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How reading the Bible changed in the early 16th century during the Reformation

POSTED: June 11, 2017 10:19 a.m.
Deseret Connect/

The society out of which the Reformation arose was very like ours in some ways, and quite different from others. Its relationship to the Bible was changing rapidly.

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Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation.

Much like our own age, the early 16th century in Europe was a time of rapid transformation, social disruption and personal disorientation. Warfare had been transformed by the introduction of lethal gunpowder weapons.

New serious military threats emerged from the Ottoman Turks, who conquered most of southeastern Europe and unsuccessfully besieged Vienna in 1529, 12 years after the beginning of the Reformation. Unknown worlds were being discovered through the great explorations, bringing new wealth from trade and plunder.

Likewise, the ancient past was being rediscovered through the Renaissance, which in part represented an attempt to revive the culture and learning of the Romans and Greeks in the arts, architecture, literature and philosophy.

Probably the most important engine of rapid intellectual and spiritual transformation during the Reformation was printing and expanding literacy, which generated the same type of intellectual revolution that computers and digital books have in our own time. Through printing, books became much easier to reproduce, and thus much less expensive.

Furthermore, the explosion of a new continental-wide book market — the Amazon.com of the Reformation — flourished because of relatively inexpensive printed books, which in turn became both a motive and a means for expanding personal literacy.

A hand-written copy of the Bible would have cost the equivalent of thousands of dollars in the early 15th century. A printed Bible during the Reformation, on the other hand, cost two or three weeks’ wages for a skilled worker. Thus, the middle class in the Reformation had, for the first time in history, the opportunity to own, and thus to read, a personal Bible.

The ultimate climax of the printing revolution is that today anyone can read the Bible in almost any language, essentially for free because of digital reproduction. (Paradoxically, however, a greater percentage of the population of Europe actually studied the Bible seriously in the 16th century than read it today, even though it’s now free and ubiquitous.)

The spread of literacy during the Reformation was also intimately connected with the publication of books in vernacular languages — that is, the languages spoken in daily life. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Latin was the universal language of scholarship in the Catholic world. Educated people who knew how to read had almost always studied Latin. Most books were written in Latin and could thus be read by any educated person, whatever his or her personal daily language. Thus, the first book printed by Gutenberg was the Latin Bible because it would have the widest market.

The majority of medieval people were thus unable to read the Bible for a number of reasons. First, they generally didn’t know how to read at all. Even if they had basic literacy, though, most didn’t know Latin. Finally, even if they could read Latin, the cost of a Bible — at the equivalent of today's $10,000 or $20,000 — was prohibitive except to the very rich. How, then, did average medieval Christians encounter the Bible? They heard it read to them, generally by a priest or monk.

The most important part of late medieval Catholic meetings was the Mass (Eucharist, or what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints call sacrament).

The second most important element, however, was the “lectio” — the reading or lecture. This entailed an oral reading of the Latin Bible to the church audience. It was often followed by an oral translation and then an explanation. Thus, in a very real sense, illiterate people went to church to hear the Bible read to them.

Additionally, biblical precepts and stories were often paraphrased and retold in all sorts of circumstances, formal and informal. While many tourists today marvel at the beauty and grandeur of medieval religious art, its fundamental purpose was didactic. Medieval sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and painting were woven into the very fabric of a church.

For medieval Christians, this art was “scripture for the illiterate” — that is, even an illiterate peasant could see paintings and stained glass depictions of Bible stories and could be told by a priest or monk what those pictures were meant to depict. Thus, illiterate medieval Christians learned the contents of the Bible orally, by hearing the Bible read, hearing its teachings and stories retold by priests, and seeing them depicted in art.

Often, of course, this resulted in vague and garbled understandings. On the other hand, even with our modern technologies of storing, reproducing and transmitting knowledge, most people still have only a vague and garbled understanding of the Bible.

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