John Wyclif and Lollardy
The subject of Lollardy came up in the episode on The Cloud of Unknowing. The Lollards were a proto-Protestant movement inspired by John Wyclif, one of the most extraordinary figures of fourteenth century England.
He studied in Oxford and rose there to become a Master of Baliol College. One of his many interests was in the philosophy of language. He was a realist about universals, which means that he believed concepts such as ‘beauty’, ‘redness’ and other such general terms have an existence outside of human thought or language. The intuition guiding his view was that these things must be in some sense real, as essences common to many things; if they were not then statements employing them would not be capable of truth, since they would not be able to correspond to reality.
This was not a common stance, but such a focus on language was characteristic of philosophy in the era. For this reason, some writers—such as the philosopher and historian Anthony Kenny—have drawn parallels between English philosophy in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. Something of this connection can be seen if you read the blog post on Wittgenstein, Russell and Mysticism.
More disconcerting to the authorities than Wyclif’s thoughts on language were the conclusions he developed on religion and politics. It was these that inspired what became known as Lollardy. Following Wyclif, though often omitting many of the nuances in his arguments, the Lollards criticised the established Church in England, opposing, among other things, the wealth of the Church, its political influence, as well as, perhaps most controversially, the doctrine of transubstantiation.
In large part, these views derived from Wyclif’s insistence that the Bible was the most important source of authority when it came to doctrine. He wanted to see the Bible translated into the vernacular so that it could be read and understood more widely. An English translation bears his name, though there is disagreement over the extent to which he was involved in its creation. It is a beautiful work of literature and by slowing one down can revivify familiar passages. Here is the opening of the Gospel of John in the Wyclif Bible:
In the bigynnyng was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word. This was in the bigynnyng at God. Alle thingis weren maad bi hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that thing that was maad. In hym was lijf, and the lijf was the liyt of men; and the liyt schyneth in derknessis, and derknessis comprehendiden not it.
A man was sent fro God, to whom the name was Joon. This man cam in to witnessyng, that he schulde bere witnessing of the liyt, that alle men schulden bileue bi hym. He was not the liyt, but that he schulde bere witnessing of the liyt.
There was a very liyt, which liytneth ech man that cometh in to this world. He was in the world, and the world was maad bi hym, and the world knew hym not. He cam in to his owne thingis, and hise resseyueden hym not. But hou many euer resseyueden hym, he yaf to hem power to be maad the sones of God, to hem that bileueden in his name; the whiche not of bloodis, nether of the wille of fleische, nether of the wille of man, but ben borun of God.
Although a highly controversial figure in his lifetime, Wyclif died peacefully in 1384. After his death, persecution of Lollards increased. In 1428, on the Pope’s instructions, his body was exhumed, the bones crushed and burned, and the ashes cast into a river.