Grisly Creed

Patrick Collinson

  • John Wyclif: Myth and Reality by G.R. Evans
    Lion, 320 pp, £20.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 7459 5154 6

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.

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