What I have been calling the technological history of modernity is in part a story about the power of recognizing how certain technologies work — and the penalties imposed on those who fail to grasp their logic.

In his early book Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt tells a story:

In 1531 a lawyer named James Bainham, son of a Gloucestershire knight, was accused of heresy, arrested, and taken from the Middle Temple to Lord Chancellor More’s house in Chelsea, where he was detained while More tried to persuade him to abjure his Protestant beliefs. The failure of this attempt called forth sterner measures until, after torture and the threat of execution, Bainham finally did abjure, paying a £20 fine to the king and standing as a penitent before the priest during the Sunday sermon at Paul’s Cross. But scarcely a month after his release, according to John Foxe, Bainham regretted his abjuration “and was never quiet in mind and conscience until the time he had uttered his fall to all his acquaintance, and asked God and all the world forgiveness, before the congregation in those days, in a warehouse in Bow lane.” On the following Sunday, Bainham came openly to Saint Austin’s church, stood up “with the New Testament in his hand in English and the Obedience of a Christian Man [by Tyndale] in his bosom,” and, weeping, declared to the congregants that he had denied God. He prayed the people to forgive him, exhorted them to beware his own weakness to die rather than to do as he had done, “for he would not feel such a hell again as he did feel, for all the world’s good.” He was, of course, signing his own death warrant, which he sealed with letters to the bishop of London and others. He was promptly arrested and, after reexamination, burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.

When Bainham was first interrogated by More, he told the Lord Chancellor that “The truth of holy Scripture was never, these eight hundred years past, so plainly and expressly declared unto the people, as it hath been within these six years” — the six years since the printing of Tyndale’s New Testament in 1525.

The very presence of this book was, to ecclesial traditionalists, clearly the essential problem. So back in 1529 Thomas More and his friend Cuthbert Tunstall, then Bishop of London, had crossed the English Channel to Antwerp, where Tyndale’s translation was printed. (Its printing and sale were of course forbidden in England.) More and Tunstall searched high and low, bought every copy of the translation they could find, and burned them all in a great bonfire.

Tyndale gladly received this as a boon: he had already come to recognize that his first version of the New Testament had many errors, and he used the money received from More and Tunstall to hasten his work on completing and publishing a revision, which duly appeared in 1534.