Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voiceby David Teems
With thoughtful clarity and a reverence that comes through on every page, David Teems shares a story of intrigue and atrocity, betrayal and perseverance. This is how the Reformation officially reached English shores---and what it cost the men who brought it there.See more details below
With thoughtful clarity and a reverence that comes through on every page, David Teems shares a story of intrigue and atrocity, betrayal and perseverance. This is how the Reformation officially reached English shores---and what it cost the men who brought it there.
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TyndaleThe Man Who Gave God an English Voice
By David Teems
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 David Teems
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTranslating Tyndale
Comerado, this is no book; Who touches this touches a man.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition
Sir Thomas more once wrote that William Tyndale "seems to be everywhere and nowhere." While his tone was anything but friendly, it may be one of the better assessments of Tyndale. The statement is as true today as it was when More said it to his friend Desiderius Erasmus five hundred years ago. What he meant was that the words of William Tyndale, that is, his translation of the Bible and other writings, were spreading widely and infectiously, and yet the man himself was a ghost.
Indeed, to More, it was a kind of haunting.
Of course, Thomas More's pursuit of Tyndale had an altogether different motive than yours and mine. He wanted nothing more than to "find him [Tyndale] with a hot firebrand burning at his back, that all the water in the world will never be able to quench."
Tyndale had little choice but to remain hidden. It was a necessary craft for his survival. And his art reflects this economy of movement—the subtleties, the phantom light-footedness, the acuity. The translation he bequeathed us is as articulate and precise as he was elusive and absent.
We know more about the sound of his last name than we do the year he was born, who his parents were, where he grew up, how old he was when he attended Oxford, and whether or not he attended Cambridge as certain histories imply, or why there seems to have been two family names.
Unfortunately, against our current appetite for biography and memoir, we are just not allowed anything solid or filling. Reading what relatively few biographies there are, and even what primary sources are available, I easily tired of "it could have been this way," or "he might have lived here," or "we are almost certain he lived in this place or that one over there, that he did this or that."
Reading Tyndale biography you have little choice but to labor through all the qualifiers, those conditionals that weaken a text, that soften its resolve—words like maybe, might, perhaps, possibly, and so on.
No Complete Memory of Him
His name rhymes with spindle. The second syllable was often spelled dal, dalle, or dall. The Latin form, which William Tyndale used often, was Tindalus, and he was known to spell it Tindale or Tyndale. Though convention favors the latter, it was of little concern to Tyndale himself. English was years away from any standardization, so the only rule was indifference, or taste. He just as often spelled his name Tindal or Tindall. The Oxford English Dictionary spells his name Tindale.
Nor is there any explanation for the presence of the extra surname. Hutchins (Hutchyns or Hychyns) may have been an alias created by an uncle during the War of the Roses, a Yorkist who fled from northern England (possibly Northumberland, location of the Tyne River) to Gloucestershire at the rise of the Lancastrians. One biographer has called this story a "romantic invention."
Thomas More was convinced that there was something shameful about the name changing, that it smacked of something criminal. The presence of an alias, so he thought, carried with it "the reek of dark deeds." When Sir Thomas meant to be particularly nasty, he called Tyndale "Hutchins."
Whatever information we have comes as a result of a kind of crude sifting. We are forced to imagine. There is nothing at all on Tyndale's childhood. Estranged mother that she became, England has no complete memory of him. In the end, the shapes we might assume of Tyndale's childhood are elusive. Mozley said it best: "We have certainty of nothing."
Though we have no date of birth, Tyndale would have been baptized into the Catholic Church as an infant, an event he denounced later in life. On the chrism, or the anointing oil, he wrote, "They think that if the bishop butter the child in the forehead that it is safe."
It was preferred that the child be baptized on the same day as its birth, or at least within a matter of days. Infant mortality was common, so haste to church was just as common. It was thought that if the unbaptized child died, it went to Limbo (Limbus puerum, a child's paradise, a holding place between heaven, hell, and purgatory for the child not vindicated or freed from a state of original sin). Limbus patrum (Limbo of the fathers) was reserved for the older pre-Christ unbaptized—Moses, David, the prophets, individuals who were righteous but without Christ.
Limbo has since been closed, due to reconsideration.
Tyndale thought the notion absurd, and purgatory merely an invention to squeeze coin from the masses.
Certainty of Nothing
The accepted year of Tyndale's birth is 1494. This number varies from source to source and is calculated primarily on the receipt of his Oxford University degrees. The year 1495 is the latest he may have been born. He received his Master of Arts degree in 1515, a degree that could not be legally taken until a candidate was twenty years old.
According to John Foxe, William Tyndale was born "about the border of Wales," in the western part of Gloucestershire "where the range of the Cotswolds fall into the vale of Berkeley, with the River Severn flowing beyond." Idyllic, pastoral, lush, verdant, the region incites a kind of rhapsody from its close observers.
The most promising candidates for Tyndale's birthplace seem to be the villages of Slimbridge or North Nibley, possibly even Dursley or Stinchcombe, all located between Gloucester and Bristol, and all on the western edge of the Cotswold hills (Southwest England) by the river Severn.
The name Cotswolds means "sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides." Indeed, sheep fattened the land with industry. Cloth was big business and the area prospered, creating a new kind of English nobility, fashioned out of new money. So much so, that the region, which includes Gloucestershire, was "precociously early modern." It is generally thought that the Tyndales of and around Gloucestershire were landowners and successful merchants, possibly yeoman farmers. Either way, the name seemed to carry weight. This could explain his tuition at Oxford.
William had two brothers: John, the younger, and Edward, the older. Edward was capable and enterprising, well known in the vale of Berkeley, particularly around Slimbridge. He lived at Hurst Farm (Slimbridge) and was buried in Slimbridge churchyard in 1546. For years he held the honorable post of receiver (a collector of rents) for the lordship of Berkeley. He also became the steward and auditor of Tewkesbury Abbey.
The will of Edward Tyndale still exists. He married twice and had thirteen children. A man of sufficient means, he left his "great lute" to his son, and his "best bow" to the vicar of Tewkesbury.
Edward did not seem to bother himself in his brother William's business, though the association was hardly avoidable. In a letter written in 1533 by John Stokesley, bishop of London, to Thomas Cromwell, begging that a certain piece of land in Gloucestershire be given to a servant of his (the letter was padded with cash), Stokesley, once a rector of Slimbridge, did his best to frustrate the efforts of another suitor for the land who "hath a kinsman called Edward Tyndale, brother to Tyndale the arch-heretic."
Edward, like his translator brother, seemed able to move quickly. But unlike his translator brother, he avoided trouble. John Tyndale, however, was closer to his brother William's affairs, and therefore seemed to invite trouble. Leapfrogging a bit in time, in November 1531 the same Bishop Stokesley arrested John, a London merchant, and brought him before the new chancellor, Thomas More. Stokesley charged him and those with him for "receiving of Tyndale's testaments and divers other books, and delivering and scattering the same" about London. The name Stokesley will come up again—an angry little man with a fixation for the Tyndales.
After a night in jail John was paraded through the streets of London faced backward on a horse. He was also forced to wear a counterfeit mitre (a headdress worn by a bishop) made out of pasteboard. On what looked more like a dunce cap were the words peccasse contra mandata Regis (I have sinned against the commandments of the king). A copy of the New Testament and other outlawed books (among them Practice of Prelates, a book of Tyndale's that H8 particularly disliked) were fastened about his neck, "pinned and tacked" to his gown. John was forced to throw the books into a fire prepared for the little spectacle, and had to pay a sizable fine.
A letter from the Venetian ambassador provides a context for the moment. Histories come alive in such letters. Henry VIII wants a divorce from his queen, Catherine of Aragon. The stir is a large one, and Henry has little choice but to involve the pope and most of Europe in his business (at least at the beginning). William Tyndale has voiced his complaint against it, and three thousand copies of his Practice of Prelates are circulating among the British public. The following letter, dated December 1530, is from Augustino Scarpinello to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan.
The author of the aforesaid work, entitled "Practyse of Prelates," (Pratica di Prelati) by name Tyndaro sen Tindal, is an Englishman, and for some while (et he parechj giorni) has lived, and is at present living, in Germany, and is said to be a man of magnae doctrinae [great learning]. His brother, together with certain other persons, who went about circulating this work in vulgus [to the general public] were lately paraded through London, along the public thoroughfares (per plateas publicas) with pasteboard mitres on their heads, bearing an inscription, thus, Peccasse contra mandata Regis and the book suspended from their necks; and having completed the circuit of the thoroughfares, they were ordered to cast the pamphlet [Practice of Prelates] into the fire prepared for that purpose.
England, the land that gave us Shakespeare, knew by instinct, by some inwardness peculiar to itself, and still does, how to put on a great show.
As Sure as God Is in Gloucester
Though no record exists, young Tyndale would have attended an elementary school of some kind, an ABC as they were called. He may have met with a nearby priest for private instruction. There was a grammar school within a few miles of where he was raised, at Wotton-under-Edge, a school founded in 1384 by Lady Berkeley. The holidays and school times were not so different as they are today. Judging by the young age Tyndale went to university, his instruction in grammar may have begun at Magdalen Hall (Oxford).
A single line in one of his writings gives us a glimpse of a precocious memory (the first intimation and evidence of a literary soul). Defending the Scriptures in English, in The Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale said,
Except my memory fail me, and that I have forgotten what I read when I was a child, thou shalt find in the English chronicle, how that king Athelstane caused the holy scripture to be translated into the tongue that then was in England, and how the prelates exhorted him thereto.
I am not going to make the error of assuming when his powerful attraction for linguistics began, or even his love of Scripture, but at least we have here a memory recalled, a place marker from early childhood.
In Gloucestershire, where he grew up, the church was in a state of decay. The complaint was old, and the annoyance generations deep. From around 1476, pastors in the diocese of Worcester, which included Gloucestershire, were "almost non-resident." It was at best a distracted spirituality.
Ecclesiastical orders had amassed to themselves, in the name of God, enormous riches and a great proportion of the land, and on this they claimed to be exempt from taxation ... Gigantic fortunes were built up by favored ecclesiastics, while the poor people went unshepherded. An open scandal also was the unchastity of the clergy and of the monastic bodies. While claiming to be too pure for holy matrimony, they were at liberty to keep concubines ... Yet in this general decay of the Christian spirit the rites and ceremonies were carefully observed. Never were there more services, more holidays in honor of saints, never were relics and shrines more venerated, never were pilgrimages more splendid. The outward form was there, but the spirit was lacking.
The diocese of Worcester was the most neglected of all dioceses in England. It was bishoped by three Italians, men who never set foot in England (and yet drew their stipends regularly). Gloucester was also the site of a highly venerated relic of the blood of Christ, vouched for by an individual who eventually became pope. Later exposed as a fraud, it was legend enough to generate the proverb, "As sure as God is in Gloucester." (Perhaps more germane to our study than the slogan itself is the proverb-generating vitality of Gloucestershire from which the slogan materialized, the vitality Tyndale was weaned on as a child.)
John Hooper, a fellow student with Tyndale at Oxford, became a bishop some years later. To get an idea of how deep the neglect was, Hooper conducted a survey of 311 members of his clergy. Nine priests did not know there were Ten Commandments; thirty-three had no clue where they were in the Bible (most of them suggested the New Testament); ten could not recite the Lord's Prayer; and thirty did not know Jesus had said it in the first place.
Hooper burned at the stake during the reign of Mary Tudor.
Parish priests in the Middle Ages were often uneducated and could not understand a word of Latin, yet these same priests intoned the Mass regularly. And it didn't matter. According to Catholic doctrine the sacraments operate ex opere operato, that is, entirely on the work of Christ, "and thus do not depend on the worthiness or education of the priest." As long as a duly ordained priest performs the ritual correctly, the sacrament is valid. Being there is enough.
Because Church Latin was beyond the general believer, there were many who considered the Mass a form of magic. "Hocus-pocus," the incantation we learned as children, is thought to be a corruption of the phrase heard in the Mass, hoc est corpus meum (this is my body).
As far back as the fourteenth century, the chafe between the people and the priesthood was evident. "When a priest could purchase from diocesan authority a license to keep a concubine, how should he have better access to God than the ordinary sinner?" Even in Wycliffe's time, when a man confessed adultery, his confessor (priest) was not allowed to ask the name of the woman involved. This was a safeguard to insure the priest would not be tempted to go after the woman himself. The presence of such a rule implies that the offense was common enough to demand restraint.
The Catholic priest was required by canon law to be celibate. But many of them were living openly with women in unofficial common-law relationships that could not be regularized by marriage. This practice, far from being condemned, was actually welcomed both by the bishops and, oddly, by the locals. To the bishop, it provided a stream of income due to the annual fines imposed on the miscreant priests. To the locals, they assumed their own wives and daughters were safer.
Excerpted from Tyndale by David Teems Copyright © 2012 by David Teems. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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