In the 1490’s another Oxford professor, and the personal physician to King Henry the 7th and 8th, Thomas Linacre, decided to learn Greek. After reading the Gospels in Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary, “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… or we are not Christians.” The Latin had become so corrupt that it no longer even preserved the message of the Gospel… yet the Church still threatened to kill anyone who read the scripture in any language other than Latin… though Latin was not an original language of the scriptures.
Thomas Linacre (or Lynaker) (c. 1460 – October 20, 1524), English humanist and physician, was probably born at Canterbury. Of his parentage or descent nothing certain is known.
Early Education of Thomas Linacre
Thomas Lynacre received his early education at the cathedral school of Canterbury, then under the direction of William Celling, who became prior of Canterbury in 1472. Celling was an ardent scholar, and one of the earliest in England who cultivated Greek learning. From him Linacre must have received his first incentive to this study.
Linacre entered Oxford about the year 1480, and in 1484 was elected a fellow of All Souls’ College. Shortly afterwards he visited Italy in the train of Celling, who was sent by Henry VIII as an envoy to the papal court, and he accompanied his patron as far as Bologna. There he became the pupil of Angelo Poliziano, and afterwards shared the instruction which that great scholar imparted at Florence to the sons of Lorenzo de ‘Medici. The younger of these princes became Pope Leo X, who was famous for his heretical claim that “the fable of Christ has been quite profitable to us” which infuriated the Protestants.
Associates of Thomas Linacre
Among Linacre’s other teachers and friends in Italy were Demetrius Chalcondylas, Aldus Romanus the printer of Venice, and Nicolaus Leonicenus of Vicenza. Linacre took the degree of doctor of medicine with great distinction at Padua. On his return to Oxford, full of the learning and imbued with the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, he formed one of the brilliant circle of Oxford scholars, including John Colet, William Grocyn and William Latimer, who are mentioned with so much warm eulogy in the letters of Erasmus.
Linacre does not appear to have practiced or taught medicine in Oxford. About the year 1501 he was called to court as tutor of the young prince Arthur. On the accession of Henry VIII he was appointed the king’s physician, an office at that time of considerable influence and importance, and practiced medicine in London, having among his patients most of the great statesmen and prelates of the time, as Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Warham and Bishop Fox.
After some years of professional activity, and when in advanced life, Linacre received priest’s orders in 1520, though he had for some years previously held several clerical benefices. There is no doubt that his ordination was connected with his retirement from active life. Literary labours, and the cares of the foundation which owed its existence chiefly to him, the Royal College of Physicians, occupied Linacre’s remaining years till his death on the 20th of October 1524.
Linacre the Scholar
Linacre was more of a scholar than a man of letters, and rather a man of learning than a scientific investigator. He was one of the first Englishmen who studied Greek in Italy, whence he brought back to his native country and his own university the lessons of the “New Learning.” His teachers were some of the greatest scholars of the day. Among his pupils was one–Erasmus–whose name alone would suffice to preserve the memory of his instructor in Greek, and others of note in letters and politics, such as Sir Thomas More, Prince Arthur and Queen Mary. Colet, Grocyn, William Lilye and other eminent scholars were his close friends, and he was esteemed by a still wider circle of literary correspondents in all parts of Europe.
Linacre’s literary activity was displayed in two directions, in pure scholarship and in translation from the Greek. In the domain of scholarship he was known by the rudiments of Latin grammar (Progymnasmata Grammatices vulgaria), composed in English. He also wrote a work on Latin composition, De emendata structure, Latini sermonis, which was published in London in 1524 and many times reprinted on the continent of Europe. Linacre’s only medical works were his translations. He desired to make the works of Galen, and indeed those of Aristotle also, accessible to all readers of Latin. Concerning Linacre’s translations from Aristotle, some of which are known to have been completed, nothing has survived.
Linacre the Physician
But the most important service which Linacre conferred upon his own profession and science was not by his writings. Linacre was responsible for the foundation by royal charter of the College of Physicians in London, and he was the first president of the new college, which he further aided by conveying to it his own house, and by the gift of his library. Two readerships were founded in Merton College, Oxford, and one in St John’s College, Cambridge, but owing to neglect and bad management of the funds, they fell into uselessness and obscurity. The Oxford foundation was revived by the university commissioners in 1856 in the form of the Linacre Professorship of Anatomy. Posterity has done justice to the generosity and public spirit which prompted these foundations; and it is impossible to overlook the importance of the College of Physicians by which Linacre not only first organized the medical profession in England, but impressed upon it for some centuries the stamp of his own individuality.
Linacre, Colet, and the Protestant Reformation
As a professor of philosophy at Oxford, Linacre founded the Department for Greek Studies. He did this after a two-year sojourn to Italy to learn Greek himself. Upon returning to Oxford, Linacre discovered that the Greek manuscripts were dramatically different from the Latin Vulgate. He wrote in his diary, “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… of we are not Christians”. The Latin Vulgate had become progressively more and more corrupted with each passing generation over the previous 1,000 years.
Linacre notified John Colet, another Oxford professor, and Colet was inspired to follow in Linacre’s footsteps and take a two-year sabbatical to Italy to study Greek. Upon returning to Oxford, Colet assisted Linacre in the production of the first Greek grammar book printed in England. The work of Colet and Linacre contributed greatly to the public awareness that the Roman Catholic Church’s Latin Vulgate text could not be trusted, and called for Christian scholars to return to the original Greek manuscripts to translate, or at least to understand, the Gospel as it was originally meant to be communicated.