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June 16, 2003

the printing press didn't cause a translation revolution

Many people believe that the Church suppressed the translation of the Bible into modern languages during the Middle Ages, but the invention of the printing press gave people an unblockable means of access to Scripture. This story is often cited to show that institutions are dangerous because they try to control knowledge, but technological innovation enhances freedom.

I am no expert on this subject, but I would suggest some grounds for caution: —The Bible was legally translated into certain modern languages, from Slavonic to Old English, starting before the year 1,000. (See this page; and I saw a beautiful medieval French Bible at this exhibition.) —To be sure, there were edicts against translation in the 16th century and later, and the Catholic Church developed a reputation for obscurantism in modern times because the Mass was only said in Latin until 1962. However, the Church became reactionary after the Council of Trent (1545-63); this attitude should not be read back onto the Middle Ages. —The Wykliffe Bible was banned and burned, but not because it was written in English; rather it was considered distorted by a specific heresy. —It was very hard to translate into the vernacular until the late middle ages, because modern languages were only gradually developing and gaining enough vocabulary to render the Bible. There was no such thing as "Italian" or "German" in 1250; instead there were hundreds of local dialects, each spoken in a small area, and most lacking rich vocabularies. —No medieval Western European Christians knew Greek or Hebrew, so they would have had to translate from the Latin translation by St. Jerome. It took brilliant Renaissance scholarship (and an infusion of Greek experts after Consantinople fell to the Turks) before there was a reliable original from which to translate. People who emphasize technology as a historical factor tend to overlook the profound linguistic and literary innovations that were required before a first translation could be made. —The Latin Bible was not secret; Latin was the language of literate people throughout Europe. —The Church invested tremendous resources in popularizing the Bible through painting cycles, stained glass windows, "picture Bibles," passion plays, and readings in churches, including huge, broad-aisled Franciscan and Dominican churches that were designed to hold mass audiences. (These were "communications technologies" of great power.) —Some modern critics assume that the Church wanted to control the original text of the scriptures because then it could withhold the radical parts. I could be wrong, but I would guess that popular passion plays and Franciscan sermons actually emphasized the radical messages of the original Bible.

All of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about power, institutions, and technology.

Posted by peterlevine at June 16, 2003 03:19 PM

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