"That purpose which is plain and easy to be understood":
Using the Computer Database of Early Modern English Dictionaries
to Resolve Problems in a Critical Edition of The Second Tome of Homilies (1563)
Stephen Buick
University of Toronto

Buick, Stephen. "'That purpose which is plain and easy to be understood': Using the Computer Database of Early Modern English Dictionaries to Resolve Problems in a Critical Edition of The Second Tome of Homilies (1563)." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 1 (1997): 2.1-16 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-01/si-01buick.html>.

  1. In the midst of his Acts and Monuments, John Foxe pauses to reflect on "The Invention and Benefit of Printing."[1] To Foxe, the technological development of printing is of theological significance, for "without all doubt God himself was the ordainer and disposer thereof." Foxe sees the advent of printing as God's direct intervention to enable Protestantism to triumph. He likens printing to the "gift of tongues" when he writes:

    By this printing, as by the gift of tongues, and as by the singular organ of the Holy Ghost, the doctrine of the gospel soundeth to all nations and countries under heaven; and what God revealeth to one man, is dispersed to many, and what is known in one nation, is opened to all. (Foxe III: 720)

  2. In Foxe's harmonious vision of the union of technology and truth, Protestants may effectively use the printing press to enjoy a perpetual Day of Pentecost. "Printing, writing and reading" are gifts from God "to convince darkness by light, error by truth, ignorance by learning" (III: 719). Foxe's assessment of "printing, writing and reading" as the heart of the Protestant agenda is consistent with the corpus of officially authorized religious documents that are at the centre of the English Reformations. The documents have been called the "Great books of the English Reformation" and they include the English Bible, Erasmus' Paraphrases, two collections of Homilies, The Book of Common Prayer, Articles of Religion and Royal Injunctions.[2] Printing, writing and reading were the Reformers' chief means of introducing their religious ideas to a largely resistant populace. Two noteworthy features common to these documents are that they appear in the vernacular and that they were printed with the intention of being put into the hands of the common people or regularly read aloud to them. In all of the formative documents of the Church of England, we discover a commitment (I am almost tempted to say an obsession) with intelligibility and accessibility, for the Reformers earnestly believed that through their campaign of printing, writing and reading, "what God revealeth to one man, is dispersed to many, and what is known in one nation, is opened to all."[3]

  3. I am preparing a critical edition of one of these authorized documents: The Second Tome of Homilies, which was initially published in 1563.[4] The volume poses several editorial difficulties. Although the two houses of Convocation and Elizabeth I approved the book to be read in parishes where the clergy were unlicensed preachers, there is little documentary evidence about the book's origins. There are no manuscripts, the book is rarely referred to in correspondence, identifiable authorship for most of the homilies is uncertain, and even the exact date of publication has not been ascertained. As a formative document of the sixteenth-century Church of England and a uniquely Elizabethan contribution to the "Great Books" campaign, it is surprising that most of the information surrounding the creation of The Second Tome of Homilies is unknown. But as the printing press made John Foxe's heart rejoice, modern technological developments can make glad the contemporary editor's heart also. I enjoy the benefit of working with an electronic text with SGML encoding and text-retrieval programs like TACT (Lancashire and others) which make it possible to easily analyze the locations of words and sequences of word patterns in a text.[5] TACT is particularly useful in attempts to assign authorship attribution. A further computer resource that has been helpful to me, and one that I would like to concentrate on today, is the on-line Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (EMEDD).[6] The EMEDD is a significant resource for analyzing Renaissance texts. Jürgen Schäfer's research indicates the limitations to the Oxford English Dictionary as its citations are biased in favour of literary rather than non-literary sources. Schäfer also suggests that 40% of the OED entries could be antedated; 30% of them by more than fifty years (69). The EMEDD will undoubtedly contribute to correcting these faults. There is also, however, a renewal of interest in Tudor lexicography which has long been overlooked by scholars. The EMEDD contributes to efforts to develop a period dictionary for Shakespeare's era and familiarity with the EMEDD will not only increase our knowledge of language in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it will also significantly assist other areas of inquiry such as intellectual interests, and scholarly methods and standards of the period.

  4. One of the reasons why the EMEDD is such an important resource for Renaissance scholars is the significance that issues of language assumed to Renaissance humanists. Humanists wished to recover the authentic meaning of words. Through these words they would create the authentic text and through that authentic text they would discover the authentic interpretation of those words. For religious scholars linguistic issues were invested with spiritual significance. Just as John Foxe viewed technological developments through a theological lens, Christian humanists regarded philological issues from a theological perspective. Christian humanists were not merely advocates of the "New Learning," they were also servants of the "Word Incarnate" who were committed to transmitting the "lively oracles of God" to the populace in the vernacular. Since the "Great Books" campaign of the English Reformation was concerned with intelligibility and accessibility, we should be concerned with issues of language in authorized religious texts.

  5. As the Reformers rejected scholasticism and embraced the vernacular for their didactic aims, language issues became a battlefield in Reformation polemic.[7] Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale devoted much energy to linguistic debates. More argued in print with Tyndale because in his translation of the New Testament, Tyndale used the English words "elder" instead of "priest," "repentance" instead of "penance," "congregation" instead of "church," and "love" instead of "charity."[8] Each word was invested with specific theological connotations; word choice indicated doctrinal affiliation. With the formative documents of the Church of England, we are continually reminded that language must be intelligible and accessible. In his 1540 Preface to the Bible, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the books of the Bible were written "so that their special intent and purpose might be understanded and perceived of every reader" (Cranmer, Miscellaneous Writings and Letters 120). Such egalitarian ideals were completely antithetical to the Roman Catholic tradition of the day, but we find Cranmer's sentiment reiterated in all of the formative documents of the English Reformation. The Reformers faced the challenge of conveying doctrinal terms and concepts in words that "were plain and easy to be understood" by the laity. The EMEDD enables us to analyze the Reformers' language and measure it against their own ideals.

  6. The framers of The Second Tome of Homilies compiled sermons that were "meet for the time and for the more agreeable instruction of the people."[9] The earlier Homilies from 1547 were mainly concerned with elementary matters of doctrine and, in a catechetical manner, they are a methodical induction into the Christian faith for the whole nation. The Second Tome of Homilies, however, is substantially different in subject matter and in many ways it may be likened to a national courtesy book since the 1563 Homilies are concerned with such household matters as "repairing and keeping clean the Church" (Homily 3) and issues relevant to community life such as the homily "Against Gluttony and Drunkenness" (Homily 5), or "against excess of Apparel" (Homily 6), "Of the State of Matrimony" (Homily 18), and "Against Idleness" (Homily 19). Doctrinal and liturgical issues are also addressed, but the longest, the most elaborate and the most argumentative homily is the second, "An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches," which is a condemnation of images in churches. In the first publication of the book, this homily took up one quarter of the volume. The homily is an attempt by the framers of the Elizabethan Settlement to educate the nation about the errors of traditional religion. Most of it is taken from the second edition of Heinrich Bullinger's treatise, De Origine Erroris in Divorum et Simulacrorum Cultu. The homily is a lengthy and deliberate attack upon the symbols, rituals and observances that constituted the rich fabric of traditional religion. I have chosen to concentrate on this homily because of its length and its topicality, for iconoclasm was extremely controversial in Elizabethan England.

  7. Adherents to traditional religion had been nurtured by the liturgical, devotional and calendrical rhythms of parish life. In attacking the symbols and observances of traditional piety, Protestantism's bibliocentrism could not hope to replace it. In the "printing, writing and reading" of "An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches," however, the Reformers valiantly attempted "to convince darkness by light, error by truth, ignorance by learning." The homily is justly known for its prolonged and vituperative attack upon images, but at periodic intervals there is a pause in the polemic and peculiar qualifications are made to the argument. In total, there are eight qualifications that considerably diminish or obfuscate the purpose of the homily and may have created confusion for Elizabethan listeners who adhered to traditional devotion.[10] The homily's curious rhetorical structure may be at least partly the fault of Elizabeth I. When The Second Tome of Homilies was completed, the published volume was submitted to the queen for her approval. Elizabeth seems to have hesitated in approving them;[11] John Griffiths in his 1859 edition of The Two Books of Homilies conjectured that the corrections, two-thirds of which are not printer's errors, but editorial changes, were the queen's emendations to the texts (xviii). Two of the eight qualifications to the homily suggest the queen's hand. A further rhetorical feature that is curious is the way in which the homily's argument is developed. The pertinent issue to the framers of the homily is a Reformed understanding of the Communion of Saints. The issue, however, is circumvented and most of the homily is only concerned with physical images in churches which are the tangible evidence of devotion to specific saints. A brief section of the homily does discuss the saints and I combed this area carefully for words to compare to the EMEDD citations. I also selected words from the introductory pages and sections of the text that reflect the homily's typical criticisms of traditional devotion.

  8. I selected fifty-six different words from the homily against idolatry and compared the words within the context of the homily to the examples in the EMEDD. Eighteen of the words were of no particular significance. I chose these words because I presumed that they were general words that were free of doctrinal and political connotations and if they proved not to be, I thought that these words would also serve as an effective gauge to indicate the differences that have occurred in the language. The words included "bold," "blazing," "warily," "acts," "deeds," "ships," "honour," and "desire." Each of these words generated hundreds of citations from the EMEDD. For seventeen of the words, the citations do not suggest any added denotative or connotative meaning to the words as they appear in the homily or how they would be understood by a twentieth-century reader.

  9. The one exception is the word "circumstances." The OED suggests the definition of "that which surrounds materially, morally, or logically," but typical twentieth-century usage is to locate something conceptually as "circumstances" are thought of as something "in relation to other things."[12] The fifteen citations from the EMEDD emphasize the physical and material nuances of "circumstances." Thomas Thomas (in 1587) states "set or placed rightlie and iustlie: plaine without circumstances." Randle Cotgrave in 1611 has several examples of the word that clarify Thomas's sense of physical movement: "a going about the bush" or "to turne, goe round, wheele a-bout." Cotgrave also uses "circumstances" as a rhetorical term that suggests circumvention: "circuits, compasses, or circumstances in wordes" and "He holds him onely to the substance, without respecting circumstances." Cotgrave's double-sense of "circumstances" is particularly evocative when we look at the context of the word in the homily.

    . . . (They) have not only worshipped their images with the same rites, ceremonies, superstition, and all circumstances, as did the Gentiles idolaters their idols, but in many points also have far exceeded them in all wickedness, foolishness, and madness. (237)

  10. On a literal and physical level, the Reformers condemned the liturgical practise of singing the Litany in procession; a tradition associated with the invocation of saints. At this point in the homily, the cult of the saints is being discussed and the word "circumstances" with its connotation of physical movement is particularly appropriate. When the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was being compiled, Edmund Guest, who was made bishop of Rochester the following year, wrote to Sir William Cecil about processions. He stated,

    Procession is superfluous, because we may, as we ought to do, pray for the same in the church that we pray for abroad; yea, and better too. Because when we pray abroad, our mind is not so set upon God for sight of things, (as experience teacheth,) as when we pray in the church, where we have no such occasion to move our mind withal. (Cardwell, History of Conferences 50)

  11. The EMEDD citations for "circumstances" emphasize the denotation of physical movement, a nuance not found in the OED, but the meaning which is obviously intended by the homily's use of the word.

  12. Of my fifty-six words, three of them did not have equivalents in the database: "stumblingblocks," "seely," and "daws." The homily uses "stumblingblocks" as a subtle pun to suggest that images in churches may be a physical obstacle as well as a spiritual one. "Seely" and "daws" appear in the same sentence in the homily in one of those wonderfully vituperative exclamations that occasionally burst from the page. "O wicked, impudent, and most shameless men, the devisers of these things! O seely, foolish, and dastardly daws, and more beastly than the ass whose tail they kissed, that believe such things" (236). The modern form of "seely" is "silly" and the OED suggests that it "is often an expression of compassion for persons or animals suffering undeservedly," which would match the homilist's superior attitude toward his audience.[13] "Daws" are stupid birds, but the term can also be applied contemptuously to a lazy person. "Dastardly," incidentally, had three matches from Randle Cotgrave in the EMEDD. Each of the citations suggested cowardice and one was worthy of the homily itself: "A great lubber, thicke druggel; cowardly luske, dastardly slaberdegullion."

  13. Thirty-five words were selected because of their context in the homily where they are invested with theological, ritualistic or political significance. Words like "candle" and "beads" may seem innocuous in our everyday use, but in a piece of Reformation polemic that is a condemnation of traditional devotion, such words are quite important. The EMEDD database generated hundreds of matches to these words that were consistent with everyday use but did not shed any light upon their significance in the homily. Other words like "repent" and "blasphemous" are distinctly religious and they too generated hundreds of EMEDD citations without illuminating any new denotative or connotative meanings to the words. Other religious words like "consecrate" and "reprobate" generated fewer matches, but again, no new understanding of the words. The word "offertory" is in the homily, which is a surprise as it appeared in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, but was replaced by "offering days" in 1552. The EMEDD found three matches. John Florio in 1598 had "an offertory, an offring place" and Blount in 1656 had a "place where offerings are offered or kept; also a part of the Mass so called." As Blount's work was written during the interregnum, his citation is of particular historical interest.[14] Other words like "ornaments," "idol," "image," "idolatry," "effigies," "similitudes," "stocks" and "stones" recur throughout the homily and are crucial as they denote specific ritualistic and theological attitudes. The EMEDD citations do not suggest any further nuances to these words, but what is interesting is the consistency to the citations. Given the changing social conditions brought about by the English Reformations, we might expect to trace an evolving sensibility in the citations that would reflect the polemical disputes of the era, but that does not happen. Before the tensions of the Reformations began, Palsgrave in 1530 has "idolatrie" as "worshippyng of ydols" and long after the dust has settled, Coote in 1596 has "idolatrie" as "false worship." Coote's definition may be more precise theologically and when Palsgrave wrote "ydols" he may not have been thinking of statues of saints in churches, but the development over the crucial period of sixty-six years is minimal. The same is true of all of the other polemical words which I investigated.

  14. The EMEDD is useful for several purposes. The most obvious is its citations from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dictionaries, which are particularly helpful for scholars analyzing Renaissance texts. The citations for "circumstances" provide information not found in the OED and examples that illuminate the homily's use of the word. The format of the EMEDD entries is particularly conducive to delineating evolving changes in language and the societal attitudes that are reflected in linguistic changes. The subtle shift between Palsgrave's citation of "idolatry"' in 1530 and Coote's in 1596 may not be earth-shattering, but it is valuable to a person studying a 1563 treatise on the issue. The cumulative effect of looking at fifty-six words from the homily in conjunction with EMEDD citations is also beneficial to a consideration of the "Great Books" campaign of authorized religious texts from the English Reformation. All of the authorized texts are concerned with intelligibility and accessibility; the EMEDD enables us to analyze the Reformers' effectiveness in achieving their aims. The homily contains many words that we might loosely label "religious," but there is a surprising shortage of technically theological terminology in the homily. There are a few and they are usually Latinate--"consecrate," "reprobate"--but most theological concepts are conveyed through simple and direct words: words like "service," "lively," and "image"; words which are part of our everyday speech and words that were part of the everyday speech of sixteenth-century speakers of English.

  15. The citations from the EMEDD suggest that the Reformers' concern "that their special intent and purpose might be understanded and perceived of every reader" may in fact have been possible. Ronald Bond in his edition of the 1547 Homilies states,

    The style of the homilies deliberately conforms to the reformers' ideal of plain yet forceful syntax and language, contrived to miss the colloquially undignified register at one extreme and the ornately artificial mode at the other. (Bond, Certain Sermons or Homilies 32)

  16. My sampling of fifty-six words from one homily suggests a similar stylistic pattern in the 1563 Homilies. Perhaps I lack John Foxe's enthusiasm for I shrink from likening the EMEDD to the gift of tongues, but for those of us who engage in "printing, writing and reading" about the English Renaissance, the EMEDD will certainly enable our attempts "to convince darkness by light, error by truth, ignorance by learning."


1. I would like to thank Professor D.I. Lancashire, New College, University of Toronto, Claire Smith, Information Officer for Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Toronto, Mark Catt, James Roes, and Gretta Fletcher; each of whom have demonstrated cheerful patience in assisting me to become familiar with various computer programs.

2. Many of the Protestant religious texts that were authorized during the Tudor era are discussed by John Booty (Godly Kingdom of Tudor England).

3. See the Preface to the English Bible authorized for public use in 1539 which discusses "what availeth scripture to be had and read of the lay and vulgar people" ("A Prologue or Preface made by the Most Reverend Father in God, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan and Primate of England," in Cranmer [Miscellaneous Writings and Letters]: 118-25; I have quoted from 119). The Preface to the 1547 Homilies states: ". . . they shal recite the Pater Noster, the Articles of our Fayth and the Tenne Commanudementes in Englishe, openly before all the people, as in the sayd Injunccions is specified: that all degrees and al ages may learne to know God and to serve him, accordynge to hys Holy Word" (Bond, Certain Sermons or Homilies 56). The Preface to the first Prayer Book (1549) reiterates justifications for using the vernacular in public worship: "The seruice in this Churche of England (these many yeares) hath been read in Latin to the people, whiche they understoode not; so that they haue heard with theyr eares onely; and their hartes, spirite, and minde, haue not been edified thereby . . . . al thinges shalbe read and song in the churche, in the Englishe tongue, to thende yt the congregacion maie be therby edified" (The First and Second Prayer-Books of King Edward the Sixth 3, 5).

4. Elizabeth I and her bishops produced a book of sermons to consolidate the aims of the Elizabethan Settlement and to supplement the Edwardian homilies, titled Certain Sermons or Homilies which was published in 1547 and reissued in 1559. The bulk of the Elizabethan Settlement's officially endorsed religious publishing was adapted from works which circulated during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Unlike the English Bible, the 1547 Homilies, The Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of Religion, The Second Tome of Homilies is a singularly Elizabethan contribution to the formation of the developing Ecclesia Anglicana.

5. TACT 2.1 is available on the World Wide Web at <URL: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca:8080/cch/tact.html>.

6. The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database contains 225,000 word-entries from eighteen works published between 1530 and 1657. Eleven of these lexicographical works are available for free general inquiry on the Web at <URL: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca:8080/english/emed/emedd.html>.

7. Erika Rummel discusses the situation in Chapter 6, "The Debate and the Reformation," which is particularly useful to my study, although she discusses continental figures and her focus is the university debate about curriculum and its inseparable links to matters of faith.

8. More's criticisms of Tyndale are found in A Dialogue concerning Heresies (1528; ed. Thomas M.C. Lawler, Germain Marc'hadour and Richard C. Marius, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 6 in 2 parts [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1981]). Tyndale's response is found in An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue; this edition will be superceded by the forthcoming Catholic University of America edition of Tyndale's Independent Works (General Editor, Anne M. O'Donnell, SND). More's rebuttal (five times the length of Tyndale's Answer) is found in The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532-3; ed. Richard C. Marius, James P. Lusardi, and Richard J. Schoeck, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 8 in 3 parts [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1973]). David Daniell reviews the controversy in Chapter 10, "Sir Thomas More" of William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1994).

9. (Griffiths 151). I have used this edition for ease of reference.

10. I have discussed the qualifications to the homily's argument in "`A leaden mediocrity:' Competing views of the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion in The Stripping of the Altars and The Second Tome of Homilies." The paper was given at the Southeastern Renaissance Conference at Duke University, 22 March 1996 and will be published in Renaissance Papers 1996.

11. The queen's delay is suggested by Matthew Parker's letter to Sir William Cecil, "I would gladly the Queen's Majesty would resolve herself in our books of Homilies" (Bruce and Thomason Perowne 177).

12. OED 1.419.

13. OED 2.2710.

14. I would like to thank Katherine Patterson of Simon Fraser University who informed me that Blount was a Roman Catholic.

Works Cited

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 23, 1997)