of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter
G. Beidler, Lehigh University
9. John Wyclif
It is almost true to say that in the fourteenth century to
be Christian was to be a Roman Catholic. Still, although the
pope was in command of all Christians, there were in the islands
north of the English Channel early rumblings of a serious and
heretical questioning of the authority of the pope. The most
important of those rumblings came from the mouth and the pen
of an Englishman named John Wyclif. We do not know precisely
what Chaucer's connection was to this man or to his unorthodox
teachings, but there can be no question that Chaucer knew him
and knew about his ideas. After all, Chaucer's patron, John of
Gaunt, was also the patron and, for a time at least, the influential
protector of Wyclif. Furthermore, Chaucer referred, with typically
subtle irony, to Wyclif's followers, known as Lollards, in the
Canterbury Tales. Who was this John Wyclif, and why were
his teachings considered so heretical that within 50 years after
his death his bones were dug up, burned, and their ashes cast
into the waters of a nearby river?
John Wyclif was born in the Yorkshire village that probably
gave him his surname, Wycliffe. Indeed, his name is sometimes
spelled "Wycliffe." He eventually entered Oxford, where
he was educated in theology and was prepared for the priesthood.
He was early puzzled, then angered, by five features of medieval
Christianity in England. First, parish priests performed services
in Latin, a language the common people could not understand.
Second, the preaching friars and other church officials, because
they spoke in English, because they embellished their sermons
with all sorts of entertaining stories and fantastic fables that
had no authority in the Bible, and because they accepted money
as penance for sins rather than requiring true penance, had great
power over the common people of England. Third, some of the pronouncements
of the pope, who claimed to speak directly the holy words of
God, had no authority in the Bible and were sometimes directly
contradicted by it. Fourth, even if the people could read English,
and even if there were an English translation of the Bible, the
people were forbidden by the pope and his bishops to read it.
And, fifth, the pope inappropriately claimed political as well
as ecclesiastical power over England. These five features of
fourteenth-century Christianity in England called forth in Wyclif
a revolutionary zeal that was to determine his career and provide
the basis both for his notoriety in his own time and for his
Wyclif early and all his life denounced the friars as greedy
charlatans whose preaching was full of pandering falsehoods and
whose easy penance endangered the souls of those to whom they
offered it. He was also increasingly distrustful of the pope.
When the pope demanded a sum of money from England to pay him
for being the supreme political and ecclesiastical ruler of the
country, Wyclif was an early leader in the English refusal either
to make the payment or to accept papal political rulership. He
won the support of the royal family by publicly proclaiming that
the pope had no business trying to rule England, but he frightened
them with his talk of the pope as the "Anti-Christ."
Not surprisingly, in 1377, when Pope Gregory XI heard about this
bold Englishman, he sent papal bulls ordering that Wyclif be
shut up in prison. Because of the support of his friends in England,
Wyclif was not so imprisoned, but he was brought to trial in
England in 1378. At the trial he proclaimed openly that popes
have no political authority and that their spiritual authority
is not as absolute as they would have the world believe. He even
denied the pope's power to exact tithes and his authority excommunicate,
that is, condemn the souls of men and women to hell by denying
them membership in the church.
Events coincident with the trial dissolved it before a legal
determination could be made in the case. England's Edward III
had died not long before, and the country was ruled by a very
young King Richard II. More important, Pope Gregory XI died and
the papal elections soon after resulted in the appointment of
two popes, one living in Rome and one in Avignon. There was such
confusion and disarray surrounding these events that John Wyclif's
fate was left unresolved. Meanwhile, the Great Schism made it
even more obvious to Wyclif that the whole papal system was deeply
anti-Christian. These popes, for all their self-important proclamations
about having been appointed and anointed by God, were merely
fallible, power-seeking men. Wyclif became even more convinced
that the only true authority in the Christian church was the
Bible. Now excluded from Oxford, Wyclif determined to spend the
rest of his years translating the Scriptures into English so
that his countrymen could see and hear for themselves the real
word of God.
Wyclif returned to his home parish in Lutterworth and began
that translation. Even in semi-exile, however, Wyclif remained
a public figure. He was, without any solid evidence, accused
of perpetrating the English Rising of 1381, and his pronouncements
about theological matters kept his name very much alive in the
minds of English political and religious figures. He again drew
attention to himself when he proclaimed that there was no biblical
authority for the doctrine of transubstantiation. According to
that doctrine, the words of the priest actually transformed the
bread and wine of the communion service into the physical body
and blood of Christ. Wyclif said that, no, they remained merely
bread and wine, symbolically the body and blood of Christ, but
not actually so. That proclamation, of course, directly contradicted
the teachings of the popes. Wyclif also challenged the whole
notion that people had to pay tithes to the representatives of
the church. Why, he reasoned, should poor people who could barely
feed their own families be forced to pay large sums to support
the expensive eating, drinking, and dressing habits of overfed
and overrich prelates?
Wyclif's exile at Lutterworth enabled the now-feeble theologian
to complete the work for which he is most famous. There had been
a couple of earlier efforts to translate parts of the Bible into
English. The Venerable Bede, for example, had translated one
of the gospels into Anglo-Saxon, and Alfred the Great had translated
the Ten Commandments, but nothing so grand as the Wyclif Bible
had ever been attempted. The only Bible that was readily available
in Chaucer's England was Jerome's Vulgate Bible in Latin. None
but clerics, however, were permitted to read it. Indeed, a thirteenth-century
edict made it specifically illegal to have the Bible translated
into the common tongue. Wyclif, not surprisingly, ignored that
edict and set to work on his translation. Although he did not
do all of the translation himself, he did supervise the work
of several translators and was clearly the impetus behind the
After the Wyclif Bible was finished, copied, and distributed,
the people of England could either read or have read to them
the scriptures in their own language. They could, for example,
read or hear the opening passage in Genesis:
In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe
was veyn with ynne and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face
of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And
God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg ligt,
that it was good, and deuydid ligt fro derknessis; and clepide
ligt, day and derknessis, nygt.
It seems now, to both Catholics and non-Catholics, the most
natural and noble thing in the world for Christians to have direct
access to the Bible, which has become without question the best-selling
book ever published. But such was not the case in Wyclif's day.
The historian Knighton, who like many Englishmen was embarrassed
and annoyed with Wyclif, wrote this passage in his chronicle:
Wyclif, by thus translating the Bible made it the property of
the masses and common to all and more open to the laity and even
to women who were able to read, than formerly it had been even
to the scholarly and most learned of the clergy. And so the Gospel
pearl is thrown before swine and trodden underfoot, and that
which used to be so dear to both clergy and laity has become
a joke, and this precious gem of the clergy has been turned into
the sport of the laity, so that what used to be the highest gift
of the clergy and the learned members of the Church has become
common to the laity.
Wyclif's work of challenging the authority of the pope and
insisting on the importance of the Bible as the word of God sounds
a lot like the work of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
Although Wyclif thought of himself as calling for a correction
of the most unreasonable excesses of the Catholic papacy rather
than for an overthrowing of the Catholic church in England, his
teaching did lay the groundwork for the revolution that was to
come a couple of centuries later. Luther himself would not be
born until a century after Wyclif's death, but he came to know
Wyclif's work and quoted it with appreciation. Luther saw in
Wyclif a true visionary, a man who saw, far ahead of most others,
that the papacy and its servants had grown too greedy and self-serving,
and had allowed themselves to drift too far from the spiritual
needs of the people. Although Wyclif was a protester, not a Protestant,
a reformer, not a priest of the Reformation, there is no question
that he influenced in important ways the course of English history.
His English Bible, the first of its kind, brought the language
and the message of the scriptures directly into the hands of
the people and paved the way for the King James version more
than a century later.
Wyclif trained many of his followers, mostly clerics and priests,
to preach to the people of England in their own language. He
did not approve of singing in church services, of the telling
of illustrative fables, or of mystery plays, since he thought
that all such entertainments would distract the people from the
seriousness of the spiritual work at hand. He most certainly
did not approve of swearing or blasphemy. Wyclif told his followers
to begin their sermons with a specific biblical text and then
explain in simple language what the texts meant. He told them
to mirror in their lives the simple life of Jesus. They were
to accept in payment only enough food to get them to the next
town and a place to sleep. Not surprisingly, members of the church
establishment viewed these new poor preachers, or Lollards, with
both jealousy and alarm. Not only were these new preachers unusually
well-versed in the scriptures, but they tended to work honestly,
seriously, and for almost no money. No wonder other churchmen
were threatened by such preachers in their midst. No wonder the
church establishment considered Wyclif a heretic.
How did Chaucer feel about the heretical ideas of Wyclif?
We cannot be sure. Surely, however, he shared his patron's sympathy
for at least part of Wyclif's project to call attention to the
evil practices of some English churchmen, and it is probably
no accident that in some ways Chaucer's pilgrim Parson, a poor
man who loved the gospels and who devoted himself to serving
the needs of his flock rather than his own needs, sounds like
a Wyclif sympathizer:
A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre persoun of a toun,
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But Cristes loore and his apostles twelve
He taughte; but first he folwed it hymselve.
(I 477-82, 527-28)
There is some specific evidence that Chaucer did think of
the Parson as sharing some qualities with the poor preachers
who followed Wyclif's program. In what is usually known as the
epilogue to the Man of Law's Tale, Chaucer has the worldly
Harry Bailly make specific reference to "Lollards,"
the popular name for the poor priests who went out to preach
in the Wyclif manner. We should keep in mind that Wyclif specifically
denounced swearing and blaspheming references to Christ. Immediately
after the Man of Law has finished his noble tale of gentle Coustance,
the Host stands up in his stirrups to get the attention of the
pilgrims, and swears on the bones and dignity and passion of
Owre Hoost upon his stiropes stood anon,
And seyde, "Goode men, herkeneth everych on!
This was a thrifty tale for the nones!
Sir Parisshe Prest," quod he, "for Goddes bones,
Telle us a tale, as was thi forward yore.
I se wel that ye lerned men in lore
Can moche good, by Goddes dignitee!"
The Parson him answerde, "Benedicite!
What eyleth the man, so synfully to swere?"
Oure Host answerde, "O Jankin, be ye there?
I smelle a Lollere in the wynd," quod he.
"Now! goode men," quod oure Hoste, "herkeneth
Abydeth, for Goddes digne passioun,
For we schal han a predicacioun;
This Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat."
The Host's humorous reference to Lollards shows that, blaspheming
tavernkeeper that he is, he may be less than enamored of the
Lollards who have, apparently, chastised him before for his irreverent
ways. Chaucer's own opinion of Lollards, of course, is more difficult
to pin down.
- Primary source: David Fountain, John Wycliffe: The Dawn
of the Reformation (Sholing, Southampton: Mayflower Christian
Chapter Nine of Backgrounds
to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University