Tuesday, 17 January 2017

In Memoriam

John Wyclif 1320--1384

In his book on the history of England, Robert Tombs provides the following pen portrait of  the significance of John Wyclif.  
Wyclif was, among other things, a critic of Church corruption, which meant mainly its wealth.  His advocacy of Church disendowment won approval in elite political circles and support in Oxford.  His other ideas were even more far-reaching, including attacks in the 1370's on papal authority and on transubstantiation, the doctrine that the sacramental bread and wine really became the body and blood of Christ.  This caused horror among the orthodox and denunciation of Wyclif as "the great heresiarch," the first major English heretic and the most subversive thinker of the later Middle Ages, who influenced the Bohemian Hussite movement and indirectly Martin Luther.  Wyclif's writings were repeatedly condemned by the Pope, but he was sufficiently protected by his patrons to be allowed to retire unmolested to his benefice at Lutterworth, where he died in 1384.  In 1428 his remains were exhumed and burned on papal orders.  [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.133.]
Wyclif's person and work were protected by his court connection with John of Gaunt.  It is interesting with the benefit of hindsight to see that so many of the issues upon which he wrote and for which he advocated, preceded Martin Luther and the Reformation by 150 years.  Clearly he was a prophet born out of due time.
Consequently, it is not surprising that the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Reformation in much the same way that it responded to John Wyclif a century and a half before. But one of the most significant aspects of Wyclif's work was to translate the Bible into the common English language of the day.

A crucial part of the work of Wyclif and his followers--insultingly called "Lollards"; that is, mumblers--was to translate the Bible.  This would, some thought, lead to a return to the golden age of Bede and Alfred, themselves Biblical translators.  A first word-for-word translation of the Latin Vulgate appeared in 1382, and a revised, slightly freer and more comprehensible  version in 1388.

As a cultural development, this can hardly be exaggerated: it was by far the most important body of English prose since the Conquest, and--mass produced as far as manuscript-copying allowed--it had a much wider circulation than any other English writings.  It met a desire--so the Wycliffites hoped, and so their enemies came to fear--by laypeople, both nobles and "simple men" and women, to lead a more active an autonomous religious life.  There was a controversy about whether English ("not angelic", thought one chronicler) was an adequate or dignified medium for the divine Word: one English version translated biblical wine as "cider."

"The pearled gospel," lamented one chronicler, was being "trampled by pigs."  But Lollards insisted that English was suitable, and perhaps even better than Latin. [Ibid.]
The ecclesiastical powers felt the heat, so to speak, and for the first time heresy was made a capital offence in England.
The 1409 Constitutions of Oxford instituted unprecedented policing of belief..The translation into English of any passage or phrase from the Bible was forbidden without the permission of a diocesan council--stricter controls than anywhere in Europe, and which would in theory have condemned a large body of existing literature, including the Canterbury Tales. [Ibid., p.133f.]
As always happens, forbidden fruit is the sweetest.  This placed a great value and symbolic primacy to Wyclif's English language translation of the Scriptures.
The desire for an English Bible caused "Lollard Bibles" to be treasured and hidden, and the exquisite quality of some surviving copies proves it had an elite following.  [Ibid., p.134.]
Then, as now, putting the Scriptures in the hands of the common man and teaching the Bible in apostolic fashion--that is, clearly and with authority--is a a radical and revolutionary act.  In the days of post-Christian apostasy in the West, an army of modern-day Lollards would be a thing to behold.

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