Penalty for reading non-latin translation of scripture?


I have been told that in the past (before the 16th century) the Church would execute anyone who merely read the scripture in any language other than Latin. I was aware that there were prohibitions on publishing unauthorized translations of scripture, but have never before heard that it was a violation to read a translation, let alone punishable by death!

Is there any truth to this claim? and if so can you point to any documentary support that this official policy existed? Thanks.


Did the person who told you this provide any proof?


The Church has never executed anyone for anything.


No. It was something I overheard on the radio the other day and have been looking for some sort of support for the claim. I haven’t found anything yet and now that I think about it it may be that the speaker misunderstood “excommunicate” to mean “execute.” Even if he made that mistake, was there any penalty imposed by the Church simply for reading a purported vernacular translation of scripture?


How about bilingual psalters? You get those all the time.

Here’s a 14th-c Latin/French example from Harley MS 1770:

Here’s a Greek/Latin example from the early 13th c.:

Here’s the famous Vespasian Psalter, from the 8th c, which is Latin glossed in Old English–

So, yeah. Latin was the language that everyone who was likely to own an expensive book, would be likely to know. But even so, there are plenty of examples of finding such items that were either glossed, if not fully translated, into at least one other common language. And if you stop and think about who was actually most likely to do the manuscript preparation—!


Supposedly Sir Thomas More condemned any translation of the Bible into English. But some say he approved only one version.


The secular media is always trying to say that the Church kills, rapes and tortures everyone.

The Douay-Rheimes bible was published in full in 1610. I think this was the first Catholic English translation. So it would actually have been impossible to read the scriptures in English before 1582 when the NT was published.


The Church did forbid at times the reading of unauthorized translations, because they were often translated in inaccurate ways to spread heresies and lead the faithful astray. I don’t know of execution ever being a penalty for reading these.


Wycliffe published his translation in the 1380s. That was before the printing press was invented, so naturally its circulation was limited compared with post-Gutenberg translations.


The Lindisfarne Gospels were 7th century. (aka the 600’s) The word-for-word translation into Old English was added later, c. 970, and is the oldest English-language gospels.

The Wessex Gospels from c. 990 are the oldest English-language gospels that were written without an accompanying Latin text. It was Saxon-Dialect-Only.


False, look into the French city of Minerve


Thanks @BartholomewB and @midori I did not know that. The Lindisfarne translation sounds particularly interesting. Is it online?


re: Lindisfarne gospels–

there’s 17 pages of it here

there’s 32 pages of it here

there’s a nice little informative blurb here.

If you’ve got about $5,500-$8,000 to spare, you can buy your own copy. :slight_smile:

But that also gives you an idea of how expensive these things were. We have trouble imagining spending $5500 for a mass-produced limited-edition book…! Imagine how expensive it would be if you had to pay for the sheepskins, the vellum pages, the hand-writing, the illumination, the pigments, the binding, the jewels… You couldn’t touch it for less than six figures.

So whenever people talk about “oh! those people from 1,000 years ago! they would have been killed if they read the wrong book!”, it’s more like, How many of them would own a book in their whole lives? :slight_smile:


No. It was never the case that there was a penalty for reading an authorized translation of the Bible in any language.

However, it was the case that the Church forbade the reading of translations of the Bible published by heretical sects, because it didn’t want folks to think they were reading the ‘real’ Bible.

Nope. Maybe the first full translation of the Bible into English, but not the ‘first Catholic English translation’.


This online edition gives two early editions of Wycliffe’s Bible in parallel columns:


The Lindisfarne Gospels are indeed available online.

The Lindisfarne Gospel of Matthew (by St. Eadfrith of Lindisfarne)

The Lindisfarne Gospel of Mark (by St. Eadfrith of Lindisfarne)

The Lindisfarne Gospel of Luke (by St. Eadfrith of Lindisfarne)

The Lindisfarne Gospel of John (by St. Eadfrith of Lindisfarne)

Be aware that the links go to Google Books pages that some people might find confusing. The Matthew one starts out with this title: “P. IHS. XPS. Matheus Homo,” which appears to stand for something along the lines of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Man Matthew.” Beneath that you’ll see several lines of text, the first of which reads “onginneð godspelles cynnreccnisse” and the second of which reads “Incipit evangelii genealogia.” The line with onginneð in it is Saxon English – the line with Incipit in it is Latin. So the translation has both Saxon English and Latin in interlinear format.

To make matters more confusing, there is also another Saxon English translation on each page in the footnotes, called the Rushworth Translation.

BTW, there are other early English translations of the Bible from before Wycliffe. Some of them are these:

The Rewle Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I call this version the Rewle Gospels because its preface on Matthew contains the following line: “the gospelle is rewle, be the whilk ich cristen man owes to lyf.” “The gospel is [the] rule by which each Christian man [ought] to live.” The Rewle Gospels have never been made available in printed form to my knowledge.

The Powell Version - A complete translation of the letters of St. Paul in Middle English. I call this translation the Powell Version because a scholar named Margaret Powell, who lived in the early 1900s, got her master’s degree by diligently examining the translation and helpfully printing and publishing it for our access today.

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The Paues Version - A partial translation of the New Testament including Acts, an incomplete version of Matthew, incomplete parts of all of Paul’s letters except Philemon, and complete versions of all the other letters in the New Testament. Some books of the New Testament are completely unrepresented in this version: Mark, Luke, John, Philemon, and Revelation. In the preface the author explains that he hadn’t yet completed his translation, but he intended to finish it later – though if he did, we have no copies of the complete version. I call this translation the Paues Version because a scholar named Anne Paues printed it in the early 1900s. Before that, it was only available in five handwritten parchments and did not yet have a name.

Two versions of Revelation - one of which is in this link

Notice that by combining the Rewle Gospels, the Powell Version, the Paues Version, and the Book of Revelation, you get Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, all the letters of the New Testament, and Revelation. The only thing missing from this “combined Catholic version” of the New Testament is John. And this was all before the Wycliffe Bible!

The Rolle Psalter - This was a very popular translation of the Psalms into Middle English, published over thirty years before the Wycliffe Bible. It’s called the Rolle Psalter because it was translated by a Catholic monk named Richard Rolle. It includes the Latin Vulgate text of the Psalms, an English translation, and a translation of a verse-by-verse commentary that was originally written in Latin by another Catholic scholar from the 1100s. That guy was named Peter Lombard, and he was most famous for writing a popular theology textbook in the 1100s, but he also wrote a commentary on the Psalms, which was the source of the commentary in the Rolle Psalter.

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The Pepysian Harmony - This is a Harmony of the Gospels. It takes the text of the gospels and arranges them into one continuous narrative. This translator paraphrases some stuff instead of translating it, so in many places it is non literal. But there’s nothing wrong with that, today this would be called a “dynamic equivalence” technique as opposed to a “literal” technique. There are a few bad effects of this in this particular version, though. One is that the author sometimes summarizes long chapters instead of translating or paraphrasing them. And occasionally he misreads a word and thus gives a poor translation. Nonetheless, this book stands out as a notable example of a Catholic translation of the gospels into Middle English independent of Wycliffe. The translation is called the Pepysian Harmony because the manuscript was found in the library of a British book collector from the 1700s named Samuel Pepys.

The Midland Psalter - This translation of the psalms is sometimes called “The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter.” Scholars aren’t sure if it came before the Rolle Psalter or not, but it definitely wasn’t as popular. It doesn’t contain a commentary, which is one of several things that makes it different from Richard Rolle’s translation, but it was definitely in use before the Wycliffe Bible was produced, which is just another piece of evidence that Catholics could have English translations of the Bible before Wycliffe, at least partial ones while a complete version was being made.

It is also important to point out that between 1066 A.D. and 1342 A.D., the official language of England was Norman French. Saxon English was still spoken by the common people, but, ever since William the Conqueror, Norman French was spoken by the court, and Bibles in England from this time period were therefore mostly in various dialects of French. For example, the Earl of Warwick (named Guy Beauchamp) died in 1315 A.D. and left behind him a library of books that included French copies of various books of the Bible.

In short, no, there was no penalty for reading non-Latin translations of Scripture, unless they were heretical or violated other norms of the Church.

Two possible exceptions: in the French town of Toulouse in 1229 A.D. and in the Spanish town of Tarragona in 1234 A.D., there were two local councils which temporarily placed severe limitations on the laity’s access to the Bible. In Toulouse, only Latin Scriptures were permitted, and then only the Psalms; in Tarragona, I haven’t been able to find the full text, but the partial text indicates that not even that was permitted, but there was a blanket ban. However, Wikipedia includes a significant “dot-dot-dot” at that part, and I wonder if there is an exception clause that got omitted from Wikipedia.

Other than these two temporary restrictions in parts of France and Spain, I am unaware of any Church council that placed a blanket prohibition on the laity such that no one could read a vernacular Bible.


Are you referring to the Siege of Minerve in 1210 A.D.? If so, I have a question: suppose someone told you, “The State executed those people, not the Church” – how would you respond?


You’re very well informed, @dmar198. Let me ask you a question. At the Council of Constance, thirty years after his death, Wycliffe’s doctrines were condemned and he was, in effect, posthumously excommunicated. But was his translation of the Bible condemned as such, or was it placed on the Index, or anything of that kind? My impression is that it wasn’t, but it’s hard to be sure.

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