toulouse, if not also at other councils. But even worse things were happening at Toulouse.

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