I recently moved to Gloucestershire, and close to where I live there is a tall, thin tower standing on a hilltop, a monument to William Tyndale.

Poor old Billy Tyndale was strangled to death and his body then burned at the stake in 1536, for the “crime” of having translated the Bible into English. In fact, in England at that time, even the mere possession of scripture in English was subject to the death penalty.

It may seem bizarre to us now that the church would go to such extreme lengths to preserve its monopoly on access to scripture. The internet gives us the impression, rightly or wrongly, that almost all information is available to anybody with an internet connection. It’s easy to forget that five centuries ago most people would have had very little access to information; the printing press was still in its infancy, literacy rates were low, and certain powerful organisations were determined to maintain their privileged position by restricting access to the few rare and precious books.

Now, with a five-ounce iPhone in our pocket, we can access virtually all of human wisdom (and, arguably, an awful lot of human stupidity too). Tyndale’s brain would have boggled.

But do we make the most of this amazing privilege? Do we use this amazing facility in pursuit of truth and understanding? Hmm, maybe not so much. Rather than marvelling at the ongoing revelations from the worlds of physics, cosmology, zoology, biology, and the rest, too often we get sucked into the inconsequential (mentioning no Facebooks).

And, to some degree, there are still attempts to maintain monopolies over knowledge. I’m currently doing a DProf at the University of Middlesex, which entails a certain amount of academic literature. Some of the literature is marvellous in its lucidity and obvious willingness on the part of the authors to convey their learning to the reader. Most of it, again not so much. I sometime suspect a deliberate effort to obscure the inadequacies of the authors’ own understanding by veiling the information in so much academic jargon as to render their work virtually unreadable.

I don’t appreciate these power plays. If something matters enough to you, dear academic author, to spend years of your life researching it, please have the decency to explain it clearly in language that a layperson can understand. I sometimes finish slogging my way through a paper feeling that it may as well have been in the Hebrew or Greek that Tyndale translated, for all the sense I could make of it.

Tyndale paid the ultimate price for his belief that important knowledge should be available to anyone who wanted it. I propose we honour his sacrifice by seeking – and sharing – the truth for the benefit of all.


As a footnote, according to Wikipedia (now THERE is the powerful democratisation of knowledge!), these now well-worn phrases were first coined by Tyndale in his translation of the Bible:

  • my brother’s keeper
  • knock and it shall be opened unto you
  • a moment in time
  • fashion not yourselves to the world
  • seek and ye shall find
  • ask and it shall be given you
  • judge not that ye be not judged
  • the word of God which liveth and lasteth forever
  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • the salt of the earth
  • a law unto themselves
  • it came to pass
  • the signs of the times
  • filthy lucre
  • the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak
  • live, move and have our being


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