Wednesday 30 August 2023

The World's Deadliest Book, by Matthew Wainwright

Throughout history there have been many dangerous books.

Sometimes books are labelled as ‘dangerous’ because they contain ideas that the authorities consider dangerous for people to read. Sometimes it's how people react to the books that is dangerous: people have been threatened, or even killed, because they had read, written or possessed some books. Sometimes the books really are dangerous, because the people who wrote them are trying to encourage people to hurt or attack others.

But why are books in particular objects of such contention? Why have people banned books, and why do they continue to ban books?

It's because books are vehicles for ideas—they’re one of the main ways that people express themselves to the world at large—and if humans are good at anything it’s getting upset at other people’s ideas!

The book we’re talking about today is perhaps one of the most contentious in the world. Certainly many people have died because of the things that it says, and because they have either supported it or disagreed with it. And yet it’s a book that many people in this country will have read, even if it’s just in part, and you’re probably never far from a copy.

'Tyndale's Bible' (Wikimedia Commons)

The book is called The Bible, and it’s the book that most Christians use as their guide for life and faith. It can be called a ‘dangerous’ or ‘deadly’ book for two of the reasons listed above: various people throughout history have said that its ideas are dangerous; and people have sometimes reacted dangerously to those who read or possess it.

The Bible is a fantastic example of how people react to books, and it helps us to think about the power of books and reading. Let’s go down a Time Tunnel and find out a bit about one of the most influential (and dangerous!) books ever written …
'Gutenberg Bible' (Wikimedia Commons)

The name ‘The Bible’ comes from a Greek phrase ‘ta biblia’, which simply means ‘the books’. It’s made up of several dozen parts, which were written and brought together over the course of about two thousand years. It includes Jewish religious writings, history, and poetry, as well as letters and accounts written by the followers of Jesus.

The first parts of the Bible (called the Old Testament) were written (for the most part) in ancient Hebrew. These parts were carefully handed down by the nation of Israel, and they were translated into Greek during the reign of Alexander the Great (about two or three hundred years before the birth of Jesus). Greek was the main language of the Middle East at the time, and people wanted to be able to read the Jewish holy texts in their own language.

After Jesus arrived, and founded what came to be called the Christian religion, his followers added their own writings (the New Testament) to the Jewish books, this time writing in Greek. By this time the Roman Empire had taken over most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Romans spoke Latin, but most common people still spoke and wrote in Greek.
Page of the Bible in Latin (Wikimedia Commons)

Over time, however, Latin took over as the main language of the Empire, and as Christianity grew and spread and became an important part of Roman society, the Bible was translated again—this time into Latin. Once again, people wanted to be able to read this important book in their own language.

Eventually Christianity grew into the dominant religion in Europe, and the Christian Church, led by the Pope, became a powerful religious and political entity. After the fall of the Roman Empire Latin faded away as the language of common people, replaced by the various languages and dialects of the new European kingdoms—including the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, ruled by Alfred the Great, in what we now call England.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester (Wikimedia Commons)

At this point the Bible was still in Latin, and for the most part only those who were educated could read it. Various people, including King Alfred and a monk called Bede, translated parts of the Bible into the language of their people—but there was no complete Bible translation until the 1300s, when a man called John Wycliffe (with others) translated the Bible into English for the first time.

The Church of Rome was not happy about this, however, and in 1401 a law was passed that made Bible translation illegal. Many English Bibles were burned, and those who possessed them were arrested.

For over a hundred years there was no more Bible translation—until, in 1525, a man named William Tyndale printed a new English translation of the New Testament. At this point Bible translation was still illegal in England, however, so Tyndale had to work from Europe, in Antwerp.
Reconstruction of an early moveable type printing press (Wikimedia Commons)

Tyndale’s efforts were supported by the invention of the moveable type printing press some years before. Instead of having to hand-write each new copy, hundreds of copies of Tyndale’s translation could be printed at a time, meaning that his New Testament could be read by thousands of people very quickly, in their own language.

Tyndale’s supporters smuggled these printed copies of the New Testament into England, sometimes by hiding them in bales of hay. Those who did so literally risked their lives—the punishment for heresy and treason was execution by burning.

Religion in Europe was changing. Academics were beginning to question the absolute authority of the Roman Church, and King Henry VIII of England was beginning to wonder why he should have to obey the word of a Pope who lived in a city thousands of miles away.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (Wikimedia Commons)

Spurred on by his desire to get rid of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry the much younger Anne Boleyn, Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, with himself as its head. Gradually, opposition to an English Bible faded, and the first official English Bibles began to appear in churches.

This came too late to save Tyndale, who was betrayed, arrested, and burned at the stake in 1536. Some historians also think that Anne Boleyn’s eventual arrest and execution was partly due to her over-enthusiastic support for those who wanted religious change—along with her failure to give Henry the son he so desperately wanted.

Statue of William Tyndale, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London (Wikimedia Commons)

What followed was a time of immense upheaval. Allegiances and religious opinions changed sometimes overnight, and the wrong word could easily lead to arrest and execution. Many people suffered and died because of their beliefs at this time, on both sides of the argument. Some of the tensions continue to this day!

Now the Bible has been translated into nearly every language in the world, and there are numerous English translations to choose from. It is still a ‘dangerous’ book, and people still use it to justify doing terrible things to each other—but there are also many people who find its message life-changing, and who use its teachings to guide them into acts of kindness and charity.

All this helps us to understand the power of books. It’s amazing to think that paper and ink can hold such sway over the hearts and minds of people. But after all, it isn’t the paper or the ink that influences people, but the ideas they communicate.

No matter what you think of the Bible—or the Qur’an, or the Talmud, or the sacred texts of Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion—they are remarkable objects, because they help us to travel through time and hear the thoughts and beliefs of people living thousands of years ago. Those people are long dead, but they still speak to us today through these books.

Whether it is a religious text, or an epic Greek poem, or a play by Shakespeare, or a novel by Dickens, or the latest bestseller that we read on a Kindle—books help us to communicate through time and space. They really are remarkable, and they should be treasured.

Writing challenge

For this week’s writing challenge we’re celebrating books! It’s a really simple challenge (hardly a challenge at all): just write a couple of lines about something you have read that you think everyone should read.

It could be a long book, a short book, a comic book, a poem, or anything else that you have read. Tell everyone why they should read it, and why it means so much to you.

That’s it! Happy reading and writing, and keep time tunnelling!


Matthew Wainwright is an author of historical fiction for children and teenagers.

You can preorder Through Water and Fire (released 31st October 2023) here. (Free UK postage on all preorders)

Out of the Smoke is available at all good bookshops and online.

You can find out more about Matthew and his books on his website.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

The Memory of Stones by Barbara Henderson

Give me a stone castle and I’m happy!
When I moved to Scotland in 1991, I was smitten with stone. It stirred something in me – the hulking, heavy-hewn rocks of Edinburgh Castle, the smooth-stepped cobbles of the Royal Mile, the rugged volcanic rock of Arthur's Seat. If you narrow your eyes in these places and let your vision blur, tourists and townsfolk simply fall away. You can imagine how the city may have looked a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago and beyond. It doesn’t take much more than that to get my imagination going. I began to visit other places – stone circles, old dykes, castles and courtyards, ruins and rambling walls. The fascination is the same.
I couldn't put my finger on it. In the end, it was a quote from Scottish writer Neil Gunn which articulated what, I think, has drawn me to such places for as long as I can remember. He talks of ‘the memory of stones’. That expression nails it, doesn’t it – what have these stones seen? If they could talk, what could they tell us? A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Spynie Palace (also called Spynie Castle) near the Moray town of Elgin, roughly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen. Not only is the palace the largest surviving medieval bishop’s house in Scotland and residence of the bishops of Moray for 500 years, but kings and queens stayed under its roof throughout the centuries. According to Historic Environment Scotland, ‘the bishops of Moray may have established their residence at Spynie in the late 1100s. Around 1207, Bishop Brice chose the church of Spynie as his cathedral. His successor, Bishop Andrew, built a new cathedral in Elgin, but the bishops still lived at Spynie.’
The palace's mighty David’s Tower is the largest tower house by volume to survive in Scotland. First and foremost, it is a strong-house, designed for defence. After all, bishops used to be wealthy noblemen with lands and property to lose. The scale of it is very impressive, and it took little imagination to picture the fighting and feasting which may have gone on here. I took some photographs of the coats of arms of all three bishops who contributed to building the tower house: Bishop David Stewart (1462–76), Bishop William Tulloch (1477–82) and Bishop Patrick Hepburn (1538–73). Presumably they were carved in order to protect their memory for generations to come, and I am writing about them now, so it clearly worked. Bishop Patrick Hepburn was related to Bothwell, second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots, who visited often while young. Famous visitors included kings and queens: in 1362, David II fled here from Edinburgh to escape the Black Death, the plague which was tearing through the country at the time. In 1390, the notorious villain known as the 'Wolf of Badenoch' burnt most of Elgin, including its cathedral, but was warned by the king to leave the palace untouched. Destroying such a fortress was often unwise as they were expensive to rebuild. Much better if those inside were besieged until they surrendered (as happened in the Siege of Caerlaverock Castle) – then the winning side could simply move in and use the castle for themselves. Both James I and James II of Scotland took advantage of the bishops' hopitality here, too. In the latter's case, he feasted on salted Spey salmon over the Christmas period 1456-7. Perhaps most famously, Mary, Queen of Scots spent two nights here during an eventful royal progress which saw the downfall of the rebellious 4th Earl of Huntly in 1562. Even her son, James VI of Scotland, called in twice at Spynie during hunting trips.
Writing Challenge: Back to the memory of stones. Is there a stone monument or ruin near you, or one that you know well? Do you know anything of its history? Even if you don’t, you can rely on your imagination instead! Write from the perspective of the castle or monument – who has touched you, leaned against your walls, shed a quiet tear in your tower? Have you been bombarded by missiles from trebuchets? Have you seen flaming arrows rain from above? Have soldiers tried to ram your gate? Have you spotted enemies in the distance while those within your walls remained oblivious until it was too late? What creatures nest amid your cracks? What storms have battered your ramparts?
Barbara at Holyrood Palace where Mary Queen of Scots lived I am sure you won't be short of ideas. Happy writing, be it poetry or prose!

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