David Norton: The Oxford International Tyndale Conference

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Tyndale has been forgotten for 500 years and that 1994 marked the revival of his memory. At the heart of this revival, the Oxford conference confirmed his enormous historic importance, demonstrated what a superbly accomplished and talented man he was, and also reshaped our understanding of the history of the English Bible.

Raise one reputation and, very likely, you pull down another. Since the 1760s the Authorised Version has been the object of what I call AVolatry; it contains, according to Saintsbury, 'the best words of the best time of English, in the best order, on the best subjects'; naturally, the learned men who made it were supreme, inspired religious artists. One fascinating undercurrent of the conference was a chipping-away at the reputation of those committees of translators (such a pejorative word, 'committee') in favour of Tyndale's achievement. This wasn't a matter of reiterating the Authorised Version's debt to Tyndale. Where once, if we chose to focus on Tyndale, we might have seen the Authorised Version as Tyndale perfected, now we began to see Tyndale as a man whose work had been in some ways diminished by his successors. He was by far the most talented English Bible translator.

Birthdays, centenaries, quincentenaries are all great excuses for celebration. David Daniell knew this, and he had the energy and vision to make the most of the excuse. He completed his work on Tyndale's translations, making them more generally available than ever before; he wrote William Tyndale A Biography, and he created the conference. Then I think Tyndale took over: the invited speakers and others who offered papers discovered there was far more to celebrate than they had realised. The sheer quality of Tyndale's work, especially his work as a translator, and its centrality to so many disciplines and interests, helped make the conference extraordinary.

In a sense, a new discipline was created, English Biblical Studies. This may sound strange, given that (to take one aspect of the subject) people have been writing histories of the English Bible since the 1730s. Yet the range of participants at the conference was an eloquent statement that Tyndale and the issues that gather round him cut across many current disciplines. Historian rubbed shoulders with Hebraist, poet with prelate and papyrologist, Anglo-Saxonist with Art Historian. The insularity of so many academic conferences was soundly defeated: rather than talking our own inbred scholarly dialects, we talked to each other, we learnt and we admired.

One of the many highlights was the excursion to Tyndale sites in Gloucestershire. This finished at what used to be thought Tyndale's birthplace, Hunt's Court, North Nibley: the farm courtyard made a fine venue for a local dramatic society production in celebration of the quincentenary, The Ploughboys Story. The play began with Jesus preaching in the English of Tyndale's translation. A fair-haired young ploughboy asked him, in a broad Gloucestershire accent, about having the gospel message and the Bible in his own tongue. Soon the ploughboy was quizzing a splendidly curmudgeonly Jerome and a somewhat more sympathetic Wyclif about the same problem as the play sketched the movement towards vernacular translations. As vivid and fresh as the English of Tyndale's translation, the play included some of the miracle play of Cain and Abel and, daringly, the opening of Piers Plowman. And then it told Tyndale's story through to his martyrdom.

At one point the ploughboy turned to the audience and asked, 'how many of you can read Hebrew?' With Hebraists in the audience, it was a nice moment.

In the interval a youngish man with a not-so-young ladyfriend on his arm approached me and asked, in the same broad accent as the ploughboy, what all us people with name tags on were? I explained about the conference and the quincentenary. It was all news to him: who was Tyndale? what did I mean by 'the Reformation'? I did my best not to be too academic, then wondered why he had brought his lady to this play. Well, he had known of the Tyndale monument on Nibley Knoll overlooking North Nibley and had thought the play might be a good evening out. That was all he knew, this descendent of the ploughboy for whom Tyndale wrote, and, yes, he was enjoying the play.

So here were the story of the Bible still alive and the language of Tyndale still speaking in spite of ignorance. Possibly Tyndale would have appreciated this more than an academic conference in his honour. The conference may have been historic in scholarly terms, but the scholarly world is small, and Tyndale, even unknown and unrecognised, belongs to the English speaking world at large.

(AVolatry, of course, requires a strong majuscule pronunciation so as not to confuse it with aviolatry - the idolatrous worship of aeroplanes. - Ed.)

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