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John Wyclif

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Wyclif (WYCLIFFE, or WICLIF, etc.), JOHN, writer and “reformer”, b. probably at Hipswell near Richmond, in Yorkshire, 1324; d. at Lutterworth, Leicestershire, December 31,1384. His family is said to have come from Wycliffe, on the Tees, in the same county. The traditional date of his birth is given as 1324, but some authorities put it earlier. Hardly any thing is known of his early life, and his career at Oxford is obscured by the presence of at least one man of the same name and probably of more. It is almost certain, however, that he was educated at Balliol College and that in 1361 he must have resigned the master ship on receiving the living of Fillingham. This he exchanged a few years later for that of Ludgershall. It must not be supposed, however, that he gave up his university career, for livings were often given to learned men to enable them to continue their studies or their teaching. Wyclif himself, for instance, received a two years’ license for non-residence, in 1368, on account of his studies. Meanwhile, in 1365, a man of his name, and usually identified with the future “reformer”, had been appointed warden of the new Canterbury Hall by Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, only to be turned out two years later in favor of a monk by the new archbishop. The dispossessed warden, with the fellows, appealed to Rome, but failed in their appeal. A number of Wyclif’s recent biographers have sought to identify this warden with another ecclesiastic, a friend of Islip’s and probably a fellow of Merton; but it seems dangerous, in spite of much plausibility in this new identification, to reject the direct statements of contemporary writers, controversialists though they be, and possibly of a reference in one of Wyclif’s own writings. Soon after these events, probably in 1372, Wyclif received the Degree of Doctor of Theology. He was by this time a man of repute in the university, and it is strange that his doctorate should have been so long delayed. The explanation may possibly be found in the fact that Balliol was an “Arts” college and that most of its fellows were not allowed to graduate in theology. Ecclesiastical promotion did not fail the new doctor; in 1373 he received the rich living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, and about the same time he was granted by papal provision a prebend in a collegiate church, while he was allowed, also by papal license, to keep it as well as another at Lincoln; this latter, however, he did not eventually receive.

Though his opinions on church endowments must by this time have been well known in and out of Oxford, Wyclif cannot with certainty be connected with public affairs till 1374. In that year his name appears second, after a bishop, on a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI, and, if possible settle, a number of points in dispute between the king and the pope. The conference came to no very satisfactory conclusion, but it appears to mark the beginning of the affiance between Wyclif and the anti-clerical oligarchic party headed by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the king’s brother. This party profited by Edward III‘s premature senility to misgovern in their own interests, and found in the Oxford doctor, with his theories of the subjection of church property to the civil prince, a useful ally in their attacks on the Church. Wyclif must frequently have preached in London at this time, “barking against the Church“, and he refers to himself as “peculiaris regis clericus”. The Good Parliament, however, with the help of the Black Prince, was able, in 1376, to drive John of Gaunt and his friends from power. A year later the death of the prince gave Lancaster his opportunity, and the anti-clericals had once more the control of the Government. Under these circumstances the attempt of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London to bring Wyclif to book was not likely to succeed. He appeared at St. Paul’s escorted by his powerful friends, and the proceedings soon degenerated into a quarrel between Lancaster and the Bishop of London. The Londoners took their bishop’s side, but the council broke up in confusion. The papal authority was next invoked against Wyclif, and a series of Bulls were issued from Rome. Nothing much came of them, however; Oxford, on the whole, took Wyclif’s part, and a council of doctors declared that the propositions attributed to him, though ill-sounding, were not erroneous. When Wyclif appeared, early in 1378, at Lambeth, both the Princess of Wales and the London crowd interposed in his favor. The summons, however, led to the formulation of eighteen articles which give a fair account of Wyclif’s teaching at this period. But before his next summons in 1381 his heresies, or heretical tendencies, had developed rapidly. The Great Schism may partially account for this and also the fact that Wyclif was now becoming the leader of a party. It was about this time that he began to send out his “poor priests”, men who, except quite at the beginning, were usually laymen, and to lay much more stress on the Bible and on preaching. In 1380 Wyclif took the momentous step of beginning to attack Transubstantiation. It was at Oxford that he did so, calling the Host merely “an effectual sign”. This open denial of a doctrine which came home to every Christian, and the reaction which followed the Peasant Revolt, lost Wyclif much of his popularity. In 1381 an Oxford council of doctors condemned his teaching on the Blessed Eucharist and a year later an ecclesiastical court at Black-friars gave sentence against a series of twenty-four Wyclifite propositions. The Government was now against him. Westminster and Canterbury combined to put pressure on the still reluctant university authorities. A number of prominent Wyclifites were forced to make retractations (cf. Lollards), but nothing seems to have been demanded from the leader of the movement except a promise not to preach. He retired to Lutterworth and, though he continued to write voluminously both in Latin and English, remained there undisturbed till his death. He was probably cited to Rome but he was too infirm to obey. Indeed he was probably paralyzed during the last two years of his life. A second stroke came in 1384 while he was hearing Mass in his church, and three days later he died. He was buried at Lutterworth, but the Council of Constance in 1415 ordered his remains to be taken up and cast out. This was done in 1428.

It is impossible to understand Wyclif’s popularity, the weakness of the ecclesiastical authorities, or even the character of his teaching, without taking into account the extraordinary condition of the country at the end of the fourteenth century. The discredit which had been brought on the principle of authority in Church and State and the popularity of revolutionary ideas have been touched upon in the article Lollards. and the causes which explain the spread of Lollardy are responsible, to some extent at least, for. Wyclif’s own mental development. His earliest writings are mainly logical and metaphysical. He belonged to the Realist School, and claimed to be a disciple of St. Augustine, but it was his attitude in the practical and political questions of Evangelical poverty and Church government which gave him influence. The question of Evangelical poverty was a burning one throughout the fourteenth century. Originally a subject of bitter controversy within the ranks of the Friars Minor, it had received a wider extension, and the chief theological writers of the time had taken sides. When the papacy declared for the moderates, the extremists, with their literary supporters, Marsiglio of Padua, William of Ockham, and others, assumed an attitude of hostility to Rome, and soon found themselves advocating a church organization without property and practically under the control of the State. From the mendicants, then, Wyclif inherited his hatred of clerical and monastic endowments, and in this he showed no great originality. Throughout the Middle Ages the wealth of the clergy was liable to attack, and that sometimes from the most orthodox. What is, however, characteristic of Wyclif is the argument, half-feudal and half-theological, with which he supports his attack on the clergy and the monks; yet though connected with his name it was in part borrowed from Richard Fitz-Ralph, an Oxford teacher and vice-chancellor, who had since become Archbishop of Armagh. Fitz Ralph had been himself an opponent of the “mendicants”, but Wyclif found in his theory of “lordship” a convenient and a novel way of formulating the ancient but anarchical principle that no respect is due to the commands or the property of the wicked. “Dominion is founded in grace” is the phrase which sums up the argument, and dominium it must be remembered is a word which might be said to contain the whole feudal theory, for it means both sovereignty and property. “Dominion”, then, or “lordship”, belongs to God alone. Any lordship held by the creature is held of God and is forfeited by sin, for mortal sin is a kind of high treason towards God, the Overlord. Fitz-Ralph had used this argument meaning to justify the distinction between “property” and “use” which the moderate Franciscans had adopted and the extremists had rejected. Wyclif, however, brought it down into the marketplace by applying it to clerical possessions. He even went further than the argument authorized him, for he came to hold that no monks or clergy, not even the righteous, could hold temporal possessions without sin, and further that it was lawful for kings and princes to deprive them of what they held unlawfully. Logically, Wyclif’s doctrine of lordship should apply to temporal lords as well as to spiritual; but this logical step he never took, and he did not, therefore, contribute intentionally to the Peasant Revolt of 1381. Yet the assaults of so well known a man on church property must have encouraged the movement (of this there is a good deal of evidence), and the “poor priests”, who were less closely connected with lay-men of position and property, are sure to have gone further than their master in the communistic direction. Wyclif’s attack on the property of the monastic orders and of the Church would necessarily bring him before long into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities, and he was led to guard himself against the results of excommunication by maintaining that, as he put it, “no man can be excommunicated unless he first be excommunicated by himself” (viz. by sin), a statement which may be true of the effect of excommunication on the soul, but which cannot be applied to the external government of the Church.

Thus by 1380 Wyclif had set himself in open opposition to the property and government of the Church, he had attacked the pope in most unmeasured terms, he had begun to treat the Bible as the chief and almost the only test of orthodoxy, and to lay more and more stress on preaching. Yet he would have protested against an accusation of heresy. Great freedom was allowed to speculation in the schools, and there was much uncertainty about clerical property. Even the exclusive use of Scripture as a standard of faith was comprehensible at a time when the allegiance of Christendom was being claimed by two. popes. It must be added that Wyclif frequently inserted qualifying or explanatory clauses in his propositions, and that, in form at least, he would declare his readiness to submit his opinions to the judgment of the Church. It seems to have been a time of much uncertainty in matters of faith, and the Lollard movement in its earlier stages is remarkable for a readiness of recantation. Wyclif’s heretical position became, however, much more pronounced when he denied the doctrine of Transubstantiation. His own position is not quite clear or consistent, but it seems to approach the Lutheran “consubstantiation”, for he applied to the Blessed Eucharist his metaphysical principle that annihilation is impossible. To attack so fundamental a doctrine tended to define the position of Wyclif and his followers. Henceforth they tend to become a people apart. The friars, with whom the “reformer” had once been on friendly terms, became their chief enemies, and the State turned against them.

Old-fashioned Protestant writers, who used to treat medieval heresy as a continuous witness to the truth, found in Wyclif a convenient link between the Albigenses and the sixteenth-century reformers, and the comparison is, perhaps, of interest. Like the heretics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Wyclif started with an attack on clerical wealth; he then went on to dispute the authority of the Church and, finally, its sacramental system, but unlike them he avoided those Manichaean tendencies which threatened the most elementary moral laws. That madness had been exorcized by the great Scholastics. On the other hand, Wyclif resembled the Protestant Reformers in his insistence on the Bible as the rule of faith, in the importance attributed to preaching, and in his sacra-mental doctrine. Like them, too, he looked for support to the laity and the civil state, and his conception of the kingly dignity would have satisfied even Henry VIII. The doctrine of justification by faith does not, however, occur in Wyclif’s system. The English Lollards carried on but very imperfectly the tradition of Wyclif’s teaching. His real spiritual inheritor was John Hus, and it was through Bohemia, if at all, that he is directly connected with the Reformation.

A large number of Wyclif’s Latin works have been edited and printed by the Wyclif Society. His English works have been edited by T. Arnold (Oxford, 1869-71) and by F. D. Matthew (London, 1880) for the Early English Texts Society. Many of the English tracts, however, are certainly by his followers. Besides these works Wyclif was reputed, even by contemporaries, to have translated the whole of the Bible, and two “Wyclifite” versions are in existence. Abbot Gasquet has disputed the genuineness of this author-ship (“The Old English Bible“, London, 1897), and F. D. Matthew has defended the traditional view (Eng. Hist. Rev., 1895). This much, at any rate, is certain: that the Bible was familiar even to laymen in the fourteenth century and that the whole of the New Testament at least could be read in translations. It is also clear that portions of the Scriptures were called Wyclifite in the fifteenth century, and sometimes condemned as such, because a Wyclifite preface had been added to a perfectly orthodox translation.


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