Voices of the English Reformation: A Sourcebook

By John N. King | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Voices of the English Reformation juxtaposes utterances by Protestants and Roman Catholics, laypeople and clerics, women and men, commoners and queens. This selection of verse, drama, and fictional and nonfictional prose spans the different phases of the English Reformation, which revolutionized sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious, intellectual, and social life. Many of these texts are here edited for the first time, and virtually all of them are inaccessible in standard collections. The selections include a large body of highly readable satires, allegories, martyrologies, and personal narratives that give rise to questions concerning subjectivity, conscience and consciousness, the status of women, gender conflict, canon formation, resistance to unjust authority, and related issues of pressing concern. No comparable collection serves the needs of students of British literature or scholars concerned with cross-disciplinary connections among the literature, history, politics, and religion of early modern England.1

William Tyndale’s initial attempt to publish his translation of the New Testament (1525) and the death of Queen Elizabeth I (1603) define the chronological limits of this book. Tyndale espoused the appeal lodged by Erasmus in Paraclesis, the introduction to his 1516 Greek edition of the New Testament, for translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so that “even the lowliest women” could understand the scriptures for themselves. Erasmus advocated the popular dissemination and understanding of biblical texts: “Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind.”2 Tyndale’s translation exerted a seminal influence upon gospeling poets who celebrated the sagacity of artisans and plowmen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, in addition to evangelical writers active later in the sixteenth century.

Despite the accusation that “Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid,” the Dutch scholar never separated from the Church of Rome. Tyndale followed Erasmus in the humanistic return ad fontes (“to the sources”), but his translation presupposes distinctively Protestant tenets, most notably the Lutheran principle of sola scriptum (“scripture alone”). Under the influence of Luther, Tyndale led the way in attacking Roman Catholic belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation, auricular confession, clerical celibacy, and “unwritten traditions” added during centuries of Christian tradition. In addition to insisting on the grounding of worship upon scriptural sources, Tyndale’s biblical prefaces, annotations, and tracts follow the Epistles of St. Paul in

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