Wednesday, March 15, 2017

English and Heresy


The traditional tale of the ascendance of English into all its national glory in the wake of Chaucer's great work is -- alas -- far from the whole story. Not only did the substance and structure of English change after his death, but the language itself came under attack from the authorities of both Church and State. With the 1401 act De Hæretico Comburendo ("on the burning of Heretics"), the new King Henry IV, who had grown up hearing Chaucer himself declaim his verse, and whose personal copy of Troylus and Criseyde survives to this day, signed a bill which made the possession of heretical books -- and, by implication, any and all books written in English -- a crime punishable by burning at the stake, a practice heitherto unknown in England. Indeed, the reach of this new law was so broad that, although John Wycliffe, whose advocacy of an English version of the Bible gave his name to its earliest translations, was himself burned at the stake -- even though he had, by that time, been dead for many years; the authorities simply had him exhumed and burned his bones, tossing the ashes in the river Swift (see illustration above).

That Chaucer's own books could be, by this statute, made suspect, is confirmed by the arrest of one John Baron of Agmondesham for the possession of English texts, including a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie," in 1464. But it was not only him; in the early years of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred people across Britain were burned at the stake as "relapsed" heretics (it was a two-strikes-you're-out system). Many were women who had taken up the cause of the English scriptures, only to be arrested and forced to confess, among them Hawisa Moone and Margery Baxter. The Lollards believed that women, too, could be preachers of the Gospel, another strike against them in the eyes of the Church. But there were also men of strong views, including a Buckimghamshire blacksmith who swore he could "make as good a sacrament with my tongs upon my anvil as any priest upon his altar." The blacksmith was among those executed.

The ban on any translation of the Bible into English was extended by the Constitutions of Archbishop Arundel, and lasted until Henry VIII finally permitted -- indeed commanded -- the use of the English Bible in 1539. Ironically, much of the New Testament in this volume was based on the translation of William Tyndale -- a man burnt at the stake on orders from Henry himself. And despite the hope that the availability of Scripture would ease the tensions of the theological debate, they continued unabated; in 1542 Parliament passed a statute attempting to restrict who could read, and who could interpret, the English Bible -- and women (except noblewomen) were specifically excluded.

5 comments:

  1. Horrible. I suppose in todays times maybe consideted irrelevent. Rhetoric and Heresy ...it is sad that people were forced to live so repressed wether or not for proper reasons of thst time frame.

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  2. Interestingly, it is intolerance which can also produce interesting results. After Henry junks the Church, and especially into the years of the English Civil War, you have a proliferation of very interesting religious sects, most of which were not well known. Some of them even went so far as to reject any religious practice, or felt the Bible was actually sent by the devil to fool people.

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  3. I find it so interesting how writing, art, and literature can so frequently come under attack from means like politics, religion, government, etc. To think that arrests were being made over books is slightly comical and incredibly sad. However, these actions clearly influenced the works that followed, which can be seen as somewhat of a silver lining.

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  4. It reminded me of The Giver, how knowledge really is power and how education can build things up or break them down. Government being afraid of the impact of education is nothing new, it's just strange to think of what if this happened today? But yet censorship is a very real thing and happens all the time.

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  5. It's crazy to think that anyone would think its ok to kill someone for owning a book. While it's uncommon now to see someone get burned at the stake for possessing a book, there are still examples of literature being attacked now. There are churches that have issues with children's books because they think it encourages sin or witchcraft.

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