Gerald Hammond

Gerald Hammond’s books include The Making of the English Bible and Fleeting Things: English Poets and Poems 1616-60. He is John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester.

Saucy to Princes: The Bible

Gerald Hammond, 25 July 2002

Julia Kristeva was in Manchester in March to give a lecture. One of the pleasures of her visit, for me, the day after the lecture and en route to the Manchester United superstore, was to accompany her on a tour of the Deansgate branch of the John Rylands University Library. Mrs Rylands, the extraordinary founder of the collection, was particularly keen on Bibles, and among the many Biblical...

Vendetta: The story of David

Gerald Hammond, 7 September 2000

Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and commentary on the most literary of all the Bible’s narratives, the story of David. The translation is conservative, fully in line with the Authorised Version (and all the better for that). The commentary is up to date, absorbing not only the latest scholarship but concentrating on the extraordinary narrative power of the story of family vendetta and power politics which spans the two books of Samuel. A large part of its first half recounts the battle of wills between Saul and David. Saul is the original charismatic leader whose grip on power weakens as David, the true hero of the Old Testament, its poet and its once and future king, moves to the centre of the story. If Saul is the model for Macbeth, David is the model for Henry V.

Diary: Taiwan and China

Gerald Hammond, 3 September 1998

As Henry James never tired of noting, the real thing turns up rarely, in unpredictable places and unexpected guises. I have now encountered it and, marvellous to relate, stamped on it are the words most redolent of the cheap and gimcrack, ‘Made in Taiwan’. Just north of Taipei is the National Palace Museum of the Republic of China, as Taiwan officially calls itself, one of the four great museums of the world. It is certainly the least known and least visited of the four, but far and away the most magical, for in room after room are the finest treasures of five thousand years of Chinese history, ranging from the oracle bones used by advisers to the earliest rulers to the hairpins and fingernail guards of the courtiers who served the last emperors.‘

Have you heard the one about the children who laughed at the prophet and called him ‘slaphead’? A bear tore 42 of them to pieces. Or the one about the maid, expecting her master’s child, who then laughed at her mistress’s infertility? The mistress got a double revenge: she had the maid kicked out into the desert, then had a son herself and called him ‘laughing boy’. If those do not make you laugh, how about the idea of a man writing a book on Rabelais today without once mentioning Bakhtin? The punch-line to that one is that it turns out to be a very good book.‘

Diary: At the Races

Gerald Hammond, 3 July 1997

When W.B. Yeats imagined his ideal society, an aristocratic world where poets would be celebrated, and surrounded by ‘hearers and hearteners of the work’, the one place where it could be glimpsed was the racecourse: ‘There, where the course is,’ he wrote in ‘At Galway Races’, ‘delight makes all of the one mind.’ A peculiarly Irish vision maybe, with a racecourse seemingly around every bend in Ireland, but it holds true to an extent in this country, too. Here the racecourse is still the place of entertainment and work for all classes, although the extent to which they are all of the one mind is questionable. Certainly a sizeable chunk of the crowd, the gentlemen with the big satchels, and all their attendant helpers, are intent on relieving the rest of as much of their disposable income as they can. The punters are just as determined to make the cash flow in the other direction, but the odds are, literally, against them.

Close Shaves

Gerald Hammond, 31 October 1996

The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in studies of the Reformation period and this book by Diarmaid MacCulloch is the piece which completes the jigsaw, putting at the centre of the first half of the 16th century Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop with the beard who created the Church of England. Cranmer’s beard dominates the cover. Instead of the familiar Flicke portrait of a clean-shaven prelate, MacCulloch or his editor (I’d bet it was MacCulloch’s choice) has preferred the inferior and much less attractive portrait preserved at Lambeth House, where his white beard is so emphasised that Cranmer looks more like an Orthodox rabbi than an Archbishop of Canterbury. The beard also figures prominently in the book’s final illustrations, engravings which portray the last hours of his life, his burning at the stake and, just previous to that, two which show the desperate attempts by the Marian hierarchy to suppress his final recantation of his recantation in the University Church at Oxford. One of these illustrations is the official one, as it were, taken from the 1563 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, in which Cranmer still stands superior to his tormentors, in spite of their attempts to pull him down by his clothes. More dramatic is the alternative engraving of the scene, found in a slightly later book by Foxe’s printer, which MacCulloch suggests was rejected from the book of martyrs, in which a clean-shaven and tonsured monk pulls hard at Cranmer’s beard.

Yes, die

Gerald Hammond, 23 May 1996

When William Tyndale had completed his 1526 New Testament he set about learning Hebrew and translated from the original, with the aid of Luther’s version, the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which he issued in 1530. The signs are that Tyndale’s immersion in its patriarchal narratives and legal codes transformed his doctrinal views – in contrast to Luther, who tended always to regard the Old Testament as an embarrassment at best and a Jewish conspiracy at worst – and inaugurated that strange elevation of the Old Testament which still marks English and American culture. One element of this is easy to understand: the best stories in the Bible are in the Old Testament. Their influence has been immense, ranging from the Old and New World puritans who saw their travails clearly reflected in the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the Promised Land, to the First World War soldiers who read into Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son their elders’ easy tolerance of the huge casualty figures.’


Homage to Tyndale

17 December 1992

The old bias lives on, even while those who hold it profess objectivity. I refer to Professor Trapp’s review of David Daniell’s editions of Tyndale (LRB, 17 December 1992), where he tells us that ‘More was murdered’ and ‘Tyndale was executed.’ If anything, I would have thought that it was the other way round: but then I would not have said that More ‘sternly...


Tom Shippey, 26 July 1990

‘Of all nations’, writes Ian Ousby, ‘we’, the English, have ‘perhaps the most strongly defined sense of national identity – so developed and so stylised, in...

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