Eunice Burton
October 2002.

Since the inaugural exhibition ‘Let there be Light’ at the British Library in 1994, conferences of the Tyndale Society have been characterised by “light”, and this was no exception. The bright sunshine throughout enhanced the beauty of the historic buildings and enjoyment of meals al fresco, and we considered ourselves “lucky” in the Tyndalian sense; also the wide-ranging topics discussed and the musical and artistic “extras” brought light and joy to our minds and spirits. Superb preparatory organisation ensured smooth running events in a relaxed and genial atmosphere. For the group from England, including participants from Canada, Japan and Taiwan, the conference began on Eurostar when old friendships were renewed and new ones made.

The reason for holding the conference in Antwerp at this time was to coincide with celebrations commemorating 125 years of the Museum in the 16th century Plantin-Moretus Printing House, and the project featuring ‘The First English Bibles in Print’, led by Dr Guido Latré, culminated in a superb exhibition entitled ‘Tyndale’s Testament’ in the Museum. This was sponsored by the two Universities, K.U. Leuven and Université Catholique de Louvain, and Antwerp Town Council, and there is an account of it elsewhere in the Journal. Rare printed books from the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Belgian Universities, Stuttgart, the British Library and Cambridge University were tastefully displayed on a neutral “hessian” background with appropriate legends and posters. One hardly noticed the beauty of the Museum, with its wonderful leather wall-hangings and tapestries, carved furniture and the portraits by Rubens of the Moretus family in what had been their home, as well as the old printing presses. The whole surrounds a rectangular inner courtyard with Tudor-style beds of simple flowers enclosed by low box hedges – in the peaceful sunshine it was difficult to imagine the scenes of activity in the past centuries, with the noise of the presses and the furnaces used to create the metal type.

The conference opened on Friday afternoon at the Lessius Hogeschool with a welcome from Guido Latré and explanation of the project and choice of the title ‘Tyndale’s Testament’ for the exhibition: he introduced the members of his team, Paul Arblaster and Gergely Juhász, (the third member Andrew Hope was unfortunately unable to attend) who had produced an exceptionally fine catalogue. This was followed by a lecture by Dr Gerrit de Vylder on the ‘The Economic History of Tyndale’s Antwerp’, which set the scene: Antwerp’s ‘Golden Age’ was due to the shift of the centre of commerce from Bruges to Antwerp, the trade in spices from the East and then the ‘Sugar and Slaves’ trade with the Atlantic Islands. Portuguese financiers settled in Antwerp, and the market in silver from South America expanded: then a slow decline occurred from the 16th century when England transferred its wool trade to Germany. But in the 1520’s, Tyndale found an open cosmopolitan atmosphere, commercial preeminence, a liberal artistic city, religious toleration, hospitality in the English Merchants’ Quarter and unequalled printing facilities.

Many of the conference lectures will be reported fully or in abstract form in the Journal, so are only noted here.

An interesting lecture on ‘Tyndale & Allegory’ by Dr Amanda Piesse was next, emphasising Tyndale’s insistence on the literal sense and faithful allegory of Scripture. The evening was memorable for the Conference Dinner held in the ‘De Foyer Restaurant’ of the 19th century neo-classical Bourla Theatre. Saturday was devoted to lectures starting with Professor Richard Rex on ‘New Light on Tyndale & Lollardy’ who examined the possibility that differences between Tyndale’s theology and Luther’s were due to the influence of Lollardy. Professor Paul Gillaerts spoke on ‘Dutch Bible Translators, their Poetics and William Tyndale’ with comparisons with Luther’s translations, and Dr Frits Van der Meij described the ecumenical background to the Dutch ‘New Bible version’ to be published in 2004 “for everyone”. Professor David Loades speaking on ‘The English Bible during the Marian Reaction’ explained that there was no opposition to vernacular Bibles provided they were translated from the Vulgate, interpreted by the Church and free of “Reformation heresies”.

After lunch, Dr Margret Popp lectured on ‘What was Tyndale’s Model for his Translation of Genesis?’ showing that he consulted the Vulgate and Luther’s translations for comparison, and here some knowledge of Hebrew was required. Then there were two lectures in French (with translation) on ‘Les Bibles Françaises de 1530 et 1534’ by Professor J-F. Gilmont and ‘Images et figurae bibliorum: The Genesis and Development of “Picture Bibles” in Antwerp’ by Dr Ralph Dekoninck. This was where some of the less “academic” English played truant: I enjoyed 2 hours in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts with the superb Dutch masters, especially Rubens, and an interesting display of the restoration of Memling’s “Man with a Roman Coin” and “Christ with the Angel Choir and Band”, while others visited “The Rubens House”.

Then back to Professor Meg Twycross on ‘Famous Women of the Old Testament: the Ambachtsvrouwen of the Leuven Ommegang’, when she showed many slides of drawings of the mediaeval processions, which included 34 worthy women of the Old Testament starting with Sarah: she explained that the characters were sponsored by the appropriate guilds, for example Ruth the gleaner by the Thatchers, and were selected for their typology, e.g. Naomi representing Maternal Suffering, and the four Barren Mothers relating to the Virgin Birth (c.f. English Mystery plays).

Although some of the lectures were specialised, perseverance was rewarded and one could always glean impressions and details which increased appreciation of the difficulties encountered by the scholars and translators.

Sunday began with an optional Service of Holy Communion taken by the chaplain, Revd Dr Dirk van Leeuwen, at St. Boniface Anglican Church, followed by a guided tour of Antwerp in sunshine, which included “hidden areas”, where an old Butchers’ Hall was now a museum of musical instruments and also very attractive examples of social housing rebuilding schemes: there was a poignant memorial of “joined hands” in metal commemorating the old Jewish quarter and diamond trade. Then an afternoon of five lectures: first, Dr Helen Parish on ‘Monks, Miracles & Magic: The Mediaeval church and the English Reformation’, exploring the place of Christian hagiography, saints and sorcery, healing and fraudulent “cures”, the accepted necessity of confirming authenticity of faith by signs and the evangelical view of Providential intervention. Next, Dr Tibor Fabiny on ‘Reformation, Apocalypse & Shakespearean Tragedy’, with fascinating comparisons of the Seven Churches and Shakespearean characters, citing Hamlet, King Lear and Cordelia as examples of sensitivity to deception, prophetic souls, duplicity (Christ and Antichrist), misogyny, endurance, etc. Then Dr Tom Freeman on ‘Back to the Future: John Foxe, John Day and The Whole Works of Tyndale, Frith and Barnes’ stressing the generally faithful editing in “Acts and Monuments” by John Foxe and John Day (printer), although William Tyndale’s comments on Thomas More were made more derogatory: Foxe’s aim was the conversion of Roman Catholics and Jews as well as the confirmation of faith of believers. This was followed by Dr Liz Evenden on ‘The fleeing Dutchmen? The Influence of Dutch Immigrants upon the Print Shop of John Day’: she showed that the 16th century immigration of printers and weavers to London because of persecution improved both the standard of illustration and woodcuts and the theological knowledge of the compositors of Aldersgate.

The Keynote Lecture was delivered by Professor Brad Gregory on ‘Tyndale and More, in Life and Death’ - a stimulating study on their attitudes to “Truth”, but differing interpretations and their willingness to die for their beliefs. In Life, they disagreed on the authority of the Bible and place of Tradition, with More insisting that all interpretation of the Bible must be by the Church, which Tyndale said hid the meaning from the people, who only needed to be exposed to the vernacular plain text, which generally should be interpreted literally. In Death, More was accused of “treason” and Tyndale of “Heresy” – the former wrote many documents during his imprisonment, some showing that he derived personal comfort from the Scriptures, while Tyndale’s single, simple letter to the Castle Governor spoke eloquently of his discomforts, undiminished faith and desire to continue his study of the Hebrew Scriptures. (Tyndale’s dying prayer was for England’s enlightenment.)

In the evening, the English Chamber Choir gave a wonderful concert, ‘Music from the Golden Age’ in the Baroque Chapel of the Lessius Hogeschool, ranging from John Taverner (Tudor period) to John Rutter, and including anthems by Purcell, Handel and Stainer, based on the King James Version, and modern composers heard less frequently, such as Arvo Part.

Monday was spent at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, enjoying a preview of the exciting Tyndale’s Testament Exhibition (see full report by Brian Johnson), and then there was a choice of attending Dr Deborah Pollard’s ‘Demonstration of the Tyndale concordance’ on computer or a lecture by Kaoru Yamazaki on ‘The History of the Bible of the Reformation and the Personal Computer’. Further parallel sessions followed - a widely acclaimed lecture by Professor Richard Duerden on ‘Who brought Luther to the Elizabethans? The Translator of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians’ or Dr Vivienne Westbrook on ‘Reading Paratexts as Signs of the Times’ when we learned how illustrations revealed much about the contemporary life: also, how controversies were increased by some prefaces and annotations, as exampled by John Bale and John Foxe etc., whereas Tyndale considered annotations a distraction and hoped to increase acceptability of his scriptures by their absence – the ultimate aim of all was to bring comfort to the church.

In the afternoon, there were three papers on ‘Prologues to Tyndale’s Hexateuch’ (Pentateuch & Jonah) which complemented each other: Dr Anne O’Donnell on ‘Rituals in the Prologues to Leviticus & Vows in the Prologues to Numbers’ when the topics of ritual and moral purity, cleansing through water and blood (pre-figuring Christ as the Paschal Lamb), and Tyndale’s criticisms of basic Catholic doctrines and sacraments, e.g. the Mass, Confession, prayers for the dead. etc., were discussed.

Secondly, Dr Brian Cummings on ‘The Luck of the English: Tyndale’s Prologues to Genesis and Jonah’ proved to be an interesting analysis of “luck” chance and misfortune, the possible results of sin, and God’s blessing on Israel when His law was kept, illustrated by events in the lives of Joseph and Jonah. Lastly, Dr Ralph Werrell on ‘Divine Mercy and Human Compassion in the Prologues to Exodus & Deuteronomy’ in which he postulated that human compassion is a response to Divine Mercy and the two cannot be separated: we, the recipients of Divine Mercy, are charged to remember God’s love and show compassion on those in need, the stranger and even our enemies, and to treat animals humanely.

Professor Peter Auksi took the penultimate session, speaking on ‘Erasmus as Source, Influence and Object of Criticism; Tyndale on the ‘Light’ of Northern Humanism’ and described Tyndale’s rejection of classical and worldly wisdom because it is the Spirit of God who is necessary for the understanding of spiritual things: Tyndale contended that priests needed to be grounded in the Scriptures rather than in the philosophy of “pagans”. Although he conceded that “learning” does increase a believer’s sense of Scripture, Professor Auksi attributed Tyndale’s observations and the humour, irony and idealism displayed in the language of the English Bible to the influence of Erasmus, while focusing all credit on Christ.

The conference was then formally closed by Dr Flora Carrijn, Director of the Lessius Hogeschool, and Professor David Daniell, Chairman of the Tyndale Society, and we made our way to the Cathedral of Our Lady for an Anglican Service of Choral Evensong which proved to be an unforgettable occasion. The lofty Gothic arches, white plasterwork of the tower with clear glass windows through which the sunshine streamed, made a dramatic setting for the double triptych by Rubens of “Christ’s Ascent and Descent from the Cross”. The Bishop of Antwerp welcomed his Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ, and begged forgiveness for the unjust death of William Tyndale at the hands of his church, and as a sign of reconciliation he invited the Anglican Bishop of Europe to occupy his throne for the duration of the service. The service was taken by Revd Dr Dirk Van Leeuwen.The simplicity of the Prayer Book Service (1549), with lessons read from the translation of William Tyndale and canticles sung by the English Chamber Choir to settings by Tallis and Orlando Gibbons, was a fitting vindication of the Reformation; however, now the aim should be toleration and working together. The collect “Lighten our darkness….” in honour of William Tyndale seemed particularly apt.

The service was followed in the Cathedral by the Official Opening of the Exhibition, Tyndale’s Testament, and was directed by Dr Guido Latré with readings in Hebrew, Greek, Dutch, French and English, and speeches from the Curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Alderman of Culture from the city of Antwerp. Guido had earlier been interviewed for an hour on local T.V. about the significance of the exhibition, which had evoked much media interest.

17th century engraving of Vilvoorde Castle Vilvoorde Castle

From the Cathedral we crossed the Grote Markt to the impressive Renaissance Town Hall, bedecked with flags, for a Civic Reception, during which Guido was invested by Lord Watson of Richmond with the Churchill Medal of the English Speaking Union in recognition of his contribution to Belgian- English Cultural Relations. Then we followed a piper to the Pelgrom Restaurant for a candlelit dinner in the cellars and enjoyed a final celebration together before most of the 110 participants returned home across the continents.

But for the remaining enthusiasts, there was a further treat in store, as next morning we boarded a coach to Leuven and were guided around by Guido Latré, again in bright sunshine. Many mediaeval buildings have been acquired by the University, and we had coffee in an old Cloth Hall. Then to the beautiful flamboyant Gothic Town Hall, shaped like a reliquary, with its intricate carvings telling ‘sermons in stone”, and lunch at the Beguinage, again University property. The Beguines were aristocratic ladies who took temporary vows of Chastity and Obedience and modified Poverty, and who concentrated on ‘good works’: we lunched in the old Infirmary.

After parting from Guido, we continued to Vilvoorde, where Tyndale was imprisoned and martyred, to visit the Tyndale Museum in the Protestant Church, where we were kindly given tea, and to see the Tyndale Memorial in a small park. The exact site of Tyndale’s execution in 1536 is unknown, but shortly after his dying prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”, a copy of the Great Bible was placed in every church in England (1539).

It was a truly memorable and challenging trip, with a reminder of the doubtful value of some modern amenities as we “snailed” our way through Brussels traffic to Eurostar and home. The example of William Tyndale continues to inspire, so why not attend the next Conference?

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