Burning the Bible

Today’s selection — from Tudors by Peter Ackroyd. In the Middle Ages, the Church viewed translations of the Bible from ancient languages into English, French and other common languages as heresy, and a direct threat to the importance and power of the Church. William Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible in 1526 was the first to take advantage of the printing press, was tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and was condemned to be burned to death for his efforts:

“The threat to the papacy also came from other quarters. [Martin] Luther’s tracts, smuggled into England after he was denounced as a heretic, were followed by William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testa­ment. Tyndale was a young cleric who had become disillusioned with the pomp and power of the Church; he was ascetic and scholarly by nature, and was instinctively attracted to the purer faith associated with the Lollards and the ‘new men’ who were even then in small conventicles proclaiming Lutheran doctrine.
William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. Woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).
“He had found no employment in London, after he migrated there from Cambridge, and had travelled to Germany in quest of a more tolerant atmosphere. It was here that he translated the Scriptures from the Greek and Hebrew originals. It was said that his passage was assisted by German merchants who were already imbued with Lutheran learning.
“Once he had arrived in Wittenberg, he began his task of translating the Greek into plain and dignified English, in a language that the ploughman as well as the scholar could under­stand. The more orthodox clerics, however, believed that the Scriptures were too sacred to be left in the hands of the laity and that any interpretation of them should only be under clerical supervision. They also believed that the key words of the Greek were in themselves holy, and would be profaned by translation. …
“In effect Tyndale was exorcizing the role of the Church in spiritual matters and placing his faith in an invisible body of the faithful known only to God. … The English Bible came as a sensation and a revelation; its translation was an achievement beyond all the works of ‘new’ theology and pamphlets of anti-clerical disquisition. It hit home, as if God’s truth had finally been revealed. The Bible was no longer a secret and mysterious text, from which short phrases would be muttered by priests; it was now literally an open book.
“The book had been published in the free city of Worms, on the Rhine, and soon after found its way to England where it was secretly distributed. Copies were being sold for 3s 2d. This was the book that the bishop of London described as ‘pestiferous and per­nicious poison’ and, in the winter of 1526, it was solemnly burnt in St Paul’s Churchyard. For the first time in London the Scriptures were consigned to the fire. The prelates would have burnt Tyndale, too, if they could have caught him. The bishop of London bought and burned the entire edition on sale in Antwerp, the principal source of supply, only to discover that he had merely put money in the pockets of the printers and stimulated them to publish another edition.”
Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I
Authors: Peter Ackroyd
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Copyright 2012 by Peter Ackroyd
Pages: 46-47
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