In the 5th century, Jerome translated the Bible into Latin. This was known as the Vulgate. At that time, Latin was the literary language of Europe and the spoken language of urbanized European Christians. With time, however, the use of Latin gradually faded. Between the 7th and 15th centuries parts of the Bible were translated into most of the major languages of Europe. Unfortunately, in its zeal to maintain the churches’ interpretation of Scripture, Rome did its best to suppress all translations but the Latin Vulgate. By the Middle Ages, only the clergy and the educated read or understood Latin; the common people did not have access to Scripture. This was a terrible time in Christian history. It was a time when the true Gospel was almost lost.
That suited the established church just fine. Whatever one may think of Catholicism in our day, history plainly shows that in Medieval times the Church had become thoroughly corrupt. Anything and everything from indulgences for the forgiveness of sin to the shortening of your departed loved ones’ time in Purgatory could be had for money. In one infamous quote, Pope Leo X allegedly remarked that, “The fable of the Christ has served us well.” If people were able to read the Bible in their own tongue, they would learn that salvation was a free gift by grace alone, and the clergy would be exposed as frauds and thieves. The availability of the scriptures in other languages was the biggest threat imaginable to the Roman church. And so, the Church put up a serious fight.
Leaf from a Latin Vulgate, printed in Basel, by Johann Amerbach, in 1482
In 1384, appalled at this corruption, John Wycliffe and a small band of followers began producing hand-written copies of the Bible in English. The Church was so infuriated by this that 44 years after Wycliffe died, the Pope ordered his bones to be dug-up and burned, and the ashes scattered in the river!
In 1415, one of Wycliffe’s followers, a man named John Hus, was burned at the stake for attempting to reform the Church in Bohemia. The last words of John Hus were a prophecy that, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” That man would be Martin Luther.
This Wycliffe New Testament was handwritten in 1410. It belonged to Richard Hunne, mentioned in Foxes Book of Martyrs. This New Testament figured in his trial.
From the collection of The Bible Museum, Phoenix, AZ. Photo used by permission