Monday, March 19, 2018

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.

16 comments:

  1. i am confused, did they get punished for studying the english version of the bible? if so, it was very cruel what they would do, if they didn't follow through with their punishment, they would make them go through this very long process just to get probably the first punishment anyways, very tricky

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  2. I noticed that women played a big role in this century. They excluded women from reading the Bible; they also arrested women and made them confess. In the confession of Hawisia Moone, I learned that this woman was arrested and kept in a prison. She confessed that she did not know how to read her documentation. At this time, serious religious beliefs were going on across the villages. Many preachers enjoyed criticizing church beliefs. Eventually, women were excluded from reading the English Bible. Hawisia was able to “swear” to always observe everything in the document. Although Hawisia was able to get through, they mistreated woman more than they mistreated men. - Jaimee Barrett

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    1. I thought it was interesting, also, how important the role of woman are in this. I never would have pictured the impact the laws and customs would have on the woman but how they got treated poorly by everybody. - S. Davis

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    2. this interested me as well, although they barely had any power, they still got the same treatment when they broke a law. they gave women no power, but still tried them as a person who does have power.

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    3. It is kinda of a sick sense of humor the way women were trialed as a person, but gave them no power to begin with. The amount of mistreatment women were shown to have including being arrested and put in prison shows how unfairly they were treated. Even more so later on they were not allowed to read the English bible showing the way Hawisia had to make it through the hardships women faced more than men.

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  3. The forced confessions appears to be quite the trope throughout history, even a mere two centuries later when yet again women were forced to confess to witchcraft in Salem, which is not that far removed from this time period and England as well. I also find it very strange that the king who had grown up with these stories would ban them? Perhaps there was some ulterior motive - an uneducated populace is an easy to control populace. As is with many things, modern scholars refer to many things that were commonplace as the vogue (i.e. Chaucer being the transition into the "glory" of English language), and thus seem to gloss over the details between there and here. Again - Chaucer played a major role, but his work was merely a catalyst to which we can refer, and these people that decided to rebel, so to speak, against these laws.

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  4. I found it very interesting that around that century they were forcing women to confess to witchcraft. I didn't even think about that. The laws affected everyone, but women got mistreat from everyone. Chaucer and his English language definitely plays a big role in these centuries also.- Jaimee Barrett

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  5. I found it horrific that those who did not believe in the religious views or beliefs in others would get burned at the stake. I don’t understand why the King would ban the bible if that’s what he wanted everyone to believe in. I also found it interesting that they focused so much on what women believed in. Women were forced into confessing acts which they probably didn’t even do such as witchcraft. During those centuries women were targeted more than men due to their actions.
    Jenna C

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  6. I thought it was very interesting to read the different translations of the Bible and how much of a difference changing a single word can make in the understanding of the passage. For example, the difference between the words "charity" and "love" create two very different meanings. I believe that the word charity implies doing something for someone else (donating money, time or resources) and often involves an internal sensation of satisfaction and reward. This is because oftentimes people like to do things for other people because it makes them feel good. Charity, therefore, does not need to involve love. On the other hand, love is a very strong verb that seems much deeper and long lasting. When I think of the word love, I think of a strong, empowering feeling that causes one's thoughts and actions to fully be involved with another person. In the Bible, we read about Jesus' great love for His people, not his charity towards them. In fact, the most loving people in the Bible often had very little to give to charity. In my opinion, the word love implies a much stronger and important value than charity, which can often be used for self-satisfaction. The different translations of the Bible really give an insight into the people who wrote it, and what they believed a stronger motive for happiness was.
    -Sarah Basler

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  7. I thought that "A Dialogue Concerning Heresies" was by far one of the most interesting and thought-provoking passages I have read in the book so far. I think that the way Thomas Mores interpreted the idea of how some people believe in the Bible and those who don't was well written. He says that those who are really into the Bible will not believe anything besides the Scripture/ the interpretation of the Scripture. Also, with the black and white argument, he makes a point about how "if they would all tell me that a thing were white which I see myself as black," suggesting that if someone sees something one way, the "holy doctors" and the church would say the contrary.

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  8. After reading moore and the other writings,i have to appreciate that i dont live in that time period. So many people were burned at the stake for believing a diffrent version of of Christianity. Many more were burned for having english bibles, i cant imagine how bad
    People of the jewish faith had it trying to live during this period. Its interesting to find out that thomas moore downfall came from his own king. He did all of this to make the king look like a devoted Christine, yet the king would leave the church and follow somewhat the views of luther because he wanted to divorce his first wife.
    Richard Young

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  9. Considering the time frame, I can understand why people were forcing women to confess to witchcraft. This is something we humans have done several times throughout history - we are afraid of the unknown. When we are afraid, we resort to terrible things. This can be scene throughout some of the most dire times in our history, it is shameful but I do think we are learning. To this day, we even make the same mistake with things that concern or confuse us in modern day. People were treated terribly simply for owning a different version of the Bible. People were literally torturing each other based on half-truths and a difference in opinion. Terrible things still happen today, but at least we have become sense able enough not to resort to this point.

    - Crystal Agyemang

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  10. I found the history of the bible to be very interesting. The way they constructed the words I find it very fascinating that one could translate and understand it. Christian and Catholic were very important religions that if one was to not follow they were burned at stake. During this time people were not entitled to their own beliefs or opinions on religion. People were forced to believe, and had no say. As for women, I am not surprised that they were not allowed to read the bible, as men are portrayed to be superior to women.
    -Leony Lopes

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  11. King Henry IV grew up listening to Chaucer and kept a copy of Troylus and Criseyde. Yet he made a law making it illegal for anyone to have possession of these books. People would be burned at the stake, and so King Henry IV should have been burned at the stake if this was his decree. It makes no sense to exhume Wycliffe's body when he was already dead and burn it because his writings were heretical. He was already dead, pointless. Crystal Ruger

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  12. This topic interest me very much to study a time period where speaking and having books written in English was illegal and punishable by death. The different translations of the bible was interesting to see. No wonder we have so many different religions today that have so many similarities across the board. Women are also suppressed in this century and are forbidden to do such simple things as reading the bible. Many of the beliefs from this time period and century would be considered far fetched today and it is interesting to compare times.

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  13. I consider myself to be religious and, as a religious person I can’t seem to wrap my head around the hypocrisy that existed in religion once upon a time, though some could argue it still exists today but to a lesser degree. It’s a contradictory act to burn people for not following Christianity when Gods first commandment is: Thou Shall Not Kill. It’s interesting to think that religion was something created to spread peace but quickly turned into something people feared or were forced into. Religion has such a negative connotation because of people like King Henry IV. I wasn’t shocked that women were forced to admit to witchcraft, it seems like everything during this time was done unjustly and by force. Overall, I found this to be the most interesting read we’ve had so far.

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