John Wyclif: Myth and Reality 
by G.R. Evans.
Lion, 320 pp., £20, October 2005, 0 7459 5154 6
Show More
Show More

In about 1950, A.L. Rowse persuaded K.B. McFarlane to contribute to his biographical series ‘Teach Yourself History’ a short book on John Wyclif, an Oxford intellectual dead for six hundred years and the only arch-heretic bred in Catholic England before the Tudors and the Reformation. In one way this wasn’t surprising, since Rowse and McFarlane were friends. But in another way it was, since the philosophical reasonings and theological transgressions of Wyclif, if not some of their political repercussions, were not a subject one would have associated with McFarlane. It’s not strange that the result was a brilliant little book – the only one by the most influential 20th-century historian of the Middle Ages to be published in his lifetime. But it is strange that G.R. Evans, in what is blurbed as ‘the first major biography of Wyclif to be published for almost a century’ (the reference is to the two volumes published by H.B. Workman in 1926), makes no reference to it.

Evans’s title means what it says: this is a study of Wyclif as both ‘myth and reality’. The myth, what Wyclif was not, is represented by the dust jacket, which features a spurious portrait, modelled perhaps on the iconography of Moses, taken from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where, on the last day of 1384, Wyclif, having suffered a stroke, died in bed at his rectory; and where, half a century later, Pope Martin V had his bones exhumed, burned, and the ashes thrown into the River Swift. Leicestershire folklore maintained that on the spot where one of the bones being carried to the fire fell, a spring of pure water spontaneously emerged, and became known as St John’s Well, it was widely thought after Wyclif (in fact, the well was situated within the grounds of a medieval hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist). We have little idea of what Wyclif looked like, indeed who he was. The myth, propagated in the mid-16th century by the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, has always been more potent than reality, since so little of the reality normally required by biographers is known; and given the value of the myth for the self-validation of the England reborn in the Reformation.

This is how Foxe introduced Wyclif: ‘Thus, in these so great and troublous times and horrible darkness of ignorance, what time there seemed in a manner to be no one so little spark of pure doctrine left or remaining, this aforesaid Wickliff, by God’s providence, sprang and rose up, through whom the Lord would first waken and raise up again the world.’ Wyclif the morning star, Wyclif aka John the Baptist, Wyclif the proto-Protestant. For his 19th-century editor, a German schoolteacher called Rudolf Buddensieg, Wyclif was ‘the first to do battle for the maintenance of evangelical faith and English freedom’.

Not even the scholarly Workman could escape the myth. For this unabashed admirer, Wyclif was a man born ahead of his time, ‘harbinger of a premature spring’. Did McFarlane escape? His title might suggest not: John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Non-conformity. But note that hyphen: Non-conformity rather than Nonconformity preserves Wyclif, and McFarlane, from anachronism. McFarlane declared that the first task of an impartial biographer of Wyclif was the removal of ‘several layers of rich brown Protestant varnish’. For him, Wyclif’s uncompromising predestinarianism was ‘a grisly creed’. To read Wyclif was ‘not fun’. And he wrote of Wyclif’s ‘catastrophic incompetence as a practical reformer . . . Nothing is to be gained by overestimating the extent of the English heresiarch’s achievement.’ This was an iconoclastic exercise, justified by the endurance (at least up to 1950) of the Protestant myth.

Evans, a seasoned historical theologian, is in a different corner of the ring. She has an impressive command of the content of Wyclif’s 132 books, and she is in good company: in the fifty years since McFarlane’s volume, the scholarship devoted to Wyclif’s mind, and to Wyclif’s Oxford, has grown exponentially. As for the long view, Anne Hudson’s magisterial The Premature Reformation (1988) set new standards for the study of Wycliffite texts and their users.

Wyclif divides into five parts: his origins and early life in north Yorkshire, of which precious little is known; the University of Oxford at the height of its early fame; the political world outside Oxford, into which successful academics were drawn, in his case with wholly negative consequences; the otherwise hard to explain transgression into increasingly radical heresy; and the afterlife, the Hussite reformation and revolution in Bohemia, partly inspired by Wyclif’s ideas, the English Bible, the Lollard tendency and, in due course, the Protestant myth.

Wyclif was a fellow of Merton, then head, briefly, of two colleges: he was the thirteenth master of Balliol and had a bruising experience at Canterbury College, a mixed community of monks and secular priests, which perhaps explains why he, a secular, became a fanatical enemy of the religious orders. He was one of the most admired dons of his generation and, for McFarlane, the best evidence of Wyclif’s eminence is that it was almost universally acknowledged, even by his enemies. Even Archbishop Arundel conceded that he was ‘a great clerk’.

Evans tells us as much and more about the study and pursuit of logic, philosophy and theology at Oxford University in the 14th century as she does about Wyclif, sugaring the pill with constant and often irritating parallels drawn from modern Oxbridge. A later master of Balliol, Anthony Kenny, drew more useful parallels in his 1985 study of Wyclif: ‘Contemporary Oxford philosophy resembles the philosophy of Wyclif’s day more than it matches the Oxford of the 19th century or the Paris of the 20th century. Like Wyclif’s philosophy, modern Oxford philosophy regards the study of language as a central and powerful method for the solution of philosophical problems and the pursuit of philosophical enlightenment.’ So, for Kenny, Wyclif remains relevant, even contemporary, a realist who believed in the reality of ‘universals’ (we might say ideas), and who saw it as his major philosophical task to defend realism against nominalism. ‘All envy or actual sin is caused by the lack of an ordered love of universals.’ If it were not for his heresy, Wyclif would rank with Duns Scotus and Ockham, and would be welcome in the company of more recent Oxford philosophers such as A.J. Ayer.

McFarlane’s book comes alive when Wyclif enters the world of late 14th-century politics. It was a confused world, trying to cope with the second childhood of Edward III and, with the Black Prince given a terminal prognosis, bracing itself for the first childhood of Richard II. It was embroiled in complex international relations, a collective if not effectively corporate regime dominated by Edward’s fourth son, John of Gaunt. McFarlane’s account is one that Evans, the theologian, cannot hope to match. It was wartime, a war which Wyclif’s contemporaries could hardly imagine would last for a hundred years. The government thought England could no longer afford the taxes which were owed to the papacy, and Wyclif was one of the clerks sent to Bruges to argue the case. The government for the most part lost out, as governments, handbagging in Belgium, are prone to do.

Wyclif’s political future was now behind him. His three clerical colleagues were all made bishops, but not him; this rankled, and, to a cynical mind, explains his heresy. More to the point, his political importance, and his relation to John of Gaunt, has been exaggerated. Wyclif had his uses, but that was more or less it. That said, he was now caught up as a bit player in turbulent domestic politics, deftly handled by McFarlane, within which his doctrines were made a weapon to use against Gaunt and his party. And so to the heresy. No one can claim to know why Wyclif plunged ever deeper into radical unorthodoxy when he could so easily have pulled back. McFarlane suspected that the answer might be the high blood pressure which killed him when little more than fifty.

Wyclif returned from Bruges to Oxford to compose two treatises on the subject of ‘dominion’, coloured by his recent experiences, but grounded in his own and others’ philosophical reflections. Evans comes into her own with this issue, which was potentially explosive, politically and ecclesiastically. A crude summary of Wyclif’s doctrine on this matter would be that all dominion (ownership and rights, the power to govern, the right to own property, or to confer the sacraments) originates with God, and on earth is properly enjoyed and exercised only by those in a state of grace, improperly by sinners. That might appear to mean, in practice, that the secular power (if righteous) could lawfully disendow a corrupt Church. Its anarchical potential was destructive of the entire hierarchical structure that was the medieval Church. Since Wyclif was insistent that no mere man could distinguish between those in a state of grace and those outside it, however, perhaps the practical consequences were not revolutionary at all; or only in the sense that, some years later, Henry VIII was a revolutionary, since the king is not a mere man. Paradoxically, Wyclif’s caesaropapalism – which is what, looking back, his ideas amounted to – was a variation on the extreme claims made for the pope by the canonists, as being the earthly embodiment of that divine dominion, possessed as he was of a plenitudo potestatis. But let’s not kid ourselves. Wyclif’s theory was meant to justify the rights of the state, the late 14th-century state, over church property.

Evans tells the gripping story, derived from contemporary chroniclers, of how Wyclif was sucked into the maelstrom of some nasty and even violent politics. Steps were taken by interested and hostile parties (many of them members of the religious orders Wyclif had attacked) to have him denounced as a heretic by the pope, leading to the issue by Gregory XI of menacing papal bulls. But politics, on an ecumenical scale, served to protect the heretic until long after his death. Gregory died, and Wyclif’s heretical trajectory began just as Christendom divided into two rival papal obediences, the Great Schism, which effectively ended his political usefulness. Meanwhile, the English state was enfeebled by the minority of Richard II. This could have been the opportunity for Wyclif to draw back into relative academic obscurity and to tone down his rhetoric. Instead, and this remains mysterious, he drove himself into ever more extreme heresy. Evans, who is constantly aware of the centrality of Oxford to the story, finds sufficient explanation in academic rancour, as half the university turned against what had become its greatest embarrassment. (Forget about the blood pressure.)

In May 1382 the new archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtenay, an old adversary, convened a council at Blackfriars, famous for concluding its deliberations in the middle of a small earthquake, which condemned Wyclif’s more obvious heresies, a weapon aimed more at his Oxford followers than at Wyclif himself (more politics). But while the heretical tendency in Oxford was soon smashed, the machinery for dealing with it otherwise (heresy had been almost unknown in England) was weak, and it took another twenty years, and a new regime, before a law was passed that began to send heretics to the stake.

In the rather vicious academic context which Evans describes so well, Wyclif had begun to think the unthinkable: to ‘determine’ that in the Eucharist there is no alteration of substance, from bread and wine to flesh and blood, but that the elements remain the same, and become the body and blood of Christ only symbolically, not substantially and essentially. This understanding belonged, philosophically, to Wyclif’s ultra-realism, which could not make sense of transubstantiation, in its evident anti-clerical implications to the private wars in which he was engaged, against a kind of trahison des clercs. It was an overturning doctrine announced at an overturning moment in English history, the Peasants’ Revolt, with which Wyclif, contrary to legend, had nothing to do. (But had he not claimed that only the righteous were entitled to their possessions?) He now chose (exactly when is unclear) to cast the dust of Oxford off his feet and to retreat to his rectory at Lutterworth, but not to stop writing. What he wrote, a mountain of stuff, became ever more choleric and extreme.

Evans identifies as ‘one of the greatest puzzles of our story’ how this dissident intellectual, his mind stuffed with scholastic learning, could have precipitated the very unintellectual activities of the wandering preachers (such as the prophet of the Peasants’ Revolt, John Ball), who were a new militant tendency and would soon earn the pejorative nickname of ‘Lollards’. There is no good evidence to confirm the myth that he sent out his own roving apostles in russet gowns and bare feet. But the link must have been made by Wyclif’s many Oxford protagonists, themselves intellectuals but driven into other avenues by Courtenay’s purging of the university.

It became the mantra of Lollardy that only the words of the Bible have any authority for Christian belief and conduct: the sola scriptura of the Lutheran Reformation that still lay far ahead. In Oxford Wyclif had lectured on the entire text of both the Old and New Testaments, which was unusual, and he later wrote a large book On the Truth of Holy Scripture, which contained this statement: ‘no man is so rude a scholar but that he may learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity.’ This was to anticipate Erasmus, and it assumed the availability of a vernacular translation: not that Wyclif himself was responsible for that, although his disciple Nicholas Hereford soon was. (Hereford’s awkward English would be improved by the better vernacular of the companion of Wyclif’s last years, the somewhat mysterious John Purvey.) So there was that much of a connection. Now Wyclif became, and to some extent allowed himself to become, the leading light in this Back to the Bible movement. And, as Anne Hudson has shown, for more than a century the Lollards remained remarkably faithful to a suitably vulgarised understanding of his teaching.

Wyclif’s afterlife consists of a number of problematical continuities and discontinuities. How far should we connect him with the forward surge of Englishness, in language and literature, otherwise associated with Chaucer? Was the fact that Richard II’s queen was Bohemian sufficient explanation of why Wyclif’s books helped to provoke a national revolution in Prague, the movement which brought Jan Hus to be burned by the Council of Constance, with unfortunate consequences for Wyclif’s bones? Were the Lollards simply rank and file Wycliffites? And how far were they, several generations later, responsible for the Reformation that changed England for ever, a kind of fifth column, undermining and corroding Catholicism and preparing the way for Henry VIII? Above all, the large question with which Evans engages in conclusion, how far did Wyclif (in his views about grace, his predestinarianism, his eucharistic doctrine, his biblicism) constitute what Anne Hudson calls ‘the premature Reformation’? How far did his mind belong to an earlier world, not the harbinger or morning star of anything?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007

Reading Patrick Collinson’s informative essay in the last issue (LRB, 22 February), I wondered if he remembered a Past and Present conference on popular religion we both attended in 1966. From the floor at one session, Lawrence Stone, in a high state of excitement, asked if England ever had a university don creating a popular religion. A voice at the back shouted out: ‘Wyclif.’ Stone looked stricken, said, ‘Oh well then, forget it,’ and sat down.

William Lamont
Lewes, East Sussex

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences