When the Bible Was on the Index…

Nicolas Le Maire, Sanctuarium profanis occlusum, sive, De SS. Bibliorum prohibitione in lingua vulgari seu vernacula tractatus; Gallice primum conscriptus anno 1651 … Nunc Latine prodit in Germania.

Printed in 1662 in Würzburg by Sylvester Gassner.

In 1662, in the episcopal city of Würzburg a book was translated into Latin. It had been written by an author about whom we hardly know anything today. The translation of the work’s Latin title reads “The Sanctuary Hidden From the Worldly or Tract on the Prohibition of the Most Holy Books in the Common or Domestic Language’”. In other words: the author of this book was of the opinion that a believer of the Catholic faith shouldn’t read the bible in a language other than Latin. Of course, there were reasons behind this argument and we want to explain them to you in their historical context.

The Author

First of all, even though we don’t know much about the historical figure of Nicolas Le Maire, we do know what he told us about himself on the title page of another of his books. He talks of himself as a priest, doctor of theology, canonist of Soissons, ordinary preacher to the king and his brother. In other words, Nicolas Le Maire and his opinions, which sound quite weird to us today, had made a career in the service of the Church and the king. Thus, he said exactly what the King of France – or perhaps his minister, Cardinal Mazarin, – thought, too.

For Nicolas Le Maire’s treatise was directly aimed against what people believed to have caused the bloody civil war against the Protestant Huguenots, against the freedom to draw your own conclusions from the biblical text.

Michael Servetius, the first to accurately describe blood circulation and a theologian; in the background you can see him being burned in Geneva for his views on the Holy Trinity, which had been condemned as heresy by Calvin. Servetius’ Christianismi Restitutio of 1553 was burned at the stake with him.

The Prohibition of Books

It would be a mistake to think that it was the Catholic Church who first came up with the idea that certain books must to be prohibited. Powerful people have always fought against poets saying bad things about them. We only have to think of the banishment of Ovid, which, according to him, was caused by “a poem and an error”. And it was an emperor, not a pope, who organised the first extensive book burning of Christian history. Emperor Constantine had the writings of Arius, who had been condemned as a heretic, burned and made their possession punishable by death.

Book prohibitions proved to be useful to establish the papal doctrine as the only one permitted in western Christendom. However, heretical writings were a minor problem in an age when books were copied by hand and consulted by a tiny minority. This changed when Johannes Gutenberg published the first printed book of the West. Printed copies were cheaper and thus affordable for many people.

No historian denies the fact that this played a role in the success of the Reformation. And, of course, the popes weren’t stupid enough to ignore the impact of letterpress printing.

The same was true for worldly rulers. Every prince, every city state, every small imperial knight determined which books were allowed to be printed and sold on his territory. So, when we get upset about the Catholic Index we should always keep in mind that Reformed Zurich, Calvinist Geneva and Lutheran Brunswick also banned any book they did not like on their territory.

An early reprint of the Roman Index of 1596.

The Catholic Index

Catholics who wanted to print a book on theological or religious issues had to be granted the imprimatur, the permission to print. To keep track of all the reprints and translations, the authorities in charge of censorship compiled a list of all the books that had already been examined and prohibited. This list was the foundation of the first printed Index of 1559. But it was not until the Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, that Catholics were prohibited from reading books mentioned in the Index. The council was the beginning of the Counter-Reformation. And the prohibition of reading the Bible in the vernacular also goes back to this very council.

The Bible Prohibition of the Council of Trent

We mustn’t forget one thing: every translation is an interpretation, and especially the widely spread Lutheran translations of the Old and the New Testament were written in a way to support the arguments of the Reformers. Due to interpretive introductions, it was anything but a neutral reading. It was a summary of Luther’s doctrines supported by apparently neutral statements of the Holy Scripture.

The “Word of God” is open to human interpretation, which might be considered right by some and wrong by others. Just think of the centuries of discrimination due to the words of Paul the Apostle stating that women should remain silent in the churches! The Catholic Bible ban tried to prevent “wrong” interpretations, or rather interpretations that were considered wrong by the Catholic Church.

Of course, this is the very reason why the Bible prohibition was attacked by those who wanted to convince believers of their non-Catholic interpretation. The fact that Nicolas La Maire, the court chaplain of the French king, backed the papal view so vehemently proves that the French government did not only fear religious but also military unrest.

Be Gone With You, You Dogs!

Vignettes of the title page of Sanctuarium profanis occlusum.

No knowledge of Latin is needed to understand right away what this book is about. The vignettes of the title page summarise the content quite concisely.

The left vignette depicts an eagle with its young. The translation of the circumscription reads “It is not given to all”. The “it” alludes to an ability that has been associated with eagles since ancient times, the ability to look into the sun with the naked eye. The vignette clearly shows the consequences that birds without this ability face when they try to look at the sun: they fall.

Thus, this vignette is meant to show that not everyone is made to look at the Holy of Holies by reading the Bible, and whoever does it anyway is in danger of falling.

The second vignette repeats the message by means of another image. In this case, the legend quotes a verse from the Aeneid: the Cumaean Sibyl prevents Aeneas from entering the underworld by saying: “Away, stand far away, O you profane ones!” The sentence emphasises that there are things that are too sacred for the profane eye, and that these things will be defiled by such eyes.

The depiction illustrates this. Devout priests worship the Blessed Sacrament in the background, while a couple dressed in secular clothing looks at some children who are playing with dogs in the foreground. The idea that dogs might play with noisy children in a church was considered shocking in the 17th century. “Be gone with you, you dogs” therefore summarises the author’s horror at the thought of profane eyes disrespecting the Holy of Holies in the worst way possible.

In our age, where free access to all kinds of information has virtually become an alternative religion, we can no longer understand why many intelligent men would consider prohibiting people from reading the bible in their common language to be a good idea. Even the opinion of the Church itself on the subject changed within the last century. However, the Church still insists that Catholics only read approved translations. Thus, a paragraph of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, which is still in force today, reads as follows: “Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations.”


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Le Maire’s book can be viewed at the website of the Bavarian State Library.

We purchased this work at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.

You can find a selection of additional books on the Reformation and Counter Reformation here.