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The story of the life of Wyclif, as if to foreshadow all that follows, begins with ambiguous references in a mutilated record. Leland in his Collectanea mentions Wiclif, a north-Yorkshire village, as the place unde Wigclif haereticus originem duxit. In his Itinerary he says that Wyclif was born at Hipswell, some miles to the south-east. The contradiction is apparent only. One note mentions the seat of the family; the other records the birthplace of an individual. For at least half a century before his birth the family had had some local importance, holding the advowson and the manor. Wiclif was part of the honour of Richmond granted to John of Gaunt in 1342, and if (as is possible) Wyclif himself became lord of the manor, Gaunt was his overlord for some thirty years.

Wyclif was born about 1330, and went to Oxford. Three of the six colleges then founded have claimed connexion with him, but how he entered the university is uncertain. The first thing tolerably clear is that in 1360 he was Master of Balliol, succeeding the second Master some time after 1356. On 14 May 1361 he was instituted at Holbeach to the College living of Fillingham, Lincolnshire, valued at 30 marks. This made resigna­tion of the Mastership necessary. The place and time of his ordination are uncertain. Described later as a priest of York, he was probably ordained by Thoresby.

Wyclif’s connexion with Queen’s is now as generally accepted as his connexion with Balliol. A John Wyclif rented rooms at 20s. per annum from 1363-64 to 1366, again in 1374-75, and in 1380-81; there is no adequate reason for doubt that this was the ex-Master of Balliol, but it does not follow that he was more than a tenant. Connected with Queen’s as tenants or Fellows or both were several men intimately associated with Wyclif’s principal enterprises: William Middle worth and William Selby with his wardenship of Canterbury Hall, and Nicholas Hereford with his later teaching.

About Merton there is less agreement. The name Wyclif appears for 1356 among the Fellows responsible for provisioning the Fellows’ table, and in the oldest list of the Fellows (c. 1422) is a note that points to a definite, though shortened, association which the College later wished to minimise as much as possible. To be unable to give reasons for Wyclif’s removal from Merton to Balliol is not to prove that it did not occur.

There was yet another Oxford society with which Wyclif probably had to do: Canterbury Hall, founded by Archbishop Islip in 1361 as a joint house for secular and regular clergy to accommodate monks sent from Canterbury and to increase the number of clergy depleted by the plague. The endowments were of two kinds: private donations made or procured by Islip, and the rich appropriated living of Pagham, which belonged to Islip as archbishop, given as Canon Law required with the consent of the prior and chapter. The first statutes provided that the Warden and three Fellows should be monks, while the eight secular students were in a distinctly subordinate position. The first warden, Henry de Wodehull, did not avert a clash between the privileged regular minority and the seculars, and on 9 December 1365 Islip appointed “John de Wyclyve” warden. No special reason is alleged, but the struggle over the claim of the regulars to obtain the doctorate in theology without proceeding in arts was then very intense, and Wodehull had taken this course. Islip’s appointment of a secular warden may have been only a matter for discussion with the chapter, but his next step in replacing the three monastic Fellows by three seculars, Selby, Middleworth, and Benger, possibly violated Canon Law and plainly contravened the licence in mortmain which had contemplated a mixed society. Islip prepared new statutes for a wholly secular society uncontrolled by the chapter, but died on 26 April 1366 before the king or the chapter had approved them.

Islip’s successor, Langham, a Benedictine, promptly challenged the new plan, and after some temporary arrangements reappointed Wodehull on 22 April 1367. The new secular Hall refused to receive him; Langham decided to dispossess the seculars completely, and the revenues of Pagham were sequestrated when Wyclif and his colleagues failed to shew their title to them. Wyclif and the seculars appealed to the Pope. They had a poor case, presented ineffectively and rather disingenuously by Benger, who put in only one appearance. The case against Wyclif, based on the original statutes, was stronger and was better handled. There is no reason to represent him as an aggrieved individual over-ridden by a powerful corporation; the badness of his case explains its failure. Cardinal Androin, instructed in no event to permit a re-establishment of a mixed society, decided for Wodehull on 23 July 1369. Androin’s death delayed execution of the sentence, but on 30 June 1371 two Canterbury monks were appointed to expel all the seculars. The latest settlement, like Islip’s reconstitution of the Hall, contravened the licence in mortmain for a mixed society, and not till 8 April 1372, for a fine of 200 marks, did Edward III confirm the papal judgment. Was the warden of Canterbury the schoolman Wyclif? The traditional identification has been questioned, and a rival put forward in John Whytclif, whom Islip presented to the vicarage of Mayfield in 1361. There are two explicit contemporary statements in favour of the schoolman; to overthrow these more is needed than the circumstantial evidence that can be adduced in favour of the vicar of Mayfield. Wyclif’s own reference to the matter in De Ecclesia, though impersonal, shews exactly the same spirit as the expositio at the Curia.

For most of his life Wyclif had the normal career of a distinguished scholar. He appears to have been a regent master in 1360 at Balliol, but not in 1356 at Merton. He took his B.D., it seems, between April 1368 and May 1370, and his D.D. probably in 1372. He received in turn three livings with the cure of souls: Fillingham, Ludgershall, and Lutterworth. The residence needed for a doctorate, the rooms in Queen’s, licences for non-residence for periods of study for two years in 1363 and 1368, indicate that for much of the time he did not discharge his duties in person. On 12 November 1368 he exchanged Fillingham for Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, worth only 10 marks, but nearer Oxford.

As was usual for a man of his distinction, Wyclif’s income was supple­mented by a prebend not entailing residence. On 24 November 1362 the university included him among the masters for whom it asked the Pope to provide, and the Pope granted him the prebend of Aust in the collegiate church of Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol. He had responsibility only for the chancel of Aust and for his share in the services at Westbury, but like his colleagues he sometimes neglected these. On 27 June 1366 all five canons were reported as non-resident from the time of obtaining their prebends, only one having provided a vicar; for a year Wyclif had with­drawn his chaplain, and like the rest he had neglected his chancel. All were ordered to appear before the bishop, but there is no record of their appearance. The other four canons made the returns of benefices held in plurality demanded by the constitution Horribilis in May that year, but though the Lincoln records contain the others due from Westbury, Wyclif’s is missing. Did he evade enquiries, uneasily conscious of his neglect? In 1377, though non-resident, all canons had vicars. Wyclif appears to have held Aust till his death. That he should accept a canonry by papal provision, should hold it as a non-resident with a cure of souls elsewhere, and should neglect its small duties at times, does not prove him incapable of zeal above the average or hypocritical in professing it; but it shews him to have been in most ways in the main part of his career a typical scholarly clerk of the fourteenth century.

In 1371, probably from Gregory XI, Wyclif received a provision of a canonry in Lincoln; the grant was renewed 26 December 1373, with permission to retain Westbury. Thus only eleven years before his death he was at the height of his ecclesiastical success. He appears never to have received the prebend and made a considerable grievance of not getting Caistor in 1375. Caistor was valuable, and went to the illegitimate son of Thombury, an English leader of papal troops whose services the Pope wished to retain. Wyclif never forgot this promotion of an unqualified youth, born out of England. Wyclif had hitherto followed the usual course of promotion through university and papal influence. In the second part of his career he passed to the active service of the Crown. As yet he shewed no dislike of the influence of the Pope in the Church, or of the king’s use beneficed clergy.

On 7 April 1374 the king, acting in the minority of the patron, Henry de Ferrers, presented Wyclif to the rectory of Lutterworth, and Wyclif resigned Ludgershall. This presentation may be regarded as a retaining fee; and on 26 July Wyclif was appointed to the commission to discuss with papal representatives at Bruges questions outstanding between England and the Curia and made more urgent by the second refusal of tribute on 21 May. Wyclif, the only distinguished theologian on the commission, ranked second. By the middle of September the commission returned after indecisive proceedings. We have no record of Wyclif’s impressions, nor do we know why he was not put on the second commission in the following year. He now returned to Oxford, and worked out those theories which grew into De Dominio Divino and De Civili Dominio. A reflexion of academic controversies on this subject appears in the Determinatio de Dominio, published probably early in 1375. The first part courteously combats Uhtred of Boldon’s opinions about the superiority of priestly to lay rule and the sin of secularising Church property in any circumstances. Uhtred had served the Crown before Wyclif in negotiations with the Pope. The second part is a more bitter reply to Binham, a monk of St Albans. Binham had tried to bring the burning political question of papal tribute into an academic discussion about dominion, with the object, Wyclif complained, of discrediting him at the Curia in order that he might lose his benefices. Wyclif, therefore, put his views into the mouths of seven anonymous lords, a literary device which has caused wild specula­tion. On 22 September 1376 he was summoned from Oxford to appear before the King’s Council. After the death of the Black Prince and the end of the Good Parliament, Gaunt had an opportunity of carrying out his anti-clerical policy. Wyclif s Oxford teaching had shown him to be the most eminent English representative of that school of thought in the Church which favoured partial disendowment. By preaching in London, “running about from church to church,” he lent moral support to Gaunt’s party.

On 12 September 1375 William Courtenay at the age of 33 became Bishop of London. To him passed the effective leadership of the clerical opposition, and he determined to silence Gaunt’s scholastic henchman. In answer to a summons Wyclif appeared before Sudbury and Courtenay at St Paul’s on 19 February 1377. Four friars accompanied him to give scholastic support to opinions about Church property that they shared. Gaunt and Percy, the king’s marshal, with followers, provided temporal support. Instead of an examination there was altercation between the bishops and the lords; this degenerated into personal affronts to Courtenay by Gaunt, and the assembly was broken up because of a report of a bill in Parliament to put the city within the jurisdiction of the king’s marshal. In the riots and reconciliation which followed Wyclif disappeared from view.

What Wyclif had feared for some time now happened. Some fifty conclusions from his teaching were sent to Borne, and on 22 May 1377 Gregory XI issued five bulls: three to Sudbury and Courtenay, one to the University of Oxford, and one to Edward III. He complained of the sloth, of the official watchmen, and stated that he had heard on the information of several persons very worthy of credence that Wyclif had dogmatised and publicly preached propositions erroneous, false, contrary to the faith, threatening to overthrow the status of the whole Church. In part his teaching resembled that of Marsilio of Padua and John of Jandun already condemned. A schedule of eighteen error’s, mostly from De Civili Dominio, Wyclifs chief published work, followed. (The conclusions state (1) the temporary and conditional nature of civil dominion, (2) kings and temporal lords may dispossess the Church of wealth in certain circum­stances, and it is improper to use ecclesiastical censures in connexion with temporal goods, (3) ecclesiastical judgments are not absolute: they depend on the state of the individual judged and their conformity to Christ’s law, (4) every priest can absolve from every sin and every ecclesiastic, even the Pope, can be called to account by laymen). As the careful wording of the bull indicated, the errors were political rather than theo­logical: they dealt with dominion founded on grace, the secularisation of ecclesiastical property, and the opinion that Church discipline was valid only if it were in conformity with the law of Christ. Sudbury or Courtenay must learn privately if Wyclif taught such theses. If he did, he should be imprisoned by papal authority. If possible, a confession should be obtained and sent secretly to the Pope, whilst Wyclif was kept in chains pending further instructions. A second bull instructed the bishops, if Wyclif should flee, to cite him to appear before Gregory within three months. A third bull urged them to convince the king, his family, and the nobility that the conclusions menaced polity and government not less than faith. To Oxford Gregory expressed surprise at the sloth which allowed tares to ripen: upon pain of loss of all privileges the university was ordered to deliver Wyclif and his followers to the bishops. Finally, Gregory besought King Edward to favour the bishops in their efforts against Wyclif. The bulls attempted to set up a papal inquisition in England. The ordinary courts were not appealed to; the king was to help rather than to act; the bishops were made papal commissioners. It is likely that possessioners, probably the Benedictines, had aroused the Pope.

Before the bull reached him Edward died on 21 June 1377. The re­direction to Richard was made as soon as possible, but the reluctance of the government to follow the Pope’s wishes was shown in two ways. The new Parliament pressed for the use of the revenues of foreign clergy for the war; and Wyclif, who had lately published the oath of Garnier, the papal collector, with comments, gave a written opinion on a question put to him by the king and council in the first year of the new reign: whether for national defence it were lawful to prevent treasure from going to foreign nations, even if the Pope demanded it on pain of censure. Wyclif argues that the law of nature, the Gospel, and conscience all allow this, but the consent of the whole people should be obtained for such a course. On 28 November Parliament ended, and on 18 December Sudbury and Courtenay published the bulls. They did not do all that was required. They called on the chancellor of Oxford to report secretly if Wyclif taught these conclusions, and to cite him to appear at St Paul’s within thirty days.

The university acted even less decisively. Wyclif, for the sake of the privileges of the university, went into a sort of voluntary detention. The chancellor, Adam de Tonworth, after receiving the opinions of the masters regent in theology, “for all and by the assent of all”, declared publicly in the schools that the conclusions, though sounding badly, were true. Wyclif, fearing violence, did not go to St Paul’s, but some time before Gregory’s death on 27 March 1378 appeared before the bishops at Lambeth. There they had no free hand. The king’s mother ordered that no formal judgment should be given, and a London crowd broke into the chapel. Without definite condemnation, the bishops prohibited Wyclif from canvassing such theses in the schools or in sermons because of the scandal given to the laity. Wyclif issued several papers, very moderate in tone, explaining the conclusions; he sent an explanation of his teaching to Rome, and published in English and Latin a summary of De Civili Dominio, entitled Thirty-Three Conclusions on the Poverty of Christ. His last appearance in politics, still in alliance with Gaunt against Courtenay, occurred in the autumn of 1378. At the Parliament of Gloucester in October, Sudbury demanded satisfaction for the breach of the privileges of Westminster Abbey on 11 August, when, in connexion with the Spanish prisoners’ case treated elsewhere, Hawley had been killed with a sacristan beside the Confessor’s shrine. Wyclif was one of the doctors of theology who put the king’s case before Parliament. The substance of the defence, a mixture of bad history, scholastic exegesis, and a genuine perception of the evils caused by certain privileges, found a place later in De Ecclesia which Wyclif was then writing. The matter was abandoned rather than settled. At Gloucester, as at Bruges and before the Council, the scholar’s part was not decisive. He left the political arena having accomplished little except perhaps his own disillusionment. Yet it was the friendship of the royal circle which made his later work possible by protecting his person.

This same summer came the beginning of the Schism. On 8 April Urban VI was elected; on 30 September Clement VII was elected; and on 29 November Urban excommunicated him. In Urban, a scholar with a reputation for austere piety, Wyclif welcomed “a catholic head, an evangelical man,” who might be expected to live “in conformity with the law of Christ.” To the end he remained for Wyclif Urbanus noster, while Clement was “Robert of Geneva”; but the Schism contributed decisively to a change in Wyclif’s attitude to the Papacy. Gregory he had disliked personally as a “horrible devil,” but the continuing scandal of the Schism set him against the institution itself. It helped to turn him from a critical member of the Church who used its regular machinery for his own career into something like a rebel against the system in which he had hitherto lived. But it is easier to exaggerate than to define this change.

Soon after the papal Schism, perhaps early in 1379, Wyclif gave more explicit expression to opinions about the Eucharist which had been implicit only in his earlier teaching. From this came the hostility of the friars, who had sympathised with his attack on the endowed clergy. Oxford began to divide into definitely friendly and unfriendly parties, soon called “Lollards” and “Catholics.” The Lambeth trial had shown how little even Courtenay could do about the conclusions condemned in the bulls; for criticism of current Eucharistic doctrine there was to be less lay support.

From the autumn of 1379 to the spring of 1381 Berton, who had op­posed Wyclif in the schools, was chancellor of Oxford. Late in 1380, or early in 1381, he arranged for a scrutiny of Wyclif’s Eucharistic teaching by twelve doctors, four seculars, two monks, and six friars. The verdict of this body might have been foreseen, but to call it packed seems too strong. Wyclif says he was condemned by seven votes. Two opinions were declared erroneous: first, that the substance of material bread and wine “really” remain after consecration; second, that the Body and Blood of Christ are not essentialiter nec substantialiter nec etiam corporaliter in the sacrament, but only figurative seu tropice. The greater excommunication was threatened against all who taught or heard such doctrine.

Irregularly, but in accordance with what he was teaching about the king’s religious authority and responsibility, Wyclif appealed to the king. Sudbury was chancellor, and no official action followed; but Gaunt came to Oxford and urged Wyclif to be silent about the Eucharist. Wyclif, however, defended his views scholastically in a Confessio dated 10 May 1381. We have no record of his renting rooms at Queen’s after the summer of 1381, and his retirement to Lutterworth probably took place about this time, for in the following summer Hereford, not Wyclif, was the leader of the party in Oxford.

The Peasants’ Revolt in June 1381 had less direct effect on Wyclif’s work than has been represented by those who exaggerate his political importance. Its indirect effect was very great, for by the murder of Sudbury the supreme influence in the Church in England passed to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the far more energetic Courtenay. Cour­tenay found Wyclif’s friends in control of Oxford and a number of priests moving about the country teaching his doctrine in a popular way. Apart from what they taught, their indiscriminate preaching was in itself a breach of order, and as early as 1377 or 1378 they were in trouble with the bishops. These preachers were not another “private sect” in the Church or a body of dissenters outside. Some were Oxford scholars; others had little learning, and for them Wyclif prepared tracts and sermons; only after his death does it seem that laymen appeared among these preachers. That they had any responsibility for the rising is ex­tremely unlikely, but not unnaturally some saw in the general danger to property an opportunity of discrediting Wyclif’s attacks on one kind of property. The revolt did not affect Wyclif’s teaching; he issued papers appealing to the king and the Parliament which met on 7 May 1382 for disendowment and the end of imprisonment for excommunication. (The petition asked for the ending of obedience and payments to Rome or Avignon unless proved to be according to Scripture, of the evils of non-residence, of the employment of the clergy in the royal service, and of the imprisonment of excommunicated persons. The duty of confiscating the temporalities of delinquent clergy was urged; no unaccustomed tallages should be imposed until the whole endowment of the clergy has been exhausted). Mean­while Courtenay received the pallium on 6 May and straightway summoned a specially chosen assembly of clergy to meet on the 17th at Blackfriars hall. Besides the archbishop nine bishops, sixteen doctors and seven bachelors of theology, eleven doctors and two bachelors of law attended the first session. The assembly was undoubtedly eminent, but the presence of sixteen friars and the absence of secular doctors of theology gave it an unbalanced appearance. Wyclif, it appears, was not personally condemned, but twenty-four conclusions which came from his writings were examined. Ten were found heretical and fourteen erroneous.

The ten heretical conclusions state (1) the nature of the consecrated elements and the absence of Christ’s authority for the Mass, (2) ecclesiastical rites are worth­less or superfluous according to the state of the person using them: a “foreknown” Pope has no authority, a bishop or priest in mortal sin does not ordain, consecrate, or baptise, a contrite man needs no outer confession, (3) God ought to obey the devil, (4) after Urban VI the West, like the Greeks, should have no Pope, (5) according to the Bible ecclesiastics should have no temporal possessions. The fourteen erroneous conclusions state (1) excommunication, except of those known to be excommunicated by God, injures only the prelate concerned; to ex­communicate one who has appealed to the king or council is traitorous; to cease to hear or to preach the Word of God for fear of excommunication excommunicates a man; deacons and priests need no authorisation for preaching; (2) no man is lord or prelate while in mortal sin; goods and tithes may be withdrawn from delinquent ecclesiastics; the commonalty may correct delinquent lords; (3) special prayers have no special value; particular orders were instituted in error; and, friars being bound to earn their living, alms given to them bring excommunication on the giver and receiver. The conclusions represent aspects of Wyclif’s teaching; most, if not all, of them were capable of defence subject to scholastic interpretation, but such interpretation left them almost without distinctive meaning.

The sitting was ended by an earthquake, which Courtenay and Wyclif interpreted in different ways. Courtenay’s next step was to obtain the help of the temporal power. He obtained first an ordinance, later ineffectually denounced by the Commons as unauthorised by them, and then, on 26 June, letters patent. The ordinance ordered sheriffs to arrest and imprison upon a bishop’s certificate; the letters patent empowered the archbishop and his suffragans to imprison defenders of the condemned doctrines. On 30 May Courtenay ordered the condemnation of the conclusions to be published in every church in his province.

The archbishop then turned to Oxford, where a friend of Wyclif, Rigg, had replaced Berton as chancellor. Two days before the Blackfriars assembly Hereford, the Ascension Day preacher appointed by the chan­cellor, had vigorously defended Wyclif in an English sermon. A Carmelite opponent of Wyclif, Stokes, had it reported. For the Corpus Christi Day sermon on 5 June Rigg appointed Repingdon, a young Austin canon of Leicester, attractive but volatile, not yet a doctor, but known as a de­fender of Wyclif’s ethical doctrine. The opponents of Wyclif urged that the Blackfriars condemnation should be published before the sermon; but Rigg deliberately neglected the archbishop’s instructions and the sermon was a Lollard triumph. Stokes, whom Courtenay had made his special commissioner to read the condemnation, wrote a pitiful report to Courte­nay protesting that he could do nothing for fear of death. The Oxford defiance of the archbishop was quickly ended. A week afterwards, on 12 June, Rigg and Stokes appeared at a second session of the Blackfriars assembly, and Rigg, charged with contempt of the archbishop and a leaning to suspect persons and doctrines, secured pardon only by submission. The king’s council charged him to carry out a humiliating mandate of Courtenay, and his new resistance led only to new humiliation. The princi­pal Lollards fled, and in time almost all made their peace with the Church. Hereford and Repingdon appealed personally to Gaunt; he ordered them to obey the archbishop when he learnt of their views on the Eucharist, though he made clear his sympathy with the more political side of their teaching.

Though no judgment was passed on him at Black friars, it is not accurate to say that no action was taken against Wyclif personally. By Courtenay’s mandate of 12 June Rigg, as chancellor, was ordered to prevent Wyclif, “as notoriously suspected of heresies,” from preaching or performing any academic act until his innocence was proved before the chancellor. On 13 July letters patent ordered a general search in the university for any who had communication with Wyclif or other suspects; the books of Wyclif and Hereford were to be sent to the archbishop. In November Courtenay completed his triumph by holding Convocation in Oxford. In six months by vigorous, skilful work he had destroyed the Lollard hold on Oxford. Without risking set-backs such as had nullified the early proceedings against Wyclif, he had isolated him personally; and the dangerous academic teaching condemned in Gregory’s bulls had ended. Courtenay owed his success partly to his own judgment, partly to a modification in the political situation, but most to Wyclif’s Eucharistic doctrine. This last limited the active friendliness of Gaunt.

Wyclif remained incumbent of Lutterworth for the remaining two and a half years of his life. The supposition that he made some recantation at the Oxford Convocation lacks foundation; he had not been formally convicted, for he had not been tried. It is possible, but far from certain, that attempts were made to renew Gregory XI’s citation of him to Rome. He states that he promised not to use the terms substance of material bread and wine outside the schools, but he continued to write in Latin and English, and his most violent attacks on the friars date from this period. He had some apprehension about his safety, but his eulogistic references in very late writings to Gaunt as friend of poor priests and as the innocent victim of friars’ plots indicate one reason for his personal immunity. In the last two years of his life he was partly paralysed, and on 28 December 1384 whilst hearing Mass at Lutterworth church he collapsed as the result of a severe stroke, from which he died on 31 December. Dying in communion with the Church Wyclif was buried at Lutterworth, but thirty years later, when the full consequences of his teaching had shown themselves in Bohemia, the Council of Constance condemned him, and ordered his bones to be cast out of consecrated ground. The ex-Lollard, Repingdon, then Bishop of Lincoln, on whom the duty devolved, took no action; but Fleming, who had himself played with heresy in his youth, moved by the urgent demand of Martin V, executed the order. In 1428 Wyclif’s bones were disinterred, burnt, and cast into the Swift.

Wyclif’s literary work falls under three heads: Latin writings, English writings, work in connexion with the translation of the Bible. The English writings and the translation, however significant for the future, have been made to appear unduly prominent. The Latin works are Wyclif’s main personal achievement, but to relate them exactly with the incidents in his career is at present impossible. They have been pro­nounced prolix, dull, and obscure, violent without being animated, and vulgar without being picturesque. They are said to betray a mind cold, rationalistic, abounding in negative criticism, destitute of constructive faith. Such a judgment is too harsh. Wyclif’s was the silver age of scholastic Latin, and to the general reader his philosophical works are obscure; but at most times he expressed himself with complete clarity and some force. He often wrote tersely, and not seldom came a rush of simple earnest eloquence. At times in his love for Oxford, his hope for the Church, his contemplation of the mystery of divine love in the Incarnation, his words rang with deep and tender passion. He was a master of irony, and no account of him is balanced which omits his elephantine playfulness. To say that at the end of life, exiled from Oxford, he was unfair is to say that he was a controversialist in hardship. To say that his language at times offends modern taste is to say that he was a con­temporary of Urban VI and Clement VII. Even the violence with which he parodied his opponents’ doctrine of the Eucharist shews him a true son of his age. The worst fault in his writing—bad arrangement—comes from his attempt to preserve the form of a scholastic discussion, when he is in truth not arguing but denouncing some abuse or announcing some conviction. The literary vehicle was unsuited for the purpose of a reformer, but in many treatises produced very rapidly in the last ten years of his life he used material in the same shape that it had had in the schools.

Though no little of Wyclif’s philosophical work remains unedited, it is clear that his theology stood firmly on his realist philosophy. It seems legitimate to date in the late sixties and early seventies of the century the Summa de Ente, and the separate philosophical works, De Compositione Hominis, De Adieus Animae, De Logica, and De Materia et Forma. The occasional laments about defects in the Church were such as any serious churchman might make, but already in these works Wyclif was pressing his attack on the nominalist “sign-doctors.” In his opinions that all being is one and is good, and that evil per se does not exist, as in his attempt to reconcile man’s free-will and the will of God, Wyclif worked over fairly familiar ground. Yet his intense realism led him even in these early works to positions from which it was inevitable that he should make an assault on the dominant theology of his day. Though he had that acute sense of God as will which marked most fourteenth-century thinkers, the divine will was never for Wyclif an arbitrary will. The contrast between what God could do by His absolute power and what in fact He does in the universe—though in his earlier days Wyclif allowed it—was not for him valid. In truth God willed the best; nothing better could be conceived, for had a better conception been possible God would have willed it instead of the existing universe. To annihilate any part would therefore so far worsen it. Moreover, since universals are real, being itself is real and is one; and to annihilate that which any one thing is, is to annihilate being itself. The notion of annihilation is then absurd and contrary to God’s goodness. Wyclif did not fail to notice that this opinion had a bearing on the doctrine of the Eucharist, and referred more than once to it without pursuing a theological enquiry. He asserted that the sensible world of our observation is to be depended on and is not delusive; there is no need for that intellectual agnosticism which Duns had used to prepare the way for unquestioning submission to ecclesiastical authority. In Wyclif’s opinion what distinguishes the “sect of Christ” from the sect of Mahomet or from other false sects is the way in which the Christian faith can bear rational examination and finds support from it.

The first of Wyclif’s important theological works was De Benedicta Incarnatione, his sententiary treatise which may be dated c. 1370. In it Wyclif appears as the theologian proper. He has not yet descended to the dust and sweat of ecclesiastical and political controversy. This book shows that of him, hardly less than of St Augustine, St Anselm, and St Thomas Aquinas, it was true that pectus facit theologum. De Benedicta Incarnatione is closely linked with Wyclif’s philosophical work, for its object is to shew that the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation finds better expression in realist than in contemporary nominalist philosophy. There was nothing arbitrary in the assumption of human nature by the second Person in the Godhead: it was a metaphysical necessity. Wyclif turns with disgusted horror from speculations about the possibility of mankind being saved in some other way; these, though much indulged in by the followers of Duns, are as unnecessary to the philosopher as they are shocking to the devout. The most important feature in the book, probably indeed the most distinctive contribution of Wyclif to the development of Christian thought, is his emphasis on the true humanity of Christ and his exposition of the implications of this. Christ is verissime et univoce our friend and our brother, no demi-god. Wyclif anticipates Erasmus and Luther in the tenderness of his contemplation of the human Son of Man; for him, to the end of his life, to comprehend the reality of the Incarnation was the key to almost all theological problems. The terms in which he states the doctrine are also a key to his own mind. The contemplation of the humiliation, summa minor ado, of the Word, he says, should kindle in us pilgrims the theological virtues. That is not the word of the “twice-born”; it reveals Wyclif as outside the main stream of Western evangelical experience. His realism tended to make sin unreal, and his own experience did not supplement his philosophy. That is why it has been truly said that, for all his veneration of St Augus­tine, he never understood St Augustine’s doctrine of grace. In later con­troversies Wyclif, like Marsilio, drew from the doctrine of the humanity of Christ deductions that sometimes look like special pleading on behalf of the temporal power which represents His divinity as opposed to the priesthood which represents His humanity. This book makes clear that Wyclif did not emphasise the humanity of Christ for the use that could be made of it in politics; it was central in the faith which he had expressed in passionate words before the political controversy arose. De Benedicta Incarnatione, his most beautiful book, is a piece of great religious writing. It is a measure of the sacrifice made when the divine became the reformer.

The doctrine of Dominion

The doctrine of dominion, the most famous, though almost the least original, part of Wyclif s teaching, provided the main reason for the issue of Gregory XI’s bulls, and the books in which it is set out, De Dominio Divino and De Civili Dominio, stand with De Mandatis and De Statu Innocenciae as the introduction and head of his theological Summa. Wyclif’s work on the problem of lordship—a subject much discussed in the fourteenth century in connexion with the friars’ use of property—was the first result of that rededication of his life to study which is recorded at the beginning of De Dominio Divino. That work defines the problem. Lordship and service are two relations that began with creation; lordship, as distinct from possession, is in the primary sense God’s; man is God’s steward only. In the state of innocence he had the use of all things in common with all other men; private property came with sin. In De Civili Dominio two theses are maintained: no one in mortal sin can hold lordship; everyone in a state of grace has real lordship over all creation. The righteous ought in strictness to hold all goods in common to the exclusion of all others, but Wyclif allows that since the Fall the establish­ment of private property and the protection of it by secular law has been useful in a mixed society. The taint of sin remains nevertheless in secular law and the possession that it ensures. Secular law and canon law (which since Constantine endowed the Church is its ecclesiastical equivalent) are therefore inferior to evangelical law contained in the Bible. The obvious practical conclusion is that since the Church rests its claim to exist on the evangelical law, it must not make the best of both worlds by also claiming property under the secular law. It must be judged by its own higher standard; if churchmen abuse endowments or tithes they lose the right to them by the only law to which they can appeal—the evangelical. In such circumstances the temporal power has a duty of disendowment, but it is not for the theologian to do more than lay down these general principles. The temporal power must judge if the particular circumstances of the day call for action. The later books of De Civili Dominio, written apparently after his appearance at St Paul’s, defend and develop the theses of the first book. The tone is respectful to the Pope and friendly to the friars.

To compare these works with De Pauperie Salvatoris, written some twenty years before by Fitzralph, makes it clear that Wyclif’s doctrine of dominion was adopted almost without alteration from Fitzralph. God’s lordship since the creation, man’s delegated lordship before and after the Fall, private property and secular lordship as a result of sin—the governing notions are Fitzralph’s, and his not less is that irritating refusal to adjust theories to practice for which Wyclif has received much censure. Wyclif, despite the incoherence of his scheme, carried Fitzralph’s doctrine at least one stage farther by applying it to the endowed part of the Church. The Church stands for a return to the state of innocency; Christ undid what Adam did. That sort of lordship which is well enough in secular affairs is unworthy of a society founded on grace. Let the Church at least live by the law of Christ in a sub-Christian world. Wyclif has been charged with inconsistency in teaching that dues must be paid to laymen whether in a state of grace or not, but withheld from clergymen whose state is doubtful; but it was not inconsistent to demand that the Church should be judged by a different standard from the world. The doctrine of the Eucharist provides a particular example of the way in which Wyclif carried Fitzralph’s thought a stage farther. Fitzralph denied emphatically that annihilation is an act of God’s lordship, and was well aware that the con­version of the elements in the Eucharist presents a difficulty if it is thought of from the side of the bread and wine. He observed the difficulty, and declined to face it. Wyclif was not content to leave the problem in the air.

That the opinions contained in this first section of the theological writings produced the bulls of 1377 is not surprising. Wyclif had indeed so stated a doctrine of dominion as to turn it against the Papacy and those interests in the Church which hitherto it had been made to serve. Since the time of St Augustine it had been a commonplace that without iusticia earthly rule was mere injustice; dominion over any temporal goods similarly needed iusticia, and the defence of the extreme papal claims made in Unam Sanctam rested on a coherent exposition of these views. To the Church, and in particular to the Pope, has been given full dominion over all temporal things; to temporal rulers and other lords the Church grants an inferior kind of dominion, but by such grants the Church does not lose its dominion or its right to withdraw from the un­worthy what it has granted. Only faithful Christians can have dominion; or, in other words, outside the communion of the Roman Church there is no valid title to anything. In this line of thought everything plainly depends on the nature of that iusticia which makes true dominion. The official interpretation since Unam Sanctam was that it meant obedience to the Roman Pontiff: St Augustine’s thought had been completely legalised. One effect of Wyclif’s treatment was to restore a moral content to iusticia and to make dominion depend on that. Following another line of St Augustine’s thought he found in the eternal counsel of God, not in external communion with the Roman See, that which gave to some men, and denied to others, essential righteousness. On this righteousness, in­dependent of and untouchable by ecclesiastical processes, turned human rights of every kind. Starting from this relation of the individual soul and the will of God, Wyclif used the familiar antithesis of righteous dominion and mere unrighteous occupation as a criterion by which to judge the use which the Church was making of its temporal possessions. The Papacy had reason to fear the issue of opinions which tended towards such a readjustment of the relation of the spiritual and temporal powers as Marsilio had demanded. On two lines the ecclesiastical system was threatened: by the secularisation of Church property and by the undercutting of Church authority in a world where every man was predestined for salvation or foreknown for damnation. Yet the second part of the problem, the function of a visible Church where all is determined by God’s will, Wyclif shared with orthodox thinkers; without his call for disendowment this would have caused less commotion. No suspicion of the issue of his opinions on the Eucharist appeared.

In a group of books following the bulls Wyclif examined some aspects of the Church, and there was now far more conscious defence of personal opinions. In De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae he defended the Bible against “modem theologians.” It is entirely true, and its main sense is the literal sense. Apparent discrepancies disappear if it is considered as a whole—an approach to the historical method—or by allegory. It is the final authority. All Christians should study it, and priests should preach it in the vulgar tongue. The significance of this book is its recognition that nominalist criticism was disturbing the harmony which St Thomas had maintained between the Bible and Church customs and dogmas. Faced by this criticism most of Wyclif’s contemporaries in the schools proposed to confirm custom and dogma by admitting that the Bible was in a certain degree “false to the letter” and in need of interpretation. Wyclif offered another solution: if, as criticism indicated, practice and dogma seemed not to harmonise with the Bible, these must be judged by the literal sense of Scripture.

In De Ecclesia, De Officio Regis, and De Potestate Papae, Wyclif considered particular aspects of medieval society from this point of view. De Ecclesia, a peculiarly interesting medley of papers assembled in 1378, defended the definition of the Church as consisting of all those predestined for salvation, whose head is Christ, and contrasted them with the body of those foreknown for damnation, whose head is the devil. As it is impossible to know whether any particular individual belongs to the Church, the bearing of this definition on practical affairs is unsatisfactory. Rites are not to be neglected; even the sacraments of the “foreknown” are useful; but ecclesiastical authority is not in itself binding or deserving of more than conditional respect. To make of the Pope a god on earth (the phrase comes from Alvarus Pelagius) is to make him like Anti-Christ, who exalts himself above all that is called God.

De Officio Regis (c. 1379), a neater work, expounded the rights and duties of the civil power, especially in relation to the Church. Refusing to decide which power is the older or more necessary, Wyclif noted that in this world the king has the advantage, for he represents the divinity of Christ, while the priest represents His humanity. The king is above human laws, which he respects for the sake of example only. His duty is to see that the Church in his kingdom does its work; at the moment his main duty is disendowment, the provision of poorer, fewer, more godly clergy. Cruder and more confined in view than the Defensor Pacis, this book heralds the rule of the same “godly prince,” and is decidedly national in temper.

In De Potestate Papae (c. 1379), at great length but without excessive violence, Wyclif destroyed most of the claims of the contemporary Papacy by a consideration of dogma and history which left little for the Renaissance scholars to add. The Pope’s salvation is as uncertain as any other man’s. His acts are to be judged by their conformity to God’s law. He is entitled for historical reasons to respect but to nothing more. He may, easily, as one exalting himself, be among those who deserve the name of Anti-Christ. Claims based on St Peter’s personal priority are null. Bishops and priests are essentially the same, and their work should be thought of in terms of preaching and pastoral care, not of jurisdiction.

With De Eucharistia, which probably represents the lectures that caused Berton to summon his council of twelve, we pass to the final stage. The definitive statement of the Council of 1215 concerning transubstantiation had ended one series of debates, but had left to subsequent generations of theologians the extremely elusive problem of defining exactly what were the relations of the earthly and the divine constituents of the consecrated host. Wyclif like any other schoolman devoted himself to this problem; he had at the beginning no new “scriptural ” doctrine to proclaim and no crusade against popular superstition. Many of his works published before De Eucharistia refer to the matter, and shew that he was sufficiently influenced by current criticism of St Thomas Aquinas to find his explana­tions unconvincing. Yet St Thomas’ critics seemed to Wyclif even less satisfying than St Thomas himself. At a very early stage Wyclif’s philosophy made any doctrine involving the annihilation of the substance of bread and wine impossible. Though at one time he accepted the view that the accidents were upheld by quantity, he came to feel that the arguments advanced against quality could be equally advanced against quantity. Duns’ doctrine of absolute accidents, resting on an arbitrary use of God’s power and making the phenomena of the universe delusive, he could not accept. By a process of elimination he was driven, therefore, to the opinion that the substance of bread and wine remained after conse­cration, and the farther he looked into the history of Eucharistic doctrine the better it satisfied him. His later writings record his astonishment and irritation on finding that any other view could commend itself to anyone.

De Eucharistia defends this doctrine from many angles. It is the teaching of Christ, of the Bible, of the Fathers, of the liturgy, of the universal Church until the loosing of Satan about the middle of the eleventh century. The best doctors since have inclined to it. The doctrine of accidens sine subiecto is a new heresy. The Confessio which Berengar made before Nicholas II, Ego Berengarius, plainly speaks of bread and wine, not of the accidents of bread and wine, being the Body and Blood of Christ. Even Innocent III’s Cum Marthae and St Thomas himself may be read in the same sense, and we ought to suppose that words patient of orthodox meaning are orthodox. When Wyclif turned to explain how Christ’s Body was in the host he had a less satisfactory reply, though his thought is neither so confused nor so unintelligible as has often been said. After consecration the host is two things: naturally bread, spiritually Christ’s Body. What we see and what the priest “makes” is the sacrament of Christ’s Body, not the Body itself; that is sacramentally, but not corporally, present. St Thomas had distinguished two ways of receiving: (1) sacramentally, without effect, as when the wicked communicate; (2) spiritually, with effect, as when the communi­cant is in a state of grace. Wyclif similarly distinguished two ways of receiving, but he only calls that a reception of Christ’s Body which St Thomas had called spiritual. Whereas St Thomas said the wicked receive Christ’s Body sacramentally, Wyclif said they receive only the sacrament of Christ’s Body. The gap between the two views may be re­presented almost as a difference of emphasis, but two quite different attitudes to the host itself are involved. From the one came the crude materialism of popular mass legend, from the other a denial of the real presence. The one is a travesty of St Thomas and the other of Wyclif. Inevitably Wyclif emphasised more and more the danger of superstition surrounding the elements, until he could say that his main intention was to prevent idolatry and to call men to a remembrance of that spiritual union with Christ which, as St Thomas taught, was the effect of the sacrament rightly used. The host may be adored, but there is grave danger of its being wrongly adored as long as the vulgar are not plainly taught that what they see is as truly bread as what the faithful receive in it is Christ’s Body. In De Apostasia Wyclif denies that this makes the Eucharist only a sign as the crucifix is a sign; the crucifix has not behind it the effectual words of Christ which give the Eucharist its unique value. The doctrine of the Incarnation helps us to explain how two natures can co-exist, how bread is bene, miraculose, vere et realiter, spiritualiter, virtualiter et sacramentaliter Corpus Christi, but they are too gross who demand that it shall be substantialiter et corporaliter Corpus Christi. In a passionate phrase that is reminiscent of De Benedicta Incarnations he denies that Christ’s Body is degraded by becoming truly bread; on the contrary totum sonat in bonitatem largifluam Iesu nostri.

De Simonia, De Apostasia, and De Blasphemia, standing last in the Summa, cover a period of rapid change in Wyclif’s mind. He had not hitherto denounced the friars, but the fuller exposition of his Eucharistic doctrine, to which these books refer, had alienated them. In De Simonia, written some time after September 1378, which treats of abuses in the Church due to love of temporal gain, the main attack is on the Pope, the bishops, and the possessioners; the friars are blamed for silence and complicity only. In De Apostasia his condemnation of friars is not un­qualified; but, though he mentions some with affection, he finds it hard now to distinguish friars from possessioners. In De Blasphemia, written apparently in the early part of 1382, the tone is greatly altered. The Council of Twelve has been held. Wyclif is consciously at variance with authority. The penitential system and hierarchy are now assaulted; the parochial system is almost the only part of the working institutions of the Church that escapes censure. He says that his adversaries attack him on three lines concerning religious Orders, endowments, and the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance, but that they make the last charge for the sake of the former; it is his criticism of endowments that rouses most fury. This remark at a time when his Eucharistic doctrine was modifying Gaunt’s attitude has special significance; it may have direct reference to the attempt to alienate Gaunt from the Lollards.

The Trialogus (c. 1382), printed as early as 1525, is deservedly Wyclif’s best known work. Succinct, orderly, and for the most part written without violence, it is the best single account of his fully matured opinions. It aims at being a compendium of theology, and, with one long excursus on the friars, it traverses the whole field. It is Wyclif’s only sustained attempt at literary artifice, a discussion between three clearly distinguished characters sustained with considerable spirit to the end. In the Dialogus, a short discussion of disendowment, the device was less successful. Though the Trialogus shows little change in his philosophy and fundamental theology, Wyclif examines in it many more current practices and doctrines, and so develops a more comprehensive criticism of the Church than in any earlier book. The decree Omnis utriusque sexus, the treasury of merit, canonisation, confirmation, and extreme unction, he judges to have no sufficient warrant. He denies that his doctrine means that a layman may consecrate the elements, or that the use of sacraments is a blemish in spiritual religion; as a matter of opinion, though not of faith, he would reserve the celebration of the Eucharist to priests. The most bitter part of the book is the attack on the friars; they are mainly responsible for false Eucharistic doctrine, and for the Blackfriars decisions. The same character marks the Opus Evangelicum left unfinished at Wyclif’s death. In form a commentary on parts of St Matthew and St John, it is in great part an attack on the friars and the Papacy. The priesthood with its special offices of preaching and administering the sacraments Wyclif accepts, but the conception of ecclesiastical law, the whole hierarchy which enforces it, great buildings, elaborate services, indulgences, and many other things not authorised by a rather literal interpretation of the Bible, suffer attack. His mind is as acute as ever; he does not regard himself as an outcast from Christian society. The Schism is an indication that the worst is past. Wyclif died regarding himself as a member of the Western Church, which was, he hoped, on the eve of accepting his views.

Towards the end of his life, perhaps mainly after leaving Oxford, Wyclif wrote in English, it seems, some three hundred sermons and a number of tracts. The language and the comparative rareness of appeals to authorities for support shew that he had in view a more general public than that likely to be reached by his Latin works. Criticism has reduced the number of the English tracts which may certainly be called Wyclif’s, and by attributing some of the more bitter and radical to his followers of the next generation has reduced also the difference in tone and emphasis which used to be observed between his Latin and his English works. The Holy Prophet David Seith, one of the most interesting tracts probably written by him, argues, for instance, in the manner of De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, that the Bible is in no sense false and that all men should study it. Since it refers to no translations as then existing, it has been dated as early as 1378-80. Some of the other English tracts are translations, more or less free, of Latin tracts; some express briefly for the unacademic reader the conclusions presented in the Trialogus and the late Latin works. Christ, who is God and man, has given a law and an example; any deviation from these must be the work of Anti-Christ. Examined from this point of view, endowment, religious Orders, Pope, cardinals, and hierarchy enjoying worldly state, merit condemnation. Priests have no control of the fate of the soul in the next world; their bind­ing and loosing are declaratory, effective only if they agree with God’s. The new doctrine of the Eucharist is heretical; the Pope should declare what his doctrine is. The Papacy is not identified with Anti-Christ, but a Pope who works the works of Anti-Christ, as many do, may bear his name. The temporal power is urged to amend the Church by renewing its primitive poverty, and individuals are advised to withhold alms from friars. In general the true followers of Christ are pictured as living by His written law, using those ministrations of the parish church which the Bible authorises but neglecting those which rest on the authority of the hierarchy. The sermons, many of which bear signs of being intended as helps to preachers, present the same lessons. They contain much translated scripture, and this is expounded in several ways: sometimes simply and literally, sometimes with the richness of scholastic allegory. Most sermons contain simple practical advice, sometimes concerning the general practice of virtue, perhaps more often concerning the need for avoiding the errors of the hierarchy and the friars. As elsewhere, there is no general attack on the secular clergy. Wyclif’s English works add nothing to our knowledge of his mind, but they show that he shared the belief of his contemporaries in the value of the vernacular. It was an age of translation, and Wyclif in effect translated and adapted his own works.

General opinion from his own day onwards has considered the trans­lation of the Bible Wyclif's most important literary achievement, and this verdict, though it needs interpretation, may still stand. Two complete versions made from the Vulgate are associated with his name. One is a literal version, reproducing as nearly as may be the Latin idiom, often almost unreadable and sometimes obscure. The other is a free translation into running English, far more intelligible to readers who were unfamiliar with the construction of Latin sentences; this has also orthodox prefaces translated from the Vulgate and a more tendencious general prologue specially written. The relations of these versions with one another and with the lengthy translations contained in Wycliff’s English sermons have been much debated. It is likely that Wyclif made translations at sight for use in his own writings and that these have no integral connexion with either version. The more literal translation, apparently the earlier, may be dated with some confidence as having been made in the years round about 1382. Several persons seem to have been concerned in it; and prominent among them was Hereford, whose personal work broke off at Baruch III. 20, when after appearing before the Blackfriars assembly in June 1382 he fled to Rome. That Wyclif himself did any of the actual work of translating there is no evidence to prove, and it is in itself unlikely. His part is best described in Arundel’s words: he “devised the expedient” of at least this earlier version. This version was unglossed and accurate. The complaint made against Wyclif was that he made the Bible available for the vulgar, not that he corrupted or annotated it. The freer of the two versions may have been begun in Wyclif’s lifetime. It was finished before 1395-97, when the general prologue was written by Purvey, who had been Wv cliffs secretary and was the last of the eminent Oxford scholars to remain faithful to his teaching. This version naturally attained a greater popularity than the other. Contemporary official opinion judged rightly that, by making the whole of the Bible available even for laymen, Wyclif had done something new and something very different from the work of those who at the same time, especially in the north of England, were translating portions of the Bible for private devotional purposes. Beside the Bible in English went Wyclif’s teaching that in its literal sense men had the whole of that evangelical law by which the Church should live. The translations made under his influence could be used, and in fact were used, by the orthodox without harm, but for men who had been taught to believe that current custom in the Church differed from God’s law the vernacular Scriptures proved a weapon of unmeasured possibilities. His tracts and sermons do not entitle Wyclif to be called the father of English prose, but he was the first and chief “deviser” of the English Bible.

The work of Wyclif cannot be squeezed into a single formula. No sect or school remained in England to embody his influence with completeness; it was in another country that they were to find the fullest expression and by the death of another man that they were to receive the seal of martyrdom. In most of his thought Wyclif was a typical scholar of the fourteenth century. His erudition and his manner of using it, his know­ledge of the Bible, of the Fathers, of the great schoolmen of the West, mark him as a later schoolman with the defects and the qualities of a later schoolman. Though he deplored the dominant tendencies of theo­logical thought since St Thomas, he combated his opponents with their own weapons, and never showed more relish for his work than when he piled subtlety on subtlety and refinement on refinement. There were contemporary thinkers with whom he was in sympathy: to Bradwardine and Fitzralph in particular he directly acknowledged his debt. But his master was St Augustine. “John, son of Augustine” his disciples called him; and his references to St Augustine not only far outnumber his references to any other writer, they give a faithful indication of the source from which he drew the essentials of his interpretation of Christianity. The Bishop of Hippo once more proved his power to stir later thinkers to a new inspiration and to place them in a new field of thought. The prevailing quality of Wyclif’s mind is often said to be rationalism. This is true if by rationalism is meant not a reliance on reason to the disparagement of faith, but a re-assertion of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. Wyclif tried to rescue the orthodox from a combination of intel­lectual scepticism with unreasoning acceptance of ecclesiastical authority, by a return to the older opinion that, in so far as they touch, faith and reason support each other. Like most rebels, therefore, Wyclif conceived that he was calling for a return to the healthier outlook of an earlier age. In the dissolution of St Thomas’ synthesis of reason, the Bible, and Church custom and belief, Wyclif does not fall back on ecclesiastical authority. He proposes to re-establish equilibrium by the more arduous method of adjusting Church custom and belief so as to agree with a reasoned interpretation of the Bible, for the Bible is the most authoritative statement of God’s law.

But the attainment of this position along the lines of conservative scholastic theology put Wyclif not very far from the revolutionary attitude of the heretics of the thirteenth century. This appears in his attack at the end of his life on customs not readily derived from the Bible, his repudiation of the division of Christians into “religious” and “secular,” his assertion that the rule of “the sect of Christ,” without addition or subtraction, is the rule for all, and his consequent denunciation of all religious Orders. It was natural, therefore, that he should renew the attempt to provide Bible translations. This emphasis on the Bible as God’s law is easily made to appear as a colder and more legalistic presentation of Christianity than in truth it was. For Wyclif the Christian life was best understood in terms of the imitation of the human life of Christ, a conception which links him on the one side with St Francis and on the other with the contemporary Rhineland mystics, though in general he was destitute of specifically mystical sympathies.

On the political side Wyclif’s teaching heralded the modern State, freed from the embarrassing co-operation and competition of the Church in many fields of human activity. But it is better to see Wyclif in relation to his own times. He is indeed less the prophet of the future than the conscience of his own generation. The Western Church had welcomed the codification of moral laws in the dark ages and the systematisation of theology in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but in the fourteenth it found itself in some danger of thinking of Christian morality as a penal code and theology as dialectic. The triumph of the Papacy, the penetration of society by the Canon Law, the use of the most sacred mysteries on occasion as sanctions for mundane claims enforced without reference to moral considerations, were making the Christian dispensation take on the aspect of mechanical legalism. Theologians still spoke of grace, but it was a grace so exactly and so certainly confined in official channels that it seemed rather to deserve the name of law. In the last ten years of his life Wyclif gave expression to feelings, doubts, and hopes gathered from many quarters and shared by many of his contemporaries. The Church of the fourteenth century was feeling after something nearer to the historic origins of Christianity, something with less legalism and more conscience, something which put religion again into direct and obvious touch with the heart and will, a new exposition of the caritas which, as Wyclif said, is in one word the whole law of God.



WALES, 1066 TO 1485