Speaking of the People…

by Dr David Coast (Bath Spa University)

Want to liven up your conversation? Try adding some sixteenth-century proverbs to your repertoire:

Has something gone wrong? Say ‘the Bishop hath blessed it’.

Overcooked a pudding? Say ‘The Bishop hath put his foot in the pot’.

Someone getting above themselves? Call them a ‘pontifical fellow’.

Have a friend who wants to oppress the common people? Tut tut. Wag your finger at them and say ‘cut not the bough that thou standest upon’. That’ll learn ‘em.

These sayings were recorded by the renegade evangelical priest and Bible translator William Tyndale in his Obedience of a Christen Man (1528). The reason Tyndale included them in his book was to show that before the Henrician reformation even got going, there was already a popular groundswell of hostility to the clergy. Although the bishops tried to dupe and mislead the people, popular proverbs seemed to suggest that ordinary subjects were naturally suspicious of the clergy and perhaps even sympathised with Lutheran ideas like justification by faith alone. The people, in other words, were on Tyndale’s side – which was all very convenient.

Tyndale was in good company. The German reformer Andreas Karlstadt idealised simple peasants so much that he abandoned the University of Wittenberg to live among them. The attitude of some reformers is oddly reminiscent of the Russian populist movement of the nineteenth century, in which well-meaning intellectuals ‘went to the people’, fanning out into the countryside to rid peasants of their perceived false consciousness and educate them about socialism. The peasants responded by having them arrested.

Tyndale’s people not only opposed the pride and cruelty of the Bishops, they also had surprisingly sophisticated views about secular tyranny. According to Tyndale, the phrase ‘let the sea swell and rise as it will, yet hath God appointed how far it shall go’ was not simply a general ‘que sera’ observation about divine providence. Instead, it meant ‘tyrants shall not do what they would, but that only which God hath appointed them to do’. In other words, evil rulers might think they had freedom of manoeuvre, but in fact they were just fulfilling a divinely-ordained role in chastising God’s sinful people.

Were such sentiments regularly voiced down the local alehouse? Perhaps. Tyndale’s tendentious interpretation of popular sayings reminds us how difficult it is to reconstruct the authentic voices of ordinary people, given that the surviving evidence is almost always distorted by the prejudices and priorities of elite writers.

For me, what is interesting here is not whether ordinary people really did say these things (although this is an important question), but the fact that Tyndale was trying to enlist what we might loosely call public opinion on his side at all. An important strand of elite thought held that the people were ignorant, gullible, fickle and rebellious. However, as I argue in my recent article, ‘Speaking for the People in Early Modern England’ (Past & Present #244) a very different and more positive set of attitudes towards the people and the popular voice developed over the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Tyndale died in 1536 (he was burnt at the stake). We will never know whether his belief in the basic hostility of the people to traditional religion, and their ability to comprehend the one true interpretation of the Bible, would have been dented by subsequent events. What would he have made, for instance, of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a conservative rebellion against religious reforms that fielded a larger army than any Tudor monarch managed to assemble in the entire sixteenth century? No doubt he would claim, as other reformers did, that the rebels had been led astray by the popish clergy. If so, it would be an early demonstration of what we might call the first law of public opinion: When it accords with my views, public opinion is an unanswerable authority. When it accords with your views, it is because the people are stupid or have been misled by lies and propaganda.

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