I'm starting to read about the christian faith with more effort and this question popped up in my head. I've read that the bible at that time were really expensive because it was handmade but, could a lowborn from Italy (or the region that would later become Italy) read it at the church with the help of a priest or someone else?

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    This kind of question might be more at home at History.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 0:44
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    How, exactly, are you defining a "lowborn"? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 1:09
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    And when are the limits to the Middle Ages? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 3:30
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about Christianity, but rather about historical literacy. History.SE would be a better place to ask.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 3:58
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    @Flimzy I disagree. It seems more to be asking whether people had opportunity and permission to read the Bible. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 12:03

2 Answers 2


Rev John O'Brien wrote in The Faith of Millions* that in the Middle Ages (1000s to renaissance) the Bible was chained in various churches so it would be accessible to the greatest number of people.

He also says that St. Jerome, the Latin translator of the Vulgate (people's) Bible wrote words of encouragement that all should love and honor the Bible.

Luther apparently had the invalid assertion that the Bible was just sitting around collecting dust before he came around and lots of people still think there were no vernacular translations before him, but in reality, O'Brien wrote, there were more than 20 in German alone. (Maybe not Luther's German, but various high and low forms).

But in the Middle Ages the translation was more abstract and in Italy, you've got the best examples of the translation from page to art. The art was still being refined, but it's still intelligible, what exists, the Gospels were hanging up on the walls and being internalized.

St. Mark's Basilica is a prime example of such work in the 1200s.

Dominican preachers would be well acquainted with the Bible and even if you were unlucky enough to have a priest in your village who didn't think much of your lowbornness, there's a chance, at least, that an itinerant preacher would come to your aid and help you to learn your Bible.

The middle ages were truly a much more pleasant time to be a Catholic, and hopefully following Pope Francis' advice we can all shut out our techno-wizardry, learn from the sages of the past and go back there.

* see "The Chruch: Interpreter of the Bible" under subheads Bible in the Middle Ages; Luther, First Translator and Chained Bibles"

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    @DJClayworth I thought he was asking if an illiterate Italian could read a Bible in the Middle Ages. So I explained the various ways an illiterate Italian "read" the Bible in the Middle Ages. The key word here is the definition of "read", whether it's the act of internalizing information or something you do with your eyeballs. I don't think there's anything magical about the act of reading (no matter what the cat posters in the library say), in fact, it's probably one of the worst ways to put information into your brain.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:45
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    Is the O'Brien reference only for the Bible's being chained or for everything? If not, I think you should source the vernacular language translations paragraph. +1 in advance.
    – user3961
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 20:09
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    @freds yeah everything I wrote (except the last paragraph :) and the part about the Dominicans) was from O'Brien, I just looked up the picture. It's harder to quote things properly from the mobile site, so I just didn't try. He devoted quite a few pages to proving that Catholics have always read the Bible. Kind of skips around too much to make a stellar answer to this question though - I was a little disappointed by that.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 20:51
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    The Dominican reference I got while reading a really great book about Blessed Imelda Lambertini to my kids. And I think it's just general knowledge that they were preachers in the middle ages (O.P is their suffix meaning Order of Preachers)
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 20:54
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    @mr. Nope I jump around, but its all under those 3 sections
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 11:25

According to data compiled from multiple sources and available here, general literacy in Italy was less than 20% at the close of the Middle Ages, so I think that the answer to your title question is no, a "lowborn" would likely not have been able to read the Bible on their own.

Another answer addressed the topic of "translation of page to art." I recall this theme being prominent in a tour I received of the Cathedral of Chartres as a youth. Each statue and image in the Cathedral served the purpose of teaching some particular lesson.

One of the reasons, I think, that icons are so central to the theology of the Eastern Church is that they teach dogmatic lessons in a form other than the written word. While the anachronisms and distortions that are seen in an Orthodox icon may seem somewhat arbitrary, every feature of an icon is put there for some express dogmatic purpose.

I think that it is also important to consider that the means by which Scripture most readily reached believers during the Middle Ages and earlier was probably not private study or study with the parish priest (or "pastor"), but rather through the annual reading cycle of Epistle and Gospel during the Liturgy (or Mass) and accompanying sermons. In many cases these sermons have themselves been recorded in writing and have served as secondary witnesses to the New Testament manuscripts (e.g. the homilies of John Chrysostom for Matthew, John, Acts, Pauline Epistles; Cyril of Alexandria for Luke).

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