Tyndale and the Ordeal of Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481)

Anne Richardson

In an unusual phase of his career, Tyndale based part of his saturnine church history of 1530, The Practice of Prelates, on Liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum ( The Lives of the Popes) of Bartolomeo Platina.[1] He probably read this 1479 work in its posthumous 1530 edition. We typically think of Tyndale as influenced in his independent writings by northern humanists and reformers. Platina, however, was not only an Italian and a southern humanist but also a papal Christian and member of two curias and – except for a calamitous interregnum which we shall look at – on excellent terms with the papacy. His achievements include, besides the Lives, a book on cooking that topped the European market for decades, a favourite with Erasmus. Alive to the emergent print technology, Platina has been designated the first historian in the West to see his works in print.[2] At the end of his life, he performed a glorious tour of duty as Vatican librarian. Sleek and prosperous, ensconced in the papal establishment, what did he have to say to our passionate northern fugitive?

Tyndale’s debt to Platina may, actually, be immense: no less than the entire structural idea of Prelates as chronological annals of the Church. With this came the opportunity – the need – to distinguish between individual popes. For example, we find Tyndale praising Pope St. Sylvester I (pont. 314-335) as “so holy a man” that he would not have accepted the supposed Donation of Constantine even had it been offered him (PS2: 279).[3] A figure like Sylvester would not be tolerated in the intellectual atmosphere of The Obedience of a Christian Man of 1528, in which “the pope,” regardless of who occupies the office, is a generic wellspring of evil.

Another reason for the importance of the Lives to Tyndale is the way Platina handles his material. Where he has been able to obtain proper documents, his work is both weighty and lively; these qualities stand out even in the deteriorating 1898 reprint of the 1685 anonymous, abridged translation in which the Lives are still exclusively available in English. When Tyndale introduces Platina, anonymously, as “A certain writer of stories” (PS2: 254), it is important to note that “stories” means histories, not myths or anecdotes. Platina’s Lives are true histories, brimfull of armed conflicts, factional schemings, foreign and domestic achievements, art and architecture, fumbles and disasters, served up with deft humanist touches. He speaks dismissively of “those perverse sort of heretics who say there never was any true vicar of Christ since Peter, but who had imitated Christ’s poverty” (Lives, 2: 284). This amounts to a mild, liberal affirmation of the papacy’s right to existence – to solvency--its obverse being a freedom to point out bad administrators and bad characters where they are to be found. Indeed, Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the Lives, urged the latter kind of frankness.

In this brief introduction to Platina’s presence in Prelates, it would be unwieldy to try to rehearse all the closely woven details of influence. Tyndale uses Platina’s material principally from fourteen pontificates of the seventh through tenth centuries. The Lives is a moralized history; and Tyndale paraphrases, or directly quotes from Platina’s Latin, reflections such as, “Moreover, it was the custom even then, saith the author, to ask what the bishopric was worth,” not how many sheep its shepherd must care for (PS2: 255; Lives, 1: 142). Or: “from this time [the collapse of Lewis the Mild’s reign] hitherto perished the power of the emperors and the virtue of the popes, saith Platina, in the life of popes” (PS 2: 267; Lives, 1: 236-237).

Platina’s thinking seems to have effected some changes in Tyndale’s political expressions. Platina, who had started out in life, improbably, as a mercenary soldier, assumed that emperors and princes – and popes – must engage in war. He was an adult in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks; and his respected friend, Pope Pius II, died in a massive attempt to muster Europe against the Ottoman Empire. Tyndale, who had said in 1528 in The Obedience of a Christian Man that desiring “to kill a Turk, to slay a Jew” is one of the “bloody imaginations” we suck in with our mother’s milk (PS1: 166; Daniell, 29), in 1530 takes on board Platina’s position that military action of church and state to ward off “Mahomet” is tenable. He borrows from Platina on a situation in the pontificate of Boniface V in 619-25:

The prelates gaped when the laymen would take the war upon them against the Turks; and the laymen looked when the prelates would lay out their money, to make the war withal, and not spend it on worse use, as the most part of them were wont to do; spending the money that was gotten with alms and blood of martyrs upon goodly plate, and great vessels of gold and silver, without care of things to come, despising God, whom they worshiped for their belly’s sake only, and also man (PS2: 254-5; Lives, 1: 146).

Prelatical greed is a “worse use” of resources: is warfare against the Turk an acceptable use? When Tyndale returns to his own unborrowed voice in the Answer to More in 1531, he prescribes loving behaviour towards an individual Turk (PS3: 7-8; O’Donnell, 7).[4] Perhaps for Tyndale the two ways of thinking were not mutually exclusive.

As well as literary riches, Platina’s Lives presented Tyndale with a biographical theme he could identify with: defiance of the religious authority and the cost of such defiance. Says the pope, as dramatized in the Obedience: “[T]orment them [heretical suspects] craftily, and for very pain make them deny the truth” (PS1: 233; Daniell, 89). Whether Platina sounded the note of torture for Tyndale depends on whether Tyndale read the last two lives in Platina’s book, or was otherwise aware of Platina’s life story.

In the last two pontificates he records, those of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pius II, pont. 1458-1464) and of Peter Barbo (Paul II, pont. 1464-1471) Platina’s personal presence is felt to a remarkable degree. In Paul II’s life, he is, effectively, the protagonist. In the life of Pius II, he is there by implication in its affectionate details, such as his account of the pope’s daily regimen and a Boswellian list of his witty sayings (Lives, 2: 269-271, 273). Pius’s wit finds its way, dangerously, into the life of Paul II:

..Peter Barbo was naturally fair-spoken, and could feign good nature, when occasion served. But he was sometimes so mean-spirited, that when he could not obtain what he aimed at by praying, entreating, and requesting, he would join tears to his petitions to make them the sooner believed. And therefore Pope Pius used sometimes to call him the godly Mary, by way of joke (Lives, 2: 276).

We can picture Platina laughing at this sobriquet, and repeating it to others in gregarious gaiety, oblivious of its lethality to his position when, after Pius’s death at Ancona, Barbo was unexpectedly chosen as his successor on the first ballot.[5] The ensuing near-mortal hostilities between Platina and Paul II give the life of Paul a gripping, if structurally unbuttoned, quality.

Platina and Paul first collided in 1464, with respect to the college of abbreviators, a group of expert Latinists (“humanists,” by contemporary definition) who oversaw the drafting and final form of papal correspondence. Paul rescinded Pius II’s expansion and bicameral restructuring of this body, firing all his new appointees, who included Platina. When the latter protested, asking that the case be referred democratically to a court of mediation, Paul said, sternly, ‘Do you . . . refer me to judges, as if you were ignorant that all the laws were laid up in my breast? . . . I am Pope, and I may do as I please, either in rescinding or approving the acts of others’ (Lives, 2: 278). To this declaration of papal inerrancy and sovereignty, Platina responded by organizing a quattrocento equivalent of a sit-in, joining with other dismissed abbreviators outside Paul’s reception chamber during all practicable hours and petitioning for an audience. When they were ignored, Platina wrote an unbalanced letter threatening to appeal to various European princes for a church council to be convened to challenge Paul’s act. This, for a labour dispute! Paul’s response to this insubordination was to place Platina, weighed down with “massy chains,” in a tower open to the elements for four winter months, until a friend in the powerful Gonzaga family obtained his release (Lives, 2: 279).

For the second act of this drama, we shift to a different group, the young intellectuals in the Roman Academy Platina helped found. A rumour reached Paul that these men were conspiring to assassinate him.[6] He summoned Platina to his bedchamber and questioned him in a hysterical fashion. “He being negligently dressed and looking pale, urged me still, and sometimes threatened me with torments and sometimes with death unless I would confess” (Lives, 2: 286-87). Platina says he answered him “fearlessly” because he was innocent. Perhaps there was pertness in his tone. For after this personal interrogation, Paul had Platina – as the prime suspect-- and some twenty other men tortured. Platina’s report of this experience pulls out all the stops, complete with the horrid papal favourite, Vianesius, seated on a tapestry chair, mixing his interrogations with a banal conversation with one Sanga, about a jewel a girl had given him. Banality, an irritant added to pain, is a common torturer’s tool. The story is ennobled, beyond its horror and grotesqueness, by Platina’s naming of the young man who died under the torture, and of his kind cell-mates, a father and son, who helped him with food and “physic” when his hands and forearms were disabled by the rack (Lives, 2: 288-89).

Tragedy gave way to farce when Paul, satisfied that there was no conspiracy, was faced with the difficulty posed by a look of papal “levity” in a toobrief imprisonment. He kept the men in prison ten months, troubling Platina with abortive accusations of heresy and of inordinate valuation of the pagan classics (Lives, 2: 291). Platina, living obscurely after release, survived Paul; and was showered with blessings by Pope Sixtus IV, including (apparently) the permission to digress, at points in The Lives of the Popes, with remarks that put Paul in a ludicrous light.

In the Obedience Tyndale speaks out against torture, which, in tandem with the threat of purgatory, comprised the violent foundation of the pope’s power over Christians. For him and his people, the pope is an absentee tyrant who “cometh never at us” (PS 1: 211; Daniell, 72), deploying his violent machinery at a transalpine remove. This is a contrast with the vivid proximity of Platina’s pope in his bedchamber. Platina and his friends managed not to deny the truth: they were not persuaded to confess what they were not guilty of. Did Tyndale read Platina’s story – admittedly not of a religious martyr, but of a cashiered humanist--and did it reinforce his sense that he could suffer clerical violence? As early as The Parable of the Wicked Mammon he hazarded a violent death for himself (PS1: 44). Did reading Platina aid his playing the torture card, as it can be termed, in his message to Henry VIII and Cromwell in 1531? In that instance, he was offered a safeconduct to come to England; it was rumoured that he was being considered for a seat on the Privy Council; all the terminology was gentle and respectful. His reply, conveyed by Stephen Vaughan, was not an impolite prediction that the English authorities would rescind his safe-conduct – like Hus’s at Constance--once he put himself into their hands. Instead, he called their bluff in his immortal bargain: in exchange for the king’s permission for a vernacular Bible, “be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his majesty,” he would “most humbly submit [himself] at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this be obtained.” Did the experience of the man he introduced as “a certain writer of stories” help him clarify his resolve?


[1]The Latin text of Platina’s Liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum (Venice: J. de Colonia and J. Manthen, 1479) was edited by Giacinto Gaida for the series Rerum italicarum scriptores, vol. 3, pt. 1 (Citta di Castello: 1913-1933). The only English translation available – an abridgment lacking Platina’s preface and the introductory life of Christ – was done “by an unknown hand” and published in 1685 by Sir Paul Rycaut (London: printed for Christopher Wilkinson, Wing STC# 2403) with Rycaut’s updated history of the papacy to his own day. The only reprint of that translation – without Rycaut’s update, thus ending with Platina’s last completed life, that of Paul II – appears in The Lives of the Popes, ed. W. Benham, The Ancient and Modern Library of Theological Literature, 2 vols. (London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh, 1898).
[2]Denys Hay, Annalists and Historians: Western Historiography from the Eighth to the Eighteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1977), 105.
[3]Tyndale’s works are cited by volume numbers in the Parker Society edition: PS1, Doctrinal Treatises ... 1848; PS2, Expositions and Notes ... 1849; PS3, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue ... 1850. In addition, page references are provided to David Daniell’s edition of The Obedience of a Christian Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000 – “Daniell”) and to An Answere vnto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge, ed. Anne M. O’Donnell, S.N.D. and Jared Wickes, S.J., The Independent Works of William Tyndale 3 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000 – “O’Donnell”).
[4]I am indebted for this discussion to Clare M. Murphy, “The Turks in More and Tyndale,” in Word, Church and State: Tyndale Quincentenary Essays, ed. John T. Day, Eric Lund, and Anne M. O’Donnell, S.N.D. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 231-33.
[5]J.N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1986), 249.
[6]As A. J. Dunston points out in “Pope Paul II and the Humanists,” Journal of Religious History 7 (1973), 306, no-one was convicted of the supposed conspiracy, even under torture. But many scholars believe that there could have been a genuine conspiracy: see Richard J. Palermino, “The Roman Academy, the Catacombs, and the Conspiracy of 1468,” Archivum Historiae Pontificae 18 (1980): 117-55. Mary Ella Milham, in Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health: A Critical Edition a nd Translation of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine [the famous cookbook] (Tempe, Arizona: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies,1998), 23, even suggests that the absence of official records of the enterprise could be explained by Platina’s having destroyed them in his eventual capacity as librarian of the Vatican.

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