To understand the history of the Christian church, the accessibility of Vulgate manuscripts during the middle ages is of interest. What is known? Is there a date from which we may assume that all, or most, Catholic parishes in Europe had such a manuscript?

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    The Vulgate was also made available (as translated into English) by the Wycliffe writers in 1382 and the Wessex gospels (also in English) are known from 1175.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 2, 2022 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


How many hand written Vulgata manuscripts were accessible?

Whenever something was copied by hand, frailties of human eyesight enter in, particularly if that document is old and some ink has faded. Copying is also long, tedious work. It would take a scribe several months to copy just one Gospel!

In the early Middle Ages, the complete Bible was rarely produced. The Gospels were copied the most often and by hand.

During the Middle Ages, books of the Bible were used in worship and personal study. Western European manuscripts kept in the National Library of Russia reflect all the functions that were performed by the Christians' main book in different periods of the Middle Ages.

In the early Middle Ages, the complete Bible is rarely produced. The Gospels were copied most often, they make up 43% of all extant Biblical books, created before the 9th century. The Gospels of this period were adorned with portraits of the Evangelists and their symbols, decorative frames and ornamental initials. Created at the end of the 8th century in Britain, the so-called Insular Gospel book highly impress highly impresses with splendid colours and ornamental motifs. The illumination of the manuscript consists of 12 Canon Table Arcades and the four initial pages with large ornamented initials at the start of each Gospel. Such lavishly decorated opening pages are a characteristic feature of early Scottish and British Gospels. The first letters on the initial pages were embellished with interlacing patterns, they were the size of a half sheet or a sheet. The following letters were made in different colours, and they gradually diminish in size from the first to the last line of the page.

Multi-volume, large format, altar Bible were created for worship in the monastic scriptorium during the 11th-12th centuries. The NLR stores the two-volume Bible of the South German Weissenu Monastery, which includes a written inventory of monastic books.

At the end of 12th century, in Europe, the first European universities appeared. In Bologna, Montpellier, Paris, Oxford, and then in other European cultural centers, the independent corporations of teachers and students formed a new type of stage-by-stage learning, unknown to the ancient world.

The Theological Faculty at the University of Paris was recognized as the leader in matters of faith. No coincidence that in the early thirteenth century, the Paris theologians undertook work on the standardization of the Bible. They used Alcuin's improved text of the Latin Vulgate translation as a basis. In the Bibles created before the 13th century, researchers count to more than two hundred different orders of the biblical books. The contemporary Bibles follow the arrangement as given in the Paris Bibles (or the so-called University Bibles) that appeared in the early 13th century. The number of prefaces has been reduced: out of more than 500, Parisian theologians have left 64 St. Jerome's Prefaces. Since the 13th century, the biblical books have been divided into chapters and have been provided with headings. At the end, there were alphabetical lists of biblical figures with brief comments.

The Paris Bibles were the single-volume books of small size, written in tiny Gothic script on pages of very thin parchment. They became very popular and widespread. Before the 13th century, the full text Bibles were produced relatively rare, one-volume Bibles occurred even rarer. The Psalms and the Gospels were copied most often. Manuscripts with Comments contain, as a rule, no more than one or two books of the Bible. The Paris Bibles afforded scholars and students a chance to buy Bibles complete in one volume at a reasonable price. It was not cheap but less expensive then before. These books make it easier to study the Bible, because they contain scientific, in the modern sense of the word, aids: a table of contents and an annotated index of names. The Paris Bibles were very convenient for mendicant orders founded in the early 13th century: the Order of St. Francis and the Order of St. Dominica. The monks of the orders had the right to preach and to perform the sacraments. A portable volume could fit easily in a monastic bag, and its reference tools helped to quickly find a desired passage for sermons.

The Psalter was the first prayer book of Christians. Psalms and individual verses from the Psalter were used for the liturgy, in the Books of Hours and prayer books. The National Library of Russia possesses a magnificent Psalter, illuminated with gold, that was created in France in the 13th century. The Psalms were written in a Gothic script. At the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Romanesque style was replaced by the Gothic one in architecture and sculpture. The style also extended to the so-called small arts, which included calligraphy and book illumination. In the books of that time, the round and easily readable Carolingian script gave way to the tall, narrow Gothic writing. The exhibited Psalter is inscribed in such sharp letters, difficult to read.

During the 13th-14th centuries, the number of literate people , especially the citizens, increased. For lay people, who would like to become better acquainted with the Bible, there produced its heavily illustrated simpler versions in Latin and the vernacular. These were the so-called Paupers' Bible (Biblia pauperum) for semi-literate people: moralized Bibles (Bible moralisée), historical Bibles (Bible Historiale), Mirrors of Human Salvation (Speculum humanae salvationis).

In the 14th century, the separate books of the Bible and the entire Bible were translated into national languages. Known is an English translation of the Bible, made in 1380, in the surroundings of John Wycliffe (1320 / 1324-1384). In the Netherlands, at the end of 14th century, among the "Morden Devotion" movement (Devotio moderna), there was advanced an idea that all nations, including the Dutch, have the right to read the Bible in their own languages. The main monastery of the «Modern Devotion» at Windesheim had two libraries: one contained Latin books for the monks, the other held books in the vernacular for the lay brothers. The Dutch books library was in charge of Canon Jan Scutken Canon († 1423). During meals, Scutken read passages from the Gospels, translated him into Dutch, to the lay brothers. The Dutch translation of the four Gospels were made up of these extracts. - Books of the Bible (Medieval European Literature)

Prior to the invention of the printing press, very few few complete hand written copies were owned by anyone, secular or religious.

The reason being is that these copies were very expensive and bulky. If we add into the equation that the level of illiteracy was also quite high we can understand this a little more easily.

Scriptorium literally "a place for writing", is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.

However, lay scribes and illuminators from outside the monastery also assisted the clerical scribes.

When monastic institutions arose in the early 6th century (the first European monastic writing dates from 517), they defined European literary culture and selectively preserved the literary history of the West. Monks copied Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible and the commentaries and letters of early Church Fathers for missionary purposes as well as for use within the monastery.

In the copying process, there was typically a division of labor among the monks who readied the parchment for copying by smoothing and chalking the surface, those who ruled the parchment and copied the text, and those who illuminated the text. Sometimes a single monk would engage in all of these stages to prepare a manuscript. The illuminators of manuscripts worked in collaboration with scribes in intricate varieties of interaction that preclude any simple understanding of monastic manuscript production.

The products of the monasteries provided a valuable medium of exchange. Comparisons of characteristic regional, periodic as well as contextual styles of handwriting do reveal social and cultural connections among them, as new hands developed and were disseminated by travelling individuals, respectively what these individuals represented, and by the examples of manuscripts that passed from one cloister to another. Recent studies follow the approach, that scriptoria developed in relative isolation, to the extent that paleographers are sometimes able to identify the product of each writing centre and to date it accordingly.

By the start of the 13th century, secular workshops developed, where professional scribes stood at writing-desks to work the orders of customers, and during the Late Middle Ages the praxis of writing was becoming not only confined to being generally a monastic or regal activity. However, the practical consequences of private workshops, and as well the invention of the printing press vis-a-vis monastic scriptoria is a complex theme.

The Vulgate was normally copied by hand by monks in rooms called a scriptorium. Thus monasteries, the rich and well-to-do financially churches could afford a complete copy of the Vulgate written by hand.

Since the printing press wasn’t invented until the 15th century–how did the bible become available to people before that?

Many books of the Bible existed and were transmitted orally before they were eventually recorded in writing. This may seem strange to us today, however, in a society in which most people were illiterate, as in biblical times, the oral tradition was heavily relied upon.

One of the techniques that was used to help people remember long passages is evidenced in the first story of creation in Genesis, chapter one. The division of creation into seven days, each following a pattern of God speaking, God creating, and God blessing, made it easier for people to listen, retain, and retell the story. Eventually, each book of the Bible did come to be recorded in writing, however, without a printing press, which was invented in the 16th century, the mass production of books was impossible. Until that time, believe it or not, most Bibles were copied by hand! When Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity in the 4th century, he authorized production of copies of the Bible, by hand. Because this was such an arduous task, it was rare for the average person to conceive of owning their own copy of the Bible. Instead, people looked to their priest who was often one of the few literate people in the community, to possess a Bible from which he could proclaim the Good News.

In the Middle Ages, the task of producing copies of the Bible was embraced by the monasteries. For many monks, the copying of Scripture by hand in rooms called Scriptoriums was their chief task. By the late Middle Ages and the rise of universities, book copying became a profession. Still, only the very rich could afford a copy of the Bible that was hand-copied, most-often in Latin. Stained glass windows and wall paintings in the churches often told the stories of the Bible for ordinary Christians who could not read.

With the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, it was now possible to mass produce the Bible, eventually making it conceivable for the average Christian to own his or her own copy in their own language.


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