Wycliffe, John (Wyclif) (ca. 1330–1384). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

John Wycliffe was an English theologian, Oxford
master, and religious reformer, who challenged
papal control of the English church, condemned
clerical greed and immorality, and defied the
power of the medieval church hierarchy.He is also
responsible for the first English translation of the
Bible. Although his teachings were officially condemned
and he was forced into retirement,
Wycliffe’s numerous followers, known as LOLLARDS,
formed a religious movement that spread
his ideas for generations after his death. His works
also influenced the reforming activities of Jan HUS
in early 15th-century Prague.
Wycliffe was probably born at the Yorkshire village
of Hipswell, near Richmond, into a wealthy
family. In 1354, he began his studies at Oxford, receiving
a bachelor of arts degree from Merton College
in 1356. He became master of Balliol College
by 1360, but left that post in 1361, when he was
made rector of Fillingham in Lincolnshire.He was
appointed canon at Westbury-on-Trym in
Gloucestershire in 1362, but was studying theology
at Oxford in 1363, renting a room at Queen’s College.
Wycliffe was appointed rector of Ludgershall
in Buckinghamshire in 1368, but that same year
was back at Oxford studying theology. In 1371 he
was made canon of Lincoln, and finally, in 1374,
the king appointed Wycliffe rector of Lutterworth
in Leicestershire, a living he kept until his death.
Though appointed to several clerical positions,
Wycliffe clearly spent the majority of his time between
1354 and 1381 at Oxford, where he lectured
in philosophy and, after 1371, in theology, becoming
a doctor of theology in 1372.
Beginning in the early 1370s,Wycliffe appears
to have gained the favor of the royal house, in particular
of Edward the Black Prince, his wife Joan
of Kent, and his brother JOHN OF GAUNT. In 1376
Gaunt enlisted Wycliffe’s aid in a campaign against
the so-called Good Parliament, which had appointed
royal councilors to advise the Crown, including
Gaunt’s enemy William of Wykeham,
bishop of Winchester. Prior to this, in 1374,
Wycliffe was sent to Brugge, Belgium, as a representative
of King EDWARD III to negotiate with envoys
from the pope concerning the payment of
tribute to Avignon (the papal see). It can be assumed
that Wycliffe was dissatisfied with the negotiations,
because from 1374 onward, he began to
attack papal authority over the English church.
Wycliffe asserted that Christ was the only true sovereign
of the church, and that the power of popes,
bishops, and priests was dependent upon their
state of grace. In a time of widespread clerical
abuses,Wycliffe’s doctrines seemed an attack on all
religious authority.Wycliffe held that no official
could claim legitimate authority based simply on
the fact that he occupied a certain position, but
must be in a state of grace.
Wycliffe promulgated his doctrines through
treatises in Latin and through his own preaching in
English, basing his arguments chiefly on Scripture
ROBERT GROSSETESTE, and to some extent Marsilius
of Padua and William OCKHAM. Over the years, his
anti-papal stance became more and more pronounced.
He argued that the Scriptures were the
chief authority for Christians, and believed that
the Bible should be available to people in the vernacular.
Accordingly, his followers initiated a project
of translating the Bible from St. JEROME’s Latin
Vulgate into English.Wycliffe himself may have
been responsible for an incomplete translation of
the New Testament, but the bulk of the work on
the translation was done by his disciples Nicholas
Hereford and, in its final form in about 1395, John
If the Bible was the only source of Christian
doctrine,Wycliffe argued, then any aspect of the
contemporary church that had no basis in Scripture
was unjustified. For Wycliffe, this included the
wealth of the clergy, the monastic life (which he
saw as separating individuals from the life of the
Church), pilgrimages, and indulgences.Wycliffe
further argued that sacraments performed by
priests in a state of sin were not valid, and this led
to his assertion that the sacraments of the church
were not in fact absolutely requisite for God’s
grace. Finally, he denied the doctrine of transubstantiation
(the belief in the “real presence” of the
body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist). These
and similar doctrines brought the wrath of the orthodox
church down upon him.
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI condemned 18 of
Wycliffe’s conclusions as “erroneous,” and asked for
his arrest, but Wycliffe’s royal protectors prevented
any formal action against him at that time. However,
a commission in Wycliffe’s own Oxford condemned
him as a heretic and threatened him with
excommunication because of his teaching on the
Eucharist.Wycliffe also lost the support of John of
Gaunt when some of his more radical followers
were embroiled in the PEASANTS’ REVOLT of 1381. In
1381,Wycliffe retired from Oxford to live quietly in
Lutterworth, though he continued to write. The following
year William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury,
condemned 24 of Wycliffe’s arguments as
heresies, though in particular Wycliffe’s teaching on
the Eucharist was denounced. But Wycliffe himself
was never physically threatened, and continued
writing at Lutterworth until he succumbed to a
stroke on December 31, 1384.
The great number of followers Wycliffe had created
in Oxford soon developed into a radical movement
of “Lollards,” who subsequently spread
throughout England and, ultimately, linked
Wycliffe’s doctrines to the English Reformation
under Henry VIII. Through his influence on Jan
Hus,Wycliffe also had an impact on the continental
Reformation via Hus’s Moravian followers and
Martin Luther. In terms of literature, perhaps
Wycliffe’s most important contribution is his encouragement
of the production of the Lollard Bible,
the first complete Bible in the English language.
Hall, Louis Brewer. The Perilous Vision of John Wyclif.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.
Kenny, Anthony. Wyclif. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1985.
Lahey, Stephen E. Philosophy and Politics in the
Thought of John Wyclif. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003.
Levy, Ian Christopher. John Wyclif: Scriptural Logic,
Real Presence, and the Parameters of Orthodoxy.
Milwaukee:Marquette University Press, 2003.
Stacey, John. John Wyclif and Reform. Philadelphia:
Westminister Press, 1964.
Wyclif, John. On Simony. Translated by Terrence A.
McVeigh. New York: Fordham University Press,
———. On the Truth of Holy Scripture. Translated
with an introduction and notes by Ian Christopher
Levy. Kalamazoo: Published for TEAMS
(The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle
Ages) by Medieval Institute Publications,Western
Michigan University, 2001.