William Tyndale, the English Language and European Communications

Leuven, 5-8 September 1996
I viewed the approach of September 1996 with increasing doubt and trepidation: why had I been so rash as to respond to Peter Baker's urgent plea for more members of the Tyndale Society to attend the Conference at Oxford, and then arranged to go on to a further conference at Leuven? How would a gynaecological surgeon, whose main interest lay in Medical Ethics, fit in among the scholars meeting in Hertford College to discuss 'Tyndale's last years - Tyndale as Heretic'? My fears proved groundless - childhood instruction in the 'Authorised Version', love of the English language and literature, together with admiration of the courage of the Reformers, proved an adequate background. The lecturers had such command of their subjects that they spoke with a clarity which made them comprehensible and interesting to those who had minimal scholarship.

The Oxford Conference is reported elsewhere, but the absence of sectarian divisions and the friendliness of all the participants ensured that the group of 18 eagerly looked forward to going on to Belgium together. Dr. Guido Latré's lecture on 'Tyndale in Antwerp' anticipated what proved to be a truly memorable conference in Leuven. Guido was a delightful host as well as enthusiastic guide, and his meticulous planning made the conference run smoothly and unhurriedly. He attributed much of the success to 'Divine Providence' - how else could the Eurostar seats of the 2 parties be adjacent when they had been booked in Oxford and Brussels on different occasions?

We stayed in comfortable student accommodation in Leuven, and shortly after arrival set out to walk to the Groot Begijhof for dinner. The warm evening sunshine displayed the magnificence of the recently cleaned Town Hall, the glowing peach coloured stone accentuating the intricate carving of its flamboyant Gothic style. Later we examined the 15th Century pedestals in detail, noting the 'sermons in stone' - each gave a dual example of sin and punishment, from the fate of a proud angel, Adam and Eve expelled from Eden and so on. The Beguinage now belongs to the University, providing accommodation for overseas students, but it was not hard to imagine the bustle and activity occurring there when the lay nuns nursed the sick and educated several hundred orphans.

The restored Beguinage Infirmary now houses the Faculty Club where dinner was served: it was easy to visualise the box beds lining the walls and the beguines ministering to patients. The menu of fillet of ostrich with peaches and a wonderful creamy desert was enjoyed with Guido's colleagues from the English Department: among them was Dr. Chris Coppens, Curator of Historical Books, who later lectured to us on 'The Printing Presses in the Low Countries in Tyndale's Time'. A gift of an antique painted canvas scroll, depicting the growth of world religions from Adam to 1832 in 'Tree of Jesse' style, was presented to our hosts by Professor Daniell and received with enthusiasm.

Friday was spent in Leuven with morning and afternoon lectures and mid-day tour of the town. To me, Peter Auksi 's account of 'Reason and feeling in Tyndale's thought within the context of Religious Controversy, was outstanding, especially regarding Tyndale's emphasis that the 'heart' as well as reason should rule life, e.g. 'repenting heart', 'lowly heart culminating in the call 'to set our hearts on fire to love' both God and humanity. This was reminiscent of the British Library exhibition, 'Let there be Light' in 1994/5, which concluded by affirming that the words of Tyndale's Bible, after 500 years, still 'speak directly to the human heart'.

Another highlight was the afternoon visit to the Library of the Faculty of Theology, where we were able to handle valuable early illuminated and printed polyglot Bibles, maps, etc., as well as seeing an exhibition of Emblematics. (This priceless collection is particularly important to Leuven as the civic library was twice destroyed in the wars of 1913 and 1939.) We visited the computer laboratory where ancient Hebrew and Greek texts are being examined, and saw in action how shared scholarship can unite Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

Saturday was spent in Antwerp, with a visit first to The Rubens House with its beautiful furnishings, leather wall-coverings and Italian Garden. Although extensively renovated, it still retains the atmosphere of a much loved home. After Guido's 'lecture' on the development of the diagonals, we saw Rubens' paintings with fresh eyes, and especially the two triptychs in the Cathedral of Our Lady ('The Raising of the Cross' and 'The Descent from the Cross'). Lunch at 't Hofke, approached through a narrow vinecovered alley near the College Trilinguum, was a fascinating experience. and this was followed by an unforgettable visit to the Plantin-Moretus Museum of Printing. Flower boxes of red pelargoniums graced the front of the building, which surrounded an arcaded courtyard and garden, where box hedges enclosed beds of old style flowers - in Balthasar Moretus' day the majority would have been tulips. The thrill of seeing the ancient printing presses in use was increased when the three youngest members of our party were allowed to operate them. We tried to imagine a crowd of 30-40 people working in that room, setting the type in galleys by candlelight, preparing the paper and ink, and manually operating the heavy presses - the 16th century type was in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Chaldeic, as well as musical notation. We learned that the proof-readers were erudite men, able to correct the text as well as the type. Later, a forge had been established on the top floor (!) in order to experiment with metals in the hope of improving the type. Wonderful examples of early Bibles and musical scores were displayed, while portraits of members of the family, many by Rubens, adorned the walls. Five hundred years later, the Moretus family are still involved, and the family motto 'Labore et Constantia', below a pair of dividers, still applies.

The final morning (Sunday) was spent in Vilvoorde; first we visited the Tyndale Memorial (erected in 1913, and now situated in a small park) and then attended a short service at the Tyndale church, which also has a small Tyndale Museum. Professor Daniell read Hannah's Song in I Samuel 2 from the Tyndale Bible. Belgium was then mourning the paedophile murder victims, with flags flying at half-mast, and Rev. D. Blom challenged us to choose the path of God which leads to Justice and Peace, whatever the cost. Although not mentioning Tyndale's example, we realised that this is what Tyndale had done: he continued his work of translation in faith, in spite of the vicissitudes which culminated in his martyrdom.

To those who had been to Belgium previously with the Tyndale Society, the value of this conference was meeting more of the contributors to the Journal, deepening friendships and making new friends, as well as the 'hands on' opportunities when seeing again the inexhaustible museum treasures, while to the first-time participants, it was also a memorable experience of 'the fellowship of kindred minds'. By the time we had the last lunch together in Brussels, we felt a true family, who members ranged in age from mid-twenties to senior citizens.

We thank our Belgian hosts for their generous hospitality, and if there should be a future opportunity to hear Guido's call to the 'Tyndalians' to gather round his 'red umbrella', be sure not to miss it - the occasion will prove rewarding and enriching (if not relaxing!), and certainly not intimidating.

Eunice Burton

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