Book Reviews

Thomas More (1984) by Richard Marius
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN 0-394-45982-2
When Less is More – What happened when a
Thomas More biographer collided with William Tyndale

It’s healthy for Tyndale Society members to read the historical literature on Sir Thomas More. Much of the material is hagiography, bordering on drivel. One pamphlet in my collection adoringly describes how TM would ‘jump into the ring with both feet’ in his war against heretics. So there you have it – Thomas More as the Smokin’ Joe Frazier of the Reformation!

More often than not, these chroniclers of More’s life make only the briefest of nods in Tyndale’s direction, as if squinting through a keyhole. Some exceptions to the neglect of Tyndale can, however, be found.

A shopping expedition in Autumn 1990 yielded one major discovery at a Washington secondhand bookstore – a biography of Thomas More by Richard Marius, then Director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University (he died in 1999). I read the book over a period of weeks. What I thought worthy but precious back then I find enthralling ten years later. Especially gripping for the Tyndalian is the fact that our hero (that’s Tyndale, not More!) is discussed in some detail within the body of the text, not relegated to the customary footnote.

Not that it’s a satisfactory portrayal by any means. The biography betrays its age in one sentence sure to bring a chuckle to Journal readers (and David Daniell in particular): ‘We lack a good modern edition of [Tyndale’s] works. His books are unread by all but a few specialists, and in the pounding throb of his monumental self-righteousness and viciousness, we are easily hypnotized into a trance of inattention.’

The author’s Tyndale research is efficient but perfunctory, cribbed from Foxe; there are flickers of awareness of Tyndale’s importance, but that’s all. Tyndale’s Biblical vocabulary (‘congregation’ instead of ‘church’, ‘love’ instead of ‘charity’) is, as usual, described as controversial. We get the obligatory references to Tyndale’s diet of boiled meat and ‘small beer’, his shifting surnames and solitary lifestyle, and the author tosses in a nudging remark about the anatomical treatise On the Secrets of Women which Tyndale (hypocritically, Marius implies) preached against.

In short – unlike Thomas More, oft and endlessly exalted for his sociability – William Tyndale comes across as a crosspatch with few friends.

Can this be the same Tyndale who made such a giant impression upon his onlookers during his final captivity in Vilvorde? In any event, Marius contradicts this unflattering depiction with a lovely snippet from WT’s pen; the gospel ‘maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy.’ These words have an irenic quality of sunshine.

Contrast that with a typical quote from More: ‘And for heretics as they be, the clergy doth denounce them. And as they be well worthy, the temporalty doth burn them. And after the fire of Smithfield, hell doth receive them where the wretches burn forever.’

Brimming with Christian charity as always, More’s diatribes drop with a clang, as welcome as a dunning letter from the taxman. As Marius points out, ‘He must have been a terrifying antagonist to helpless men submitted to an inquisition before him, since he had the power to send them to the stake. (…) His own labor was utterly single-minded and not mitigated by any mercy or tolerance. Heretics were enemies of God, servants of Satan, minions of hell, and beyond all that, they were usually lower-class, people without roots resolved to root out the grand old faith which was the only guarantee of meaning in the universe. More believed that they should be exterminated…’

It’s hard to put a rosy complexion on that, but Marius does his best. His agenda is to depict his subject as a man of his time, flawed but nonetheless unique – a one-of-a-kind individual. Trouble is, Thomas More is not that special. He is an instantly recognizable figure to those who work within a large bureaucratic structure; the pillar of the organization, the master of the rulebook, long secure in his post but soon toppled by events and newcomers, launching a backstabbing rearguard action in a doomed effort to reclaim lost ground.

Leaving Tyndale aside, what can we say about the Marius biography as a whole? What is its relevance to contemporary audiences? Recently elevated to the status of patron saint of politicians, More is seldom out of fashion, lionized in the press for his ‘principles’ and his willingness to stand up to the mighty. Whether these encomiums hold water is, of course, another story.

Marius’s biography is notable for its historical prologue, methodically evoking pre-Reformation England, its secure orthodoxy twitched and rippled by anti-clerical undercurrents, Lollardy, et cetera. This patient scene-setting is needed to make More (and his stupefying medieval sensibilities) more understandable and sympathetic to the secular reader, to show the saint in the most favorable light.

In other words, Marius is a fan, though an honest one; there is no gainsaying More’s love of letters, his careful nourishment of daughter Meg’s classical education (the sign of a proud and demanding father, rather than of any proto-feminist, of course). Marius is right to train the spotlight on More’s ambivalence toward Papal authority; this man was no lapdog of Rome.

But give credit to the biographer; he’s studied the whole record, and paints a warts-and-all picture despite himself. His willingness to confront the despicable gives the squeamish Tyndalian Society member the incentive needed to soldier on to the end.

And what a sorry tale it is. You’ll find an entire chapter devoted to TM’s heresy-baiting (including the interrogation of John Tewksbury), and the text conveys a sense that the later More, while important, was less vital to Reformation history than is commonly imagined. And in one killer sentence – ‘More could make arguments for positions he did not entirely agree with and much of his life is hard to interpret because we do not know when to take him seriously and when not’ – the whole cult of More as a man of backbone comes crashing to the floor. You can have principle or you can have double-talk inhabiting a human soul, but not both side by side.

In one extraordinary paragraph, Marius refers to More’s abstract support for an English Bible, praises him as a coiner of pithy English sayings, casting him perhaps as a soulmate to Tyndale. Marius may even have been wishing that More had tackled The Big Job by himself.

‘When [More] translated scripture into English himself, as he did in his English works, he did it well. We have noted that his style was much like Tyndale’s – simple rather than “augmented”, cadenced, and direct. Though he had no Hebrew, he did know Greek, and he may have been the only Catholic scholar in England both utterly committed to the old faith and capable of giving his countrymen an orthodox translation of the New Testament to rival Tyndale's heretical version.’

Clearly, hope and self-delusion are the stock-in-trade of More biographers.

What of More’s employer? Modern-day Tudor historians find their sensibilities offended by Henry VIII’s burly behavior, his love of blood sports, military bombast, basic social conservatism, and non-PC treatment of women.

Marius is especially squeamish about the Tudor monarch. Examples of Henry’s behavior cited in Thomas More, however, struck this reviewer as hilarious; as the King’s Great Matter races to a head (Thomas More’s head!), Henry forces his Lord Chancellor to deliver a very public speech on the subject, a slap at More’s inner convictions. Marius sees this as oafish bullying. On another occasion, Henry ‘asks’ More to squire around town one Simon Grinaeus, a Zwinglian heretic visiting London under safe-conduct; Marius glosses over this request, but surely it is a delicious example of royal multitasking, with Henry reminding More who was boss and rubbing his nose in it, while also maintaining surveillance over a potentially troublesome foreign element.

A word about style. Marius was American, and his unstuffy New-World prose adds to the reader’s enjoyment. No British academic would dare to describe the Cranmer/Cromwell interrogation of Elizabeth Barton (the ‘Nun of Kent’) as a good-cop, bad-cop routine; but Marius does, and the image is clear, vivid, and effective.

In conclusion, for Tyndalians there can be no such thing as a perfect Thomas More biography. But this is a grand one, beyond a doubt.

Neil L. Inglis,

New evidence of Tyndale as a model, and a puzzle

As well as promoting a learned ministry, the sixteenth-century English reformers were dedicated to encouraging the use of the mother tongue in translations of the bible, in church services, and in preaching. To help preachers, they were keen to promote English books which would teach the ancient art and craft of rhetoric. (In the first decades of the century, the most popular, Erasmus’s De Copia, a school text, though brilliant, was, like all others, in Latin).

The English rhetoricians hold up the English Bible as a model. What has always been considered the first, and well known, Thomas Wilson’s The Art of Rhetorique, was published in 1553 at the end of the reign of Edward 6. In this volume, his first Book (of two), about the civilising effect of rhetoric, has two threads among others, one of biblical references and one of the use of rhetoric for plain preaching – with a strong appeal to moving the hearers. Protestant English sermons were very popular, as the massive holdings of a library like the Bodleian show. Large numbers indicate a market. Thomas Wilson is full of the English Bible, giving stories as big examples of how to do it, knowing that his readers will follow and learn from the way the English Bible does it.

There has just come into print for the first time Thomas Swynnerton’s manuscript The tropes and figures of Scripture, dedicated to Thomas Cromwell probably in 1537–38, but clearly intended for a larger audience. Swynnerton was apparently a reforming cleric who had studied at Wittenberg and, back in England, incurred the ire of Thomas More by marrying. He was later in the circle of Thomas Cromwell, and in demand as a preacher. His manuscript book was re-published in 1999 as A Reformation Rhetoric: Thomas Swynnerton’s ‘The tropes and figures of Scripture’, edited by Richard Rex (Cambridge: Renaissance Text from Manuscript, 1999. ISBN 1 93092 00 0). Here is the true book of rhetoric in English, and it is all about Tyndale’s bible translations as models. Swynnerton tells the reader to look further into the writing of ‘Master William Tyndale’.

The modern editor, however, the Cambridge Early Modern historian Richard Rex, can only bring himself to mention Tyndale in three or four footnotes as the writer of other works. Rex’s introductory account of Scripture is mostly about Augustine, to some extent understandably, given the subject; but his lengthy enthusiasm for Church politics, yet total silence about the new English translations which Swynnerton quotes liberally as rhetorical examples, is more than bizarre. Swynnerton’s sixth chapter ends, ‘Every man hathe a Testament in his hand, wolde to God in his harte’. In 1537 that Testament had to be Tyndale’s. (A defective Coverdale New Testament of the time is of unknown date). Why not tell us about it? Though the book is about how to learn from the rhetorical power of the Bible so recently in English, not a single word about the Bible in English does Richard Rex write. It is good to have this book in print, but the attitude of the editor is very strange.

David Daniell