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The great Tudor Bible myth

Under Henry VIII, libraries were gutted (PA)

When it comes to state violence, official justifications have always been paramount. Throughout history, savvy administrations have paid close attention to their messaging around the use of force and how it is perceived. This is not a modern phenomenon. William the Conqueror went to great lengths to dress up his invasion of Britain as a righteous act to punish a perjurer.

And so it was with the Tudor Reformation – a violent act that required an explanation.

King Henry VIII was short of money. And he urgently needed a new wife. The English Church had money, and the Pope was blocking his annulment. So it was a simple calculation: crush the infrastructure of the Church in England and appropriate its money. He was, though, rightly aware that this would not look very good. Only 12 years earlier, Pope Leo X had awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith” for his valiant support of the Church.

His course of action was, he knew, rather mercenary and lacking in a higher purpose, so his administration duly came up with a suitable story: he was – by the grace of God – saving the country.

The history books therefore dutifully tell us that Henry passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals in 1533, and the country was grateful to be free of the “dead hand” of Rome. Thus liberated, and buoyed up with a unique and divine potential, plucky England went on to become a green and pleasant land, discover the New World, pioneer the Industrial Revolution and bring enlightenment to swathes of the gloomy globe.

It will come as no surprise that this version of events is a bit simplistic in its rush to drown Henry in adulation.

For starters, setting up a new Church could not be achieved by a single Act of Parliament, like Lord Chesterfield’s calendar change of 1752. To rip up and replace an entire country’s millennium-old religion took the reigns of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth, with aftershocks that spilled across subsequent centuries including the Civil War and beyond. Like most religious wars, it was intensely emotional and violent.

The overwhelming majority of the three to four million people of England and Wales watched on with disbelief and anger. They marched in protest. And they died in large numbers to protect the way of life of their ancestors. It took generations for their despair to turn to resignation and acceptance. And as they lost the will to fight, the official Tudor version of events became the received history. Henry and Elizabeth were cast as the saviours of England.

The Tudors and their supporters gave many justifications for the changes, including doctrinal, sacramental and liturgical beliefs. But one that remains prominent in the modern mind, and continues to be repeated (not least in Wolf Hall) is that the Church controlled the people by refusing to give them the Bible and religious instruction in English.

Hogwash: there had been Scripture in English for centuries. In fact, translating the different books of the Bible into dozens of different languages had been going on since the earliest times, before the canon of the Bible was even settled.

The books we call the Old Testament (more or less the Jewish Tanakh) were mostly written in Hebrew, with some Aramaic and Greek. As early as the 1st century BC, Jewish scholars in Alexandria wanted to make Scripture more accessible, as Hebrew was no longer a living language. They therefore set about translating it into Greek, which was the everyday language of much of the Roman empire. Tradition says that 70 of them worked on the task, so their work is called the Septuagint (from septuaginta, 70), or the LXX for short.

Once the early Church had added the New Testament and some years had gone by, a fresh problem arose. The New Testament was in Greek, but there were many in the empire whose first language was now Latin. Enter St Jerome, whose fame rests largely on his monumental effort to translate it all into Latin, and bring it to the people.

There were a number of Latin versions already circulating – known as the Vetus Latina – but they were of varying quality and consistency, and often translated from the Septuagint. With the thoroughness of a born scholar, Jerome returned to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts, and translated the entire Bible directly from the sources.

The result was the Vulgate (the Editio Vulgata), which was a coherent rendering of the Old and New Testaments into the popular language of the day. Eventually it replaced the Vetus Latina, although not entirely, as some of the older language survives in places. For example, in the liturgy: gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. (The Vulgate has gloria in altissimis deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis.)

When the Roman Empire fell in AD 476, the early medieval world inherited the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament only) and the Latin Vulgate as the standard Bible texts.

But languages are forever evolving. As the centuries passed, Latin was itself buried under the emerging Romance and Germanic languages, and the age-old problem of intelligibility returned. As before, translators got to work in a slew of medieval languages, and the Church was largely happy with the process. This was even explicitly confirmed. For instance, in 813, the Council of Tours approved and encouraged vernacular translations and homilies to aid understanding.

Over in England, the Anglo-Saxon period was exceptionally rich in translations. In the late 600s, Caedmon translated the Creation story into a prose poem in the Northumbrian dialect. At the same time, Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne translated the Psalms into Old English. A little later, around 700–725, the “Vespasian” Psalter from southern England was glossed with an Old English translation. At the same time, the Venerable Bede translated the Gospel of John and other Gospel texts into Old English. And the following century, King Alfred commissioned translations of the Ten Commandments and laws from Exodus, and had them circulated.

An excellent example of an Old English translation appears in perhaps the most famous medieval manuscript in the English-speaking world: the Lindisfarne Gospels (692-721). Underneath the exquisitely decorated Latin text, you can see, in red ink, an Old English translation of the Gospels added around 970. This is, in fact, the oldest surviving text of the Gospels in Old English.

Only around 20 years later, southern England produced the famous Wessex (or West Saxon) Gospels, which were entirely in Old English. Try this:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod. To becume þin rice, gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg, and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele.

After the Norman Conquest, translations thrived in England, just as they did all over Europe: in France, Italy, Iberia, Germany and even the Crusader states. Some of these texts are invaluable for information about the evolution of language. For example, in England, Eadwine brought out his Psalterium Triplex, which rendered the Psalter in Latin, Old English and Anglo Norman.

As Old English (which used to be called Anglo-Saxon) evolved into the Middle English of Chaucer, Richard Rolle translated all the Psalms into English (1337–49) in a version which was widely read and copied.

The problems mainly arose when translators altered the accepted meanings of the texts. For instance, Pope Innocent III saw no problem with the use of translations in Metz, but he was concerned about errors in teaching. Likewise, the Wycliffe Bible (1382–95) of the Lollards was condemned for its content, not for the fact that it was in English.

Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury, confirmed in 1409 that translations were permitted, but said that they had to be approved by the diocese for accuracy. This may have made translations slower to appear, but it was hardly an attempt to deny the importance of Scripture. There was nothing even approaching a blanket prohibition.

The history of translation in Catholic Europe demonstrates that the Church encouraged Bible reading. Vernacular Bibles were continuously produced in French (including Anglo-Norman) from the 13th century onwards. The 15th and 16th centuries saw notable vernacular Bibles in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Welsh, and a host of other languages.

Scripture was not the only kind of reading which provided Catholics with spiritual nourishment. There was, in addition, a burgeoning trade in other religious and devotional texts in vernacular languages. In England, this trade became intensely vibrant in the century-and-a-half leading up to the Reformation.

For instance, in 1395, the mystic Julian of Norwich published her Revelations of Divine Love, which is remarkable not only as a work of profound spiritual reflection, but also as the first book in English written by a woman.

Not long after, around 1436, the excitable Margery Kempe published her Book of Margery Kempe – perhaps the first autobiography in English – in which she details her 14 children, pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago, Italy and Germany, religious ecstasies and devotions, as well as some colourful period expressions: “Thou wost no more what thou blaberest than Balamis asse.” Amazingly, her work was known only by a couple of excerpts until 1930, when a full copy was found in a cupboard.

Books in English about liturgy and spirituality had, in fact, been around for a long while. For instance, in 1150–80, an English monk named Orm, most likely based at Bourne Abbey in Lincolnshire, wrote the Ormulum in Middle English, summarising the cycle of Bible readings for Mass throughout the year, with a short homily on each.

After Margery Kempe, by the late 1400s and early 1500s devotional books were the bestsellers of the day, and this was largely down to one man: Wynkyn de Worde. As the blue plaque to him at London’s Stationer’s Hall reads: “Father of Fleet Street, first set up his press by Shoe Lane near this Hall circa 1500.”

It is not clear whether de Worde was William Caxton’s apprentice, but after Caxton’s death de Worde took over the press, updated the fonts, added woodcut illustrations and dragged the business into the 16th century, pumping out more than 400 books in over 650 editions. The vast majority were religious, for mass consumption: books of hours, devotional texts, prayers, poems, texts of mystery plays and myriad others. Parishioners read along in many of these books during church services, much as they do today. Of the songs and poems, many have survived, such as Adam lay i-bowndyn or There is no rose of swich vertu.

We will never truly know how many religious texts in English there were before the Reformation. The Tudors gutted the monastery libraries. Scriptoria were pulled down. Books were burned and scattered. Even Oxford’s great Bodleian Library was emptied, its contents tossed onto bonfires or sold off as junk.

When Henry VIII had finished with the large religious institutions, his son Edward turned to the parishes, destroying books in village churches and private collections. When they were done, what was left was a fraction of a once great treasure chest of writing. As the Carmelite prior-turned-Protestant John Bale noted in 1549: “A great nombre of them whych purchased those supertycyous mansyons, resrved of those lybrarye bokes, some to serve theyr jakes [ie, used as lavatory paper], some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and soapsellers.”

After the Reformation, there was a notable flowering of Bible translations – including the Catholic Douai-Reims Bible (1582 and 1610), used by the committees of Protestant scholars who assembled the euphonious 1611 King James Bible.

Debates over aspects of the Reformation will rage on. But one thing is clear: translating Scripture into English was an ancient tradition, and – despite the Tudor holocaust of books – there is still a mountain of evidence that medieval England had access to sacred writings in English, French and a carousel of other languages of their choosing.

This article first appeared in the October 28 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here