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The Bible was not available in the hands of common people in Medieval times (5th - 15th century). Which of these possible reasons are plausible?

  1. The common people were poor and could not afford to get the Bible.
  2. The Bible was not for sale in the market.
  3. The Catholic Church did not want the common people to read the Bible.
  4. The common people were illiterate.
  5. The common people did not speak Latin.
  6. The people were not pious enough to bother reading the Bible.
  7. The people had a mindset that reading the Bible is the job of scholars or bishops.

Are there any other possible reasons?

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To the downvoter: This seems to be a useful question (adding a "some other reason" option might make it better) and providing a comment explaining the downvote is considered good practice. –  Paul A. Clayton Jul 17 '13 at 15:13
@PaulA.Clayton Thanks for the suggestion. –  Mawia Jul 17 '13 at 15:21
"Not I," said the lazy dog. But the list of possibilities is why I haven't upvoted it. The question would be better phrased by making the claim (possibly with a source) then asking why. You're making unnecessary assumptions then asking for validation for one or more of these assumptions. –  Ryan Frame Jul 17 '13 at 15:23
@RyanFrame Someway, you are right. Maybe I should ask all those points separately. It might even fall under "Truth" category but history is not the same like doctrine. Still, I think that someone with good historical knowledge can answer it briefly. –  Mawia Jul 17 '13 at 15:50
I think 1, 4, and 6 are the most invalid reasons. The rest are questionable. It depends on what you mean by "common people". Merchants are part of the common people, yet they can be wealthy if they are good in commerce. In Scandinavian countries, even the lower classes are literate. Well, at least they were literate in runes, so they could carve runestones. –  Anonymous Jul 17 '13 at 16:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Overall, general accessibility to books was difficult for two of the reasons you mention:

  1. The were extremely expensive to make

    According to this source, we have the report of a book taking four weeks to copy (by hand, of course, and costing "53 shillings." At that same point in time, a pig was 10 pence, meaning that one book would have been equivalent to 636 pigs.

    Likewise "In Byzantium, annotations from around 900 in the books of Arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea, value his copy of Plato at 21 nomismata and Euclid at 14 nomismata (perhaps not including the parchment). Manual workers in Byzantium were paid 6 to 10 nomismata per year."

    That should put some perspective on the value of the materials and labor that were involved in making a book prior to the printing press.

  2. Literacy was extremely low

    In England, anyone could avoid prosecution in trial (once anyway), by simply being able to quote Psalm 51. The thought, derived from Common Law, was that only clergy could read.

    This graph below shows literacy rates in France in 1700s, and the remarkable shift in literacy. At the beginning of the graph, note that only 1 in 3 people could read - and this nearly 300 years after the invention of the printing press highlights how low literacy would have been.

    enter image description here

Additionally, however, there was a practical decision made by the church:

  1. Catholic understanding of intrepretation

    Finally, the institution of the church understood that people can misread Scripture. As such, dogmatic interpretation was reserved to priests. By focusing on those who could read and were trained to explain the Scriptures, the church imposed a sort of "quality control" on that reading. This was anathema to the Protestant reformers who subscribed to the notion of the Priesthood of All Believers

  2. And, don't forget that the Bible was intended to be read aloud

    When the books of the Bible were written, the primary intention was that a trained reader would read the words out loud - It was akin to a playback device to be tied to a reader. Accusing the church of "control" of the Scriptures here would be like saying that the Catholic Church "controlled" sheet music because not everybody could play the piano. The truth is, reading a book was a skill not many bothered with.

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+1 Nice inclusion of data. –  Paul A. Clayton Jul 17 '13 at 20:45
The rich gets richer, the poor gets poorer. What a good way to maintain an uneven power struggle between rich and poor (in knowledge and in money). The Priesthood of All Believers may also encourage criticism of the Bible, which may lead some believers to strengthen their faith and some believers to lose their faith. –  Anonymous Aug 5 '13 at 12:44
Note also: The Bible was meant to be read aloud in churches, from the time of the apostles to the present day. The Bible was read privately by a large portion of the population only after the advent of cheap printing in the 16th/17th centuries. Thus the Bible was not withheld; it was being read aloud in church for the benefit of all the laity. –  John Peyton Aug 5 '13 at 13:55

A book during that period cost more than most people earned during a year or more. Only exceptionally rich people owned any books. Books were copied by hand back then. It's only when the printing press was invented that normal folks could afford books. There were some murmurings within the church about letting commoners read the Bible themselves, but little was actually done to prevent the Gutenberg press from creating thousands of cheap copies.

Gutenberg Bible

The printing press

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Whilst there isn't much to add to Affable Geek's impressive answer, I would like to pick up on the themes of control that arise in other answers.

It is certainly clear that at various periods throughout British history (at least) there were attempts to translate the bible into the vernacular, and these met with a violent reception - take Wycliffe and Tyndale. Yet it is often clear that what these writers proposed went far beyond a simple translation of the bible, and amounted to a challenge to the existing church at least as much as a result of the fact that such men could be regarded as holding deviant views on dogmatic and organizational matters (the established hierarchy of the church, the practice of indulgences and so forth), as from the fact that they were trying to translate the bible.

Here is another interesting thought. Take a read of the following two passages from two authors, both interested in the effect of language upon thought and, importantly, how the way we understand language shapes the way we know the world. They are long and may not seem directly connected to the question, but bear with me because they set the scene:

Indeed, for most philologists at the time, the notion that the grammar of a barbarian language could be a worthwhile subject of study seemed perverse. Studying grammar meant the study of Greek and Latin, because "grammar" was the grammar of Greek and Latin. So when remote languages were described (not by philologists but by missionaries who needed them for practical purposes), the descriptions usually consisted of a list of Latin paradigms on one side and the allegedly corresponding forms in the native language on the other side. The nouns in an American Indian language, for example, would be shown in six forms, corresponding to the six cases of the Latin noun. Whether or not the language in question made any case distinctions was irrelevant - the noun would still be duly frogmarched into nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, and ablative. The French writer Simon-Philibert de La Salle de l'Etang demonstrates this frame of mind in his 1763 dictionary of Galibi, a now extinct language of the Caribbean, when he complains that "the Galibis have nothing in their language that makes distinctions of case, for which there should be six in the declension of each word." Such descriptions seem to us today like clumsy parodies, but they were conceived in complete earnestness

Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass, 2010 p. 133

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western Culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them [my emphasis]. The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the stars, and plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man [here the author is referring the the Doctrine of Signatures]. Painting imitated space.

Michelle Foucault, The Order of Things, (first published in French in 1966

Deustcher's quote illustrates the fixation of European thought upon the historic language of Christendom, Latin. Latin was, in some sense, the standard against which all other languages could be held in account. From Foucault we learn the great importance of language at the time, the way it appeared to provide a foundation for knowing, and the (to many moderns) apparently mystical connection between objects of speech, and objects in the world.

Part of the explanation for why vernacular translations were worried about was because of fears about the capacity of such languages to relay the holy message (there is some excellent discussion of the general fears of French monks about relaying even historical events like battles in French rather than Latin in Lucien Febvre's "The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century", but unfortunately I don't posses my own copy so can't give you quotes). There was a fear that vernacularisation and vulgarisation would go hand in hand. It would, therefore, be unfair on our ancestors to say that they may not have had genuine concerns (based upon their best understanding of the world) about the possibility of vernacularising the Bible, whilst still preserving the connection between the religious knowledge of man and the word of God. This also feeds into some of the concerns about the capacity of inaccurate interpretation that Affable Geek talks about.

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While books were expensive to print and therefore not easily available to the common citizen, most people also couldn't read. Only the wealthy could afford for their child/children to attend school. Bibles were also only available in Latin, which unless you went to school, and were able to read and understand Latin, one had no chance of making heads or tails of what the Bible said. The Bible was available but the common people could neither afford nor read the Bible.

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