Monday, November 10, 2008

Important early English writer strangled and burned

Now I know what I can do for a living if, God forbid, The St. Louis American ever dies along with the rest of the print media in St. Louis: draw bad coloring books for Sunday school.

My five-year-old and I spend a lot of time drawing and coloring together. She tends to draw friends, family and current political figures - including Barack and Michelle Obama, and also John McCain and Sarah Palin, as part of her mother's birthday gifts.

I like to draw from a big, beautiful, learned coffee table book - with text by my main man, Lacey Baldwin Smith - titled The Horizon Book of the Elizabethan World (cheap used copies are out there). A while back, we drew and colored a few Renaissance explorers and knaves. Yesterday evening, while watching iCarly (a great show), I drew a scene from the execution of William Tyndale.

Speaking of the death of print, Tyndale (c. 1494 – 1536) was present at its birth. He was the first person to translate the Bible into English from its orginial languages (Hebrew and Greek) and to mass-distribute his translated text via the printed page. This was a highly dangerous trail to blaze in the days of divine kings, when the Bible was regarded as a state secret sealed in the priestly tongue of Latin.

Tyndale's motivation can be seen in an episode from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs.


There dwelt not far off a certain doctor, that he been chancellor to a bishop, who had been of old, familiar acquaintance with Master Tyndale, and favored him well; unto whom Master Tyndale went and opened his mind upon divers questions of the Scripture: for to him he durst be bold to disclose his heart. Unto whom the doctor said, "Do you not know that the pope is very Antichrist, whom the Scripture speaketh of? But beware what you say; for if you shall be perceived to be of that opinion, it will cost you your life."

Not long after, Master Tyndale happened to be in the company of a certain divine, recounted for a learned man, and, in communing and disputing with him, he drove him to that issue, that the said great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words, "We were better to be without God's laws than the pope's." Master Tyndale, hearing this, full of godly zeal, and not bearing that blasphemous saying, replied, "I defy the pope, and all his laws;" and added, "If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did."


Tyndale had to leave England to translate the Bible. His first complete English version of The New Testament, translated from the Greek, appeared in 1526 in Worms, Germany. When he had it smuggled into England, it was seized and burned, and Tyndale was declared a heretic. He himself eventually would be seized, strangled and burned in the Low Countries, but only after fine-tuning his English New Testament and translating much of The Old Testament from the Hebrew.

Like so many writers who suffer while they are alive, Tyndale got his revenge, more or less silently, after his death. The version of the Bible that Shakespeare (with his "small Latin, and less Greek") read and used in his plays was Tyndale's translation. The biblical translators who worked for King James relied on Tyndale's translation more than on any other source, including the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Since the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most influential documents in the history of our language, Tyndale must be embraced as one of the most important writers who ever worked in English.

Some biblical words that Tyndale invented in his translation:


Some famous biblical phrases he coined in English:

let there be light
the powers that be
my brother's keeper
the salt of the earth
a law unto themselves
filthy lucre
it came to pass
gave up the ghost
the signs of the times
the spirit is willing
live and move and have our being
fight the good fight.

Not bad for a guy who was rewarded for his pains by being strangled and burned at the stake as a public entertainment.

Double click my drawing if you want to see it better.

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