Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229-1250

“Canon 14. We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have 

the books of the Old or the New Testament; unless anyone from 

motives of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary 

for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most 

strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.” (The Council of Toulouse, 1229.)1

In the mid thirteenth century, a succession of Church councils prohibited the 

translation of the Bible into vernacular languages. Who were these bans aimed at? 

Why were they put in place? Did they lead to the Church actually destroying 

bibles? If not, what purpose did these prohibitions serve? 

To answer these questions, I will first look at the councils that prohibited 

translations, their backgrounds and the major external influences – the Pope and the 

Kings of France and Aragon, as well as the formation of a culture of censorship 

during the thirteenth century. I will then examine the use of Scripture in vernacular 

languages by the major heretical movements of the time, namely the Waldensians 

and the Cathars, and explore the role of notaries in the production of such 

vernacular texts. Finally I will review the targets of the individual councils, and 

examine whether there is any evidence of the destruction of books as a result. 

The councils that prohibited vernacular translations were Toulouse (1229), Trier 

(1231), Tarragona (1233), and Béziers (1246). 2 Rheims (1230) also banned 

translation into Gallic (French). The relevant texts are collected in appendix 1 

below. These were only five in a long series of councils that tried to combat the 

threat to the Church from heretical groups such as Cathars and Waldensians. They 

were convened by local bishops, but influenced by outside parties such as papal 

legates, royal emissaries and local nobility. There was also a rising culture of 

centralisation, as more power was concentrated in Paris and Rome at the expense 

of southern towns. 

The major powers at the time were Pope Gregory IX, King Louis IX of France and 

King Jaime I of Aragon. All three were united in a desire to repress heresy; 

1 Peters, E., Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (London, 1980) p. 195 

2 Patschovsky, A., ‘The literacy of Waldensianism’, Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530 ed. Biller, P. and Hudson, A., (Cambridge, 1994) p. 116 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

however, the Pope needed their aid to implement any plans he might decree, and 

royal support was not always forthcoming. In particular, his calls for crusades – 

with their massive cost and commitment of soldiers – were frequently ignored. 

Gregory IX (Pope from 1227 to 1241) was closely involved in the crusading 

movement, not just in the Languedoc but also in crusades to the East and 

elsewhere. He declared a crusade against Bosnia and attempted to do the same against Bulgaria, to defeat dualist heretics in those lands.3 He appears to have 

reacted sharply against any claim of heresy, no matter how outlandish – his letter 

Vox in Rama against “Luciferian” heretics in Germany being a good example. He 

was also a notable jurist, commissioning the collation of canon law known as Nova 

compilation decretalium or the Decretals (1234). He favoured increased control by 

the Papacy over religious and educational matters. Examples of this included his 

involvement in the disputes at the University of Paris, and his censorship of the 

Talmud, which will be explored later on. 

King Louis IX of France and King Jaime I of Aragon had several similarities. Both 

fostered good relations with the papacy, at a time of conflict with other monarchs. 

Both were religious and acted strongly against heresy within their own borders; as 

a result, both were open to imposing papal rules and regulations when other 

countries may have been less keen on outside interference. 

There was arguably also a growing general ‘culture of censorship’ at the time. 

Certainly there are other cases of textual repression. An important example during 

this period was the 1240 debate in Paris concerning the Talmud. It stemmed from a 

complaint in 1236 by Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity, to Pope 

Gregory IX laying charges against rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud in particular. 

Eventually Pope Gregory responded, and in 1239 he wrote to the kings of France, 

England, and all of Spain and Portugal. He ordered the confiscation of all Jewish 

books.

Only Louis IX complied with this decree, and he allowed the Jews an opportunity 

to defend their books. Donin and Rabbi Yehiel of Paris held a public disputation. 

3 Hamilton, B., and Hamilton, J., Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World c.650- c.1450 (Manchester, 1998) pp. 265-6 4 Eisenberg, S. A., Reading Medieval Religious Disputation: The 1240 “Debate” Between Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and Friar Nicholas Donin (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008) p. 12 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

However, after various delays, there was a book burning in Paris in 1242. Twenty 

or twenty-four cartloads of Talmudic manuscripts were incinerated.5 This showed 

that the King of France was particularly open to measures proposed by the Pope, 

even if he implemented them in its own way. 

To understand the aim and intention of the prohibition on vernacular religious 

texts, we must first examine at whom these measures were directed. The two major 

heretical groups, the Waldensians and the Cathars, both appear to have used 

vernacular texts from the Bible in their preaching and rites, and it is likely that the 

bans were aimed primarily or solely at curbing their activities. Bernard Gui distinguished between their two attitudes to these texts:6 Cathars read from their 

bibles whereas Waldensians preached from them. This suggests a more active use 

of the Bible by the latter. At the time, very few entire bibles were written – instead 

separate books of the Bible or gospels circulated independently. There was also a 

lack of version control, so even a theoretically ‘standardised’ text like the Vulgate 

Bible was transmitted in several competing traditions.

For Cathars, the Bible played a central role in their rites, even if different factions 

disagreed both as to which books should be accepted as part of the Bible, and as to 

whether the texts used should be in Latin or the vernacular, depending on their 

background and education. Historians generally believe that Italian Cathars used texts in Latin, whereas those further north used texts translated into Occitan.

A number of contemporary writers commented that those Cathars who rejected 

some or all of the books of the Old Testament did so on the grounds that they were only a record of the ‘evil God’.9 However, all held the four Gospels to be the 

5 Eisenberg, S. A., Reading Medieval Religious Disputation p. 13-14 6 “The Cathar magistri are presented as reading ‘from’ or ‘about’ them (legunt de), while the Waldensians are presented as preaching from them (praedicunt de).” Biller, P. The Waldenses, 1170-1530 (Aldershot, 2001) p. 175 7 Harris, M. Roy, ‘The Occitan Translations of John XII and XIII-XVII from a Fourteenth- Century Franciscan Codex (Assisi, Chiesa Nuova MS. 9)’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 4 (1985) pp. 40 8 Hamilton, B., ‘Wisdom from the East: the reception by the Cathars of Eastern dualist texts’, Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530 p. 58; see also Paolini, L., ‘Italian Catharism and written culture’, Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530 p. 97 9 “They attributed the New Testament to the benign God and the Old Testament to the malign God, and rejected the whole of the latter except for certain passages quoted in the New Testament.” Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, The History of the Albigensian Crusade (trans. Sibly, W. A., and Sibly, M. D.) (Woodbridge, 1998) p. 11 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

source of their beliefs, with some variations in the Epistles compared with the 

Catholic canon. 

Other writers note the use of additional books or Biblical Apocrypha, such as The 

Vision of Isaiah or Ascension of Isaiah and The Secret Supper (Interrogatio Johannis [the questions of John]), and their status as canonical amongst Cathars.10 

According to Hamilton, these works were never translated into the vernacular.11 

Whilst these works were called heretical, they were not the focus of the Church’s 

attack, and tolerance of other apocryphal texts was high. Equally the descriptions 

of angels and their hierarchy in the Ascension of Isaiah would have been in 

keeping with orthodox writings on angelology, such as those of St. Thomas 

Aquinas. 

Instead the focus of attention was the practical use of these biblical texts by 

Cathars. The book formed a central part of their liturgy, which has survived in an 

Occitan translation, and the rites match the descriptions given in later inquisitorial 

depositions. The book used could have been a complete Gospel, or might have been only the Gospel of John,12 but this book was needed for the Cathar rites of adoration or consolamentum, where the text was “held over the recipient’s head”.13 Biller has reviewed many examples of this14 and suggests that in early Catharism, a 

notary would have read from the holy text and then a perfectus or ‘Good Man’ 

would have preached or expounded on its meaning. Later on, only the perfectus 

would have read aloud, as their preaching was driven underground, and officials 

such as notaries would have feared the loss of their jobs from associating with 

heretics. 

By contrast, the Waldensians used translated texts from the start. Their foundation story as written by Stephen of Bourbon15 has two interesting points. Firstly, Valdes 

10 Wakefield, W. L., and Evans, A. P., (ed.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages p. 449-465. 11 Hamilton, B., ‘Wisdom from the East’, p. 53 

12 Biller, P., ‘The Cathars of Languedoc and written material’, Heresy and Literacy, 1000- 1530 ed. Biller, P. and Hudson, A., (Cambridge, 1994) p. 68 13 Biller, P., ‘The Cathars of Languedoc and written material’, p. 74 

14 Chapter 4 of Biller, P. and Hudson, A., (ed.) Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530 (Cambridge, 1994) 15 Stephani de Borbone tractatus de diversiis materiis praedicabilis IV.vii.42, translated in Wakefield, W. L. and Evans, A. P., (ed.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages pp. 209-10 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

(or Vaudes) himself pays for both the gospels and secondary literature to be 

translated into Occitan for him: “…not only for many books of the Bible but also 

for many passages from the Fathers, grouped by topics, which are called Sentences.”16 Secondly, the translators are named – Bernard Ydros and Stephen of 

Anse – and Bernard is identified as a “priest” and a “scribe” or notary, whereas 

Stephen was a “prebendary of the cathedral of Lyons”. This suggests how we could 

look for the producers of vernacular texts outside of the groups that actually used 

them. 

Notaries would have been an important local resource for translation and copying 

of texts in thirteen century Occitania. In this pre-printing mode of production, the 

original centre of manufacture was the monastery. Monastic estates provided the 

livestock for the vellum, and the religious duty of literate monks was extended 

from general working and prayer to include copying codices, providing cheap 

labour for book production. Later on, the rise of universities and literate urban 

classes drove the need for commercial copying of books. This was provided by 

teams of copyists and bookmakers or stationers, selling to students and readers, and 

regulated through guilds of scriveners and similar bodies. 

Occitania appears to have lacked these two forms of book production. Monasteries 

were smaller and poorer than more famous centres to the north, and the University 

of Toulouse was only founded in 1229, the city being on the small side to house 

sufficient demand for an independent book trade. The University at Montpellier, 

better known for medicine and law than theology, was also underdeveloped until it 

received formal recognition from the papacy in 1289.17 

Instead, notaries and clerics in administrative roles would have copied texts as a 

sideline to their day-to-day work. The role of notaries in society was widespread 

with the acceptance of Italian customs and Roman laws into the area. Lesné-Ferret 

comments, “At the middle of the thirteenth century, the public notariate existed in 

the smallest and most remote localities while the number of notaries in large towns 

16 Bernard Gui expands on this as, “He had procured for himself translations of the Gospels and some other books of the Bible in vernacular French, also some texts from St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory, arranged topically, which he and his adherents called ‘sentences.’” Wakefield, W. L. and Evans, A. P., (ed.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages p. 387. 17 Schachner, N., The Medieval Universities (New York, 1938) p. 262 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

multiplied.”18 He also noted that in Montpellier in 1223, a local statute prohibited 

notaries from being clerics admitted to holy orders, forcing a separation of church 

and civil jurisdictions that had frequently overlapped.19 Documents would mainly 

have been in Latin, although Occitan was increasingly used for city records. After 

1229, increasing centralisation in Paris under Louis IX meant that records went 

back into Latin rather than into Gallican (northern French).20 

Even non- or semi-literate individuals would have used notaries, a recognition of 

the importance of official writing. In order that texts could be attributed to the right 

notary, in the absence of seals, signatures often contained pictograms.21 These 

pictograms may have related to nicknames or to the signs outside their premises. 

This would have enabled a non-literate person to return the document to the notary 

to be read aloud by a witnessing party, in the event of any dispute or question. 

Having identified the users and translators of the vernacular Gospels, we will now 

look at the individual councils and their targets, and why they lead to different 

canons. 

The council of Toulouse in 1229 was held only six months after the Treaty of 

Paris, which in turn marked the end of the Albigensian Crusade. Life during 

wartime had been harsh, with the practice of collective punishment and area denial 

techniques. Punishments included mass burnings of suspected heretics and 

executions of prisoners generally, and area denial measures included the destruction of crops and vineyards,22 which threatened the collapse of the local 

agrarian economy. The council sought to move on to the individual pursuit of 

18 Lesné-Ferret, M., ‘The Notariate in the Consular Towns of Septimian Languedoc (Late Twelfth–Thirteenth Centuries)’, Urban and Rural Communities in Medieval France: Provence and Languedoc, 1000-1500 ed. Reverson, K., & Drendel, J., (Leiden, 1998) p. 4 19 Lesné-Ferret, M., ‘The Notariate in the Consular Towns’ p. 9 20 Fisher, J. H., ‘European Chancelleries and the rise of Standard Written Languages’, Essays in Medieval Studies: Proceedings of the Illinois Medieval Association Volume 3, (Illinois, 1986) p. 10 21 Friedlander, A., ‘Signum meum apposui: Notaries and their Signs in Medieval Languedoc’, The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350 (Aldershot, 2005) pp. 93-117 22 Wakefield, W. L., Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France, 1100-1250 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974) pp. 126-7 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

heretics and pursue the aims of the earlier peace treaty. Despite the many years of conflict, the authorities believed that little had been achieved to drive out heresy.23 

We can gain further context for the council of Toulouse from the preaching of 

Hélinand of Froidmont. A leading Cistercian, he gave a number of sermons in 

Toulouse in 1229, including ones identified with the opening of the new university and the opening and closing of the council itself.24 Hélinand preached against 

heretical beliefs concerning the origin of the world, and abstaining from sexual 

intercourse and eating meat. He focused on attacking Cathar beliefs and appears 

knowledgeable of their writings. Hélinand also attacked the Cathar rite of 

consolamentum, exhorting listeners to pursue the consolation of the Eucharist in 

the Church. This view was reflected in canon 13 of the council, which prescribes confession and reception of the Eucharist three times a year. 25 Audisio has 

suggested that the authorities also started to crack down on Waldensians at this 

time, having ignored them in previous decades due to their useful preaching against Catharism.26 However, the focus was still on the nominal cause of the Albigensian 

crusade – ‘Albigenses’ being the Church’s label for Cathars in the Languedoc. The 

broad sweep of its Canon 14 would have effectively covered both Waldensian and 

Cathar texts. 

The council of Trier in 1231 is poorly reported, but it condemned heretics with 

Scripture translated into German; this is likely to have been aimed at the 

Waldensians. After reports of their previous appearance in Metz in 1199 and investigation by the bishop there,27 we may assume Waldensians had spread north 

and south in the intervening period. We do not have the exact text of any measures 

against them to compare with the other councils. 

23 Wakefield, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition p. 209 

24 Kienzle, B. M., Cistercians, Heresy and Crusade in Occitania, 1145-1229 (York, 2001) p. 182 25 Kienzle, B. M., Cistercians, Heresy and Crusade p. 183-192 – appearances at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, see Mansi, J. D., Sacra Conciliorum Nova, et amplissima collectio, tomus XXIII. (Venice, 1725-1768) col 197 26 Audisio, G., The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival c. 1170-c.1570 (Cambridge, 1999) pp. 29-30 27 The investigation is discussed in Boyle, L. E., ‘Innocent III and Vernacular Versions of Scripture’, The Bible in the Material World Essays in Memory of Beryl Smalley (Studies in Church History Subsidia 4) (Oxford, 1985) pp. 97-107 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

The council at Tarragona in 1233 is less well known than that of 1242, which was 

explicitly against Waldensian heretics called “Inzabbatati” 28 or ‘open sandal 

wearers’. In contrast, the 1233 council is described in a perfunctory manner in 

Mansi, even though King Jaime I enacted its canons as laws. Its targets are more 

difficult to place. 

One source of context for the period is Lucas of Tuy, who wrote a book against 

“Albigensian” heretics around 1235-6. The book only survives as a printed edition 

from 1612, but shows a concern about Cathar heretics in Leon in the early years of the thirteenth century.29 In particular he names Arnald, who came from the borders of France to Spain to “sow the weeds of the errors of heresy”.30 He is described as 

a very fast writer (scriptor velocissimus) and accused of distributing booklets 

(opuscula) of corrupting works to Catholics.31 This suggests Cathar influences 

across the north of Spain and not just into the Kingdom of Aragon. So we can 

assume the broad measures, covering both Old and New Testament, were meant to 

cover Cathars and Waldensians, even if they were not actually widespread in 

Aragon at that time. 

Mansi lists two councils at Béziers in 1246.32 The second of these contained a 

broad prohibition on either lay or clerical ownership of any theological books in 

the vernacular language, rather than just the Bible. It came after a series of 

inquisitions had been held by the Dominicans, as their efforts continued through 

the new technique of personal inquiry into heresy. We can assume that they 

pursued Cathars and Waldensians equally, although in the sentences that survive, 

more people were condemned for being Cathars than Waldensians by a large 

margin. The condemned theological books may have included works or collections 

28 Mansi, J. D., Sacra Conciliorum Nova… tomus XXIII. cols 553-560 

29 Smith, D. J., Crusade, Heresy and Inquisition in the Lands of the Crown of Aragon (c. 1167-1276) (Leiden, 2010) pp. 132-6 30 “Quidam etiam haereticus nomine Arnaldus de confinibus Galliae venit in Hispaniam Zizaniam erroris haeretici seminando…Erat enim scriptor velocissimus, & corrupta santorum opuscula vendebat, vel dabat Catholicis…” Lucas of Tuy, De Altera Vita, Fideique Controversis Adversus Albigensium errors Libri III… (Ingolstadt, 1612) p. 182; see also Roth, N., ‘Jews and Albigensias in the Middle Ages: Lucas of Tuy on Heretics in Leon’, Serafad, 41:1 (1981) pp. 83-4 31 Also discussed in Biller, P., ‘The Cathars of Languedoc and written material’, Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530 ed. Biller, P. and Hudson, A., (Cambridge, 1994) p. 69 32 Mansi, J. D., Sacra Conciliorum Nova… tomus XXIII. cols 689-704, cols 715-724 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

of authorities supporting heretical views, such as the “perpendiculum scientarum” (the Plumb-line of Knowledge) cited by Lucas of Tuy33 but the council did not 

specify any particular books. The canon of the council was so broad, covering any 

theological books, that it appears to be a catch-all for any heretical or unauthorised 

enquiry into religion. 

These four councils were all in, or close to, Occitan areas of the south. The fifth 

council is an exception, being in northern France, at Rheims in 1230. It is also 

poorly documented; our knowledge comes not from an official record of the 

council, but from a sermon given by Philip, chancellor of the University of Paris from 1218 to 1236.34 In it he attacks a baker called Echard, who appears to have 

been a Waldensian, and reports a prohibition on translating scripture into “the 

Gallic tongue” i.e. northern French. Again we lack the exact wording to compare 

with the other councils, and assume this was a reaction to a specified individual. 

So the five councils attacked the books of both Cathars and Waldensians, with an 

apparent bias against Waldensians. Were any of these books preserved? Or did 

these measures ensure their destruction? 

We have very few books in Occitan from the thirteenth century or earlier, heretical 

or not. The two most notable are the Cathar New Testament and Ritual preserved in Lyons, Bibliothèque de la ville A.I.54 (formerly MS Palais des arts 36),35 and 

the Occitan New Testament in the British Library, MS Harley 2928. The former is 

the only surviving complete Cathar New Testament, whilst the other is the earliest 

Occitan gospel text in existence. Otherwise the main evidence of heretical 

literature are from much later, such as the fourteenth century Occitan passages from the gospel of John preserved by the Spiritual Franciscans in Assisi,36 or 

fifteenth century Occitan texts from Waldensian communities in the Alps.37 

33 Lucas of Tuy, De Altera Vita p. 158; see also Biller, P., ‘The Cathars of Languedoc and written material’, p. 69 34 Haskins, C. H., Studies in Mediaeval Culture (Oxford, 1929) pp. 245-255 35 Wunderli, P., Le Nouveau Testament de Lyon (ms. Bibliothèque de la ville A.I.54 / Palais des arts 36) Vol. 1: Introduction et edition critique (Romanica Helvetica vol. 128) (Tübingen / Basel, 2009) 36 Harris, M. Roy, ‘The Occitan Translations of John XII and XIII-XVII from a Fourteenth-Century Franciscan Codex (Assisi, Chiesa Nuova MS. 9)’, pp. 1-149. 37 Biller, P., The Waldenses, 1170-1530 (Aldershot, 2001) pp. 189-90 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

The Lyon manuscript is relatively small at 17.5cm x 13.2cm in size and written on 

parchment. A photographic reproduction was published in the 19th century.38 Anne 

Brenon studied the decoration of the text, and commented on the unusual 

decoration. Whilst there are red and blue initial letters and geometric patterns on 

initials, the scribe avoided using any of the usual motifs of plants, animals or vines, which is very different from Latin bibles of the period.39 The only two identifiable 

symbols are marks that Brenon terms as a ‘lily’ and a ‘fish’. These break out of the 

text, extending above or hanging below the words of the gospels.40 

These symbols are strangely familiar when we compare them with the notarial signs collected by Alan Friedlander.41 The fish below the text are reminiscent of 

those used as signs for notaries, and the ‘lilies’ are more like the variations on the 

fleur-de-lis used to designate the writing of a royal notary from the 1250s onwards. 

It seems likely that a notary copied the manuscript in an Occitan town adding his 

usual signs to the text. He may not even have been familiar with the illustrative 

conventions of illuminated bibles, as these were more likely to have been produced 

outside of the area, by monasteries or the great stationers of Paris. 

The Occitan text in the British Library, MS Harley 2928, is much older. It has been 

dated to the first quarter of the twelfth century, and is bound between seven other 

religious texts in Latin. It is also relatively small at 16cm x 9cm; the text is plain 

and not illustrated, and is a translation of John 13-17. There is nothing to suggest 

use by a heretical group; but it shows booklets with vernacular texts were 

circulating long before the Church councils attacked them. A very similar text, 

being part of John 12 and 13-17 in Occitan, was written around 1325×1335 and is 

preserved in a Franciscan manuscript in Assisi. The choice of passages, relating to 

the sufferings of Jesus and predictions of the end, was popular amongst mendicants 

and monastic orders. 

38 Clédat, L., Le Nouveau Testament traduit au XIIIe siècle en langue Provençale: suivi d’un ritual cathare (Paris, 1887) 39 Brenon, A., ‘Cathars and the representation of the divine: Christians of the Invisible’, Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity ed. Asselt, W. v., Geest, P. v., Müller, D., and Salemink, T. (Leiden, 2007) pp. 247-261+appendices 40 Clédat, L., Le Nouveau Testament traduit au XIIIe siècle, pages 3, 7, 16, 113, 135, 474 (fish) and pages 1, 5, 10, 19, 28, 36, 57, 110, 115 and perhaps 134 (lily) 41 Friedlander, A., ‘Signum meum apposui: Notaries and their Signs in Medieval Languedoc’, pp. 93-117. 

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Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

The Harley manuscript predates Waldensian or Cathar use, but provides evidence 

of translation into Occitan. This manuscript and comparable texts used by 

Franciscan and Dominican preachers were usually small (octavo or smaller) and easily carried.42 The size was also an advantage in making such works easier to 

hide. 

However, we have to be careful in not assuming translations were produced only 

for heretical groups. Vernacular translations of individual books of the bible were 

circulating in Paris between 1230 and 1260, laying the ground for entire bibles in French towards the end of the thirteenth century. 43 However, it is difficult to 

measure how many such books were produced. There may be a survivorship bias 

in the books we can see today; Latin texts in monastic libraries may have been 

more likely to be carefully preserved than vernacular texts in regular day-to-day 

use. 

But is the paucity of surviving vernacular texts attributable to their portable nature 

and daily wear and tear, or were they destroyed by burning, as prescribed at the 

council of Tarragona? Certainly the latter is the assumption of many historians. 

Givens states that, “The fire was undoubtedly the final destination of most heretical works that came into the inquisitors’ hands”, 44 but do we have any positive 

evidence of this? 

Descriptions of book burnings were rare; stories of anyone actually getting rid of a 

bible even more so. Stephen of Bourbon tells us that Robert, dauphin of Auvergne 

and marquis of Montferrand, collected books of all the heretical sects. He was persuaded by the friars to burn all the offending works.45 Otherwise there is little 

indication of any destruction of books. 

Why, despite the council’s edicts, does it appear that very little was done to enforce 

them? Certainly the civil authorities had no great interest in devoting resources to 

such matters. There may also have been a great reluctance by the Church to 

42 Biller, P., The Waldenses, 1170-1530 pp. 185-88; d’Avray, D. L., The Preaching of the Friars, Sermons diffused from Paris before 1300 (Oxford, 1985) pp. 57-62 43 McGerr, R. P., ‘Guyart Desmoulins, the Vernacular Master of Histories, and His “Bible historiale”’, Viator, 14 (1983) p. 214 44 Given, J. B., Inquisition and Medieval Society: power, discipline and resistance in Languedoc (Ithaca, 1997) p. 50 45 Wakefield, W. L. and Evans, A. P., (ed.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages p. 67 

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Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

advocate the destruction of the Bible, even in translation, when the reverence of the 

book in Catholic church services was already an important part of orthodox ritual. 

As the events in Paris in 1241-2 show, it would have been possible, if there had 

been the will. Inquisitors in Occitania could have been ‘firemen’, searching for 

banned books to burn. But they did not – the focus was on personal salvation and 

attacking the carriers of heresy, wandering preachers or Cathar perfecti

So if book burnings were so rare, how then should we view these canons of local 

church councils? These rulings are better seen as experiments in the ‘war on 

heresy’. The Church and monarchy tried a number of approaches, and tested a 

broad range in Languedoc. These ranged from disputations and Dominicans 

through to regime change and domestic crusade. Other experiments included the 

foundation of the university of Toulouse – a transplant of ideas that seemed 

unlikely to succeed in its early years. It initially lured academics from the 

university of Paris during the Dispersal of 1229-1231, attracted by guaranteed pay and the freedom to teach Aristotle.46 But the Count of Toulouse was unable to pay 

them, despite his obligations under the Treaty of Paris, as the cost of reparations 

was too high. The destruction of vines and farms led to food shortages in Toulouse. 

The first professors hired from Paris drifted back north, and it was another decade 

before the university took root.47 

To conclude, we have seen how vernacular translations of the gospels became 

important to both Waldensians and Cathars. For the Waldensians, it can be truly said that “the medium is the message”48 – the medium of portable local language 

texts, rather than chained Latin books in churches, was an important lesson in 

itself. It showed the gospels were for all, such as the workers and the weavers, and 

an Occitan translation would have been essential for this. For Cathars, the choice of 

language was originally less important, compared with the rites themselves. This 

importance was recognised at these councils, although they failed to implement 

measures attacking heretical texts in all languages, choosing instead to focus on the 

translation from Latin as the primary heretical feature. 

46 Schachner, N., The Medieval Universities (New York, 1938) pp. 270-1 

47 Smith, C. E., The University of Toulouse in the Middle Ages (Milwaukee, 1958) pp. 56-8 48 McLuhan, M., Understanding Media (Toronto, 1964) p. 9 

12 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

While Latin-speaking churchmen did not encourage the circulation of vernacular 

bibles in France, they did nothing to repress it. Otherwise we would have expected 

to see its prohibition in more of the councils, and the ban repeated by Raymond 

Penafort in his compilation of canon law. It took time for market forces to catch up 

and lower the cost of production, to deliver many more such bibles into the hands 

of the laity, but this was hardly impeded by the Church. In the meantime, notaries 

were free to earn extra money by copying gospels for local readers. 

Finally, for inquisitors, the vernacular texts appear to have been a badge of heresy, 

rather than constituting offensive items on their own. It seems that the canons of 

the councils were taken more as a warning of the dangers posed by educated 

heretics, than as a hard-and-fast rule explicitly demanding the destruction of 

vernacular religious texts. In practice, book burning did not catch on because the 

focus of inquisitors was on people and their actions, not objects and ideas. As a 

result, it rarely happened. However, the significance of the pocket-sized tome 

would have been obvious to the local inquisitor, and its importance in identifying 

those heretics whose threat to the establishment was seen as greatest should not be 

underestimated. The educated heretic was more concerning to the Church, and his 

influence on others much more dangerous and contagious, than that of a simple 

follower – and his ‘heretical’ vernacular books were a powerful sign of this. 

13 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

Appendix 1 

Canons relating to vernacular translations of the Bible. 

Council Latin Text English translation 

Toulouse 

(1229) 

14 XIV. Ne laici habeant libros scriptura, 

praeter psalterium, & Divinum, officium: 

at eos libros ne habeans in vulgari 

lingua. Prohibemus etiam, ne libros 

veteris testament aut novi, laici 

permittantur habere: nisi forte 

psalterium, vel breviarium pro Divinis 

officiis, aut horas beatae Mariae aliquis 

ex devotione habere velit. Sed ne 

praemissos libros habeant in vulgari 

translatos, artissime inhibemus.49 

Canon 14. We prohibit also that 

the laity should be permitted to 

have the books of the Old or the 

New Testament; unless anyone 

from motives of devotion 

should wish to have the Psalter 

or the Breviary for divine 

offices or the hours of the 

blessed Virgin; but we most 

strictly forbid their having any 

translation of these books.50 

Rheims 

(1230) 

Rusticales homines sunt idiote; non 

tamen negligendi sunt, neque cum eis 

negligenter agendum est; sermo enim 

eorum serpit ut cancer; et cet. Propter 

hoc preceptum est in Remensi concilio 

ne transferantur sicut hactenus libri sacre 

Scripture in gallicum idioma.51 

…Whence it was decreed in the 

council of Rheims that the 

books of the Holy Scripture 

should not be translated, as 

heretofore, into the Gallic 

tongue.52 

Trier 

(1231) 

Anno Domini MCCXXXI. In ipsa 

Civitate Treviri tres esse scholas 

haereticorum deprehensum. Et plures 

erant eorum instructi erant scripturis 

Sanctis, quas habebant in Theutonicum 

translatas.53 

1231. In the city of Trier three 

heretical schools were arrested. 

And many were teaching the 

holy Scripture, which they had 

translated into German. 

49 Mansi, J. D., Sacra Conciliorum Nova, et amplissima collectio, tomus XXIII. (Venice, 1725-1768) col. 197 

50 Peters, E., Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (London, 1980) p. 195 51 Haskins, C. H., Studies in Mediaeval Culture (Oxford, 1929) p. 247 52 Haskins, C. H., Studies in Mediaeval Culture p. 246 

53 Mansi, Sacra Conciliourum Nova col. 241 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

Tarragona 

(1233/4) 

15 II. Item, statuitur, ne aliquis libros veteris 

vel novi testament in Romanico habeat. 

Et si aliquis habeat, infra octo dies post 

publicationem huiusmodi constitutionis a 

tempore sententiae, tradat eos loci 

episcopo comburendos, quod nisi fecerit, 

sive clericus fuerit, sive laicus, tamquam 

suspectus de haeresi, quousque se 

purgaverit, habeatur.54 

Nobody was to have books of 

the Old or New Testament in 

the vernacular. If they did so, 

within eight days of their 

knowing of the publication of 

the constitution, they were to 

hand the books over to their 

bishop for them to be burnt. If 

they did not do so, whether they 

were a cleric or a layperson, 

they were to be held suspect of 

heresy until they purged 

themselves.55 

Béziers (2) 

(1246) 

XXXVI. De bailius negligentibus, vel 

suspectis, & aliis culpabilibus non 

ponendis in administrationibus, vel 

officiis publicis, vel consiliis seu familiis 

potentum, & de libris theologicis non 

tenendis etiam a laicis in Latino, & 

neque ab ipsis, neque a clericis in 

vulgari, & depoenis contra praedictos; 

56 

…Shall see that it is rigorously 

carried out that theological 

books shall not be kept, either 

by the laity in Latin, or by them 

or by clerks in the vulgar 

tongue…57 

54 Mansi, Sacra Conciliorum Nova, col. 329 55 Smith, D. J., Crusade, Heresy and Inquisition in the Lands of the Crown of Aragon (c. 1167-1276) (Leiden, 2010) p. 185. An alternative translation is Deansley, M. The Lollard Bible (Cambridge, 1920) p. 48 56 Mansi, Sacra Conciliorum Nova, col. 724 

57 Deansley, M., The Lollard Bible p. 38 

Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229 – 1250 Peter B. Nowell 

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17 

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