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§ 40. John Wyclif.
"A good man was there of religioun
That was a pore Persone of a town;
But rich he was of holy thought and werk;
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Christes gospel trewly wolde preche.
* * * * * * *
This noble ensample to his shepe he gaf,
That first he wrought and after that he taught.
* * * * * * *
A better priest I trow that nowhere non is,
He waited after no pompe ne reverence;
Ne maked him no spiced conscience,
But Christes lore and his apostles twelve
The title, Reformers before the Reformation, has been aptly given to a group of men of the 14th and 15th centuries who anticipated many of the teachings of Luther and the Protestant Reformers. They stand, each by himself, in solitary prominence, Wyclif in England, John Huss in Bohemia, Savonarola in Florence, and Wessel, Goch and Wesel in Northern Germany. To these men the sculptor has given a place on the pedestal of his famous group at Worms representing the Reformation of the 16th century. They differ, if we except the moral reformer, Savonarola, from the group of the German mystics, who sought a purification of life in quiet ways, in having expressed open dissent from the Church’s ritual and doctrinal teachings. They also differ from the group of ecclesiastical reformers, D’Ailly, Gerson, Nicolas of Clamanges, who concerned themselves with the fabric of the canon law and did not go beyond the correction of abuses in the administration and morals of the Church. Wyclif and his successors were doctrinal reformers. In some views they had been anticipated by Marsiglius of Padua and the other assailants of the papacy of the early half of the 14th century.
John Wyclif, called the Morning Star of the Reformation, and, at the time of his death, in England and in Bohemia the Evangelical doctor,555555 Fasciculi, p. 362. was born about 1324 near the village of Wyclif, Yorkshire, in the diocese of Durham.556556 Leland’s Itinerary placed Wyclif’s birth in 1324. Buddensieg and Rashdall prefer 1330. Leland, our first authority for the place of birth, mentions Spresswell (Hipswell) and Wyclif-on-Tees, places a half a mile apart. Wyclif’s name is spelled in more than twenty different ways, as Wiclif, accepted by Lechler, Loserth, Buddensieg and German scholars generally; Wiclef, Wicliffe, Wicleff, Wycleff. Wycliffe, adopted by Foxe, Milman, Poole, Stubbs, Rashdall, Bigg; Wyclif preferred by Shirley, Matthew, Sergeant, the Wyclif Society, the Early English Text Society, etc. The form Wyclif is found in a diocesan register of 1361, when the Reformer was warden of Balliol College. The earliest mention in an official state document, July 26, 1374, gives it Wiclif. On Wyclif’s birthplace, see Shirley, Fasciculi, p. x sqq. His own writings give scarcely a clew to the events of his career, and little can be gathered from his immediate contemporaries. He was of Saxon blood. His studies were pursued at Oxford, which had six colleges. He was a student at Balliol and master of that hall in 1361. He was also connected with Merton and Queen’s, and was probably master of Canterbury Hall, founded by Archbishop Islip.557557 A Wyclif is mentioned in connection with all of these colleges. The question is whether there were not two John Wyclifs. A John de Whyteclyve was rector of Mayfield, 1361, and later of Horsted Kaynes, where he died, 1383. In 1365 Islip, writing from Mayfield, appointed a John Wyclyve warden of Canterbury Hall. Shirley, Note on the two Wiclifs, in the Fasciculi, p. 513 sqq., advocated the view that this Wyclif was a different person from our John Wyclif, and he is followed by Poole, Rashdall and Sergeant. Principal Wilkinson of Marlborough College, Ch. Quart. Rev., October, 1877, makes a strong statement against this view; Lechler and Buddensieg, the two leading German authorities on Wyclif’s career, also admit only a single Wyclif as connected with the Oxford Halls. He was appointed in succession to the livings of Fillingham, 1363, Ludgershall, 1368, and by the king’s appointment, to Lutterworth, 1374. The living of Lutterworth was valued at £26 a year.
Wyclif occupies a distinguished place as an Oxford schoolman, a patriot, a champion of theological and practical reforms and the translator of the Scriptures into English. The papal schism, occurring in the midst of his public career, had an important bearing on his views of papal authority.
So far as is known, he confined himself, until 1366, to his duties in Oxford and his parish work. In that year he appears as one of the king’s chaplains and as opposed to the papal supremacy in the ecclesiastial affairs of the realm. The parliament of the same year refused Urban V.’s demand for the payment of the tribute, promised by King John, which was back 33 years. John, it declared, had no right to obligate the kingdom to a foreign ruler without the nation’s consent. Wyclif, if not a member of this body, was certainly an adviser to it.558558 So Lechler, who advances strong arguments in favor of this view. Loserth, who is followed by Rashdall, brings considerations against it, and places Wyclif’s first appearance as a political reformer in 1376. Studien zur Kirchenpol., etc., pp. 1, 32, 35, 44, 60. A serious difficulty with this view is that it crowds almost all the Reformer’s writings into 7 years.
In the summer of 1374, Wyclif went to Bruges as a member of the commission appointed by the king to negotiate peace with France and to treat with the pope’s agents on the filling of ecclesiastical appointments in England. His name was second in the list of commissioners following the name of the bishop of Bangor. At Bruges we find him for the first time in close association with John of Gaunt, Edward’s favorite son, an association which continued for several years, and for a time inured to his protection from ecclesiastical violence.559559 John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was the younger brother of the Black Prince. The prince had returned from his victories in France to die of an incurable disease.
On his return to England, he began to speak as a religious reformer. He preached in Oxford and London against the pope’s secular sovereignty, running about, as the old chronicler has it, from place to place, and barking against the Church.560560 Chron. Angl., p. 115 sq. It was soon after this that, in one of his tracts, he styled the bishop of Rome "the anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses." He maintained that-he "has no more power in binding and loosing than any priest, and that the temporal lords may seize the possessions of the clergy if pressed by necessity." The duke of Lancaster, the clergy’s open foe, headed a movement to confiscate ecclesiastical property. Piers Ploughman had an extensive public opinion behind him when he exclaimed, "Take her lands, ye Lords, and let her live by dimes (tithes)." The Good Parliament of 1376, to whose deliberation Wyclif contributed by voice and pen, gave emphatic expression to the public complaints against the hierarchy.
The Oxford professor’s attitude had become too flagrant to be suffered to go unrebuked. In 1377, he was summoned before the tribunal of William Courtenay, bishop of London, at St. Paul’s, where the proceedings opened with a violent altercation between the bishop and the duke. The question was as to whether Wyclif should take a seat or continue standing in the court. Percy, lord marshal of England, ordered him to sit down, a proposal the bishop pronounced an unheard-of indignity to the court. At this, Lancaster, who was present, swore he would bring down Courtenay’s pride and the pride of all the prelates in England. "Do your best, Sir," was the spirited retort of the bishop, who was a son of the duke of Devonshire. A popular tumult ensued, Wyclif being protected by Lancaster.
Pope Gregory XI. himself now took notice of the offender in a document condemning 19 sentences from his writings as erroneous and dangerous to Church and state. In fact, he issued a batch of at least five bulls, addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of London, the University of Oxford and the king, Edward III. The communication to Archbishop Sudbury opened with an unctuous panegyric of England’s past most glorious piety and the renown of its Church leaders, champions of the orthodox faith and instructors not only of their own but of other peoples in the path of the Lord’s commandments. But it had come to his ears that the Lutterworth rector had broken forth into such detestable madness as not to shrink from publicly proclaiming false propositions which threatened the stability of the entire Church. His Holiness, therefore, called upon the archbishop to have John sent to prison and kept in bonds till final sentence should be passed by the papal court.561561 Gee and Hardy, p. 105 sqq. It seems that the vice-chancellor of Oxford at least made a show of complying with the pope’s command and remanded the heretical doctor to Black Hall, but the imprisonment was only nominal.
Fortunately, the pope might send forth his fulminations to bind and imprison but it was not wholly in his power to hold the truth in bonds and to check the progress of thought. In his letter to the chancellor of Oxford, Gregory alleged that Wyclif was vomiting out of the filthy dungeon of his heart most wicked and damnable heresies, whereby he hoped to pollute the faithful and bring them to the precipice of perdition, overthrow the Church and subvert the secular estate. The disturber was put into the same category with those princes among errorists, Marsiglius of Padua and John of Jandun.562562 Fasc., pp. 242-244.
The archbishop’s court at Lambeth, before which the offender was now cited, was met by a message from the widow of the Black Prince to stay the proceedings, and the sitting was effectually broken up by London citizens who burst into the hall. At Oxford, the masters of theology pronounced the nineteen condemned propositions true, though they sounded badly to the ear. A few weeks later, March, 1878, Gregory died, and the papal schism broke out. No further notice was taken of Gregory’s ferocious bulls. Among other things, the nineteen propositions affirmed that Christ’s followers have no right to exact temporal goods by ecclesiastical censures, that the excommunications of pope and priest are of no avail if not according to the law of Christ, that for adequate reasons the king may strip the Church of temporalities and that even a pope may be lawfully impeached by laymen.
With the year 1378 Wyclif’s distinctive career as a doctrinal reformer opens. He had defended English rights against foreign encroachment. He now assailed, at a number of points, the theological structure the Schoolmen and mediaeval popes had laboriously reared, and the abuses that had crept into the Church. The spectacle of Christendom divided by two papal courts, each fulminating anathemas against the other, was enough to shake confidence in the divine origin of the papacy. In sermons, tracts and larger writings, Wyclif brought Scripture and common sense to bear. His pen was as keen as a Damascus blade. Irony and invective, of which he was the master, he did not hesitate to use. The directness and pertinency of his appeals brought them easily within the comprehension of the popular mind. He wrote not only in Latin but in English. His conviction was as deep and his passion as fiery as Luther’s, but on the one hand, Wyclif’s style betrays less of the vivid illustrative power of the great German and little of his sympathetic warmth, while on the other, less of his unfortunate coarseness. As Luther is the most vigorous tract writer that Germany has produced, so Wyclif is the foremost religious pamphleteer that has arisen in England; and the impression made by his clear and stinging thrusts may be contrasted in contents and audience with the scholarly and finished tracts of the Oxford movement led by Pusey, Keble and Newman, the one reaching the conscience, the other appealing to the aesthetic tastes; the one adapted to break down priestly pretension, the other to foster it.
But the Reformer of the 14th century was more than a scholar and publicist. Like John Wesley, he had a practical bent of mind, and like him he attempted to provide England with a new proclamation of the pure Gospel. To counteract the influence of the friars, whom he had begun to attack after his return from Bruges, he conceived the idea of developing and sending forth a body of itinerant evangelists. These "pore priests," as they were called, were taken from the list of Oxford graduates, and seem also to have included laymen. Of their number and the rules governing them, we are in the dark. The movement was begun about 1380, and on the one side it associates Wyclif with Gerrit de Groote, and on the other with Wesley and with his more recent fellow-countryman, General Booth, of the Salvation Army.
Although this evangelistic idea took not the form of a permanent organization, the appearance of the pore preachers made a sensation. According to the old chronicler, the disciples who gathered around him in Oxford were many and, clad in long russet gowns of one pattern, they went on foot, ventilating their master’s errors among the people and publicly setting them forth in sermons.563563 Chron. Angl., p. 395; also Knighton, II. 184 sq. They had the distinction of being arraigned by no less a personage than Bishop Courtenay "as itinerant, unauthorized preachers who teach erroneous, yea, heretical assertions publicly, not only in churches but also in public squares and other profane places, and who do this under the guise of great holiness, but without having obtained any episcopal or papal authorization."
It was in 1381, the year before Courtenay said his memorable words, that Walden reports that Wyclif "began to determine matters upon the sacrament of the altar."564564 Fasc., p. 104. To attempt an innovation at this crucial point required courage of the highest order. In 12 theses he declared the Church’s doctrine unscriptural and misleading. For the first time since the promulgation of the dogma of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran was it seriously called in question by a theological expert. It was a case of Athanasius standing alone. The mendicants waxed violent. Oxford authorities, at the instance of the archbishop and bishops, instituted a trial, the court consisting of Chancellor Berton and 12 doctors. Without mentioning Wyclif by name, the judges condemned as pestiferous the assertions that the bread and wine remain after consecration, and that Christ’s body is present only figuratively or tropically in the eucharist. Declaring that the judges had not been able to break down his arguments, Wyclif went on preaching and lecturing at the university. But in the king’s council, to which he made appeal, the duke of Lancaster took sides against him and forbade him to speak any more on the subject at Oxford. This prohibition Wyclif met with a still more positive avowal of his views in his Confession, which closes with the noble words, "I believe that in the end the truth will conquer."
The same year, the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, but there is no evidence that Wyclif had any more sympathy with the movement than Luther had with the Peasants’ Rising of 1525. After the revolt was over, he proposed that Church property be given to the upper classes, not to the poor.565565 See Trevelyan, p. 199; Kriehn, pp. 254-286, 458-485. The principles, however, which he enunciated were germs which might easily spring up into open rebellion against oppression. Had he not written, "There is no moral obligation to pay tax or tithe to bad rulers either in Church or state. It is permitted to punish or depose them and to reclaim the wealth which the clergy have diverted from the poor?" One hundred and fifty years after this time, Tyndale said, "They said it in Wyclif’s day, and the hypocrites say now, that God’s Word arouseth insurrection."566566 Pref. to Expos. of St. John, p. 225, Parker Soc. ed.
Courtenay’s elevation to the see of Canterbury boded no good to the Reformer. In 1382, he convoked the synod which is known in English history as the Earthquake synod, from the shock felt during its meetings. The primate was supported by 9 bishops, and when the earth began to tremble, he showed admirable courage by interpreting it as a favorable omen. The earth, in trying to rid itself of its winds and humors, was manifesting its sympathy with the body ecclesiastic.567567 Sicut in terrae visceribus includuntur aëret spiritus infecti et ingrediuntur in terrae motum, Fasc., p. 272. Wyclif, who was not present, made another use of the occurrence, and declared that the Lord sent the earthquake "because the friars had put heresy upon Christ in the matter of the sacrament, and the earth trembled as it did when Christ was damned to bodily death."568568 Select Engl. Works, III. 503.
The council condemned 24 articles, ascribed to the Reformer, 10 of which were pronounced heretical, and the remainder to be against the decisions of the Church.569569 Gee and Hardy, pp. 108-110. The 4 main subjects condemned as heresy were that Christ is not corporally present in the sacrament, that oral confession is not necessary for a soul prepared to die, that after Urban VI.’s death the English Church should acknowledge no pope but, like the Greeks, govern itself, and that it is contrary to Scripture for ecclesiastics to hold temporal possessions. Courtenay followed up the synod’s decisions by summoning Rygge, then chancellor of Oxford, to suppress the heretical teachings and teachers. Ignoring the summons, Rygge appointed Repyngdon, another of Wyclif’s supporters, to preach, and when Peter Stokys, "a professor of the sacred page," armed with a letter from the archbishop, attempted to silence him, the students and tutors at Oxford threatened the Carmelite with their drawn swords.
But Courtenay would permit no trifling and, summoning Rygge and the proctors to Lambeth, made them promise on their knees to take the action indicated. Parliament supported the primate. The new preaching was suppressed, but Wyclif stood undaunted. He sent a Complaint of 4 articles to the king and parliament, in which he pleaded for the supremacy of English law in matters of ecclesiastical property, for the liberty for the friars to abandon the rules of their orders and follow the rule of Christ, and for the view that on the Lord’s table the real bread and wine are present, and not merely the accidents.570570 Select Engl. Writings, III. 507-523.
The court was no longer ready to support the Reformer, and Richard II. sent peremptory orders to Rygge to suppress the new teachings. Courtenay himself went to Oxford, and there is some authority for the view that Wyclif again met the prelate face to face at St. Frideswides. Rigid inquisition was made for copies of the condemned teacher’s writings and those of Hereford. Wyclif was inhibited from preaching, and retired to his rectory at Lutterworth. Hereford, Repyngdon, Aston and Bedeman, his supporters, recanted. The whole party received a staggering blow and with it liberty of teaching at Oxford.571571 Fasc., pp. 272-333. See Shirley, p. xliv.
Confined to Lutterworth, Wyclif continued his labors on the translation of the Bible, and sent forth polemic tracts, including the Cruciata,572572 Latin Works, II. 577 sqq. a vigorous condemnation of the crusade which the bishop of Norwich, Henry de Spenser, was preparing in support of Urban VI. against the Avignon pope, Clement VII. The warlike prelate had already shown his military gifts during the Peasants’ Uprising. Urban had promised plenary indulgence for a year to all joining the army. Mass was said and sermons preached in the churches of England, and large sums collected for the enterprise. The indulgence extended to the dead as well as to the living. Wyclif declared the crusade an expedition for worldly mastery, and pronounced the indulgence "an abomination of desolation in the holy place." Spenser’s army reached the Continent, but the expedition was a failure. The most important of Wyclif’s theological treatises, the Trialogus, was written in this period. It lays down the principle that, where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience.573573 Fasc., p. 341 sq.; Lechler-Lorimer, p. 417, deny the citation. The reply is hardly what we might have expected from Wyclif, confining itself, as it does, rather curtly to the question of the pope’s authority and manner of life. Luther’s last treatment of the pope, Der Papst der Ende-Christ und Wider Christ, is not a full parallel. Wyclif was independent, not coarse.
Two years before his death, Wyclif received a paralytic stroke which maimed but did not completely disable him. It is possible that he received a citation to appear before the pope. With unabated rigor of conviction, he replied to the supreme pontiff that of all men he was most under obligation to obey the law of Christ, that Christ was of all men the most poor, and subject to mundane authority. No Christian man has a right to follow Peter, Paul or any of the saints except as they imitated Christ. The pope should renounce all worldly authority and compel his clergy to do the same. He then asserted that, if in these views he was found to err, he was willing to be corrected, even by death. If it were in his power to do anything to advance these views by his presence in Rome, he would willingly go thither. But God had put an obstacle in his way, and had taught him to obey Him rather than man. He closed with the prayer that God might incline Urban to imitate Christ in his life and teach his clergy to do the same.
While saying mass in his church, he was struck again with paralysis, and passed away two or three days after, Dec. 29, 1384, "having lit a fire which shall never be put out."574574 2 The most credible narrative preserved of Wyclif’s death comes from John Horn, the Reformer’s assistant for two years, and was written down by Dr. Thomas Gascoigne upon Horn’s sworn statement. Walden twice makes the charge that disappointment at not being appointed bishop of Worcester started Wyclif on the path of heresy, but there is no other authority for the story, which is inherently improbable. Lies were also invented against the memories of Luther, Calvin and Knox, which the respectable Catholic historians set aside. Fuller, writing of his death, exclaims, "Admirable that a hare, so often hunted with so many packs of dogs, should die quietly sitting in his form."
Wyclif was spare, and probably never of robust health, but he was not an ascetic. He was fond of a good meal. In temper he was quick, in mind clear, in moral character unblemished. Towards his enemies he was sharp, but never coarse or ribald. William Thorpe, a young contemporary standing in the court of Archbishop Arundel, bore testimony that "he was emaciated in body and well-nigh destitute of strength, and in conduct most innocent. Very many of the chief men of England conferred with him, loved him dearly, wrote down his sayings and followed his manner of life."575575 Bale, in his account of the Examination of Thorpe, Parker Soc. ed., I. 80-81. The biographies of Lewis, Vaughan, Lorimer and Sergeant give portraits of Wyclif. The oldest, according to Sergeant, pp. 16-21, is taken from Bale’s Summary, 1548. There is a resemblance in all the portraits, which represent the Reformer clothed in Oxford gown and cap, with long beard, open face, clear, large eye, prominent nose and cheek bones and pale complexion.
The prevailing sentiment of the hierarchy was given by Walsingham, chronicler of St. Albans, who characterized the Reformer in these words: "On the feast of the passion of St. Thomas of Canterbury, John de Wyclif, that instrument of the devil, that enemy of the Church, that author of confusion to the common people, that image of hypocrites, that idol of heretics, that author of schism, that sower of hatred, that coiner of lies, being struck with the horrible judgment of God, was smitten with palsy and continued to live till St. Sylvester’s Day, on which he breathed out his malicious spirit into the abodes of darkness."
The dead was not left in peace. By the decree of Arundel, Wyclif’s writings were suppressed, and it was so effective that Caxton and the first English printers issued no one of them from the press. The Lateran decree of February, 1413, ordered his books burnt, and the Council of Constance, from whose members, such as Gerson and D’Ailly, we might have expected tolerant treatment, formally condemned his memory and ordered his bones exhumed from their resting-place and "cast at a distance from the sepulchre of the church." The holy synod, so ran the decree, "declares said John Wyclif to have been a notorious heretic, and excommunicates him and condemns his memory as one who died an obstinate heretic."576576 A part of the sentence rans, Sancta synodus declarat diffinit et sententiat eumdem J. Wicleff fuisse notorium haereticum pertinacem et in haeresi decessisse ... ordinat corpus et ejus ossa, si ab aliis fidelibus corporibus discerni possint exhumari et procul ab ecclesiae sepultura jactari. Mansi, XXVII. 635. In 1429, at the summons of Martin IV., the decree was carried out by Flemmyng, bishop of Lincoln.
The words of Fuller, describing the execution of the decree of Constance, have engraven themselves on the page of English history. "They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into Swift, a neighboring brook running hardby. Thus this brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wicliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed the world over."
In the popular judgment of the English people, John Wyclif, in company with John Latimer and John Wesley, probably represents more fully than any other English religious leader, independence of thought, devotion to conscience, solid religious common sense, and the sound exposition of the Gospel. In the history of the intellectual and moral progress of his people, he was the leading Englishman of the Middle Ages.577577 2 Green, in his Hist. of the Engl. People, passes a notable encomium on the "first Reformer," and the late Prof. Bigg, Wayside Sketches, p.131, asserts "that his beliefs are in the main those of the great majority of Englishmen to-day, and this is a high proof of the justice, the clearness and the sincerity of his thoughts." The Catholic historian of England, Lingard, IV. 192, after speaking of Wyclif’s intellectual perversion, refers to him, "as that extraordinary man who, exemplary in his morals, declaimed against vice with the freedom and severity of an Apostle."
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