# 1: The Bible

Image: PD
The Catholic Church's worst nightmare: a page from the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450's.

Didn't see that one coming, huh? In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church upheld much of its power because the large majority of the European population were illiterate and therefore had to trust what the priests and scholars told them were the right ways to practise their faith. For those Europeans who could read, the Bible was not accessible because it was not available in their respective languages: the Old Testament was primarily in Hebrew while the New Testament was in Greek; not the common languages spoken in Europe. In the Middle Ages, the Bible was translated into Latin - however, this did not make the writings any more accesible to the common European population.

But early pioneers like John Wycliffe had set their minds on changing the Catholic church's dominance on Bible interpretation. He completed his first English translation of the Bible in 1382, writing out each copy of the book by hand (one Bible has survived up to the present day and can be seen in Oxford). Wycliffe's translation made the Oxford Council declare that it was outright dangerous to translate scriptures because there was no way of knowing if the translations were correct. Wycliffe didn't get his punishment for his wrong-doing while he was alive, though: 40 years after his death, the church dug up his bones and burned them. 

The invention of the printing press with moveable type made the Church's resistance to printed copies of the Bible all the more difficult to uphold, and therefore their methods of preventing the public from reading them became harsher. In 1559, Pope Pius IV issued a declaration saying that "Books of arch-heretics - those who after 1515 have invented or incited heresy or who have been or still are heads and leaders of heretics, such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Hubmaier, Schwenckfeld, and the like - whatever their name, title or argumentation - are prohibited without exception". The punishment for owning, reading, and redistributing such heretic books (which, let's remind ourselves, did in fact include Holy Scriptures)? Death by burning. Now, that may seem a bit excessive, but the Catholic church were right to be worried: translated versions of the Bible became a powerful weapon for the Protestants during and after the Reformation.

Thumbnail photo: Pouya SH (CC ASA 3.0)

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