How was the Bible preserved and multiplied and spread throughout the centuries before printing was invented?
Just as the Catholic Church at the beginning wrote and collected together sacred books of the New Testament, so her monks, friars, nuns, and clergy preserved them from destruction and made the people familiar with them. Monasteries were centres of learning in the Middle Ages. An indispensable part of every monastery was the library. A monk of the twelfth century writes, "A monastery without a library is like a castle without an armoury." And he goes on to declare that the great defence in the monastic armoury should be the Bible. The monks were largely scholars, men who had renounced worldly pursuits and pleasures and dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and study. One of the most important parts of their study was the copying of the Scriptures. For there purpose there was always a large room called the Scriptorium which contained all the necessary equipment for this work. Day by day, year after year, the monks worked with loving care, copying every letter of the Bible, adorning the pages of vellum with pictures in purple and gold and silver colouring, and so producing works of art that excite the envy and admiration of modern generations.
We must remember that this work was very slow and expensive. For example, it has been calculated that 427 animal skins would have been needed for a complete copy of the Bible. Some princes gave the monks permission to hunt for deer in the royal forests so as to get skins to make into parchment for copying out the Scriptures. The Bible as a book is perishable and easily destroyed. It was the men and women in their monasteries who saved the written Word of God from total extinction, and with loving and reverent care reproduced its sacred pages, to be known and read by all, and to be handed down to through generations until it could be printed and made accessible in great quantities.
Did the clergy know the Scriptures?
We can the sure they certainly did. In the first place, the Bishops and Abbots required all their priests to know the Scriptures. We know that from the Constitutions of different dioceses. One Council of the Church issued a decree that Bishops had to enquire throughout their dioceses whether the clergy were sufficiently instructed in the Scriptures. In some cases they were obliged to know by heart not only all the Psalms, but the New Testament as well. How many of us today, with printed Bibles everywhere, can say that we do as well? One Bishop we know, for example, had the habit when travelling with his attendant priests of repeating the whole Psalter by heart as they went along.
Of course, you might say, "Yes, perhaps the clergy knew the Bible, but the people didn't." That is utterly false. The clergy were the only well-educated people of those days, and so it is to be expected that they knew the Bible at a time when it was the most common and popular and accessible book around. But the correspondence we have at that time, law deeds, household books, all legal documents, etc., are full, not only of the ideas, but of the very words of Scripture. How many lawyers and doctors and ordinary lay people today would be found quoting from the Bible in their writings? People thought and spoke and wrote the thoughts and words and phrases of the Bible. And they did this quite naturally.
You might now ask, "Most people could not read, so how did they become so acquainted with the Bible?" Because the Church taught them in sermons and instructions. They were taught by sacred plays and dramas like the Passion Play of today in Oberammergau, which were very popular. They were taught in churches through the paintings and statues and stained-glass windows that portrayed the teachings of their religion and the truths of Scripture. Old churches were covered with pictures representing biblical scenes. So you see that the Catholic Church adopted every means at her disposal in those old days to bring a knowledge of God's Word to those who could not read, as well as to those who could. Bibles were not printed because printing presses did not exist. Is that the Church's fault? The Catholic Church did the best she could in the circumstances, and understand well the fact that because a man could not read it did not mean that he had to be ignorant of the Bible. Could he not hear it read? Could he not see it represented before his eyes? How do you understand one of Shakespeare's plays best - by reading it, or by seeing it acted on stage?
Many Christians - Catholics and non-Catholics - can rattle off a list of the 10 plagues of Egypt, or the names of the kings of Israel and Judah, or the major and minor prophets, or various verses of the Bible taken out of their context. Does that mean that they really know and understand what they are reciting? What we want is Christians who have a personal and intelligent knowledge of Scripture and the life of Our Lord in a way which is not the result of just digging into the Bible for suitable quotations to prove the point one is making. We must be careful about what we say about past ages, and we must use the means of understanding at our disposal as efficiently as Catholics in the past used what means they had to know the Scriptures.