Wyclif, John

views updated Jun 11 2018


Oxford scholar, reformer; b. Yorkshire, c. 1330; d. Lutterworth, 1384. A son of the lower gentry, he entered oxford about 1345, received his doctorate in theology probably in 1372, and for most of his life remained associated with the University. About 1361 he was ordained for the See of Lincoln, later held a number of benefices, and on one occasion was reprimanded by his ordinary for failure to provide a vicar for one of his parishes. Such carelessness was a common failing with Oxford clerks of the fourteenth century.

Wyclif's first office, that of warden of Canterbury Hall (136567), ended abruptly when Abp. simon langham ordered the hall restricted to the use of the regular clergy. It is not certain whether John Wyclif or some other Wyclif served as warden; this and many other questions concerning the views and career of Wyclif remain unanswered.

In 1372 Wyclif entered the service of the crown and two years later was appointed to a commission to treat with a papal delegation at Bruges over the problem of papal provisions. No one knows what part he took in the negotiations and why he was not re-appointed the following year. One wonders, too, whether Wyclif's failure in 1375 to secure the rich prebend of Caistor, which he had sought, did not contribute to his hostility toward the papacy. Until his death, his most important provision remained the living of Lutterworth, which the King had given him in 1374.

Association with Gaunt. In September 1376 John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), the son of edward iii, summoned Wyclif to the court. Wyclif served the Duke in the capacity of clerical advisor for the next two years. Because of the imminence of the deaths of his father and his older brother (Black Prince), Gaunt had assumed the direction of the government; he ruled as de facto regent until the emergence of Richard II from his minority shortly after 1381. For this reason, the nature of Gaunt's attitude toward Wyclif is a matter of considerable importance. The theory that it was Wyclif's anticlerical views that attracted Gaunt's attention rests upon the questionable testimony of the chronicler Thomas walsingham. The true relationship between the two men must be emphasized: Gaunt was the wealthiest and most influential man in England; Wyclif was but another clerk in the court's employ, entitled to the duke's protection.

The association between Gaunt and Wyclif became evident in February 1377 when Wyclif appeared in the duke's entourage before a group of bishops and theologians at St. Paul's, London, to answer to charges of heresy. According to Walsingham, certain suffragan bishops, notably the aristocratic Bishop of London, William courtenay, had finally prevailed upon the reluctant Abp. simon of sudbury to take steps to silence Wyclif.

Wyclif's summons was probably precipitated by views that he had expressed in his treatises on dominion, several of which had already appeared. According to Wyclif, dominion, i.e., the right to exercise authority and, indirectly, to hold property, is held from God and is a right that God limits to those in sanctifying grace. Unworthy priests, therefore, forfeited this right, and lay lords might deprive them of their benefices. On the other hand, these same lay lords need not fear incurring the sentence of excommunication in return, since such a censure could be validly employed only for a strictly spiritual offense. Wyclif had earlier attacked the possessions of the monks, though he commended the friars for their desire to practice the poverty of Christ.

The meeting at St. Paul's accomplished nothing. A large crowd had gathered in the church, and the duke's party, which included Henry Percy, the king's marshal, had difficulty forcing its way through. When Percy peremptorily ordered the people to make way, Bishop Courtenay, who was coming down the aisle to meet the duke's party, warned the marshal not to presume to exercise his magisterial rights within the church. Harsh words followed, principally between the duke and the bishop, and the meeting broke up in a riot when the people, who hated Gaunt, rose up in defense of their bishop. Wyclif departed unmolested.

Bulls of Gregory XI. In May 1377, unaware of the incident at St. Paul's, Pope gregory xi issued five bulls against Wyclif: three addressed to Sudbury and Courtenay, one to the King, and one to Oxford. He rebuked the bishops for their failure to silence Wyclif; he cautioned the King about the threat to both Church and State implicit in Wyclif's views; he warned the University to suppress heretical teaching and to hand Wyclif over to the hierarchy. The papal bulls included a list of 19 propositions attributed to Wyclif upon which the bishops were to examine him. These propositions, like those that had produced the meeting at St. Paul's, were drawn for the most part from Wyclif's treatises on dominion.

In accordance with the instructions received from Sudbury, Wyclif presented himself at the archiepiscopal palace at Lambeth some time in March 1378. An emissary from the Queen Mother, Joan of Kent, also introduced himself and produced an order forbidding the prelates to pass formal judgment against Wyclif. Consequently, after questioning Wyclif on the 19 propositions and receiving qualifying answers from him on several points, the bishops dismissed him and forbade him to discuss or preach his views. It is probable that it was again the duke who, although he was willing to have his ward silenced, interposed to save Wyclif from disciplining; for it was about this time that the great council ordered Wyclif to cease his attacks on the Church. Some time later Gaunt himself journeyed to Oxford to caution Wyclif to abide by a decision of a commission of Oxford scholars that had forbidden discussion of two of his views on transubstantiation.

Controversy over Transubstantiation. Wyclif's attack on transubstantiation in his De eucharistia proved a turning point in his career. So long as he limited his attack to abuses, the wealth of the Church, and the "Caesarean clergy," he could expect at least tacit support from members of both the clergy (friars) and aristocracy. Once he attacked transubstantiation (c. 1380), his orthodoxy could no longer be defended. Two further developments cost him favor: the western schism of 1378, which served to strengthen English ties with Pope urban vi and the Roman Curia, and the Peasant Revolt of 1381. Wyclif was not directly involved in the revolt, but it is not surprising that contemporary opinion, in its horror of the uprising, should have condemned his revolutionary views and the "poor priests" who were his agents.

Wyclif probably left Oxford about this time for he was no longer resident there in 1382 when Archbishop Courtenay forced his adherents at the University to retract their Wyclifite views or flee. Wyclifite sentiment had continued strong at Oxford despite ecclesiastical hostility, and it was only after Courtenay had secured the formal condemnation by a council of theologians of 24 propositions attributed to Wyclif, as well as an ordinance from the King in support of this judgment, that the archbishop undertook its suppression.

Last Years. Wyclif's last years are shrouded in darkness, and his death, which followed a stroke suffered while hearing Mass, is scarcely noted by the chroniclers. Late in life he received a summons from Pope urban vi, but pleaded illness for his failure to comply. The Council of constance condemned Wyclif's writings and ordered his books burned and his body removed from consecrated ground. This last order was confirmed by Pope martin v and carried out in 1428.

Writings. Wyclif was a voluminous writer; few orthodox medieval theologians have left so large a store of books. His writings reveal a cold, rationalistic mind, a dull, prolix style, and a presentation of ideas frequently lacking in lucidity and consistency. There appears little question that Wyclif was not ready to proclaim views logically demanded by his premises. That a council of Oxford doctors in 1378 adjudged his propositions "illsounding though not erroneous" suggests the obscure manner in which he often expressed himself. Wyclif never ceased writing like a university sententiary, and an element of the academic and unreal hovers about his assertions. Despite his patent unorthodoxy, he repeatedly declared his willingness to submit his opinions to the judgment of the Church, even of the pope.

Perhaps Wyclif exerted his greatest influence in an area where he did little actual work himself, that is, in the translation of the Bible. Two complete versions of the Vulgate are associated with his name, although his actual contribution is not clear. Moderate opinion believes he encouraged his disciples at Oxford to do the work. Yet while no part of the Wyclifite Bibles may be his, he has been called the first and chief "deviser" of the English Bible because of his influence upon Nicholas hereford, John purvey, and others.

Wyclif's English works are his least important, and their value is further impaired by the question of genuineness. Many of his 300 sermons were intended for others to present. They add little to our understanding of the man, although they declare the importance he attached to preaching.

Wyclif's reputation as a theologian rests squarely upon his Latin works. These establish him as a leading scholastic of the late Middle Ages. In keeping with his character as an Oxford sententiary, his earliest works deal principally with logical and metaphysical subjects and reflect deep dependence upon thomas bradwardine and richard fitzralph. Above all others, he himself acknowledged a great debt to St. Augustine. The Summa de ente, his first major philosophical work, reveals his extreme realism, and it may have been this attempt to apply principles founded upon realist metaphysics to the realm of faith and morals, as much as clerical corruption, that led him to tread the path of reformer and heretic. Furthermore, had Oxford not been at low ebb intellectually during his years there, it is possible that contemporary scholars might have been able to prevent his deviation into unorthodox ways.

Wyclif's best-known treatises concern dominion, but these are the least original of his works. In other writings he attacked the papal claims to compulsive authority, vows and religious orders, endowments and clerical wealth, indulgences, the liturgy, and the sacramental system: in general, whatever he believed was not directly founded upon the Bible. He considered the Bible to be God's most authoritative statement. His position on transubstantiation is not clearly drawn but suggests similarity to the consubstantiation of luther. His political views are neither particularly original nor revolutionary. While he advocated expropriation of the wealth of unworthy priests, he was willing to grant the clergy the right to declare forfeit the goods of sinful laymen. And though he would force the "Caesarean clergy" out of politics, he thought the ruler had need of clerical advisors to guide him in his efforts to rule justly. The Trialogus, which he left unfinished at his death, is his best-known and most highly regarded work. In this he attempted a systematic study of theology.

Influence. Wyclif's voluminous writings brought him much posthumous fame, but his influence upon contemporary politics, even upon the reformers of the 16th century, was negligible. His connection with the Reformation is through the Bohemian students who attended Oxford in the late 14th century and through John hus, although Hus's principal work, the Ecclesia, reveals little indebtedness to him. His associations with Lollardy remain in doubt. The lollards hailed him as their inspiration and endorsed his anticlericalism; but for his part, Wyclif could scarcely have stomached their social and economic program. Perhaps the most astonishing facet of the enigma that is "Wyclif" is the small niche he carved for himself in his own age and in the 16th century, despite the fact that his writings embodied the substance of the attack made on the Church by the later Reformers, who either knew nothing of his writings or ignored them.

Bibliography: Sources. Latin works ed. by Wyclif Society (London 1883); 36 v. published to 1964. Not yet included in this ed.: Tractatus de officio pastorali, ed. g. v. lechler (Leipzig 1863); Trialogus cum supplemento Trialogi, id. (Oxford 1869); De Christo et suo adversario antichristo, ed. r. buddensieg (Gotha 1880); Select English Works of John Wyclif, ed. t. arnold, 3 v. (Oxford 186971); The English Works of Wyclif, Hitherto Unprinted, ed. f. d. matthew (Early English Text Society 74; London 1880). On Simony, trans. t. a. mcveigh (New York 1992). Literature. h. b. workman, John Wyclif, 2 v. (Oxford 1926). b. l. manning, Cambridge Medieval History, 8 v. (London-New York 191136) 7:486507. k. b. mcfarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (New York 1953). j. h. dahmus, The Prosecution of John Wyclyf (New Haven 1952); "John Wyclif and the English Government," Speculum 35 (1960) 5168. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 1480-81. a. b. emden, A Biographical Register of the Scholars of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, 3 v. (Oxford 195759) 3:210346. j. a. robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools (Cambridge, England 1961). l. j. daly, The Political Theory of John Wyclif (Chicago 1962). m. schmidt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:184951.

[j. dahmus]

Wyclif, John

views updated Jun 08 2018


WYCLIF, JOHN (1330?1384), English scholastic theologian, trenchant critic of abuses in the church, and promoter of a vernacular translation of the Bible. Wyclif was the most learned man of his generation in England. The rigor of his scholastic logic and, in his last years, his appeal to scripture as the sole authority for the church's life, led him into heresies. During his time and to this day, he has had both sympathetic admirers and caustic critics. Nonetheless, the real, human Wyclif remains an enigma. We know little about him except that he led an austere life marked by tireless study, lecturing, and writing.

Nothing certain is known about Wyclif's family or its resources. John Wyclif (or Wycliffe) was born near Richmond in North Riding, Yorkshire. At an early age he entered Balliol College, Oxford, and then served as its regent master from 1360 to 1361. The date of his ordination is unrecorded. Later he resided at Queen's College, where he studied for and received his bachelor of divinity degree (1369) and his doctor of divinity degree (1372). Early connections with Merton College and Canterbury Hall are disputed.

University scholars without means of their own were dependent upon "provisions to livings" of parishes or prebends and canonries in collegiate churches or cathedrals. From this income they were expected to pay vicars for service during their absence. Wyclif was no exception. In 1361 Balliol gave him its choicest living at Fillingham, Lincolnshire. The following year he received from Pope Urban V a prebend at Aust in the collegiate church of Westbury-on-Trym near Bristol, but he neither resided there nor ever provided a vicar. In 1368 Wyclif exchanged Fillingham for Ludgershall, a less lucrative living in Buckinghamshire, because it was nearer to Oxford. He left this in 1374 for a royal provision at Lutterworth, Leicestershire. There he spent the last three years of his life. He died on December 31, 1384, after a massive paralytic stroke.

In philosophy Wyclif was a realist and in theology an advocate of Augustine's doctrines of predestination and grace. Only in the mid-1370s did he come into prominence outside Oxford for his views on dominium (lordship and ownership). Between 1376 and 1379 he published successively On Divine Lordship, On Civil Lordship, On the Duty of the King, and On the Church. In these treatises Wyclif argues that only God is the true Lord and owner of his whole creation. Whatever authority and property human beings possess they have from God, to whom they owe faithful service. Only the predestined have any right to them, but, like Augustine, Wyclif believed that no one could know who was and who was not among the elect. Hence one should suffer patiently under unjust and greedy masters until they repent or are removed and dispossessed.

Both estates of the realm, civil and ecclesiastical, should be under the authority of the king in all temporal matters. The ecclesiastical estate (including theologians) is of greater dignity because it is called to serve in spiritual teaching and guidance. It should be stripped of all temporal possessions, except what was necessary for food, clothing, and lodging, and no clergy should hold any civil office. The king should remove all unworthy clergy. All ecclesiastics, from the pope on down, should live in poverty as Peter and the other apostles did.

Although Wyclif's views were largely theoretical and not altogether unprecedented, they were noticed by Edward, Prince of Wales (the "Black Prince," 13301376), and his younger brother John of Gaunt (13401399), who became duke of Lancaster in 1362. The two virtually ruled England during the declining years of Edward III (13121377) and probably saw in Wyclif a front for their aim to plunder the church's wealth. In February 1377, Wyclif was summoned before the bishops at Saint Paul's, London, to answer for his views. He arrived accompanied by four friar doctors of theology and by John of Gaunt with some of his supporters. At once a bitter altercation broke out between Gaunt and Bishop William Courtenay of London, and the duke's party with Wyclif left before Wyclif could be heard or condemned.

In May, Gregory XI sent bulls to England denouncing nineteen propositions from Wyclif's writings and asking for a thorough investigation and Wyclif's arrest. Before the bulls arrived, however, ten-year-old Richard II had become king, and nothing became of the pope's directives. The archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, asked the faculty at Oxford to give an opinion on the propositions. They were unanimous in stating that some of them "sounded ill" but that they "were all the same true." In March, Wyclif appeared before Sudbury and Courtenay at Lambeth, just as a message arrived from the king's mother forbidding them to pass judgment on Wyclif. A mob broke into the meeting, and the bishops concluded the meeting by merely enjoining Wyclif from publicly disputing and preaching about his controverted views.

If Wyclif's mouth was shut for a time, his pen was not stilled. In 1378 he wrote On the Truth of Holy Scripture, in which he affirms that the Bible taken literally is the sole law of the church and that a translation without interpretation is needed so that the humblest person can learn from it. The treatise On the Eucharist (1379) cost him much support. In it he denies the dogma of transubstantiation: it is unscriptural, unknown in the church before the twelfth century, idolatrous, and contrary to his realist position that no substance can be changed into another substance. Yet he affirms the real presence of Christ's body and blood sacramentally in bread and wine. His last major work, the Trialogus (1382), gives a summary of his views.

Wyclif's enemies blamed him for the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, but there is no evidence to support the connection. After Archbishop Sudbury's murder during the rebellion, Courtenay succeeded to the primacy (13821396), determined to root out Wyclif's teachings at Oxford. In May 1382 he presented twenty-four propositions from Wyclif's writings to a council of bishops and theologians in London. Ten were voted heretical, the others erroneous. Leading Oxford supporters of Wyclif were summoned to appear and persuaded to recant. In November, Courtenay held the Convocation of Canterbury at Oxford, where all doctors, masters, and bachelors made their submission.

Yet Courtenay never moved against Wyclif personally. Wyclif had retired to Lutterworth in 1381 and suffered his first stroke in 1382. In his last years Wyclif may have supervised the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible and the training of "poor preachers," cleric and lay (the Lollards), to spread the gospel, but his personal involvement has been disputed. The translation has come down in two principal versions, a literal version and a later, more idiomatic English version.

The marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia (1382) brought several leaders of the Czech reform movement to England who took many of Wyclif's writings back home. Jan Hus, the principal champion of that movement, admired Wyclif and quoted extensively from his writings, but he used them with care, especially those on the Eucharist. The Council of Constance in 1415 burned Hus as a "Wycliffite" heretic and ordered that Wyclif's remains be exhumed and burned. Bishop Richard Fleming of Lincoln did this in 1428 and cast the ashes into the Swift River.

The extent of Wyclif's influence on the sixteenth-century Reformation is open to debate. Luther knew of him through Hus's writings. In England, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury (15331556), owned a copy of the Trialogus printed at Basel in 1525. Yet references to Wyclif, always with approval, are scanty in his writings. Cranmer's views on the Eucharist were similar to Wyclif's, and he too worked for an English translation of the Bible. He would have supported the reform of the church by the king, but not its disendowment and reduction to apostolic poverty.

After Elizabeth I's settlement of the church in 1559, Wyclif became a hero and a martyr to those who dissented from it. Yet even they, contrary to Wyclif, would have had the church the dominant power in the kingdom. Wyclif's importance lies partly in his influence on Jan Hus, but even more in his propagation of reformed principles.

See Also

Cranmer, Thomas; Hus, Jan.


The numerous Latin writings of Wyclif have not been completely edited in modern editions. Most of them have been published by the Wyclif Society of London since 1884. A complete listing of Wyclif's Latin works, based on notes of S. Harrison Thomson, has been completed by his son, Williell R. Thomson, in The Latin Writings of John Wyclyf: An Annotated Catalog (Toronto, 1983). It notes all manuscripts and editions, with commentary on them. The authenticity of many, if not all, of Wyclif's English works is disputed. The best selection is Herbert E. Winn's Wyclif: Select English Writings (Oxford, 1929). A comprehensive bibliography is that of C. C. Scott in Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 7 (Cambridge and New York, 1932), which goes with Bernard L. Manning's chapter "Wyclif" in the same volume, pp. 486507. Translations of Wyclif's Latin writings are few, but see the excerpts from On the Pastoral Office and On the Eucharist in Advocates of Reform from Wyclif to Erasmus, edited by Matthew Spinka, "The Library of Christian Classics," vol. 14 (Philadelphia, 1953), pp. 3288.

The standard biography is Herbert B. Workman's John Wyclif: A Study of the English Medieval Church, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1926). Less sympathetic to Wyclif is K. B. McFarlane's John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (London, 1952), reprinted under the title The Origins of Religious Dissent in England (New York, 1966). McFarlane gives good background material about Oxford and church-state relations in Wyclif's time and, based on original research, carries the story through the Lollard movement until 1417, when it is driven underground. John Stacey's John Wyclif and Reform (Philadelphia, 1964) is informative and well balanced.

The influence of Wyclif on the Bohemian reformers is carefully researched by Matthew Spinka in John Hus and the Czech Reform (1941; Hamden, Conn., 1966). On the English version of the Bible associated with Wyclif, see Henry Hargreaves's "The Wycliffite Versions," in The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, The West from the Fathers to the Reformation (Cambridge, 1970), edited by G. W. H. Lampe, pp. 387415, with bibliography, pp. 527528.

Massey H. Shepherd, Jr. (1987)

John Wyclif

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Wyclif

The English theologian and reformer John Wyclif (c. 1330-1384) was the most influential ecclesiastical writer in England in the second half of the 14th century.

John Wyclif's denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, his strong belief in the sole authority of Scripture, and his views on the right of the laity to confiscate Church property brought him under attack by the ecclesiastical leaders of his day. His ideas, however, had an important shaping effect on the Lollard movement in England and on the Hussite movement in Bohemia, and his career and ideas anticipated the work of later English reformers in the 16th century.

During the second half of the 14th century a series of changes took place in England and elsewhere that altered the nature of English society in a manner that was to last for several centuries. In spite of occasional lulls, England was involved throughout this period in a war with France that ultimately resulted in the loss of English territory on the Continent. The war also hastened a growing separation between the English Church and the papacy, which from 1305 until 1378 was resident at Avignon and French-controlled and which after 1378 was split into two rival factions that further eroded respect for the authority and sanctity of the Holy Office. Both in literature and in theological writings many doctrines and practices of the Roman Church were coming under attack, with the result that England increasingly moved in the direction of nonconformity. The political and social discontent of the period, one evidence of which was the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, increased the authority of Parliament as the forum for settling disputes and for altering governmental policy. England also experienced in this period a revival in vernacular literature, in which the leading figure was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Little is known of the life of Wyclif before he arrived at Oxford, where he remained throughout most of his life. It seems most probable that he derived from a family of the lesser gentry in the area around Richmond. In 1356 he completed his arts degree at Oxford as a junior fellow of Merton College. Soon he shifted his affiliation to Balliol College, where, before 1360, he was elected master. During the summer of 1361 Wyclif resigned that position to accept the richest benefice within the gift of that college, namely, the rectorship of Fillingham In Lincolnshire. On the basis of that income he rented rooms in Queen's College and pursued his theological degree, which he completed in 1372. Although eventually critical of pluralism and absenteeism, as a student he held more than one benefice at a time and was not always conscientious enough to pay a vicar to perform the services for which he was receiving the revenues.

Political Career

In 1372 Wyclif entered the service of the King as a theological adviser and diplomat. The year before, he had attended Parliament in the company of two Austin friars, who argued there the thesis that dominion, or the right to exercise authority and to own property, was granted by God only to those in a state of grace. Sinful clergy might, therefore, be justifiably deprived of their property by a pious layman on behalf of the common good. This concept, known as the lordship of grace, suited the government and the lay members of Parliament who were attempting to raise funds in support of the war against France and who were having difficulty convincing the clergy to undertake half of those expenses.

Wyclif made this issue his own, and in a series of treatises during the next few years he argued for the validity of expropriation by the government of a certain portion of the Church's wealth. His attack was directed primarily against the monastic establishments in England rather than against the mendicant friars who, at least in theory, supported the idea of apostolic poverty and directly served the needs of the people. Although he may have been sincere in his campaign, his antagonism toward the monks resulted in part from his dismissal from the wardenship of Canterbury College at Oxford in 1371 in favor of the monk Henry Woodhall. Moreover, Wyclif's arguments in favor of disendowment brought him opportunities and rewards that he had been slow to acquire before, such as the rectorship of Lutterworth, given to him by the King in 1374 and upon which he eventually retired, and an appointment in the same year to a commission that met with papal delegates in Bruges over the question of papal taxes and the right of filling vacancies in major English sees and abbacies.

In 1376 Wyclif became closely associated with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger son of the ailing king, Edward III. During the last years of Edward's reign and the minority of Edward's grandson, Richard II, Gaunt exercised control of the royal government. Until 1378 Wyclif was protected by Gaunt from being disciplined by Church leaders as a result of his treatises attacking ecclesiastical possessioners. When, in 1377, Wyclif was called to St. Paul's Cathedral by William Courtenay, Bishop of London, to answer for his writings, Gaunt and his closest associates were there on Wyclif's behalf, hoping to use the occasion to propagandize the cause of taxing the Church. The bishop was frustrated in his attempt to convict Wyclif, but the incident increased the animosity that the people of London held for Gaunt and for his party. The next year Wyclif was summoned to Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, to answer charges of false teaching. Again the royal family intervened, and Wyclif was freed with the warning to cease teaching questionable doctrines.

From Harassment to Heresy

The year 1378 was a crucial date in the life of Wyclif. The return of the papacy to Rome and the papal election that year resulted in the election of two popes, an Italian, resident at Rome, and a Frenchman, resident at Avignon. While the papal schism weakened the position of the papacy in taking action against Wyclif in England, it also permitted a reconciliation between the English government and the Italian pope, thus decreasing the usefulness of Wyclif. He was encouraged by his royal protectors to put down his pen and to return to the academic debates of Oxford.

The cause of reform, however, had captured Wyclif's imagination, and he did not cease to write and publicize his views. Beginning in 1378 he wrote a series of polemical and doctrine treatises that slowly carried him in the direction of heresy. The first work was On the Truth of Holy Scripture; it was a harmless and somewhat incoherent defense of the inspiration of Scripture and of the importance of its literal meaning. In another work, On the Church, Wyclif restricted true membership in the Church to the elect, or predestined, a group known only to God and which might not include the pope. Since one could not alter this judgment of God, prayers for the dead were useless. In his works On the Office of King and On the Power of the Pope he raised temporal power above that of the Church and tried to demonstrate that the authority claimed by the papacy had no foundation in Scripture or the life of the early Church.

The work of Wyclif that most disturbed his contemporaries was On the Eucharist, composed in 1379. In this book he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation and the idea of Christ's real, or corporeal, presence in the Eucharist after consecration. According to Wyclif, the validity of the sacrament depended upon the sanctity of the one receiving it, not on the consecration of the priest.

Wyclif's attack on such a firmly established doctrine of the Church of his day and his simultaneous attack on the mendicant friars left him almost totally without supporters. Early in 1381 he was condemned by the chancellor of Oxford for teaching heretical doctrine on the Eucharist and prohibited from further expressing his views. Ignoring the advice of friends to remain silent, Wyclif published a defense of his condemned opinions under the title Confession and, with that parting shot, left Oxford for his rectorship at Lutterworth, where he remained until his death. In 1382 Wyclif composed his last work, the Trialogue, in which he summarized many of his earlier opinions and called for a vernacular translation of the Bible for the use of uneducated priests and the literate laity.

Further Reading

The best introduction to the life and thought of Wyclif is Kenneth B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (1952). Recent works include Edward A. Block, John Wyclif: Radical Dissenter (1962), and John Stacey, John Wyclif and Reform (1964). For background information consult Herbert B. Workman, John Wyclif: A Study of the English Medieval Church (1926), and George M. Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe (repr. 1963). □

Wyclif, John

views updated May 21 2018

Wyclif, John (c.1329–84). Religious reformer. An Oxford-educated Yorkshireman, he was the leading philosopher of his day, briefly master of Balliol (1360) and warden of Canterbury Hall (1377). As John of Gaunt's protégé, he was diplomat and government propagandist, persistently attacking clerical wealth and privilege, despite his own non-resident benefices, but, when condemned by the pope (1377), he was protected by Gaunt and Oxford University. The papal schism (1378) fuelled his attacks on catholic fundamentals—papal authority, confession, transubstantiation, and monasticism. His belief in the sole authority of Holy Scripture inspired Wyclif to start a translation, but his criticism of eucharistic doctrine (1379) went too far for his allies. After condemnation by Oxford (1381) and Archbishop Courtenay, he withdrew to Lutterworth (Leics.), where he died. Highly strung, uncompromising, humourless, he was as a practical reformer ‘conspicuously maladroit’ and, rather than seeking martyrdom, he sought protection. Though not himself implicated, the Peasants' Revolt (1381) discredited his ideas which became ‘the touchstone of heresy’, pursued by the lollards and in Bohemia by John Hus. The Council of Constance (1415) condemned Wyclif's views, and his remains were exhumed and burned.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall

Wyclif, John

views updated May 21 2018

Wyclif, John (c.1330–84), English religious reformer. He criticized the wealth and power of the Church and upheld the Bible as the sole guide for doctrine; his teachings were disseminated by itinerant preachers and are regarded as precursors of the Reformation. Wyclif instituted the first English translation of the complete Bible. His followers were known as Lollards.