The Fish Book

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

It smelled.  Fisher-folk, fishwives, fishmongers, families with children, and members of the college community all jostled together at the weekly fish market in Cambridge, England.  It was Tuesday, June 23rd, 1626.  The air was pungent with fish-oils and sweat, and alive with bartering, shouting and laughter as people haggled over locally caught trout, catfish, pike, smelt, perch and lampreys, along with salmon, plaice, mussels, cockles and of course cod from ports to the north and south.  But beyond the smell of the market, a whiff of something extraordinary was coming their way.

Dr. Joseph Mede, a scholar at nearby Christ’s College, was dreaming about dinner – a nice salmon steak from the Thames perhaps – when a gasp, a shout rose up from one of the fish stalls.  A seller had been gutting and slicing a large cod when he made discovered a treasure in the belly.  A brown, slime-covered glob of tiny pages was lodged in the cod’s innards.  It was a book.  The book was passed through several hands, and then on to Mede. The find could not have gone into better hands.

Mede (1586 – 1639) was a Bible scholar at Cambridge.  His commentaries on the Books of Daniel and Revelation earned him broad acclaim.  He had used the symbolic numbering in those  prophetic books to fix a date for the Second Coming of Christ –  1716 – he was of course wrong.  Apart from his numerical juggling Mede was one of the College’s finest, a linguist,  a church historian, and a representative voice for the Church of England among Europe’s leading Protestant theologians. Mede recognized something potentially unique about the fish book.  He took it to the vice-chancellor of the university who then passed it to a book-binder who cleaned it and brought its remarkable contents to light.    

The book was a copy of a religious tract written in the previous century.  It had three essays in it. While no name was attributed to any of them, Mede recognized one of the essays as “A Mirror or Glass to Know Thyself” written by John Frith who had been martyred during Henry VIII’s early reign.    The other two essays were “The Preparation to the Cross and to Death,” and “A Brief instruction to Teach a Person Willingly to Die,”  and while scholars would haggle over their authorship, a good case could be made that those were written by Frith as well.

So who was John Frith (1503-1533)?  Frith had been a highly acclaimed Cambridge graduate and a young canon at Oxford who fell out of favour once he became a pamphleteer for the Protestant cause.  With amazing clarity, he challenged two doctrines of the Roman Catholic Faith – transubstantiation and Purgatory.  The dogma of transubstantiation said the communion bread and wine became the natural body and blood of Jesus Christ  during the Prayer of Consecration.  The doctrine of Purgatory said Purgatory was an intermediate place the Faithful went after to be purified for Heaven.  The Church of England had yet to break with Rome and embraced both doctrines. 

Frith’s very public opposition to such dogma made him suspect.  Quite early on, he was  arrested along with nine others for possessing heretical books and held in a fish cellar in Oxford.  Once freed he was on the run, often disguised as a beggar, and pursuing a written campaign against those two doctrines in particular.  In 1529 he wrote “A Disputation of Purgatory,”  aimed squarely at the Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the hierarchy of the Church of England.  Chancellor More answered back with a somewhat weak rebuttal.  Frith responded with the essay “A Mirror or Glass to Know Thyself,” a copy of which was found in the so-called Fish Book. 

What did the essay say?  The “mirror” in its title referred to the Bible. Protestants held the Bible  should be the standard for gauging the truth of any Church doctrine.  It was the judge as to whether or not such doctrines about transubstantiation or Purgatory were true or merely  illusions of the Faith.   At one point Frith switches the metaphor of the Bible as a mirror and loosely uses the term “grindstone.”  In so doing, he gives us the first written use of the phrase “nose to the grindstone.” 

“Nose to the grindstone” was intended as a violent metaphor. In his disdain for the Church hierarchy, he believed the faces (i.e. noses) of false religious teachers would be ground down by the Biblical injunction to teach the people the simple Word of God.  Frith said those in Church leadership were “double thieves and murderers” because they neither preached God’s word, nor allowed others to “do it purely,” but instead persecuted and put them to death.    It is fitting that the remaining two essays in the Fish Book addressed death and Christian martyrdom. That would be Frith’s fate.

Arrested several times, he used prison as an opportunity to write.  His writings were monitored by More.  Frith was eventually sent to the Tower of London, where he penned his views on Holy Communion in opposition to the doctrine of transubstantiation,  knowing they would be used, in his words,  “to purchase me most cruel death.”    He was sentenced to death by fire and offered a pardon if he professed a belief in Purgatory and transubstantiation. His answer was clear “No man is bound to believe the (Church) Doctors except they can be proved true either by Scripture or good reason not repugnant to Scripture. “ He was clear – the Catholic doctrines he was challenging lacked Biblical foundation. He died in a public burning at Smithfield, London, July 4, 1533.  He was 33, married with children.

The story of John Frith is filled with ironies.   A week after his execution, Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  Frith’s chief adversary, Thomas More was executed for treason two years later – July 6, 1535.   More’s brother-in-law, barrister John Rastell who had interrogated Frith,  eventually converted to Protestantism through Frith’s writings. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Frith’s martyrdom, later drafted the Forty-Two Articles of Religion (the predecessor to our Thirty-Nine Articles) which condemned the doctrines of purgatory and  transubstantiation as unbiblical.   The Fish Book or “Vox Pisces” as it was called, underscored that position for a new generation of readers.  It also gave the English language the phrase, “nose to the grindstone.”  How the book ended up in the belly of a large cod fish remains a mystery.

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