Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 12. The Bible in English

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 12. The Bible in English

It is a relief to turn from the pamphlets to Tindale’s Biblical translation. His scholarship was adequate and he was not dependent upon the Vulgate alone; his exposition of his methods—like his love of the Scriptures, possibly derived from Erasmus—magnifies his conception of his task and its importance; he followed previous translators worthily, but with better weapons; and the improved style of his revised edition is, in itself, a testimony to his fitness for the work he undertook. It is impossible and unnecessary to follow his enforced travels closely; from Hamburg he passed (1525) to Cologne, and here the great scholar Cochlaeus frustrated his work. Tindale just contrived to escape to Worms, saving some sheets already printed. St. Matthew and St. Mark had already appeared separately, and now two editions of the New Testament in quarto and octavo, the former with prologue and glosses, were sent to England. The authorities were on the alert, and lists of prohibited books had been issued; but, in spite of this, a change of opinion was slowly coming.

Latimer had joined his fellow commissioners (1530) in deprecating the publication of an English version, but soon changed his mind and, in a letter to the king (December, 1530), urged it. The scheme had been mooted long before, but archbishop Arundel’s measures had put it off, and there were, of course, difficulties in the way. The king, in 1530, had hinted at the possibility of its realisation in the future, and convocation, in 1534, asked the king to appoint translators. But private enterprise, which did not stop to weigh conflicting dangers, “prevented” the government in the matter.

It was to the glosses in Tindale’s Testament that most objection was raised. His own theological views were extreme; convocation objected to his substitution of the words “congregation,” “elder” and “penitence” for “church,” “priest” and “penance”; and the glosses often conveyed extreme views in a petty form. To this, exception was, not unnaturally, taken. Lee, the old antagonist of Erasmus, urged the king to take steps against the introduction of such translations; and it is curious to notice that he assumes the English Bible itself to be prohibited. Tunstall preached against it and Henry decided that it should be “brenned” (1527). But, in spite of the measures that were taken and the copies that were bought up, prohibition proved a failure. New editions were multiplied; the majority of English theologians were changing their views; an appeal to Scripture against their papal antagonists was gaining force; and, lastly, the king, especially in the days of Cromwell, saw some advantage to be gained from the forces he had tried to suppress. Bishop Nix of Norwich was not the only one who thought that the king favoured “arroneous boks” (1530).

Other editions of Tindale’s New Testament—one, of a poor character, pirated by his former helper George Joye—appeared, and (November, 1534) Tindale published a revised edition of his own, to which he added not only slight marginal notes, but also those epistles in the Sarum use which came from the Old Testament or the Apocrypha. In the very year that Tindale was put to death (1536), an edition was printed in England. After many wanderings, to Marburg, to Hamburg and, finally, to Antwerp, he was treacherously seized (May, 1535), not by English contrivance, and put to death at Vilvorde (6 October, 1536). But his work was already done; copies of the New Testament, either his or founded upon his, were common, and he had made more than a beginning with the Old Testament; he had, moreover, fixed the character of the English translations for evermore. Instinctively he, like many writers or preachers of his day, had expressed himself in the popular style, not in the larger phrase affected by scholars, and, in that style, the Bible remained.