Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
William Tyndale (c. 1490–1536)
[William Tyndale, sometimes called Hutchins, was born in Gloucestershire “upon the borders of Wales,” about 1490. He studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and afterwards at Cambridge, and was ordained priest. After leaving the latter university he became tutor in the house of Sir John Walsh, in his native county. He was full of the “new learning” in all its kinds, Greek scholarship and rational theology, and resolved to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. His hope was that he might be enabled to do this as chaplain to the Bishop of London (Tunstall), but Tunstall would not give him the appointment. He was befriended by Humphrey Monmouth, a liberal citizen, but soon left England, and went to Hamburg in May 1524. His translation was published in 1526 at Worms, the printing, begun at Cologne, having been interrupted: and a second edition followed before the end of the year. Of the first edition there remains only a single fragment, containing the Prologue and part of the Gospel of St. Matthew, which has been edited in facsimile by Mr. Arber, with a valuable introduction. The translation—“the unsell (graceless) wicked New Testament,” as Lyndsay ironically called it—was received with small favour by the English Bishops. The chief objections to it were set out by Sir Thomas More, who became involved in a controversy with Tyndale in 1528. Meantime Tyndale went on with his translation, and completed his version of the Pentateuch in 1530. He was put to death for heresy at Vilvorde in 1536. Besides his translations with their introductions, and his pamphlets against More, his chief works are The Obedience of a Christian Man (Marburg, 1528), The Parable of the wicked Mammon (same place and date), The Practice of Prelates (1530), An Exposition upon the v. vi. vii. Chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel. His collected works were published along with those of Frith and Barnes, in folio, 1573; there are two modern editions, the most recent being that of the Parker Society, 1848–1850.]  1
TYNDALE, as founder of the English version of the Bible, is entitled to rank among the greatest of prose writers. As an original author he is distinguished for the humble yet not too ordinary virtues of clearness and directness. He had a complete command of the language for the purposes of theological argument and controversy. His meaning is always plain, and if his treatises are not now popular, that comes from loss of general interest in his matter, and not from any deterrent or wearisome qualities in his style. Lofty and eloquent passages are hardly to be found in him, but his views are stated concisely and effectively. His phrases are generally short and free from encumbrance. There is little colour or imagination in his discourse, but it is not laboured or clumsy.  2
  In Tyndale’s writings there may be traced very easily a kinship to the earlier reformers, who were more tolerant than he: if he differs from them, he differs hardly less from the iconoclasts. He translated the Enchiridion of Erasmus, and appreciated the Praise of Folly at least so far as to conclude from it that Sir Thomas More, in his youth, had been more liberal than he showed himself in his later years. With Tyndale the argument against the Pope and the old fashions of religion is still part of the general warfare in which he and Sir Thomas More were not antagonists. He has not much to do, directly, with the Humanities, but he is on their side against the dull party that would have none of them.  3
  “Remember ye not how within this thirty years and far less, and yet dureth unto this day, the old barking curs, Dunce’s disciples and like draff, called Scotists, the children of darkness, raged in every pulpit against Greek, Latin, and Hebrew? and what sorrow the schoolmasters that taught the Latin tongue had with them, some beating the pulpit with their fists for madness, and roaring out with open and foaming mouth, that if there were but one Terence or Virgil in the world, and that same in their sleeves on fire before them, they would burn them therein, though it should cost them their lives, affirming that all good learning decayed and was utterly lost since men gave them unto the Latin tongue?”  4
  His arguments are pervaded by the desire for rational scholarship. He attacks the allegorical and tropological methods that took up the light and hindered the sober explanation and understanding of documents.  5
  “The greatest cause of which captivity and the decay of the faith and this blindness wherein we now are, sprang first of allegories.” “Twenty doctors expound one text twenty ways, as children make descant upon plain song.” Erasmus had explained how anything that offered itself for interpretation in any book—the Gesta Romanorum for instance—was raised by the interpretation into the rank of Scripture. Tyndale dwells seriously on the same fashion of providing authorities out of the first book that came to hand. “Yea, thou shalt find enough that will preach Christ, and prove whatsoever point of the faith that thou wilt as well out of a fable of Ovid or any other poet, as out of St. John’s Gospel or Paul’s Epistles.” The “Frère Lubin” who found the Sacraments in the Metamorphoses was fair game for Tyndale as well as for Rabelais (Prologue to Gargantua), and his stroke tells on the “Sophisters” who “out of an antitheme of half an inch draw a thread of nine days long.” His ridicule is sometimes unmannerly and ineffective, but he can state his case against his adversaries in a way that allows no evasion of the issues; and though it is impossible to ignore the clownish strain in his writings, it would be entirely wrong to think of him as a mere railer. Serious argument is the substance of his books. He is an extreme man, an outlaw, fighting hard, with every temptation to bitterness and uncharitableness. Yet he is not consciously and intentionally unjust. For all his eagerness and his strenuous way of urging his cause, the humanist temper prevails in an unexpected way, and Tyndale shows a power of distinguishing between the old ritual and the abuse of it, the old forms of religion and the corruption of them, which would have been utterly beyond the reach and the intelligence of Martin Marprelate. His uncompromising speeches sometimes, if taken by themselves, may misrepresent his belief and his character. To speak of “Satan and Antichrist our Most Holy Father the Pope” is boisterous and riotous, and promises little moderation or impartiality, little but the usual loud commentary on the priests of Baal or the stump of Dagon. But Tyndale does not greatly indulge in this exciting kind of demonstration. If he is not Catholic in his careful treatment of such vexed subjects as images, pilgrimages, and the worship of saints, he is not destructive. He fights against superstition, not against ceremonies. He leaves no room for doubt on this point. As on the one hand he protests against idolatry and superstition, so on the other he would maintain the liberty of the Church; he would not pull down images where there was no idolatry, and would allow all men to go on pilgrimages who expected no magical result from them. In at least one copy of the folio edition of his works a number of passages have been struck through by some later-born and stronger-minded Protestant than Tyndale, who found this tolerance of ceremonies offensive. Thus Tyndale, who in his own generation was as little open to the charge of vagueness or want of resolution as any one, became guilty, after his death, of temporising with the enemy; and, no doubt, appeared to his successors not much better than the author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More the persecutor. It is the fortune of Tyndale that in process of years his asperities became softened away. If he is rude to the schoolmen and their machinery, to the allegorical mode of interpretation, to the Pope and monks and friars, he is rude, like Erasmus and Rabelais, in the cause of scholarship and sound reason. There may be found in his books phrases and theories that are ungenerous and narrow-minded, but on some of the greatest questions, Tyndale has spoken, not like a fanatic, but like a citizen of Utopia.  6

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