English, in the beginning: William Tyndale was almost wiped out of history. Yet, argues Laurence Marks, he invented our language

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The Independent Online
CAN an authoritarian government so obliterate the life's work of a revolutionary artist that he is unknown to posterity? In the late 1940s the Russian modernist painter Alexander Rodchenko, persecuted and silenced under the Stalinist terror, came to believe that he had been erased beyond reclaim from the collective memory of his countrymen. He died too soon to witness his reinstatement.

This month the quincentenary is being celebrated of a writer who has come close to suffering the fate Rodchenko feared: William Tyndale, translator in the 1520s and 1530s of the first printed Bible in English. Yale University Press has published a new biography by David Daniell, former director of Shakespearian studies at University College, London. On 28 September, an exhibition (including the only complete surviving copy of his 1526 New Testament) opens at the British Library. On 6 October there will be a service at St Paul's.

Tyndale's name never disappeared. Most of us remember him vaguely from our schooldays as one of the early Bible translators who prefigured the great Authorised Version of 1611. There is a dashing statue of him (he looks like Gregory Peck) near the Victoria Embankment in London. But he has been at best a shadowy presence in our literature, ignored except by a few Hebrew and Greek scholars and Bible historians.

He was a revolutionary innovator when autocratic governments were trying to stamp out dissent. In Catholic Europe he was hunted, imprisoned and murdered (as Catholic dissidents were themselves to be hunted in Reformation countries later in the century) and his translations burnt.

The 1611 translators borrowed freely from him. About four-fifths of their New Testament and much of the Old is in his words. Many striking phrases that have entered the language from the Authorised Version ('Fight the good fight', 'Am I my brother's keeper?' 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak', 'Salt of the earth') were coined by Tyndale. But, even so long after the victory of Protestantism in England, these scholars seem to have thought it impolitic to acknowledge their subversive forerunner. Tyndale remained a non-person.

This month's commemoration ought to help place him where he belongs: as a major literary artist (second only, perhaps, to Shakespeare in 16th-century England) and one of the makers of our language and our civilisation.

He grew up in Gloucestershire in an influential land-owning family. He studied Greek, Latin and classical rhetoric (that is, composition) at Oxford, probably learnt Hebrew in Germany and became a priest. His preaching, like the theological essays he published throughout his short life, got him into trouble.

In England the Bible, in the fourth-century Latin translation called the Vulgate, was the monopoly of the Church. Although vernacular Bibles in German, Italian, French, Czech, Dutch and Catalan had been printed in the decades following Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in the late 1430s, reading the Bible in English was still prohibited. A few hand-written copies of English translations from the Vulgate, made by the religious reformer John Wycliffe and his followers in the 1380s, circulated in expensive samizdat editions.

Tyndale determined to defy the authorities and publish an English Bible directly translated for the first time from the Hebrew and Greek. 'If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost,' he told a horrified colleague.

With money from a London cloth merchant he sailed for Germany, aged 30. He lived a hand-to- mouth existence on the run from government spies. The first complete English edition of his New Testament was printed in Worms in 1526 and bootlegged across the North Sea to England. The first five books of his Old Testament, printed in Antwerp, followed in 1534 and others (death prevented him from completing it) later.

The effect was electrifying. Religion, the framework of everyone's life, was conducted in a foreign language few laymen, and not all priests, understood. The Mass was in Latin. People were baptised and buried in Latin. Bible readings in church were in Latin. Now suddenly, stories known indirectly from sermons, stained-glass windows and mystery plays could be read in full in pocket-sized English editions intelligible to any literate ploughboy. Worse, the English Bible exposed the fact that certain of the Church's claims to authority had no Scriptural basis.

At a time when the average print-run of a book was 1,000- 1,500, Tyndale went into debt to finance a run of 3,000 of the New Testament. Another 3,000 copies were pirated. They were sold openly on the streets of London. The bishops, furious, ordered them to be burned.

The government tried to get Tyndale extradited and failed. They tried to tempt him with an offer of safe conduct and failed again. In desperation, in 1529 the Bishop of London instructed an English merchant in Antwerp to buy up the unsold stock. Tyndale insolently used the money to finance a revised edition. Like others since, the English authorities, who had begun by burning books, turned in 1530 to burning people.

The modernity of Tyndale's subversive best-seller is striking. As Dr Daniell says: 'His unsurpassed ability was to work with the sounds and the rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters, and to do so in a way that is still, even today, direct and living.'

This was entirely new. Wycliffe's rendering of the majestic opening verses of Genesis has a stumbling gait: 'In the first made God nought of heaven and earth. The earth forsooth was vain within the void, and the darknesses were upon the face of the sea, and the spirit of God was born upon the waters. And God said, Be made light, and made is light.'

Compare that with Tyndale's, which seizes you at once with its rhythmic energy: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said, let there be light, and there was light.'

Tyndale, following Old Testament Hebrew, invented the narrative flow of concrete images and short phrases joined by 'and' to give a sense of forward movement and tragic inevitability. The famous opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms is pure Tyndale. ('. . . In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels . . .')

Tyndale favours homely words ('Esau came from the field and was fainty') and prefers clarity to literalness, avoiding the clotted constructions, contrived by philologists, that occasionally cloud the Authorised Version. The 1611 scholars sometimes gentrified his language, weakening his effects.

In the Authorised Version, Cain's 'countenance fell' In Tyndale, 'Cain was wroth exceedingly and loured'. The Authorised Version's Matthew has the urbane, 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof;' Tyndale's has the blunt growl of a countryman: 'For the day present hath ever enough of his own trouble'.

The English Bible, says Dr Daniell, 'was made by Tyndale in the language people spoke, not as the scholars wrote. At a time when English was struggling to find a form that was neither Latin nor French, he gave the nation a Bible language that was English in words, word order and lilt.'

In 1535 Henry Phillips, an embezzler down on his luck, was promised money by the English authorities to turn him in. Phillips cultivated Tyndale's friendship, was invited to stay in the house in Antwerp where he lived, and tipped off agents of the Catholic government of the Low Countries. Tyndale was seized, imprisoned and tried for heresy in Vilvorde Castle outside the city.

On 6 October 1536 this brave and resolute Englishman was tied to a huge wooden cross hedged with faggots in the castle yard, garrotted by the hangman and burnt. He was extraordinarily unlucky. England was on the cusp of the greatest cultural shift since the Conquest. In 1533 Henry VIII had divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. In 1535 he had licensed the first official English translation, Matthew's Bible - two-thirds of it Tyndale's work. Had Tyndale survived a little longer, he might have been free to return to England.

Modern neglect of him is all the stranger because of his great political as well as literary influence on British and American culture. The English Bible spiritually enfranchised the ordinary man and woman. Private reading of the Scriptures lies at the heart of Protestant individualism and of the civilisation it created. It's time that Tyndale came in from the cold.

(Photograph omitted)