Volume 1, Number 3 (December 1995)

David Daniell. William Tyndale: A Biography. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. 429 pp. + 15 illustrations.

Review by,
Romuald I. Lakowski.
Lakowski, Romauld I. "Review of William Tyndale: A Biography." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 12.1-7 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-3/rev_lak1.html>.
Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.3 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the editor of EMLS.
  1. To his recent magisterial modern-spelling editions of Tyndale's Old (1992) and New Testaments (1989), David Daniell has added what will likely be the definitive biography of Tyndale (1494?-1536) for many years to come. It supersedes the biography of J.F. Mozley, published in 1937. At the heart of Daniell's biography is a study of Tyndale's partial translation of the Old Testament (Genesis to 2 Chronicles and Jonah) (chapters 11 and 13), and his complete New Testament (chapters 4-6, and 12). Daniell shows a linguistic competence rare among English Renaissance scholars, being truly "trilingual" in the Renaissance sense. His discussions of Tyndale's translations show a thoroughgoing familiarity with the Greek New Testament, the Latin Vulgate, the Hebrew of the Old Testament, Luther's German translation of the Bible, as well as the various 16th and 17th century English translations. Daniell begins his biography by boldly asserting that: "William Tyndale gave us our English Bible.... Nine-tenths of the Authorized Version's New Testament is Tyndale's. The same is true of the first half of the Old Testament, which is as far as he was able to get before he was executed outside Brussels in 1536" (1). Much of the rest of the biography is dedicated to vindicating this claim, which Daniell does with great energy and enthusiasm.

  2. Daniell's biography is divided into five sections: "The Making of the Translator" (chapters 1-3), "Greek into English" (chapters 4-6), "Persecution and Polemics" (chapters 7-10), "Hebrew and the Old and New Testaments" (chapters 11-13), and "Martyr" (chapters 14-15). The first four chapters of the biography, which deal with Tyndale's life before 1524, are necessarily highly speculative, since what we know of Tyndale's early life can be found in a couple of pages in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and in a page or two of Tyndale's own Preface to his translation of the Pentateuch. In these early chapters Daniell gives some background on life in late medieval Gloucestershire (chapter 1), where Tyndale was born, and on the state of theological studies in Oxford and Cambridge (chapter 2 and beginning of 3), where Tyndale studied and lived. He comments (chapter 3) extensively on the revival of classical rhetoric, and the enormous stimulus applied to it by Erasmus' de copia. He also deals with the influence of Erasmus' New Testament edition, and the English translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion, usually attributed to Tyndale. Daniell suggests Nicholas Udall as a possible alternative.

  3. In chapter 4, Daniell deals with earlier translations of the Bible and with Tyndale's unsuccessful attempt to get Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, to sponsor an English translation. In 1524, Tyndale left England for the Continent never to return, and in short order was to produce a partial edition of his translation (with marginal glosses and a preface translated and adapted from Luther's German Bible) of the New Testament at Cologne (chapter 5) in 1525, and a complete edition (without marginal notes or a preface) at Worms in 1526 (chapter 6). Daniell makes large, even extravagant, claims for Tyndale's prose: "In his Bible translations, Tyndale's conscious use of everyday words, without inversions, in a neutral word-order, and his wonderful ear for rhythmic patterns, gave to English not only a Bible language, but a new prose" (116). And he also repeatedly stresses the modernity of Tyndale's translation: "Tyndale usually feels more modern than the Authorized Version, though that revision was made nearly a century later" (135).

  4. The middle section, "Persecution and Polemics" (chapters 7-10), is in many ways the least satisfactory part of the whole biography. In this section, Daniell deals with Tyndale's polemical works and his controversy with Sir Thomas More. He ignores much of the recent scholarship on Tyndale's polemical works. The discussion of The Obedience of a Christian Man (chapter 9) stands out, but the treatment of The Wicked Mammon and The Practise of Prelates (chapters 7-8) is rather pedestrian, and the account of the controversy with Thomas More in Tyndale's Answer to More is distinctly unsatisfactory. In his long chapter (9) on "Tyndale and English Politics," Daniell shows an excessive reliance on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and fails to make effective use of recent historical scholarship. In his hostile treatment of Thomas More, Daniell is completely partisan, repeating uncritically John Foxe's rather lurid account of More's treatment of heretics. Anne Richardson in her Moreana review of Daniell's biography points to the dangers of relying too heavily Foxe.

  5. In the fourth section, Daniel deals with Tyndale's translation of the Pentateuch (chapter 11) in 1530, which was the first Old Testament translation from Hebrew to English: "All Old Testament versions descend from Tyndale" (289). Daniell includes a very fine discussion of Tyndale's art of translation in relationship to other later English versions. In 1534, Tyndale published the 2nd edition of the New Testament (chapter 12), edited by Daniell as Tyndale's New Testament, complete with prefaces and marginal notes and over 5,000 revisions. (The Preface to Romans, which is adapted from Luther, alone is longer than Paul's epistle.) Tyndale continued working on the Old Testament, but nothing more was published in his own lifetime except Jonah. Tyndale's Old Testament translation was completed by Miles Coverdale and published in 1535. However, in 1537 a second translation appeared under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, edited by Tyndale's friend John Rogers. The Matthew Bible (chapter 13) contains Tyndale's Pentateuch and New Testament, while most of the rest of the Old Testament is taken from Coverdale's translation; however, Joshua to 2 Chronicles come from an entirely different source. Daniell argues, I think persuasively, that it is "almost completely certain that the historical books in 'Matthew's Bible' are by Tyndale" (334). Daniell has edited all the certain and probable Tyndale translations in Tyndale's Old Testament. Through the Matthew Bible, Tyndale's translations eventually passed down with revisions to the Authorized Version.

  6. The final section of Daniell's biography deals with Tyndale's martyrdom. It is heavily dependent on Foxe's and Mozley's accounts and, like the opening chapters, in many places it is quite speculative. Far less is known about Tyndale's arrest and imprisonment (chapter 14), trial and execution (chapter 15), than in the case of his great opponent Thomas More, and despite the best attempts of Daniell to fill in some of the gaps in his biography, Tyndale the man remains highly elusive. Perhaps this is as it should be. Tyndale submerged his own personal life in the great task of biblical translation. The strengths of Daniell's biography reflect the strengths of Tyndale the man--as biblical scholar and translator.

  7. Daniell's book was not properly proofread--there are a surprising number of errors, including: "Collge" (10), "Stokesely" (26, 3ce), "sugests" (34), "twelve" should be nine (73), "sigature" (133), "ommission" (146), "explicity" (150), "consigment" (176), "earler" (178), "metioned" (191), "though" for "thought" (206), "Englsh" (216), "Philstines" and "expositons" (221), "perscuted" (223), "repetiton" (249), "visted" (251), "sacreligious" (254), "esential" (261), "sorow" (289), "Pentanteuch" (291), "disicple" (294), "the the" and "Cochaleus" (299), "possiby" (302), "wil" (306), "more brief more" (307), "Penateuch" (315), "uneveness" (323), "variarions" (334), "whuch" (350), "whther" (363), "from away from" (368), "comissary" (379), "conext" (404, n.128), "1543" for 1534 (407, n.1). On page 412, the additional items listed under E.J. Devereux should be deleted; they are given correctly under the following entry for A.G. Dickens.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

Return to EMLS 1.3 Table of Contents.

[JW, RGS; December 28, 1995.]