A Meditation on Tyndale and Medicine

Editor's note: This article is a summary of the
service and meditation led by Eunice Burton FRCS FRCOG
in Hertford College Chapel on 7th September 1998 at
the Third Oxford International Tyndale Conference.

Prayers of Penitence from the Tudor period

  1. Queen Katherine Parr '0 Lord, what is Man that Thou vouchsafest to have mind of him and to visit him? Thou art always good, always righteous and holy, justly and blessedly disposing all things after Thy wisdom ... Thou, 0 Lord, only art He that must help me, and Thou must so confirm and stablish me that my heart shall not be changed from Thee, but be surely fixed and finally rest and be quieted in thee ...'
  1. Sir Thomas More, when a young man '0 my sweet Saviour Christ, which in Thine undeserved love towards mankind so kindly wouldst suffer the painful death of the Cross, suffer me not to be cold nor lukewarm in love again toward Thee.'

Reading from Tyndale's New Testament of 1534

St Luke 5, verses 17-26. The Healing of the Paralysed Man.


I feel honoured to have been asked by Professor Daniell to lead the meditation tonight as I am a surgeon, and the tool of my trade is the scalpel rather than the pen!

William Tyndale lived from 1494 to 1536: 1 suggest we ask ourselves 'What was the state of science and medicine in England then?'. The Roman Catholic Church was in control, and regarded scientific enquiry as a presumptuous challenge to the revealed will of God - and hence it limited progress. in Europe, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a man of science in the widest sense with an interest in the function of the human body, and there were famous schools of anatomy, but Vesalius (1514--64) was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church for his post mortem researches at Padua, and was convicted by the inquisition

A further example of this restriction concerned astronomers. Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) demonstrated that the planets, including the Earth, revolve on their own axes and move in orbits round the Sun. A century later, Galileo (1564-1642) was forced by the Inquisition to repudiate this, although he continued to believe in the results of his studies!

Turning to medicine... Herbalists had been known from ancient times, but often their treatments were mixed with 'magic'. Apothecaries prepared and traded in drugs, and merged with the Grocers' Company in the 14th Century: under James I they became a separate Company and treated patients, particularly during the Great Plague of 1665, to the annoyance of the physicians: they were the forerunners of the 'dispensing general practitioners' and did much to maintain high standards of care. Physicians were rare in England during the Plantagenet period, as teaching facilities were poor at Oxford and Cambridge due to hostility from the Roman Catholic Church: those acting as physicians were often dieticians, spiritual counsellors and often and confidants rather than doctors and were also often fraudulent -- linked in literature with crooked lawyers and lecherous monks! But there was one outstanding physician, Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524): he graduated as an MD from Padua in 1496, was Court Physician to Henry VII and Henry VIII, and founded the College of Physicians in England in 1518: in addition, he was a notable Greek scholar, translated works of Galen into Latin, and taught Greek to Erasmus and Thomas More.

Surgery was mainly the repair of trauma, often incurred in battle, aided by potions to relieve pain. The barbers functioned as surgeons with varying degrees of skill and were incorporated in 1461. 1-finder Henry VIII they were united with surgeons In 1540 and permitted to perform minor surgical tasks, hence the term 'Barber-Surgeons': separation came in 1745 with the ultimate formation of the College of Surgeons (1801).

William Tyndale when considering suffering and adversity in The Obedience of a Christian Man notes the limitations of available treatments as he describes the functions of surgeons and physicians.

'A christian man, in respect of God, is but a passive thing; a thing that suffereth only, and doth nought; as the sick, in respect of the surgeon or physician, doth but suffer only. The surgeon lanceth and cutteth out the dead flesh, searcheth the wounds, thrusteth in tents, seareth, burneth. seweth or stitcheth, and layeth to caustics, to draw out the corruption; and, last of all, layeth to healing plaisters, and maketh it whole. The physician likewise giveth purgations and drinks in drive not the disease, and then with restoratives bringeth health.'

By the 1530s, hospitals in England were a wide and diverse group of institutions caring for the poor and sick - probably about 600 in number and including monastic infirmaries, leper hospitals, alms houses caring for the long-term infirm rather than the acute sick, and small hospitals built by the aristocracy for their aged servants. Henry VIII's concern for the sick led to the planning of 'common hospitals', of which the Savoy in London was an example. In all cases, religion was recognised as an integral part of healing, and famous hospitals such as St Bartholomew's had a religious foundation. Later hospitals were attached to collegiate churches, and as wealthy citizens endowed hospitals fewer lay brothers were involved in caring, but all had a chapel and chaplain and regular worship services, the beds being aligned along the wails so that patients could see the altar.

Irregularities had occurred in the monastic houses and the Lollards under Richard II put forward plans for reform of the hospitals. Tyndale in The Obedience of a Christian Man confirms that the Roman Catholic Church had misappropriated funds designated for the poor:

'And for such purposes gave men lands afterwards, to ease the parishes; and made hospitals, and also places to teach their children, and bring them up, and to nurture them in God's word; which lands our monks now devour.'

In 1536, the year of Tyndale's death, the Act of Dissolution was passed by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, and all monasteries with an income less than 200 p.a. were closed. By 1539. the Act of Suppression closed larger monasteries: this resulted in many hospitals being closed, but others survived, e.g. control of St Bartholomew' pass to the (Corporation of the City of London.

There was little understanding of physiology at this time: it was another 100 years before William Harvey (in 1628) demonstrated the circulation of the blood in the body, but all scientists then acknowledged God as the Creator -- Ambrose Pare (1510-90), French surgeon, said 'I dressed his wounds, God healed him' and Johan Kepler (1571-1630) was 'thinking God's thoughts after Him'. Not until the enlightenment of the 18th Century was religion replaced by reason.

Today we live in a scientific arid materialistic age when human beings lacking autonomy are denigrated as 'nonpersons' - e.g. the foetus, the handicapped, the senile: 'nonpersons' have no 'rights' and there is no 'reciprocal duty of care'. This is being taught in our Medical Schools, now as an option, but soon it could be generally accepted. Yet everywhere people are searching to find a meaning to life: they recognise that humans and body, mind and spirit, closely intertwined, and they seek for healing of the Spirit in alternative medicines and cults.

What can we learn from the medicine practised in Tyndale's time and our Bible reading from Luke 5?

a) Christ the physician first said 'thy sins are forgiven thee'; but He did not regard illness to be the result of sin or direct punishment from God (cf Healing of the Blind Man, John 9-- 'Neither this man nor his parents had sinned'). In Christ's Ministry of Healing, He showed a willingness to heal, but sometimes allowed delay in order to demonstrate a spiritual lesson.

  1. Christ healed holistically: Body, Mind, Spirit. In this case, Jesus first forgave the man's sins: then when the Pharisees and scribes accused Christ of blasphemy, He healed the man physically and completely. The paralysed limbs supported him and he picked up his bedding and walked home! The physical healing was a recognisable sign confirming the spiritual healing which had already occurred. I think the man glorified God for both. We today are all in need of spiritual healing if not necessarily of physical just now.
  2. The faith of the paralysed man and his friends in spite of difficulties should inspire us: imagine the amazement of the crowd as the tiling is broken up and the man is let down before Jesus and Jesus does not disappoint his confidence.
  3. Note the reaction of the crowd... 'We have seen strange things today' ... just curiosity, surprise, wonderment - or more? v.26 W,T. 'amazed ... filled with fear ... lauded God' (A.V. 'glorified God'). When faced with challenges we need to make a personal commitment to God to work with others to bring full healing to those in need.

In conclusion

Usually we think of Tyndale in the context of the Reformers and theologians, Calvin (1509-64) and Luther (1488-1548) in Europe, and John Colet (14661519), Coverdale (1488-1568) and Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) in England, or disputing points of doctrine with Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).

Tonight I have tried to show Tyndale in the context of Medicine and how the Reformation led directly to the progress of science, helped by the new learning of the Humanists. The aphorism attribute to Pare states that the aim of the doctor should be:

to cure, occasionally
to relieve, often
to   comfort, always

and how do we best give comfort? -- by instilling Hope! And that we do by advocating St Paul's advice in Romans 15, verse 4 -- 'that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope.'

So we have seen a few of the links ... Thomas Linacre studies Greek with Erasmus (1466-1536) and Erasmus's Greek New Testament is the basis of Tyndale's English New Testament so that the ploughboy, and all of us since, may enjoy 'the comfort of the scriptures'.


Collect for the 14th Sunday after Trinity (B.C.P.)

'Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope and charity; and, that we may obtain that which Thou dost promise, make us to love that which Thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eunice Burton

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