When I began my novel "The Persian Fire", in the early years of this century, my original aim was to create a literary structure through which I could explore mediaeval Christianity and try - worthy goal, unattainable objective - to understand the inside of the mind of a Christian of that epoch. I had no idea where to start, but my home at that time was in a Somerset village that had been forced to move downhill when the Black Death led to all its homes being disinfested by fire, and that was interesting too, and so I started there. Living just fifteen miles from Glastonbury in one direction, and Wells in another, gave me one of England's greatest abbeys, and one of its most important Bishoprics, and so I was set.
John Wycliffe, or Wyclif, or Wycliff, or even Wickliffe, was twenty-eight years old when the Black Death reached Hipswell in Yorkshire, or Ipreswell by the pronunciation of the time, which was a suburb of Wycliffe-on-Tees, from the which family had taken its name. Roughly two-thirds of Wycliffe was wiped out by the plague, including that percentage of his own family, and if he survived himself it was only because he had gone away to study in Oxford three years earlier, and somehow Oxford wasn't affected quite so badly.
Oxford meant Balliol College, founded by the Member of Parliament for Wycliffe John deBalliol, around 1263. Our Wycliffe started out as a devotee of William of Ockham, but became so much of a universalist it would be easier to make a list of those subjects that he didn't study, and the thinkers by whom he wasn't influenced, than those that he did and was. Of the subjects: the natural sciences, mathematics, theology, ecclesiastical law, common law including both the Roman and the English, and philosophy, which is another way of saying "absolutely everything". But his fame rests with his lifelong effort to publish a complete edition of the Bible in English, and the very personal position that he took in respect of Christian faith, derived from those intense and intensive studies, spread all over England by his own devotees, the itinerant preachers known as the Lollards. My Fra Angelus would have loved him, but sadly my Fra Angelus was two decades older, and did not survive the Black Death.
Wycliffe started at Balliol as a mere scholar, achieved both baccalaureate and masterhood in record time, and was appointed to the headship of the College, probably in 1359, but it may have been 1360. The following year he was given the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire by the College, and in 1365 he was made Head of Canterbury Hall, a position he lost again just one year later, when Archbishop Islip, who had appointed him, died, and Simon Langham, who succeeded him, decided that a monk like himself and not a worldly scholar should have charge of training priests - probably he had heard a sermon from one of the Lollards, and couldn’t make it coincide with dogma. Wycliffe appealed to the Pope in Rome; the Pope took Langham's side.
And so began the years of controversy, or possibly contraversy - the first means scandal, the second an intellectual decision to swim against the tide: both apply in John Wycliffe's case.
Somewhere between 1366 and 1372 he was awarded his Doctorate in Theology, which gave him the right to deliver lectures at the university, as well as sermons in his parish. From these would come his Summa Theologiae - the title owes its origins to Tomas Aquinas, who was the principal inspiration of my own Fra Angelus. In 1368 he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. Six years later, in 1374, he received the crown living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he retained until his death.
Wycliffe's precise birthdate is unknown, and his deathdate was December 31st, so I need to explain why I have placed this essay on this date, May 4th. The major work of his life, on which he spent time every day from his teen years onwards, was the translation of the Bible into English - and his personal encouragement of others who were carrying out parts of the task on his behalf. From reading it, and studying it so closely, it became obvious to him that the entire structure of the Papal Empire was built upon superstition, and worse, that it actually contradicted Holy Scripture. The Bible, not the Pope, must needs be the determiner of Christian lives, and if any creature in the universe was truthfully infallibile, it most certainly was not this or any other human Pope. Oh dear! How dangerous!
But it wasn't only the Pope who had it all wrong. The hierarchies of the Ecclesiasticus at every level were out of step with Biblical instruction. Long before Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, long before Luther or Calvin or Zwingli, the call for a complete and total reformation. Oh dear, oh dear! How very dangerous!
But no one was ready, yet, to call him dangerous, let alone to challenge him. His reputation as a man of genius still carried him into favour - he was even chosen as a representative at the peace congress in Bruges in 1374, his job to deal with negotiations between the papal and the English clergy over minor but annoying disagreements on banal matters. If he was considered dangerous, he would not have been chosen, even for so marginal a role as this.
Mind you, the subject matter that started all the controversy was pretty marginal as well, the sort of intellectual debate that students at Oxford are much encouraged to engage in, one to propose, one to second, two others to oppose, at the Union. Informally, back then. A monk named John Owtred was the principal opponent. Owtred put the case that it was a sin even to suggest that the temporal authorities should ever have the right to deprive a priest, even an unrighteous one, of his temporalities - complete separation of church and state, as we would call it today. Wycliffe disagreed. Wycliffe in his turn argued that it was a sin to incite the Pope to excommunicate those laymen who had deprived the clergy of their temporalities - complete separation of state and church; which sounds like the same thing, just stated differently, but these are highly intellectual scholars disputing highly esoteric points, and it wasn't just language-games: it really matters what form of dance the angels are engaged in on the pin-head, and whether they are wearing ballet shoes and tutus, and how wide are their wings.
The trouble was, these abstruse esoterica were also fundamental to what was going on in Parliament, which was fighting its own battles with the Curia, and how useful to have some important Oxford don say something that could be interpreted as being, maybe not exactly, but if you phrased it carefully, a point for your side, or better still a point against the other side. It was probably Wycliffe and Owtred's theology professor, William Wynham, a Benedictine from St. Albans (the Benedictine was the strictest, the most papally supportive, of all the monastic rules at that time, so instinctively anti-Wycliffe) who made their seminar debates a matter of public interest. And Wycliffe had nothing but praise for the outcome of the debates of the "Good Parliament" of 1376–77, which introduced a bill whose 140 headings could have done more damage to the Church than Henry VIII ever even considered. Wycliffe's headings, in truth; I shall come back to that.
Once his ideas had been made public, there was no longer any point keeping them to private debates and sermons; the tracts that make up the Summa Theologiae were begun when he returned from Bruges, and publication never ceased until his death. The first ostensibly dealt with the Ten Commandments, but in expressing his conviction that government ultimately rested with God, with the Bible serving as the equivalent of its Constitution, his rejection of temporal rule by the clergy was implicit.
The second took this even further, and right from its title: "De civili dominio". Good government in the secular realm requires the renunciation of temporal dominion by the Church - and what was in the Bill proposed by the "Good Parliament" certainly looks like it came directly from this source. What Luther would decry later, Wycliffe was already decrying now - "the Avignon system" as it was called, because the Pope was still in exile there: a hierarchy of commissions and exactions and nepotistic temporalities; the squandering of charities by unfit priests; fake relics; the sale of Indulgences: the same complaints lodged by Samuel against the sons of Eli, and by Nehemiah against the Kohanim of Jerusalem. Regulation of the church by the state was essential. Confiscation of misused church property - why does the Church need wealth anyway? Everything that Henry VIII would do later on, and still more. The church restricted to its spiritual realm, and ordinanced to ensure that it role-modeled the ethics and teachings of the Bible - the whole Bible, the Mosaic as well as the Jesuitic. Wycliffe delivered all 18 of the theses that would be published in "De Civili" to his students at Oxford in 1376. Not all of them - William Wadeford among them - supported him. But rather more importantly John of Ghent, the second son of King Edward III, did. John brought Wycliffe to London to preach, and his own supporters to hear him. For a while he was the talk of the town.
|The St Paul's Cathedral "trial", 1377|
Good talk and bad talk, inevitably. The bad talk could be heard anywhere that was likely to be negatively affected if the Wycliffe proposals, the provisional Acts of the "Good Parliament", became law: abbeys, convents, priories, monasteries, church offices overall. Wycliffe was summoned before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, on February 19th 1377, but with John of Gaunt (as Shakespeare mis-pronounced his name) on one side of him, and Henry Percy, the 1st Earl of Northumberland, on the other, plus four mendicant friars to validate his theological credentials, Courtenay spent more time arguing with the protectors than with Wycliffe, and frankly Ghent was the one with the power to turn these theories into practice - Edward died that June, leaving the 10-year-old Richard II on the throne, and Ghent, effectively though also somewhat ineffectively, as the unofficial Prince Regent.
It was Ghent rather more than Professor Wynham who turned scholarly idealisms into political controversies, though Wynham was certainly the leader of the clerics who now took on Wycliffe, accusing him not only of the minor sins of scandal and pride, but also the inflammable crimes of blasphemy and heresy. The threat to secularise all English church property had of necessity to be resisted, let alone the battle for power between church and state.¹
But I have skipped a significant additional piece of this puzzle. In January 1377, just when Courtenay was summoning Wycliffe to London, Pope Gregory XI left Avignon for Rome, his authority in everywhere but England theoretically re-established. On May 22nd he sent copies of his Bull against Wycliffe to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, King Edward III, Adam Houghton - the just-appointed Chancellor of England - and to the University of Oxford. The 18 theses were listed, denounced as erroneous, and declared "dangerous to Church and State". If this had been Galileo, they would have shown him the instruments of torture. If this had been Giordano Bruno, they would have taken him directly to the bonfire. But by the time the emissary reached England, Edward was dead and Ghent was holding all the strings, including the string that would have opened any of those five copies to the attention of the public. He kept them knotted for as long as he could - which was only until December. In the meanwhile the "Good Parliament" went into session in October, and the war with the Curia was declared.
Wycliffe was given the opportunity to present his theses before Parliament, after which he published them, and his defence of them, in a tract. In March 1378, when Parliament had been prorogued, he was summoned to the Bishop's Palace at Lambeth to defend himself - a meeting, rather like the one with Courtenay, disrupted by the mob outside. King Richard's mother, Joan of Kent, joined Ghent in supporting Wycliffe, and the bishops retreated, on the condition that Wycliffe would speak no more in public on the controversy. Back in Oxford, where the Vice-Chancellor had his copy of the Bull, Wycliffe was confined in Black Hall, until the latter's supporters threatened violence if he wasn't released.
But if you can't speak in public, you can still write and publish. So, in "De incarcerandis fedelibus", he insisted - along with thirty-two other conclusions, that it should be a right for the excommunicated to make appeal against that excommunication to the king - presumably he was anticipating this outcome for himself, and wanted to get his appeal in before the event. And he did so, very deliberately, in both English and Latin, making again and again a case that ordinary people, even the vast majority who were illiterate (it could be read to them, could it not?), could understand: that the source of all religious authority is the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, because it is the Book of God. The head of the world is God, and kings are his appointed surrogates on Earth; the head of the Church is Christ, and there is no role for any Pope or Bishop other than in the interpretation of God and Christ to men, and the leadership of matters spiritual. No politics. No war-making. No wealth. No power beyond the soul. Oh very, very, very dangerous.
And then Pope Gregory died, in 1378, and just as there had been two Popes for the past seventy years, so now there were two candidates, a Pope and an anti-Pope so to say, and both sent their representatives around the Christian world, vying for support. Wycliffe was not opposed to Popes as such, only to bad Popes, despots, empire-builders, money-spinners, and he was convinced that Bartolomeo Prignan, the man who wanted to style himself Urban VI, was the sort of Pope to make manifest his theories. He even made a speech in front of the ambassadors, in Parliament, advocating for the right of asylum in Westminster Abbey - something that he himself was soon going to need. Urban won the Vatican that same year, but proved a bitter disappointment to Wycliffe, who withdrew from almost all ecclesiastical politics as a consequence, focusing now on his translation of the Bible, and the final volume of his Summa, the wonderfully titled "De simonia, de apostasia, de blasphemia". Simony is religious bribery and corruption; the other two words don't need me to translate.
|sending out the Lollards|
But I said "almost all", and I meant "almost all". In the closing chapter of "De civili dominio", Wycliffe launched an attack on the monastic orders, including those like the mendicants who had supported him, and who his theories theoretically supported. But "the case of the orders which hold property is that of them all". Not simply dangerous but, on this occasion, surely rather foolish.
Yet this was the battle that he most wanted to fight, and he makes the case again and again, in the "Trialogus", the "Dialogus", the "Opus evangelicum", in several sermons, in many of what were later published as his "Polemical Writings". The Church has no need for these sects. The concept of the Nazir in the Bible does not infer monastic orders; so they and their possessions should be abolished. Monks should not be recipients of alms either, but should take up real jobs, like their fellow parishioners. And the people were inspired by it - historians need to ask the still-unasked question: how significant was Wycliffe to the mood behind the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and could it have happened without him? The sad part of the answer is that, after the failure of that revolt, the monastic lands that had been "liberated" became the possessions of the king and his nobles, who simply took more power unto themselves, and set back the progress of Parliament in so doing.
Wycliffe’s doctrine of "The Lord's Supper" was formulated between May and November 1381, exactly the same months as the Peasants' Revolt. In twelve short sentences he tore apart the claims of the Catholic Church in respect of Transubstantiation - the rather silly idea that the Eucharistic bread and wine transform themselves into Christ's blood and body when you consume them - and demonstrated how the Mass had become the principal tool by which the Church used mystery and superstition to exert power over the uneducated. The chancellor of the University of Oxford responded by declaring it heretical. Wycliffe appealed against this verdict to the King, not to the Pope or to the ecclesiastical authorities of the land, and published another work on the subject, again in English, intended for the common people. Who he then alienated by expressing "disapproval" of the revolt - perhaps because he was being publicly blamed for it, and already had the heresy battle to fight without needing that one as well. But John of Ghent was blamed, and rightly so, and John of Ghent was Wycliffe's principal defender.
When the Revolt ended, and with Ghent now a political has-been, Courtenay, who had been elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in the meanwhile, summoned an ecclesiastical assembly. Though Wycliffe wasn't personally named, the 24 propositions that were discussed were all his; ten of them were declared heretical, fourteen erroneous, and expression of such views was formally prohibited, even in a sermon or an academic seminar. But such a prohibition required an Act of Parliament, and the Commons rejected the bill. The king issued a decree permitting the arrest of those in error, and the entire city of Oxford was placed under a ban, with Wycliffe's supporters summoned one by one to recant.
On November 18th 1382, Wycliffe was himself summoned before a synod at Oxford. Having suffered a stroke during the summer of that year, he was already a half-broken man, and perhaps this led to sympathy among the synod members - or maybe they were aware of the support he had at court as well as Parliament and didn't want to risk their own careers. Excommunication was an option, but it was not carried out. Nor was he deprived of his living.
Wycliffe went home to Lutterworth, unrepentant, undaunted by the stroke, or by the enemies he had gleaned. He published another tract against the monasteries, and one against the Pope as well, declaring that he was not a "true" Pope, that he "had become involved in mischievous conflicts", by which he meant the "crusade" currently being fought in Flanders. He published the "Trialogus", and was working on the "Opus evangelicum", when he suffered a second stroke, on Holy Innocents' Day by all ironies, December 28th 1384. He died three days later.
And so, finally, to the date at the top of this page, but it needed the journey of the full tale to arrive there. May 4th 1415, fully thirty years after his death, and with the followers of Jan Huss preaching Wycliffian ideas all over Europe, preparing the ground for the Protestant revolution soon to come. The Council of Constance, the body that would end the western schism by naming one and only one "true" Pope, took a moment aside from its broader deliberations on this day, to declare John Wycliffe "a stiff-necked heretic", and to place him under the ban of the Church - excommunication of his books, since clearly he wasn't going to be speaking again in person. Those books were ordered to be burned, and his remains exhumed for the same purpose - though it would take twelve years before that new Pope, Martin V, insisted on it. Wycliffe's ashes were thrown into the river Swift, which is the river that flows through Lutterworth. As to the books, many people had hidden their copies in the intervening years, many more had made samizdat copies of them. Many were found, and burned, but Wycliffe's words survived.
A "complete" Wycliffe Bible can be found by clicking here.
|The burning of the corpse, 1415|
¹ * For a detailed explanation of the Church's position on this, Dostoievsky will give his Grand Inquisitor the opportunity to express it in full, in a chapter of his novel “The Brothers Karamazov”.
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