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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday October 28 2008

I recently bought and started reading The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg’s biography, as his subtitle calls it, of the English language.  I did this because I wanted to learn more about how English mutated from being, in 1300, the mere language of the native English to being, by 1400, the language of the government of England, supplanting Norman French.  But the rest of the story is pretty interesting too.  This is the beginning of Chapter 9 (pp. 105-7 of the 2004 paperback edition), which is entitled “William Tyndale’s Bible”:

The prediction of the Lollards, that Wycliffe’s Bible would live on, was not a vain prophecy. Early in the reign of Henry VIII, the new king was still promising the Pope that he would burn any ‘untrue translations’. By these he meant Wycliffe’s Bible which, despite all the efforts of the court and the Church, was still relentlessly circulating in the land in hand-copied editions.

Henry VIII set his powerful and efficient Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to hunt down heretical books. Wolsey, aware that Martin Luther had shaken the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 with the demands he had nailed on the church door at Wittenberg, and as anxious as his master to please the Pope, instituted a nationwide search. On 12 May 1521, a bonfire of confiscated heretical works was made outside the original St Paul’s Cathedral. The flames, it was said, burned for two days. The great book-burning was clearly a foretaste of what could and would happen to those who insisted on challenging the Pope’s authority.

This was the year in which William Tyndale began his public preaching on St Austen’s Green and set out on the path which was to bring about a radical change both in the English language and in English society.

It is not always easy fully to comprehend or even imagine what was at stake. It was a great power battle. The reach of the Roman Catholic Church across many countries, states, principalities and peoples was unique. It was wealthy and a sought-after ally in war.  It demanded obedience through its monopoly of the one true faith.  Its parish priests covered almost every acre of ground, heard confessions, had the power to absolve sins, enforced attendance at church, the paying of Church taxes ,and conformity with the Church’s rulings on all matters of public and of private morality; even sex was a Church matter. Its great cathedrals, splendid artefacts, dazzling robes, processions and festivals provided a backdrop of glamour and excitement to what was very often a bleak and meagre existence. Above all, and key, the Church had unique access to God and so to eternal life. Only through the Roman Catholic Church could anyone contact God and have any chance of resurrection.

Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale challenged that. They wanted ordinary people to have direct access to God, and a Bible in the language of the people was the way to make that happen. The battle over language became outright rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church as the gatekeeper to God, the claim to be His sole representative on earth, whose earthly laws all Christians must obey every bit as much as they obeyed the laws of heaven. This had proved intolerable to different groups over the centuries and now the river of protest was swelling. The rebellion was led by deeply religious men and women. They too believed in the virgin birth, in the divinity of Christ, above all in the Resurrection. They were light years away from atheism or even agnosticism. They wanted the souls of the people to be saved but not through orders and sermons handed down from a central Latinate control in Rome for whose authority they found no evidence in the Bible. And to the rebels, the face of the soul was the most vital matter in life: it was worth dying for.

Centuries later there would be those who would feel much the same about liberty, but even they could not have been more zealous, even fanatical, more totally convinced of the rightness of their cause as men such as William Tyndale were of theirs. After all, Tyndale was doing no less than serve the one true God, the maker of all things, the Creator, the Almighty, the giver and taker of life, the judge of all men and women, the harvester of the good, the slayer of evil. There could be no greater service in life than to do His work.

To Tyndale, English was, in effect, the way in which God could best reach the people of that language and the way in which they could best reach Him. The fight for the English Bible was a battle for salvation through the scriptures. To a priest who challenged him, Tyndale replied, ‘Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.’

Like Wycliffe, Tyndale was an Oxford classical scholar and like Wycliffe he wholly contradicts the idea that such a scholar who was also, as Tyndale was, an ordained priest, was faced to be a mild, place-seeking conformist. Tyndale took risks and lived a life comparable to that of any twentieth-century revolutionary ‘hero’, and met an end worse than most of them.