The Plowboy and the Ploughman

Below is a brief history of the theme of “plowboy” or ploughman” in the context of Bible translations their intelligibility. This is part one of a four part series written by Christopher Yetzer on his FB wall [07/26/2022]. Thanks to him for allowing me to repost this here.

I found Yetzer insightful on the point that “plowboy” or ploughman” represents a kind of person. The terms “plowboy” or ploughman” stand as representatives of the common man in his socio-economic and socio-academic condition when compared to academicians. I hope it will be a blessing to you.

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Jerome seems to be one of the earliest witnesses to the type of language that has come to be associated with the plowman as it relates to his use of Scripture. Around 386AD he wrote to Marcella[letter 46] describing the condition of the Holy Land using these words: “in the cottage of Christ all is simple and rustic: and except for the chanting of psalms there is complete silence. Wherever one turns the laborer at his plough [arator stivam tenens] sings alleluia, the toiling mower cheers himself with psalms, and the vine-dresser while he prunes his vine sings one of the lays of David. These are the songs of the country; these, in popular phrase, its love ditties: these the shepherd whistles; these the tiller uses to aid his toil.

Around the same time on his first homily on the Gospel of Matthew, Chrysostom speaks about the “few and plain words” which Christ has taught concerning what is virtuous and right. He then says, “And these things even to a ploughman[γηπονω], and to a servant, and to a widow woman, and to a very child, and to him that appears to be exceedingly slow of understanding, are all plain to comprehend and easy to learn.” The word γηπονω has been rendered differently in modern translations. γη means land/earth/soil and πονω means to toil or suffer. In some printings it is translated in Latin as rustico or agricolæ. As early as 1636 in Nehemiah Rogers’ The True Convert, Chrysostom’s word was translated as “plough-man” in English. Most modern translations interpret it as laborer, but this most likely brings the wrong image to mind. It seems to be more appropriate to call him at least a laborer of soil or earth, possibly a farmer or plowman. The main idea is obviously the same, no matter the specific word used.

This image of a farmer or a plowman was then carried on by some Catholics who desired to have the Scriptures translated into the vulgar tongues. In the preface to Erasmus’ first edition of his Greek and Latin New Testament, he uses similar words to those used by Jerome. However, whereas Jerome was claiming to have heard them in his day, Erasmus was desirous that in his day such things could be heard, “Perhaps it is better to conceal the mysteries of kings, but Christ’ mysteries he desires to be published as openly as possible. I wish that all young women would read the Gospel and read Paul’s Epistles. Also that they would be translated into every language, so that they could be read and understood not only by the Scots and Irish, but also by the Turks and Saracens. The first step is to learn them, no matter the cost. There may be many who laugh, but some would be captured. Would that, as a result, the farmer might sing some portion of them at the plough[ad stivam aliquid decantet agricola], that the weaver might hum some parts of them at his wheel and that the traveler might relieve the weariness of his journey with stories of this kind! Let all the conversations of every Christian be drawn from this source. For in general our daily conversations reveal what we are.

The Dominican friar, Marmochino, then mimicked Erasmus in his 1638 Italian Bible preface, “And then if with a pious and Christian eye one considers the truth, would it not seem a most laudable and holy thing if even this plowman, guiding the plow, sang anything in his mother tongue from the Psalms; and if the weaver, while standing diligently at his loom checking over his work, consoled his fatigue with the Gospel; and if the helmsman diligent about the rudder, sang something from it; and so if others like them, diligent on their labors, would ease themselves with the most holy praise of God and word of the Gospel?

The 1582 Catholic Douay-Rheims English New Testament, while clearly opposing vulgar translations, continues the tradition of using the ploughman, “The poore ploughman, could then in laboring the ground, sing the hymnes and psalms either in knowen or unknowen languages, as they heard them in the holy Church, though they could neither reade nor know the sense, meaning, and mysteries of the same.

While the ploughman was mostly used by Catholics up to the time of the Council of Trent, shortly thereafter he was borrowed as a sort of battle cry for the Protestants.

In 1563 John Foxe took the analogy to an even greater level when he reported in his book, Actes and Monuments, that William Tyndale said to “a certain Divine”, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.” This moved the plea from the common laborer to a working young boy. The attribution of this phrase to Tyndale has been challenged and doubted by some. [Jan J. Martin, “William Tyndale, John Foxe, and the ‘Boy That Driveth the Plough’,” Religious Educator, 17, no. 2 (2016): 86–105.] Even if the phrase was never said by Tyndale, the idea was still promoted by Foxe who was no friend of the Catholics and a similar thought (albeit closer to the ploughman than the ploughboy) is still demonstrated in Tyndale’s 1530 preface, “Which thing only moved me to translate the New Testament. Because I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.

Almost a century later, Thomas Swadlin, although surely not unbiased, tried to give a fair perspective of the differing opinions of the Church of Rome and the Reformed Church concerning the Scriptures. In 1643 he said concerning the position of the “Protestant or Reformed Divines”, “That in respect of the manner of Delivering, the Scriptures are onely easie and perspicuous unto them, who are not hindered by Age or Ignorance of the Language in which they reade the Scripture; and who are endued with the Spirit of God; they understanding them onely as they ought to be understood, though they be but plough-men:”[The Scriptures Vindicated from the Unsound Conclusions of Card: Bellarmine.]

Not everyone used the “ploughman/ploughboy” moniker, in fact most people didn’t. For instance Thomas Cranmer in his prologue attached to the Bishops’ Bible used the phrase “the lay and vulgare people”. KJV translator John Bois described them as, “the common people.” [An Exposition of the Dominical Epistles and Gospels Used in Our English Liturgie Throughout the Whole Year.] Therefore the image of the ploughman (while a historical occupation and also a figure throughout the Bible) was originally an application used by the Catholics which Erasmus’ borrowed from Jerome for his preface. It was then replicated by other Catholics who in that time desired the Bible to be translated into the vulgar languages. After the Council of Trent, Protestants in some rare examples took up the character and furthered its use left by the wayside by the Catholics. The word “ploughboy” is not in the KJV preface and neither is “ploughman”. But I do think the language Smith used had a similar idea in mind. Newman and Houser defined Smith’s phrase “very vulgare” as “the ordinary or uneducated person”.[Translation that Openeth the Window.]

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