War of words: what The Reformation taught us about language

Those of us who work with words for a living often overlook the battering this tool has taken through the ages. The way it has been honed and crafted by the upheavals of man. All for us to use as a handy medium for selling whatever it is we have to trade on: information, stories, ideology, dreams…

This weekend I decided to retrace the footsteps of my postgraduate study in late medieval literature. Back in 2012, I had finally saved enough to take a year out and study at Manchester for the pure enjoyment of it. My area of interest was religious texts, specifically personal books of devotion and manuals for living and dying by which had come to take on huge import.

So, with the John Rylands Library still practically on my doorstep, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see their current display on The Reformation.

For anyone in the vicinity of Manchester, there’s still chance to catch this modest exhibit which runs until 4 March. It takes you through some defining texts of a moment in history that was shaped by the written word. After German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against Catholic indulgences on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, nothing would be the same.

A literature and not a linguistic student at heart, what I loved studying during my masters was the relationship between the incorporeal construct of language and its physical, corporeal entity. Both on the level of transmuting God’s word into a written text, but also the doctrine that the Word of God was made flesh in the body of Christ.

By extension, it seemed to me that there was an acceptable and unacceptable way that language should be used in the middle ages, especially when it came to communicating scripture. The written word and, moreover, the act of writing straddled the boundary between piety and sin.

However, as any writer, marketer, journalist and politician know, one of the biggest problems with language is that it is unfixed, changeable, open to interpretation. So to try to impose a correct and incorrect way to use it is clearly going to be fraught with tension.

Today, we’ve grown quite used to the fact that language is there to be moulded – that it is a way of assessing the cultural and political changes happening around us daily. We forgive Presidents their covfefes, while text-speak long ago normalised abbreviations.

Emojis? They go one step further. In fact, even Luther acknowledged the use of images to say more than words. He recommended illustrations be used alongside biblical passages, adding yet another layer of interpretation, easily understood across literacy and language barriers.

You see, back in the middle ages, a standardised Queen’s English as we think of it today didn’t exist. The bible was in Latin and had undergone various translations, a process which had, it came to be considered, introduced various errors. Few laypersons except the aristocracy and scholars understood Latin, and as such the priest’s role was an intermediary between the layperson and God. This meant that the system was open to abuse – which Luther railed against in his initial attack on indulgences.

Indulgences, such as the one included in the exhibition, were a type of written pardon for the sins of one still living or believed to be trapped in purgatory. Priests sold these documents of salvation for a pretty penny. Hence, Luther’s distrust. He believed this was a corruption of the Catholic faith for extortion – that no one can intercede on behalf of another, certainly not in exchange for money, and that the only contract worth valuing is that between individual and God. For which in our secular, modern world we could read as the relationship our readers establish first-hand with our words.

As a consequence, Luther believed heads of state should be head of their country’s faith, which is where Henry VIII comes in. Though he initially decried the idea of translating the bible into a common language, he did like the idea of being above the law of Rome. Although many had to die first, including William Tyndale who is credited with first translating the bible into early modern English, Henry eventually authorised The Great Bible, published in 1539. A copy was placed in every church.

Today, we take for granted how being able to read something for ourselves is a massive leap towards independence. And it’s little wonder that this marked a major shift in literature towards an emphasis on what is known as the empirical self, or the subjective narrator.

However, it’s a political gamble too. Can anyone deny the power of words? This reminds me of that Arthur Scargill quote, “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.”

In short: knowledge is power (not such a coincidence that this humanist sentiment is attributed to the Renaissance statesman Francis Bacon).

What happens when you allow for the possibility that there is more than one truth or interpretation is that power is gradually stripped from those who hitherto held it. Thus, conflict inevitably ensues.

Who hasn’t experienced that moment when your intended meaning is misconstrued, whether through a lapse in body language, or a neglected comma in a piece of prose. When you lose some control over your authorship. It’s not uncommon for politicians or even marketers to use the ‘wrong’ choice of words and later be punished by their audience for it.

While nowadays the words we use are less likely to cause civil division as in the early 16th century, its more pressing concern is what it leads to in its immediacy – such as a lost customer or less invested reader – and on a personal level, what it reveals about us. After all, language is one of the most defining tools of humankind, and over the years we have sought to use it to express ourselves in one form or another. And it is considered to subconsciously unveil our own unspoken or unrealised beliefs too.

When we write, we often forget that language is not only borne of personal ideology, it is also subject to it. We cannot control what happens when we unleash our words into the world. The Reformation exhibition at the Rylands is an artful case in point.

Prefaced with a letter from Luther to a friend in Germany, he confides his personal struggles with a bout of depression, which almost led him to despair. And bookending the close of the exhibition sits the tome of The Great Bible – a literal manifestation of Luther’s revolutionary ideology made flesh. The Word of God piecing itself back together after having torn itself apart.

At any one time, the impact of our words can range from weak and unconvincing to persuasive and destructive. But language as a whole is also regenerative, and as resilient as we who constructed it.

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