Tyndale and the seeds of British political sensibility…

As I’m not far from signing off, and it being Christmas Eve and all that, it’s worth flagging attention to a piece by Rod Liddle on how Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1534, helped give rise to a “strange British blend of obstinacy and a lack of deference to authority, of enormous tolerance of different points of view, of different creeds and faiths”.

The influence of Protestant Christianity upon our language and thus literature is impossible to overstate. When the Gloucestershire scholar William Tyndale went up to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1510 the English language — in so far as one could ascribe to it a homogenous existence — was held in such contempt that it was banned from the college altogether, excepting feast days. As a result of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1534, it became a national language, complete and concise, with a sense of cadence and rhythm, of direct purpose, which has endured to this day. Without William Tyndale it is doubtful that there would have been a William Shakespeare — doubtful that there would have been an England.

In 1510 England was an authoritarian outpost of the Catholic Church — a country where, uniquely, it was illegal to read the Bible in the national language. Instead, commoners were dependent on the Church for their religious succour — which naturally invested the Church with enormous power. Hence, therefore, the Church’s disinclination to allow the Bible into the grubby paws of ploughmen and, indeed, ‘lowly women’. Control the language and you control the people. Tyndale, of course, rejected all that; the people must be able to read the Bible for themselves, otherwise they could not be saved. For Tyndale — as for Wycliffe before him — it was a purely theological opposition which nonetheless had immediate social and political repercussions. His translation of the Bible — the King James Bible is regarded as being 90 per cent the work of Tyndale — passed power downwards from the priests and bishops to the people, both by the mere fact of its existence and in the language it used.

But it is in the blunt brevity of his prose that Liddell sees Tyndale’s abiding influence into the modern day:

Tyndale, returned, ad fontes, to the scripture through Erasmus’s 1516 rendition of a Greek Bible (with Latin translation). You can argue which was the more revolutionary: Tyndale’s contentious use as a translator of such terms as congregation (rather than church) or love (rather than charity, from the Greek agape) which so infuriated Thomas More and threatened the Catholic Church — or the fact that his facility with this low-born lingua franca, English, was so acute and attuned to the common man that it became, almost immediately, respectable and later ubiquitous. It is not simply Tyndale’s knack of coining the memorable phrase — although that was, in itself, remarkable: he gave the English language, among a ream of phrases, ‘daily bread’, ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon’, ‘Let there be light’, ‘There were shepherds abiding in their fields’.

It was the simplicity and directness of the language, the eschewing of Latin- or French-derived terminology, a Bible written in words of usually one and at most two syllables; the template for what we know as ‘good plain English’. Scroll forward 400 years and George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ seems scarcely more than a plea to return to the language of William Tyndale, where words are beautifully precise creatures designed to elucidate, describe and explain rather than to obfuscate. Short words, short sentences: ‘Axe and it shal be given to you. Seke and ye shal find. Knocke and it shal be opened unto you.’ Words which are immediately intimate and purposeful; sentences in which the verb sits in full majesty in the centre (rather than, as in Latin, at the end). Anglo-Saxon words drawn from the dialect of the farm labourer in Tyndale’s native Gloucestershire; ‘mizzen’, for example, for drizzle. As the historian David Daniell puts it, Tyndale made a language for England. And with the language came a flourish of rhetoric, of style and beauty.

As if to prove the modernity of the man, Liddle quotes Tyndale on the still touchy subject of women in the ministry:

If a woman were driven into some island, where Christ was never preached, might she not preach him, if she had the gifts thereto? Might she not also baptise? And why might she not by the same reason minister the sacrament of the body and the blood of Christ and teach him how to choose officers and ministers? O, poor women, how despise ye them.’