Puns, Proverbs, and Expurgations

At a time when we are assured that neither the writer nor the reader can be certain of what the other is reading or writing, I take perverse pleasure in celebrating a man who knew what he wanted to say and was not afraid to say it in a way he felt sure that anyone who knew how to read could understand.[1] Our politicians strive each day for quotable quotes, one liners or less; William Tyndale was in hiding for his life, but shouting back volumes to England or, at least, writing his responses to Thomas More and less articulate but equally dangerous opponents. Tyndale’s ‘soundbites’ bit. He knew his more telling ripostes would be repeated. These were all part of his tactics against those non-­believers in free speech, to push his phrase, ‘the powers that be’ (Romans 13. 1). Tyndale wrote and spoke freely, at times vulgarly, but always deliberately. Just as Shakespeare could never resist a quibble, Tyndale could never resist a pun, especially at the expense of pompous people who treasured their titles. As the late Mr. Richard Sylvester, an egregious example of a scholar not wrapped up in titles, advised one of his Yale-More-Tyndale students, ‘Whenever possible, assume it’s a pun.’ Proverbs were Tyndale’s way of resorting to folk wisdom against the ponderous Latin maxims of the theologians. Those often ponderous churchmen were also good targets for Tyndale’s vulgarities which frequently were blue-lined or whatever the equivalent of censorship from the sixteenth century to the Victorian age. Tyndale was politically correct only when he happened to attack the political­-ecclesiastical foe of a political power such as the King of England. Of course, that didn’t last long because Tyndale would not keep his mouth shut nor his pen still.


Anne Richardson, a scholar quick to notice attitudinizing in high places, contemporary or historical, called my attention to Tyndale’s combination puns in The Obedience of a Christian Man, ‘bisshaps’ for bishops cum ‘mishap’, and the ‘bisshop of Rochester’s divininite’, divinity plus ‘ninny’.[2] Today’s bishops, with rare exceptions for cardinal sins, are not the cynosures they were for previous generations of high church, low church, or no church, but for Tyndale’s England, or even the Continent of his refuge, they had power and everyone acknowledged it, even while making a joke of it. We might feel that Tyndale is straining with ‘bishaps’ and ‘divininite’, but bishops are blamed by Tyndale as easily as my neighbours in South Carolina blame the federal government.

What is it that annoys us about others punning on our words? It may be, if we have a good sense of humour, our resentment at not getting there first rather than our disdain of such easy humour. But more annoying is that our words are not taken seriously by the punster. Falstaff’s response to Prince Hal’s request for a ‘reason’, that is a rational explanation of his palpable lies, is to denigrate reason or rational discourse: ‘If reasons (raisins) were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason on compulsion’ (Henry IV, ll.iv.237-238). If Hal’s request were for raisins, they are as cheap and plentiful as are reasons for the defenders of the status quo, those in power. ‘God save thy Grace - Majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none’ (I.ii 17-18) was Falstaff’s response to the barrage of Hal’s criticism for his alleged lust, gluttony, and sloth. Shakespeare’s character, however, shows more respect for the ‘Lord's Anointed’, than does Tyndale. Tyndale has a pope, ready to have heretics burned, torturing his cohorts with his puns: ‘If they be of mine anointed, and bear my mark, disgrace them, (I would say disgraduate them,)’ (PS 1:233).[3] Richardson hears ‘dis­grease’ here, that is from the holy oils. Disgraduate means to take out of holy orders, literally, Tyndale’s imaginary pope explains, by cutting off heads and pulling out fingernails, painfully bringing them down a step or two in size. Truly horrible puns, but perfectly suited to the image of a cruel and totally depraved inquisitor!

After the Bishop of London rejected his ‘grant request’ for his Bible translation project, Tyndale had another reason to dislike bishops in general. But Cardinal Wolsey, the bishop of bishops, was even easier to dislike; he becomes ‘Wolfsee, raging see and shipwrecke of all England’ in the Practyse of Prelates (sig. G4-G4v).[4] In Tyndale’s Exposition of 1 John (76/8) he is the more obvious wolf to his episcopal see rather than episcopus, overseer or shepherd watching with crosier or staff in hand to guide his flock.[5] The pun here is not funny but a deadly serious description of what Tyndale considers a sad state of affairs. Again, as C.S. Lewis suggested, the powerless fight back with the only weapons left them, their words. Wolfsee or Wolsey’s recent death (1529), hastened by a purgative administered by physicians, is referred to in 1531 as a ‘shitten death’ (76/9). A version of mercy killing had become a source of low humour.

Because it does not follow Tyndale’s original 1531 commentary on 1 John, but the heavily censored 1537-38 editions, the first published in England, the Parker Society edition of the Exposition of 1 John omits the description of Wolsey’s death as well as Tyndale’s gloating piece of gossip, ‘as the sayenge is his own seruantes which before exalted his glories have sent to hell with grace & priuilege (76/10-1 1).[6] Tyndale’s caustic irony has thus been in hiding for almost a century and a half of readers. Here is more of Tyndale’s triumphing over the fallen Wolsey: ‘Hym whiche of late for al his exaltinge his throne and sweringe by his hie honoure and for al the worship of his hat and glories of his precious shoes when he was payned with the colicke of an euel conscience hauynge no nother shifte bycause his soule coulde fynde in nother issue toke hym selfe a medecine ut emitteret spiriturn per posteriora’ (70/18-71/3). Note the self-censorship, especially ironic because it is in Latin, the weapon of the clerical powers. The Parker Society edition describes the censored passages, also omitted from the first editions of this work printed in England but not from John Daye’s 1573 edition, as ‘a contemptuous account of Cardinal Wolsey’s death’ (PS 2 174).

Having been alerted to Tyndale’s preference for word play over sword play against the powerful, readers note the edge of irony in his Exposition of 5, 6, 7, Matthew. There he asserts that a man can preach without prosecution if he doesn't ‘medle with’ popes, bishops, prelates and ‘holy gostlye people that live in contemplation and solitariness, ner with greate men of the world’ (62/14-15). Stephen Mayer notes that ‘holy gostlye’ is not a pair of adjectives but a single one ‘describing those who rely upon “their holy goost” rather than the Bible for counsel’ (403 ).[7] ‘Worke men’ for those who put their faith in good works (Obedience, R1), works the same way. The sixteenth century editors of Tyndale’s work provide cautionary examples for his twentieth and twenty-first century editors of missing Tyndale’s jokes: ‘popery’ becomes ‘popetrie’, a sixteenth century spelling of ‘puppetry’ in ‘oure most holye father, al ys (his) supersticiouse popetrie’.[8] The 1549 and 1573 editions both emend to ‘poperye’, missing the fun, as most editors do. In Tyndale’s Exposition of 1 John, ‘pope’ is emended by what we have to assume to be English editors to ‘Bishop of Rome’, or a variation thereof in keeping with the 1533 decree of the King’s Council.[9] When Tyndale ironically bows ‘with our holy father’s licence euer ‘Holy’ is also dropped by the 1537-8 editors who missed the joke because they were too busy observing the law. Every punster knows not when to stop, however: ‘soche are the lawes of their unchast I wolde say their awne chast father’ definitely flops. Mayer comments that a pun with an explanation ‘doesn’t work as well’ (470). Late night TV comedians understand this all too well. More effective for its sardonic smile is Tyndale’s reference to how ‘that glerynge foxe moare [i.e. Thomas More] and moare hardened his harte’ (Exposition of 5, 6, 7 Matthew 208/9-10).

Tyndale’s puns fit easily into the argumentative yet down-to-earth address to the reader, his prologue to the first book of Moses. ‘Amend’ my text ‘if ought were found amisse’, he notes with his typically generous interest in good translations, but it is not possible for them to ‘amend their lives’.[10] Tyndale here complains that there was ‘no rowme in my lorde of London’s palace to translate the new testament’, hitting on office or place on the bishop’s ‘payroll’, but also on the idea of elbow room to work. The denial of support in England led him to the confines of the Low Country where he nevertheless had real and spiritual space to work. But the ‘whoops, I slipped folks’ tone slips in with ‘our praters, I should say our preachers’ and ‘aduouryes’ or adulterers for advocates (Exposition of I John, 55/3-4). ‘Chopological’ for tropological (Obedience, 0, R 1 v) is even more painful.

Still, the pun endures, almost infectiously, while other stylistic devices are abandoned. David Daniell, writing on Tyndale, Roye, Joye and Copyright, puns on scriptural harmony as ‘both sui generis and above all Dei generis’.[11] We groan, but also smile with pleasure. A few sentences later Daniell has ‘the intellectual children of Erasmus engaged in the most copious forms of copia’. Nor are American Tyndale scholars immune. In the same volume, James Andrew Clark uses Tyndale’s own image of the boiling pot cleansing a brew: ‘His translation is a boiling pot’, Clark concludes, ‘even a potboiler’.[12] Add your own commentary on William Tyndale’s contagious influence on his late twentieth century editors and commentators.

One more word of caution to Tyndale editors: when I was glossing Exposition of 1 John, I noted that ‘wordly’ was but a variant spelling of ‘worldly’ (114/6). It is, sometimes, but John Dick demonstrates that ‘wordly’ here can mean the unspiritual use of words.[13] (‘Wordly’ for ‘worldly’ even occurs as a typo in William Tyndale and the Law. Talk about influence!) Dick also illuminates ‘superarogancia’, Tyndale’s Latinate pun on supererogation, works winning extra merit which merits were to be doled out by the pope as pardons from purgatory, as practically the only instance in the Mammon of humour.[14] I will spare my audience more Tyndale puns I and others have found, in order to cover up my omissions of his jokes and jibes I have missed.


A question: would a ploughboy be any more moved by William Tyndale’s use of a proverb than, say, an eighteenth century apprentice by Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac? An unscientific survey of Tyndale’s works indicates that proverbs are more popular than puns, but they blend in perfectly with his attempt to win popular support for his translations and anti-establishment opinions. But, like Polonius and Poor Richard, Tyndale feels that proverbs are good teaching devices, fulfilling a basic writing purpose, instructing and entertaining at the same time.

Proverbs are at bottom ‘plain speech’. What does one do to raise children properly? How do animals, the sea, the day and night behave? Can we learn from them? Has the accretion of power in an institution resulted in the institutionalization of unreasonable, unnatural, and unnecessary ways of behaviour? ‘As when we say of a wanton childe this sheep hat maggots in his tail, he must be anointed with birch salve which speech I borrow of the shepherds’ is the example Tyndale gives in the Obedience of an ‘allegory ... strange speaking or borrowed speach’ (245). But even when scripture (or by extension, Tyndale himself?) uses ‘proverbs, similitudes, redels or allegories as all other speaches do, but that which the proverbe, similitude, or allegory signifieth is ever the literall sence’ (245). The sea rising or the danger of cutting a bough one stands on are given as examples of ‘borowed speech’, but as he lectures on the theory of using proverbs, Tyndale gets in his punches. ‘The Byshope hath blessed it’, ‘the byshoppe hath put his foot in the potte or the byshope hath played the coke [cook]’ (Obedience 246) remind me of troubling words in the southern United States: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’

An example of a story that may exist on the borders of the proverbial occurs early in the Exposition of 1 John where Tyndale talks about the deliberate misuse of scriptural interpretations, like ‘the tale of the boy that wold fayn haue eaten of the pastie of the lampres (i.e. lamprey eel pie) but durst not vnto the belles sang vnto hym’ (11/24). I could locate no source for the story, but it rings proverbial. Richardson notes that Tyndale may have made up some of his proverbs that never made it into the standard reference works.[15] No matter: ‘of him that is betrayed and woteth not how, we saye he hath bene at shrifte’ (Obedience 246) sounds right and makes its point. So, Tyndale insists, does scripture. When he gets upset at Joye’s plagiarism, he accuses him of ‘play[ing] bo pepe with the translations before him’ and ruining it for everyone but himself as the foxe when he hath pyssed in the grayes hole chalengeth it for his awne’.[16] As Daniell puts it so well, Roye ‘is messing about’ with Tyndale’s work, and, much worse, the word of God. The effectiveness and the enduring quality of proverbs is apparent to any serious sports fan. As my beloved mentor in editing, Richard Sylvester, once remarked to me duing a coffee break, ‘Throwing a fast ball past [an aging] Willie Mays [b.1931, superb baseball player -Ed.] is like pissing on the altar.’ Proverbs work, putting things succinctly, in Tyndale’s day and our own.


Mayer describes the following passage in the Exposition of 5, 6, 7 Matthew as a bit of coarse humour ‘And of fayth they have no nother experience, save that it is a lytle meritoriouse where it is paynfull to be beleued As that Christ was borne of a virgyne, and that he came not out the waye that other children doo: fye no, that were a great inconuenyence but above vnder her arme and yett made no hoale though he had a verey natural bodye as other men haue’ (270/21-271/2). The 1537 edition omits this passage, no doubt influenced by the Ten Articles of 1533. Mis-editing is mis-appropriation, not only by Roye but by the anonymous editor of the first edition printed in England of the Exposition of 1 John where words are added, perhaps to give a feeling of making the work his own. But those changes are minor compared to the omissions from the 1536 and 1538 editions of that work, such as Tyndale’s nasty notes about Wolsey’s death. So also were references, not so thinly veiled, to King Henry’s venereal disease (45/13-15) and to his ‘little lust’ (101/15-17). A passage at the end of the work mentioning John Wycliffe and the charges against that earlier Bible translator and reformer, and a quote, in translation and in a favourable light I might add, from Thomas More’s Utopia were also cut in 1537 and 1538, but not in Daye’s 1573 edition. Somewhat more puzzling is the omission of Tyndale’s proverb, ‘as bare as Job and as bald as a coot’ from the 1537 edition of the Exposition of 1 John.

In the Obedience, Tyndale reminds the bishops that ‘to preach is their duty only and not to offer their fete to be kissed or testicles or stones to be groped’ (28 5). The joke is censored for readers of the Parker Society text, which omits the alternative to foot kissing (PS 1:285). The editor notes that ‘a coarse expression, originating with the once popularly credited story of pope Joan, is here omitted’ (PSI: 285). I wonder how many readers of Tyndale in the last century and a half have scurried to the more authoritative ancient unexpurgated text of this passage. At least in this case, they would have been rewarded with a laugh at the expense of a series of popes who had proven their virility long before any last minute verification by the college of electors.[17]Si non e vero e bene trovato’.

Even when Tyndale is more serious about sex, in a simple theological discussion, he is regarded as crude by his nineteenth century editor. In the Exposition of 5,6, 7 Matthew he denies that marital sex is just an alternative to burning with lust, ‘to marry for fear of fornication’ (260/12-13). The act of matrimony, insists Tyndale, still a relatively young man, should be received with thanks, like our daily bread: ‘Moreouer as concerninge the acte of Matrimonye, as when thou wilt eate, thou blessest god and receauest thy dayle food of hys hande accordinge to the fourthe petition of thy pater noster and knowlegest that hit is his gyfte, and thankest him, beleuynge his worde, that he hath creted it for the to receaue with thankes ...’ (260/20-261/5). Tyndale goes on to re-create a prayer of thanks, apparently from the husband, at the gift of married love. At the end of the passage ‘Now is thy worke thorow this fayth and thankes pleasaunt and acceptable in the syght of God. And so was the genderinge of Iacob in fayth, and of Samuel, and manye other. And the geuinge suche was a good worke’ (261/16-19). Even if ‘oure ladye had been commanded by God to conceive of Joseph or some other man, had not that worke done in obedience and fayth, ben as good a worke’ (262/4-5). What could be simpler, more straightforward, more innocent or more proper in discussing the consummation of married love? Not for the editor, who cuts some 26 lines with a note that ‘The next illustration has been omitted as turning upon a subject too indelicate for profitable contemplation’ (PS2: 125, v. 44). Was it the prayer of thanks before intercourse, a reference to nursing, or the possible command to Our Lady? No matter, the nineteenth century editor draws the curtain discreetly. The forthcoming complete Independent Works of William Tyndale, being published by the Catholic University of America, will not, I trust, make anyone blush at Tyndale’s frankness.

If the only writing William Tyndale did was to translate the Bible, his birth and life would be well worth our gathering and celebrating. If his sole accomplishments were as a controversialist and reformer, he must still be remembered. But simply as a writer with a sense of the power of humour, the playfulness of language, the utility of proverbs, and the unembarrassed truth telling of down-to­earth imagery, he deserves our applause and toasts as a great ‘English-man’.

Donald J. Millus, School of Humanities,
Coastal Carolina University, Conway, SC 29526
E-mail: Millus@Coastal.Edu


  1. This paper was originally presented at the Washington, D.C. conference on William Tyndale: Church, State, and Word held in 1994 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Tyndale’s birth. It was read from the stage of The Folger Shakespeare Library which, along with The Catholic University of America, was a major sponsor of the event.
  2. The Parker Society edition silently emended numerous Tyndalean puns, as here. Cf., for example, The Obedience of a Christian Man in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures. Ed. Henry Waiter, The Parker Society 42, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1848, 209. Cited as ‘PS V’ Also cf. Anne Richardson, ed. ‘A Critical Edition of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man.’ Diss Yale U, 1976, University Microfilms, 76-29, 182. Cited as ‘Obedience’.
  3. Cited by Richardson, ‘William Tyndale and the Bill of Rights’ in William Tyndale and the Law, vol. XXV, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 22.
  4. The practyse of Prelates. Antwerp, 1530.
  5. All references to The exposition of the fyrste Epistle of seynt Ihon are to my critical edition available at http://ww2.coastal.edu/millus/note.htm or as Diss. Yale U, 1973. University Microfilms, 74­.
  6. Cf. Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of the Holy Scripture Together with the Practyse of Prelates. Edited by Henry Walter Parker Society, vol. 43. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1849. Cited as ‘PS 2’.
  7. Stephen Mayer, ed. ‘A Critical Edition of An exposicion vppon the v. vi. vii chapters of Matthew by William Tyndale’. Diss. Yale U, 1975 University Microfilms, 76-13, 2 10. Cited as ‘Exposition of 5, 6, 7 Matthew’.
  8. Mayer, 439, note to 177/12.
  9. Cf Millus, ‘Tyndale on the First Epistle of Saint John’, Moreana XIII, no. 52, 1976, 39-40.
  10. Preface to The Five Books of Moses, John Daye, London, 1573, Cl.
  11. In William Tyndale and the Law, vol. XXV of Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 100-101.
  12. Norm and License in New Testament Translation, 67.
  13. ‘A Critical Edition of William Tyndale’s The Parable of the Wicked Mammon’. Diss. Yale U, 1974. University Microfilms, 75-135 1. Cited as ‘Mammon’.
  14. Dick, Mammon, ‘Introduction’, xcviii.
  15. Richardson, unpublished letter, November, 1993.
  16. ‘W.T. to the Reader’, 1827-8 in Tyndale’s New Testament. A modern spelling edition of the 1534 translation with an introduction by David Daniell, New Haven, Connecticut, and London: Yale University Press, 1992. hardbackpaperback
  17. Cf Emmanuel Rhoidis, Pope Joan (the Female Pope): A Historical Study, London: George Redway, 1886.

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