It is not uncommon to hear the false accusation that before Vatican II Catholics were prohibited from reading the Bible.  It has been claimed by some that the Catholic Church wanted to keep the Bible from Her members so She chained the Bible to prevent them from gaining access to it.

In order to evaluate these accusations a person must find out what the Church actually did and said, and then it is essential to determine the context from which these events happened so that they can be correctly evaluated.

Take the accusation about chaining the Bible for instance.  It is true that the Catholic Church did chain the Bible at one time.  However, when a person studies the context of that time period he can see that the Church did so for the opposite reason that She is accused of doing so.

Before the invention of the printing press Bibles were hand copied by a scribe on to vellum, animal skin.  It is estimated that it took 250 sheep to make a Bible.  The cost of the vellum was not cheep either.   Also, the scribes were some of the best educated individuals of that time period.  So a person can imagine the relative cost of employing one of today’s most educated individuals for the length of time that it would take to transcribe a complete Bible.    Therefore, one can see the tremendous cost involved with making a Bible.  The Church chained some Bibles, not to keep them from people, but to ensure their access to all.  This is comparable in modern times to how phone books are chained for the same reason in phone booths. (Even after the invention of the printing press in 1455 AD the cost of a Bible equaled to a clerk's wages for about three years.   See THE SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF BOOKS  by M. Olmert page 113.)

In the sixteenth century the Catholic Church often used the Latin Vulgate Bible.  And for this She is accused in modern times of keeping Her members from being enabled to read it by keeping it in a "dead" language.

The word "Vulgate" comes from a word meaning common.  It is the name of Saint Jerome’s translation when he studied many copies of the separate Books of the Bible in the original languages and translated them into Latin.  Latin was the common language of the people of that time period.  And so it was called the "Vulgate."  Most of the copies from which Jerome made his translation are no longer available today.

However, when a person studies the context of that time period, before the 1800’s, he finds out that most people could not read or write at all.  (Actually in poorer countries this is still true for over half of the population.)  Most people worked in the fields and there were no public schools for anyone.  Only the wealthy could afford to hire the private instructors at the private schools to teach their children how to read and write.

The scholarly edition of BRITISH WRITERS  volume one, edited under the auspices of the British Council, and edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, gives us some insightful clues to understanding that era.

On page 295 it states that William Shakespeare, 1564-1616 AD, studied his other subjects in Latin, which was the "basic medium of instruction."  It points out that his fortunate circumstance of having a father who was the Mayor and Justice of the Peace would have qualified him to attend the King's New School where he is thought to have studied.

On page  262 we read that Francis Bacon's education had been in Latin just as it had been customary for others.  On page 259 were are told of how Francis Bacon, 1561-1626  AD, in the last five years of his life wrote his major scientific works in Latin and it points out that Latin was the international scholarly language.

On page 145-153 it states that Sir Walter Raleigh, 1552-1618  AD,  studied Greek authors as much as possible in Latin translations.

On page 22 we read about Geoffrey Chaucer, 1340-1400  AD.  He learned his Latin through a medium of French.  It shows how Chaucer in his The Canterbury Tales has the Squire reveal how it was customary for the nobles to be weak in English in his day when he confesses, "Myn Englissh eek is insufficient."  (Middle English)

It reveals that at  Westminster School, and probably at Saint Paul's, too, that "a boy who knew Latin and presumed to speak English, or even French, had a cut of the cane for every word so spoken..."

Unlike today’s students, they had strict discipline and they began the day with a prayer.  They followed that with a recitation of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and then a request to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she join her own prayers with theirs to Jesus Christ, and then they sang the Psalms.

On page 30 it states that Chaucer had read Saint Jerome and Saint Bernard.  And it reveals that he could quote from almost every book in the Bible including the Deuterocanonical books, referred to here as the "Apocrypha."

On page 122 we read that  Edmund Spenser, 1552-1559  AD, was educated in a school were the curriculum included a great deal of Latin, some Greek, and the Hebrew Psalter.  It also points that as in other grammar schools the Latin was not only classical but Renaissance. It states that he went to a modern school that had a very advanced educationalist.  And very interestingly it reveals that as an exception, the curriculum might have extended to music and "possibly even to English."

This secular book opens up for us the culture of that time period. 
Crucial to understanding England in the sixteenth century are the following facts;  that, only those who were lucky enough -that is rich enough- got to go to school, and not only did they learn Latin, but strikingly important, is the fact that they also learned their other subjects in Latin.  Consequently, only those who could afford an education were able to read, and they knew Latin just as good if not better than they knew English.  Therefore, the promotion of the Latin Vulgate did not hinder the peoples attempt to get to know the Word of God, but enhanced it.

As a side note the book THE BRITISH WRITERS  on page VIII refers to the time when King Henry the VIII declared all Catholic Bibles obsolete and ordered them destroyed.  Two historical events are reported as, "1537  ‘The dissolution of the monasteries: confiscation of ecclesiastical properties and assets; increase in royal revenues,’"  -an interesting "coincidence." 

(Because of the successive invasions of England by the Angels, the Danes, and finally the French in 1066 AD, the English language was in a constant state of change.  It was not until the seventeenth century that the English language became more or less stabilized in its present form.  Latin on the other hand was constant, and unchanging.  Therefore, Latin Bibles were more useful and practical.)

Even the King James Bible speaks about Catholic Editions of the Bible in English before the King James Bible was printed.  See an off site article by James Akin on what the KJV said at:

Translations Before the King James: The KJV  Translators Speak!