Tyndale as Rhetorician: the Next Generation of Research

A paper for presentation
to the Second Oxford International Tyndale Conference
1-4 September 1996, Oxford, UK

The time and occasion for a full intensive, and many-sided appreciative analysis of Tyndale's verbal artistry seem particularly appropriate. The flurry of international activity undertaken during the quincentennial year (or, more properly, years) has subsided to a sustainable level, and the limited world of Tyndale scholarship can indeed say that much of the basic work on Tyndale's historical moment, on his ideas and theology, and on his influence or significance has been initiated if not completed. The new millennium which is almost upon us invites us to look back as historians, and to look forward as visionaries. We are, I think, at a propitious moment, standing on the shoulders of at least one generation of groundbreaking scholarship, and so we are poised to see Tyndale more clearly and contextually as a writer and stylist, as a rhetorician in the widest sense, not just as deployer of this figure or that device. For this appreciation we need particularly to re-examine his polemical and exegetical prose, which quite rightly does not have the fame and influences of his biblical translations.

When my title speaks of ‘the next generation of research’, I am not of course prescribing ex cathedra what should or must be done by any researcher. Analysts of Renaissance prose, especially of Tyndale's achievement, are a notoriously stiff-necked, self-directed, and unruly lot, and would as soon take direction from me as coalminers from a pit boss. My title is more humble, and self-serving in a scholarly sense: that is, what do I as a sometime analyst of Tyndale's prose need to know about his qualities and verbal/stylistic patterns so that further significant research can be undertaken? More important, what do other students of Renaissance prose need to know about those qualities so that their own work on his literary achievement may advance?

What has limited or hindered our appreciation of Tyndale as a writer? That he was a biblical translator, for one. I say that knowing full well the breadth and depth of the subtle analysis extended to his phrases and diction: these often reveal great humanity, an exquisite ear, and sheer staying power. But where the study of translation goes, the analysis of polemic does not. A second impediment has been the contextualization of Tyndale in the history of the Reformation and in earlier movements of reform; here Tyndale's theological emphases matter, or his polemical targets — not the medium of the polemic. Any of the recent anthologies featuring quincentennial conference papers will reveal the minority position occupied by the belles lettrists. And thirdly, the fact that his extra-biblical work involved exegesis and/or polemic militates in a curious way against literary analysis, for neither mode involves an identifiable form or set of traditions, open to comparative evaluation. Exegesis or polemic seem to represent an occasion rather than a genre, and hence invite the historian more than the analyst of style.

Before I outline what needs to be done at this juncture in Tyndale literary studies, I would like to glance back at what has been done. In the beginning, not very much. The two early studies of Tyndale, by Robert Demaus in 1886 and J.F. Mozley in 1937, remain basically biographies, with a few grudging side-glances at issues of style. Demaus establishes some of the ground rules for later analysts. There is first the glorious prose of the biblical translator, and then, secondarily, the more pedestrian medium of the polemicist. In the Obedience of a Christian Man, concedes Demaus, Tyndale ‘wields the English language with a strength and facility, such as make his writings easy and pleasant reading even in our day’. And Demaus' praise always takes the biblical translations as point of departure. The Obedience, he explains, ‘contains many passages worthy of the writer to whom we owe the plain strong English of our Bible’. And pious Victorian moralist that he is, Demaus can not help noting Tyndale's ‘consciousness of the will of God’ in pursuing his ‘noble task’, as well as his reliance, not so much on worldly or human gifts, as on ‘the aid of the Spirit of God’. For his New Testament, continues Demaus, Tyndale produced ‘a model of the highest literary excellence, simple honest, and manly; free alike from the pedantry of the verbal scholar, and the affected point and force of the mere man of letters.’ That estimate is no doubt true, but why Demaus does not see those qualities in Tyndale's secular prose is not clear to me. Demaus appreciates his subject's ability to show that the 'capacity' of his English 'was unbounded', and ‘that in simplicity, strength, musical flow, ability to relate gracefully and perspicuously, [and] to touch the feelings ... it yields to no language ancient or modern.’ Presumably a different artist, disengaged from merely secular subject matter, wrote the polemical works. And even in the biblical prose, Demaus finds a hierarchy of merit. The prose of the New Testament translation is clearly better than that of his Old, though he does find in it ‘clearness of apprehension and precision of language’ (much stronger than anything found in Cranmer, Latimer or Ridley — Demaus' comparative perspective is very interesting). Still, it is only ‘sometimes’ that the phrasing of the Old Testament translation approaches the eloquence of the New.

Four seminal themes appear in Demaus' critique: Tyndale's biblical prose is not of a piece with his secular wiring Scripture received his best artistic efforts; the spirit and will of God helped to make his biblical prose what it is; and his New Testament translation far outstripped the lesser effort of the Old. What I have quoted are scattered pieces; there is no sustained critique of Tyndale as a ‘mere man of letters’.

J.F. Mozley's biography, which appeared in 1937, continues the theme that Tyndale's biblical translations embodies his finest prose. Now, however, the sources of that excellence are actively contemplated. Mozley pointedly praises Tyndale's ‘homely and popular touches’ in the renderings: ‘He chooses the simplest Anglo-Saxon words, and sets them out with a noble directness. He has no conceits, he never aims at grandeur.’

Mozley's key contribution, however, is to move critical attention towards the non-biblical prose, especially the styling of The Obedience of a Christian Man. ‘As a piece of English’, writes Mozley, ‘it is magnificent’. Mozley judiciously claims that here ‘at times his denunciation attains an extraordinary power of terse and vivid eloquence’, but his evaluation of Tyndale's Answer to More is more guarded if still pioneeringly positive. This text is a triumph of decorum: ‘the Style of Tyndale's Answer’, argues Mozley, ‘matches the content’:

It is plain and workmanlike, terse, direct, and vigorous. It lacks the gracefulness of More's Dialogue, but it is more robust, and moves forward more quickly and surely, though there is, as usual, some repetition. There is no fine writing or straining after artistic effect, yet every now and then we happen upon some outburst of noble eloquence.

The grudging compliment lowers itself onto outright reservation and criticism in the case of The Practice of Prelates, where, writes Mozley, ‘the fierceness and even savagery of tone can be excused.’ As a translator, Tyndale is ‘unrivalled’, but as a pamphleteer, replaceable. ‘Despite its force and a few passages of fine English, we should gladly exchange The Practice of Prelates’, declares Mozley, ‘for another Old Testament book from his pen.’ To Mozley, we also owe the discovery of some rare contemporary reaction to Tyndale's seeming coarseness as a literary artist. The writer is Stephen Vaughan, who was sent to spy on the heretical refugee. On June 19, 1531 Vaughan admitted that Tyndale's answer to chancellor More ‘was unclerkly done’, but then added: ‘and so seem all his works to eloquent men, because he useth so rude and simple style, nothing seeking any vain praise and commendation.’

The second stage of appreciation of Tyndale as rhetorician occurs in the 1960s with the appearance of studies by Duffield, Pineas, and Williams: these three at times make a firm case for the serious study of Tyndale as literary artist, and are in fact preceded and encouraged by a little noticed appreciation produced in 1932 by R. W. Chambers. Prefaced to an edition of Harpsfield's Life of More, Chamber's essay on ‘The Continuity of English prose from Alfred to More and his School’ notably compares More's prose to Tyndale's, and does not find the Reformer wanting in grace or force. There are some ‘differences of style’ between the two, observes Chambers, but fundamentally ‘they both write the same English’. Tyndale clearly is a worthy enough stylist to be considered in the same breath as More. In rhetoric, argues Chambers, ‘they had for the most part received one and the same training’. Concludes Chambers: ‘The religious quarrel concealed a continuity which it could not destroy’. For Chambers, Tyndale is not a mere translator, or inspired solitary genius piping his untutored native wood-notes wild, but a first-rate writer, comparable in all points to More, and part of a long-standing tradition of deliberate and crafted prose styling.

Duffield's 1964 edition of the Work of William Tyndale concentrates on evaluating the biblical prose, namely, ‘his idiomatic homely conversational style’. Writes Duffield: ‘He wants to tell the ordinary man what the Bible says, and so he is colloquial ... His language is simple, terse, idiomatic, and homely.’ Yet Duffield is also aware of Tyndale's secular literary achievement, especially in the context of the age, and pointedly observes that ‘Tyndale show none of the pompous Latin prose style which was in fashion at the time.’ Indeed, Duffield is one of the first to insist on the oral, populist sources of the Reformer's artistry: ‘Tyndale was a master of rhythm, and his rhythm is that of spoken not literary English ... His language is that of the ordinary people, though it never becomes debased.’

In Thomas More and Tudor Polemics (1968), Rainer Pineas focuses narrowly on ‘Tyndale's Techniques of Language, Reasoning, Form and Accusation’, most strikingly on Tyndale's use of sarcasm (‘not specifically advocated by any of the rhetoric books he might have studied’), his heavy reliance on irony, and ‘his use and abuse of reasoning’. Pineas is struck by ‘Tyndale's meager use of syllogistic logic’, and notes that, ‘While Tyndale makes little use of the formal syllogism, he does often attempt proof by analogy.’ Adds Pineas: ‘Closely related to Tyndale's use of analogies is his use of illustrations from popular speech to support his arguments.’ And under ‘abuse of reasoning’, Pineas would include the Reformer's ‘polemical use of sophisms and specious reasoning’. Running through Pineas' analysis is the uncommonly reasonable assumption that we are dealing with a deliberate artist, well versed in all matters rhetorical.

In 1969 C.H. Williams issued a new if substantially conventional biography of Tyndale, laced with both useful and misleading evaluations. ‘In his prose’, notes Williams helpfully, ‘there are far fewer latinate passages and tortuous clauses leading everywhere and nowhere than are found, for in More's English works’. Williams identifies ‘fluent ease of expression in simple colloquial English’ as his subject's most ‘conspicuous’ stylistic feature, adding that Tyndale ‘saw to it that his language should be plain, unpretentious and devoid of all literary affection’. Unfortunately, however, Williams locates the source of that style in ‘the asceticism which was so essentially a part of [Tyndale's] nature’, and confuses artful plainness with a lack of art: ‘Tyndale paid little heed to the language in which he clothed his thoughts’, contends Williams. ‘He had no use for tricks of rhetoric. Fine writing was always suspect since it could so easily conceal errors of thought. That is why he was so scornful of what he called More's “figures of poetry”.’ Ultimately Williams falls victim to the topos of false humility by believing the illusion of artlessness fostered by the consummate artist when he claims, most unhelpfully, that Tyndale's ‘own translations and his original writings have all the quality of unpremeditated and unconscious artistry.’

Three major appreciations have helped to re-direct research in the last 50 years: Gavin Bone's 1938 essay ‘Tindale and the English Language’, Norman Davis' 1971 lecture Tyndale's English of Controversy, and David Daniell's 1994 biography. At its point in time, Bone's essay is a remarkable piece of re-evaluation. Because Bone can not fathom how ‘so scrupulous a prose’ should appear suddenly in vacuo, he turns to its possible sources in medieval prose traditions (he identifies three) and to its very distinctive nature. It is, first, a poetic and rhythmic prose. Writes Bone: ‘It is prose written in short lengths and the old punctuation of bars drawn across at the end of the rhythmical clause brings this out more clearly than the modern commas. It is prose whose stresses are carefully separated from each other.’ Primary to this rhythm are monosyllables. ‘Polysyllables are difficult’, observes Bone, ‘as they run away with a sentence at a great rate and one lands with a jerk.’ Second is popular speech, and Bone is acute in his perception of ‘how richly gifted Tyndale was in his appreciation of spoken idioms’. He then adds: ‘There is no vestige of literariness in his writings ... Malory had a sure literary touch, Tyndale was all unconscious.’ I am not at all certain that this is a useful comment. Indeed, I think Bone confuses the end or appearance of simplicity with the means, which can be very complex, when he writes of Tyndale, only half correctly: ‘In all his works there is no trace of writings for effect. In his original books he goes steadily and says straight what he means.’ And that Bone should end his perceptive essay with the sentence — ‘It is an ironical thing that any essay should come to be written on Tyndale the literary artist’ — threatens to undo the literary value of the preceding 30 pages. Bone's very enterprise confirms the literariness of his chosen subject.

In giving the Chambers Memorial Lecture on 4th march 1971, Davis returns to the comparison that Chambers had drawn between More and Tyndale, and now revises the old view. Tyndale, indeed, is ‘eventually a far more potent force in the history of English’ than was More, and Davis gives proper attention to the magisterial evaluation of C.S. Lewis:

Where Tyndale is most continuously and obviously superior to More is in style. He is, beyond comparison, lighter, swifter, more economical. He is very unadorned (an occasional alliteration, some rhetorical repetitions, some asyndeton) but not at all jejune. The rhythm is excellent, the sort of rhythm which is always underlining the argument.

As for ‘some rhetorical repetitions’, observes Davis, ‘In fact they abound, combined with many varieties of balance and antithesis.’ And though Davis declares that ‘Tyndale had strong reservations about figurative language’, I would argue that figurative language abounds, if subtly.

Davis is at his best when dealing with Tyndale's colloquialisms and proverbs, He calls ‘This colloquial, robuster part of the language’ a ‘strong element in his controversial work’, but thinks it is ‘by no means the prevailing one.’ Davis is also first-rate on Tyndale's syntax, on ‘the shape of [his] sentences’. Observes Davis: ‘Most are comparatively simple and short, linked in the manner of the time to what precedes either by and or but or by a relative; there are few elaborate periodic structures in any of the treatises, and not many absolute constructions.’ Davis concludes his imposing assessment with a tantalizingly brief analysis of a passage whose ‘manner ... is his best: even, grave rhythm, familiar words; and yet towards the end a figure bold and strong in an old tradition, lifting the prose to poetry.’ Davis does not name or probe that ‘tradition’, but his point is clear and true: Tyndale's best prose is poetic prose, infused with conscious artistry and a wealth of figures entirely beyond the reach of folk culture and oral tradition.

Although aspects of style are secondary to the purpose of David Daniell's new and dramatic 1994 biography of Tyndale, they are primary to his establishment of the Reformer as a significant and powerful writer. Like his fellow biographers, Daniell is keenly appreciative of Tyndale's simplicity of language. In the early Cologne Prologue of 1525, for example, Daniell quickly isolates Tyndale's ‘striking avoidance of complicated or technical abstract words, going for plain vocabulary, as concrete as possible.’ Most importantly, Daniell locates the roots of Tyndale's artistry in popular and local cultures. The Reformer's vernacular Bible, he stresses, was made ‘in the language people spoke, not as the scholars wrote.’ Daniell's insistence that ‘Tyndale's base was the speech of the Vale of Berkeley ... [and] speech-forms peculiar to the Vale of Berkeley’ is, I think, a major advance post in Tyndale research towards which the infantry has yet to turn. Tyndale undoubtedly used his Oxford rhetorical training and the technical artifice of late medieval preachers, but ‘the unconscious ground’, as Daniell terms it, was the language of his neighbours, parents, officials, friends, priests and ploughboys.

That said, what needs to be researched? A great deal, Daniell notes. ‘Tyndale as conscious craftsman has been not just neglected, but denied’, he writes, adding: ‘Analysis of his rhetorical skills as a translator has barely begun’. I would add that this lacuna applies to expository and polemical prose too. In the Obedience, for example — and I cite Daniell again — ‘almost in every sentence there can be found and analyzed a kaleidoscope of technical rhetorical devices’. Not only does Daniell find ‘rhetorical organization’ to be ‘characteristic of most of Tyndale's writing’, as well as the obvious passion, but also (in the Obedience again) ‘the craftsmanly skill which ... knows coolly and exactly how the mechanisms of word-order work’. I agree entirely. To understand the Reformer as writer, the researcher must contextualize him within ‘the late medieval and early humanist methods of rhetoric’. Notes Daniell: ‘This is a huge field — more like a continent — which has never been properly explored’. Anyone who contemplates a presentation piece of Isocrates must obviously be aware of the tropes, schemes, and figures of classical rhetoric up to his eye teeth.

Daniell has two further observations of value. ‘It is time’, he asserts, ‘to recognize in Tyndale a confident technical craftsmanship outside controversy — the bulk of his writing, after all.’ The exegete as rhetorician is a quietly challenging topic. Secondly — and this is perhaps Daniell's most important point — ‘To local Gloucestershire forms of speech we must add as an influence an awareness of a native tradition of writing. That is a matter quite unexplored, on which much work remains to be done.’ Here Daniell would include prayers and ‘collects’, songs, proverbs, ballads, and popular romances — a whole continent, I would add, of unacknowledged, often oral material.

I end with four clear areas that need thought and research. I can give these skeletal form because they have already supplied the meat and muscle in my overview of the past; indeed, the seeds of future research are there in what has already been done, even if sketchily or partially.

Firstly, we need to develop a linguistic and stylistic profile of Tyndale, a stylistic context. What is Tyndale's fingerprint as a writer? This would involve analysis of his diction, for example. Compared to his contemporaries (say, More and Fisher, Latimer and Cranmer), is his diction more polysyllabic or monosyllabic? More or less rooted in Old English as opposed to Latinate sources? What statistically is his average sentence length? Is it phrasal or clausal in structure? The average of dependent clauses per sentence? Computers and technological resources can help this enterprise enormously, as they have in Shakespeare studies, where we have a very clear series of syntactical and verbal ‘fingerprints’ that tell us whether an anonymous text in any way resembles Shakespeare's. Bone and Davis have focused on some preliminary aspects of Tyndale's syntax, as have Demaus, Mozley, Bone and Daniell on his diction.

Second, we need to do some imaginative, intensive research into the traditions of prose artistry from which Tyndale's skills could have evolved. Bone has suggested three separate late medieval traditions: the prose of narrative [the Romances of Caxton, Malory and Berners]: the prose of religious musing and the mystical exaltation [the Cloud of Unknowing; the works of Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle]; and the prose of information, of exposition [treatises of Capgrave, Fortescue, and Pecock]. Other obvious strands would be the poeticized, highly rhetorical prose of academic preaching, as well as the colloquialism and homeliness of vernacular preaching, a topic so ably begun by G.R. Owst 50 years ago.

Third would be some extended investigation of his rhetorical training, and rhetorical qualities — the latter examined in part to-date by Pineas, Davis, and Daniell. What did Tyndale's early schooling involve from the perspective of rhetoric? What do we know of university curricula in rhetoric at the beginning of the sixteenth century? And how close can we get to the oral traditions of popular preaching? As for Tyndale's figures of rhetoric, especially his characteristic or repeated ones, there are many models of analysis from which to choose, not all as forbidding as the critical apparatus which has been applied to, say, Donne, Milton, Spenser, and Shakespeare as rhetoricians. In any event, Tyndale's often poeticized prose can be described as ‘unconscious’ or ‘unartistic’ only by perverse oversight, or undersight.

Fourth, and this is the most crucial area, is what might be termed his ‘sources’ in unwritten popular art, as Duffield, Davis and Daniell have intimated. How can we possibly approach ‘the language of the people’ in any period? I would suggest letters as one area where colloquial elements can be seen through the often dense veneer of prescribed stylistic levels and devices. Oral and pre-literate elements are there also in recipe books, texts of folk medicine, and certain catechitical manuals. I am also thinking of the work of historians like David Rollison, whose work on The Local Origins of Modern Society: Gloucestershire 1500-1800 appeared in 1992. This period for Rollison is ‘predominately preliterate’, and his primary interest is in ‘the preliterate culture of the localities where the work went on submerged beneath the distorting prism of written text’. For Rollinson, the written word ‘has everywhere been in iconoclastic movement. It carried with it the delegitimisation of the oral and aural cultures which the bulk of the world's population had inhabited’ since time began. How do we or can we reconstruct Tyndale's energizing relationship with these ‘oral and aural cultures?’ Rollison has one representative answer, a list which John Smith of Nibley wrote down in 1639 of ‘certain words, proverbs, and phrases of speach, which wee hundreders [of Berkeley] conceive... to bee not only native but confined to the soile bounds and territory thereof’. Smith's sayings contain physical landmarks, seasonal habits of husbandry, arboriculture, markets, marriage, landscape, and animal imagery. As Rollison puts it, Tyndale's ‘family and the culture of the Vale communities shaped him first, gave his thought its characteristic structures and expressions.’

The greatest challenge for the next generation of Tyndale scholars will be the formal and academic description of an artist whose roots and forms in so many ways are non-academic, oral and pre-literate.

  Peter Auksi
Department of English
University of Western Ontario

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