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Explore the life and legacy of John Wycliffe, a groundbreaking religious reformer who defied Church tradition and championed the Bible. His efforts in Bible translation and critique of Church doctrines like transubstantiation profoundly influenced the medieval Church and laid the groundwork for the Reformation. His teachings gave rise to the Lollards and continue to inspire Christian thought centuries later.
The English county of Leicestershire is graced by the serene flow of the river Swift, coursing through verdant fields and meadows until it meets the river Avon near Rugby, Warwickshire. Today’s peaceful tableau, however, belies the tumultuous events of six centuries prior—one event in particular that continues to astound those of a judicious mindset.
While our freedom to read the Bible is a given today, the reality was starkly different during the time of John Wycliffe. To appreciate the liberties we now enjoy, it is enlightening to reflect upon the chain of events culminating in the astonishing incident tied to the river Swift.
The Middle Ages in England were characterized by the feudal system, where isolation was prevalent. Village and town life were ruled by the manor’s lord, who exacted a substantial portion of the populace’s labor in return for the nominal freedom to work their meager parcels of land. The squalid huts of the peasantry bore a stark contrast to the fortified mansions and castles of affluent landowners. Bereft of education, the peasants were steeped in fear and superstition, exacerbated by frequent bouts of pestilence and famine, the apogee of which was the Black Death of 1349. The influence of the Church and monasteries further deepened their oppression.
In the shadow of limited educational opportunities, the parish priests were as uninformed as the peasantry they served. Contrarily, friars and monks wielded control over the spiritual lives of the populace. They propagated the concept of the ‘seven deadly sins’, using it as a pretext to collect alms and donations to enrich their tax-exempt monasteries, viewed as the Pope’s property. The practice of indulgences and the sale of pardons and relics bred a culture of disregard for law and morality, fueling an upsurge in crime and licentious behavior.
Growing disenchanted with their serfdom, some peasants found respite as certain lords began replacing labor dues with rent. This modification enhanced the peasant’s freedom, offering more opportunities for independent thought and participation in other societal activities. The emergent voice that captured and expressed this collective sentiment was found in John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe’s Defiant Stance
John Wycliffe, born between 1328 and 1330, was admitted to Oxford University. His academic prowess led him to ascend the ranks, eventually becoming the master of Balliol College in 1361 and later earning his doctorate in theology. His interest in English and canon law transcended mere academic curiosity; he harbored a fervent desire to uphold and defend individual liberties.
The English tradition of paying tribute to the Pope initiated under King John, served as an admission of the Pope’s supremacy over England. This tribute was contested when Pope Urban V demanded both the payment and overdue arrears spanning over three decades in 1365. The following year, Parliament asserted that King John had overstepped his authority and declared their intent to resist the feudal tribute. If necessary, they were prepared to defend England against the Pope. This resolute declaration prompted the Pope to retract his demand, but not without stirring controversy among his allies, the English monastic orders.
In response to this controversy, Wycliffe penned a tract justifying Parliament’s stance. He cited several Lords in Council, with one stating, “It is the duty of the Pope to be a prominent follower of Christ, but Christ refused to be a possessor of worldly dominion. The Pope, therefore, is bound to make the same refusal. As, therefore, we should hold the Pope to the observance of his holy duty, it follows that it is incumbent upon us to withstand him in his present demand.” (John Wycliffe and His English Precursors, p. 131).
However, the tribute was not the only source of income the Pope sought from England. Periodically, a papal nuncio and his staff would traverse the country to collect offerings, which were then taken to Rome. In 1372, during one such collection drive, Wycliffe composed a legal treatise challenging this practice, thereby undermining the assumption that every action of the Pope must inherently be justified. His prowess as a defender of Parliament’s direction led to his appointment as a commissioner for the king at the papal conference in Bruges in 1374, where grievances against the Roman Church were voiced. In recognition of his service to the crown, Wycliffe was appointed to the rectory of Lutterworth in the same year.
Despite his standing in certain circles, Wycliffe made numerous enemies. In 1377, he was summoned before a convocation of bishops at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Likely to face unfavorable outcomes, he was saved by the intervention of influential allies, including John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. His adversaries, however, escalated their concerns to the papal court. As a result, the Pope issued five bulls against Wycliffe, denouncing his doctrines as heretical and advising punitive action against him. Consequently, Wycliffe was brought before another council at Lambeth Palace, London. This time, the King’s mother intervened, and a group of ordinary citizens forced their way in to support him. Faced with this compelling defense, the council was reluctant to execute the Pope’s directives and merely prohibited Wycliffe from delivering lectures and sermons on the disputed teachings.
The First Wycliffe Bible
Wycliffe’s status of protection from his allies remains a historical conjecture. The passing of Pope Gregory XI, and subsequent events, redirected the Church’s focus from Wycliffe towards continental Europe. Pope Urban VI, Gregory’s successor, quickly antagonized influential cardinals leading to a protest against his legitimacy. When this protest fell on deaf ears, the disgruntled cardinals elected their own Pope, Clement VII, thus igniting the Great Papal Schism.
Nations and individuals were forced to take sides between the two Popes, further disillusioning Wycliffe. Originally inclined to support the Pope, who proved his authenticity, the sight of both Popes slandering each other and resorting to un-Christian means to secure power led Wycliffe to denounce both. He was compelled to question the office he once revered as the spiritual authority. Where could he find the true spiritual authority of God and Christ?
Wycliffe’s inquiries, contemplations, debates, and reasoning culminated in one revelation: the Bible was the singular standard of truth and the fountainhead of all spiritual knowledge. Today, this notion might seem commonplace, but in an era when Bible circulation was stringently controlled by the Church, and only fragments were accessible in English, this was a revolutionary concept. Wycliffe penned a treatise called “On the Truth of Holy Scripture,” in which he delineated the boundaries between Scripture and tradition.
Wycliffe soon realized the imperative need to preach the Scriptures to the masses, dismissing any distinction between clergy and laity. He believed that every individual, including the humble peasant, should be able to read the Bible. Wycliffe and his associates began the monumental task of translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into English. At the time, resorting to original languages would have been inconceivable in England. Greek had been long neglected, and Wycliffe had no knowledge of it. Between 1379 and 1382, the translation process progressed with remarkable urgency. Concurrently, Wycliffe also invested in educating itinerant preachers who disseminated the Word of God across the land.
It’s plausible that the New Testament was fully translated into English by 1382. The translation of the Old Testament, presumably under the supervision of Nicholas of Hereford, a dedicated follower of Wycliffe, was likely in progress at the same time. Another significant contributor to the translation was John Purvey, Wycliffe’s secretary for several years. The final translation, while markedly literal to the point of neglecting English idiomatic expression, was an extraordinary achievement. For the first time, the entire Bible was made accessible to the common populace.
Over the years, John Wycliffe held a deep conviction regarding the significance of the Lord’s Supper. In 1381, his fervor to demarcate church teachings and traditions from the Holy Scriptures led him to critique the concept of transubstantiation. First postulated in the ninth century, this doctrine stipulated that during consecration, the priest transformed the bread and wine into the actual substance of Christ’s body and blood. Wycliffe’s argument relied on passages from the Gospels and Paul’s writings pertinent to this issue and many related texts. For instance, when Jesus declared, “I am the true vine,” it didn’t imply a literal transformation of a vine into Christ’s body or vice versa (John 15:1). Instead, it was a metaphor used to impart a significant truth. Wycliffe, by using the Word of God to expose tradition, emphasized that transubstantiation was not an early church doctrine, and that Jerome himself adhered to the Biblical concept.
Perhaps out of all of Wycliffe’s candid writings and sermons, his discourse on transubstantiation proved the most indigestible for the Church. The doctrine of the Mass was a principal tool for the Church to keep the populace under its authority. Even his influential ally, John of Gaunt, ventured to Oxford in an attempt to silence Wycliffe on the matter but was unsuccessful.
The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 further intensified opposition towards Wycliffe. Thousands of rebels, led by Wat Tyler and other leaders, stormed London, committing arson, murder, and even executing the Archbishop of Canterbury before their defeat.
To an extent, Wycliffe was held accountable for this rebellion. Critics alleged that his teachings incited the masses to challenge the authority of their superiors. Despite the lack of evidence to support these accusations, the incident brought William Courtenay, a previous adversary of Wycliffe, into power as the new Archbishop. As Bishop of London, Courtenay had previously acted against Wycliffe. In 1382, as Archbishop, Courtenay convened a council that condemned Wycliffe’s doctrines as heretical and erroneous. Wycliffe was dismissed from the University of Oxford, and a decree was issued decreeing excommunication for anyone who preached the condemned doctrines or even listened to them.
The Final Years
The continued liberty enjoyed by Wycliffe can be attributed to the continued patronage of his influential friends and the stance of the Parliament, which hadn’t yet proven subservient to the new Archbishop. Centered in Lutterworth, Wycliffe relentlessly continued his literary endeavors and inspirited his disciples. His attention was particularly drawn towards Bishop Henry le Spencer of Norwich, who had gained recognition during the Peasants’ Revolt for his valor and leadership in quelling the rebellion in Norfolk.
Seizing his newfound reputation, the zealous bishop decided to get involved in the Papal Schism. In 1383, he obtained from Pope Urban VI a papal bull authorizing him to organize a crusade against Pope Clement VII. He rapidly mobilized an army by offering absolution and issuing Letters of Indulgence to those who pledged their allegiance to him. Wycliffe, who had already expressed his disapproval of the schism, wrote a treatise titled “Against the War of the Clergy.” He compared the schism to two dogs squabbling over a bone, asserting that their disagreement, rooted in worldly power and ambition, was diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ. Wycliffe argued that promising anyone the forgiveness of sins for participating in such a war was a false assurance. Instead, those who perished in this thoroughly unchristian conflict would die in unbelief. The bishop’s crusade ended in abysmal failure, leading to his disgraceful return to England.
In 1382, Wycliffe suffered a stroke that left him partially disabled. A second stroke in 1384 left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He passed away a few days later, on December 31, 1384, and was laid to rest in the Lutterworth churchyard, where his remains lay undisturbed for over four decades.
In an unforeseen and shocking turn of events in 1428, the grave of John Wycliffe was desecrated, following a decree from the Council of Constance issued 14 years prior. His remains were exhumed, burned, and the ashes scattered upon the waters of the small River Swift, which flowed into the River Avon, then the Severn, and eventually into the open sea. Though the perpetrators of this act hadn’t intended any symbolism, those seeking solace for the vindictive act interpreted it as such. The question remains as to why this act was executed long after Wycliffe’s death, when he no longer posed a direct threat to the religious authorities in England. An upcoming article on his followers, the Lollards, will provide insight into this query.