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Chapter Nine 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 lasting influence.

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 work.

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 Jesus:

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 me;
Abydeth, for Goddes digne passioun,
For we schal han a predicacioun;
This Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat."

(II 1163-77)

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 Books, 1984).


Chapter Nine of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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