Tuesday, March 30, 2010

John Wyclif and the Origins of Lollardy

A little something on Wyclif and the Lollards that might become a section of a simple book on church history someday:

Lollardy (sometimes spelled Lollardie) was the name given to an English heretical movement that began near the end of the fourteenth century. Its origins can be traced back to the teaching, preaching, the personal network and, above all, the writings of John Wyclif. [1]

We don't know when Wyclif was born, but it was likely sometime in the mid-1320s, near Richmond in the northern county of Yorkshire. Ordained a priest in September 1351, he spent most of his adult life at Oxford. He was a steward at Merton College in 1356, and a master at Balliol College by December 1360. He received the doctorate in theology in either 1372 or 1373. By all accounts, he possessed a tremendous mind and capacity for work. He was, in the words of Knighton, “second to no one, unequalled in the disciplines of the schools.” [2]

In his early writings, Wyclif made an argument for the disendowment of clerics who were in mortal sin. In that state, he said, they had no divine right to position and power. This, of course, made him popular with the devout clergy who agreed with him. Most of all, it made him popular with the Crown.

Early on, he had a benefactor in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was primarily the Duke's influence that led to Wyclif’s entry into royal service as a sort of schooled advocate who could help to undermine church privilege and the authority of the Pope. During those years, Wyclif stayed busy writing and preaching.

On May 22, 1377, Gregory XI issued five papal bulls condemning the views of Wyclif. Detained for a time at Oxford, he was soon released due to popular support there. In later skirmishes with Archbishop Sudbury and his successor, William Courtenay, Wyclif was protected by the likes of Gaunt and, on at least one occasion, Joan of Kent, mother of King Richard II.

By the late 1370s, however, Wyclif was doing more than simply attacking the abuses and the wealth of the church. Most significantly, he dismissed the orthodox, traditional understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, he denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. As a result, in May of 1381, William Barton, chancellor of Oxford, presided over a committee that condemned such heresy, though without specifically naming Wyclif. Then, on June 13, 1381—Corpus Christi day—peasant rebels, angry over an attempt to freeze wages, came to the outskirts of London and entered the city. [3]  During three days of mayhem, they killed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his De blasphemia, Wyclif wrote about the revolt. Although he never accepted even an indirect contribution to the catastrophe, chroniclers of the day did not agree; they saw a connection between public sentiment and Wyclif's influence. By then, Wyclif was no longer looked on as an interesting and useful radical, but more as a dangerous and loathsome heretic. He could no longer count on the critical support of some of the clergy and aristocracy, and by October 1381 he had retreated to his out-of-the-way parish in Lutterworth where he died at Mass on the last day of 1384.

The period in which Wyclif wrote his more-popular works and led a public life had lasted hardly more than a decade. But he left behind a large number of books and treatises, in English as well as in Latin, and not a few personal associates who were still at Oxford or who had since gone out from there, providing leadership for the group now known as the Lollards.

[1] Here I depend heavily upon Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60: 616-30.

[2] According to Steven Justice, “Lollardy,” in Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 663, n. 3, where the author cites Knighton, Chronicon, edited by Lumby, vol. II, 151.

[3] Norman F. Cantor, The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 253-54.


Carisse said...

Chaucer's wife had served as a lady in waiting in the house of Gaunt, a connection which in my opinion accounts for the way clerical figures are depicted in Canterbury Tales. The humble country parson comes off much better than the friar, pardoner, prioress, etc.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Carisse.

Those connections between Chaucer and and Lollardy and the Court certain are interesting, aren't they?

I think that after the Peasants' Revolt, the uprising of Sir John Oldcastle finally identfied Lollardy with insurrection. After that, most popular sympathy for the movement disappeared, especially among the upper ranks.