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Thursday, 3 March 2011

Richard Thomson – Bringing back the lost sheep

Richard Thomson (also Thompson) was born in Holland of English parents, probably around 1569. (1) Nicknamed ‘Dutch Thomson,’ he became a fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1587. Nine years later he took his Master’s degree at Oxford. By then he was probably 27 years old. This was ten years before the Hampton Court Conference, which authorised the making of a new translation, in 1604.
[Thomson] . . . travelled widely on the continent, and mastered several modern as well as ancient languages.(1)
Personal reputation
Richard Thomson’s personal reputation is tainted by controversy:

Thomson lived hard and fast and although a fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, was also part of a much racier and riskier London set.(2)
When in England he seems to have preferred the London social scene where Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Dekker drew large audiences to the playhouses and the young bucks of the Jacobean court set the tone of conspicuous consumption and display. (1)
Professional skill
Thomson made his name as a brilliant linguist by translating and editing the epigrams of the Latin poet Martial. Martial’s short witty poems cheerfully satirise the pretentious city life of first-century Rome and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances. In so doing his descriptions overstepped the bounds of decency – it would take another 300 years before the State sanctioned Christian sexual mores. The obscenity which stains the epigrams of Martial has thereby tainted the name of Richard Thomson, for his unwise perpetuation of lewd literature in English translation. However

. . . Martial has a great deal to teach any writer. Everything he composed was honed to exactness. Every sentiment he expressed had been examined by a fierce intelligence. There is nothing lax, soft or expected in Martial’s epigrams: they are the product of a mind that has worked.(2)
Richard Thomson’s translation of Martial was renowned for its wit, and amid other more amateurish attempts, some thought Thomson to be ‘the great interpreter.’
Anyone who could match Martial in his art, who was also a man of the church, and an acknowledged linguist, with correspondents in Italy, France and Germany, was a man to have in your company. The disciple of Martial would not accept the second-rate; and his mind would be bright enough to summon the best.(2)
Richard Montague,Bishop of Norwich and chaplain to the King - himself a linguist assisting Sir Henry Savile’s editing - called Thomson "a most admirable philologer." He said, however, Thomson was "better known in Italy, France, and Germany, than at home."
Did Thomson work hard on the Translation?
Lancelot Andrewes headed up the team of Old Testament translators at Westminster. As such, he dominated his fellows and felt let down by their disposition: “Most of our company are negligent,” he wrote in a letter in 1604. (2) However, the work of translation had hardly started in 1604, so was this hubris at work? Or, did he speak with premonition about men like Thomson, whose expertise was not Hebrew but Latin, and who may have attracted a dark taint from publishing ‘the full Monty' of Martial’s epigrams for a new generation . If several (or most) of Andrewes' team were negligent, that would have left the way open for him, as one of the great preachers of the age, to take Tyndale’s work and exercise to the full his “feeling for enrichment, and a layered dense , baroque sensibility,” making these qualities “sit alongside other contemporary demands for secretarial exactness and clarity.”(2) But, given the date 1604, we do not really know whether Andrewes’ premonition (if such it was) later proved correct.
Should he have been appointed?

Who appointed Richard Thomson to be one of the company of translators, which translated the Old Testament from Genesis to II Kings inclusively?
[In appointing Richard Bancroft as the project coordinator] the King did not, in fact, wait for his new archbishop to assemble a team of translators. By the summer of of 1604 he had personally designated fifty-four scholars to be involved. . . He had already informed Bancroft that “so religious a work should admit of no delay and the chief translators should with all possible speed meet together. . . . The King left absolutely nothing to chance. He supervised the drawing up of a list of very precise guidelines.” (3)
Richard Thomson was a member of Lancelot Andrewes’ team at Westminster. Andrewes’ disapproval of Thomson might not have been enough to overrule James’ personal appointment of Thomson, if it had been made at the King’s instigation. King James himself has been accused of being a closet homosexual – the result of his being starved of normal familial affection in earlier childhood. (4) If the royal Court itself was seen as dysfunctional in sexual matters, it’s hardly surprising if Andrewes was willing to see Richard Thomson’s appointment as a potential start to a healing process in “bringing back the lost sheep on the shoulder.”
God’s majesty and love, his willingness to forgive, said Andrewes’, in his Manual of Private Devotion

. . . is tender, sweet, better than life;
Hating nothing that it hath made,
Neglecting neither the young ravens,
Nor the sparrows,
Bringing back the lost sheep on the shoulder,
Sweeping the house for the piece of silver,
Binding up the wounds of the half-dead,
Opening paradise to the thief
Who is standing at the door and knocking.
Caught in the crossfire?

Thomson would probably be esteemed by many Aussies as a larrikin. Long after he had died, Thomson was accused by William Prynne of being ‘a debosh'd drunken English Dutchman, who seldom went one night to bed sober.' McClure says this accusation applied to Thomson’s later years, after he had been given a ‘living’ as a reward for hard work in a comfortable village called Snailwell, in Lancelot Andrewes’ diocese of Ely. Prynne was a next-generation lawyer who was only 13 years old when Thomson died. He was a Puritan leader and a severe disciplinarian. Archbishop William Laud, leader of the opposing Arminian party, had put Prynne in the pillory and branded him on the cheeks with the letters S. L., signifying 'seditious libeller' - and his ears were cropped. This was recompense for Prynne opposing Laud’s high churchmanship. Prynne finally had William Laud tried and beheaded for ostensibly treasonable persecution of Puritan leaders. Doubtless Prynne saw Thomson of a previous generation as part of the enemy he had spent his life opposing - the Presbyterian divines had called Thomson "the grand propagator of Arminianism” (McClure). In this troubled context, Prynne’s comment about Thomson’s drinking habits sounds suspiciously like a partisan overstatement made well after the event on the basis of hearsay. Perhaps it describes how Thomson, in retirement, fell into Noah’s trap (Gen. 9:20), whilst cultivating a vineyard in his back garden! (2)
grapes in an English vineyard

Richard Thomson was buried at St. Edward's, Cambridge, on 8th January 1612–13.
1. Wilson, Derek (2010) The People’s Bible: The remarkable history of the King James Version, OX: Lion. pp. 94 – 95.
2. Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. pp. 99 - 101, 194-195
3. Wilson, p. 88.
4. Fraser, Antonia (1974) King James I of England, Lon: Book Club Associates, pp. 36-37.

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