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Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Critical Introduction by Henry Craik

Reginald Pecock (c. 1395–1460)

[Reginald, or Reynold, Pecock was born, as far as may be calculated by the leading events of his life, a few years before the end of the fourteenth century. He seems to have been a native of Wales, and was educated at Oriel College, Oxford, of which he became Provost in 1417. In 1431, having secured the patronage of Humphry, Duke of Gloucester, then the leading man in England, he became Master of the College established in London by Sir Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor. In 1444 he was consecrated Bishop of St. Asaph, having now become widely known both as a preacher and writer, and having devoted himself especially to correct the errors of the “Lollards,” by which name the followers of Wycliffe, and others who had carried Wycliffe’s attacks upon the Church to more extreme lengths, were popularly known. In 1449 Pecock wrote his Repressour of over-much Blaming the Clergy (although the book seems not to have appeared until five or six years later), and in the same year he was consecrated Bishop of Chichester. Some time after he produced his Treatise of Faith, and this, with the Repressour, constitutes the chief memorial of his work in English prose. He died about 1460.]

IT is a matter of some difficulty to trace Pecock’s position during the stormy disputes that raged in England throughout his life. But it must be remembered that the religious struggles had passed into a new phase since Wycliffe’s days. On the one hand, the shades, of religious opinion had become much more numerous, and tendencies to unorthodoxy of creed were judged with a more critical eye. On the other hand, those who impugned the authority of the Church were the subject of more severe repressive laws, which were often turned against those who, while they defended ecclesiastical usages, based their defence upon principles which allowed too free a handling of matters which it was deemed the duty of the truly orthodox to hold the subject of implicit acceptance rather than of argument. We must also take account of the fact that political factions ran high, and that the patronage of such a man as the Duke of Gloucester was in itself a ground for the bitter hatred of those who sought to supplant the Duke. After Gloucester’s fall, Pecock seems to have been adroit enough to secure the patronage of his opponent, the Duke of Suffolk; but the influence of Suffolk, as the adherent of Queen Margaret, was short-lived; and after his murder Pecock seems to have become an object of hatred both to the people and to the now dominant faction, who used the charge of heresy to crush him, or lent their aid to those who determined to crush him for his heretical opinions.

The Repressour had defended certain usages or “governances” of the Church—the use of images, pilgrimage, clerical endowments, the orders of the clergy, the primacy of the Pope, and the religious orders—which had been made the subject of attack and satire by the Lollards. But he defended these, frequently, not by the authority of Scripture or the Church, but by an appeal to reason, and by arguing that they were not forbidden by Scripture. He constantly seeks to appeal to natural reason, or “reason of kind” as he calls it. The danger of such a defence was evident; but what is not so clear is the reason for Pecock being selected for persecution, and the means by which his enemies were able to stir up against him what was apparently a strong current of popular opinion. His Treatise of Faith touched an even more dangerous point; and the unorthodox tendency of his teaching became more plain, when in that work he attacked the thesis, then stoutly maintained, “That the faith hath no merit which is proved by human reason.”

Whatever may have been the contributing causes of his downfall, it is plain that Pecock became the object of intense hatred. In 1457 he was expelled from a Council of Lords, spiritual and temporal, at London, and was soon after arraigned for heresy. His conduct now proved that he did not possess the courage of his opinions. He attempted feebly to maintain the orthodoxy of his utterances; but brought face to face with the alternative of recantation or a martyr’s death, he scarcely hesitated in his choice. His attitude, indeed, seems that of one who had adopted certain views from conceit or love of novelty rather than from conviction. He must die in his errors, he said in effect, or be put to shame by recantation; and he chose the latter alternative. This did not, however, secure him from the vengeance of his enemies. He was deprived of his bishopric, and confined in strict durance, and on a meagre pension, in Thorney Abbey, where he died.

In judging Pecock’s style we must take account not only of the events of his time and of his religious attitude, but also of the temper and character of the man. He was evidently a man of boundless conceit, which pleased itself by constant flattering references to his own works, and to the ample support which they afford, in his own opinion, to the positions he maintains. There is little of devotion or heartiness in his religious writings, which seem to be the fruit of a mind pleased with the refinements of scholastic reasoning, and enjoying its own acuteness. Many of the arguments he employs are far-fetched and ingenious rather than fitted to convince us of the sincerity of the writer. But the chief interest of his works, as the earliest specimens of strictly controversial prose writing, lies in the curious combination of a refinement and subtlety little suited to his age, with the choice of the vernacular as his medium of expression. This moved his accusers to attack as impious the handling of religious mysteries in the tongue of the vulgar, and it was evidently adopted by Pecock in order to secure greater popularity. His diction is archaic for his own age, and is even affected in its discarding of all those stores with which not Chaucer only, but even Wycliffe, had enriched our language. The strained archaicism—because we can call it nothing else—is all the more curious when taken in connection with the elaborate statement of arguments in the logical forms of the schools, with his accuracy of definition, and with his careful recapitulation of terms, which might remind us of the iteration of a legal document. In Pecock, as in those of a later day whose aims and motives we may more exactly gauge, “the style was the man”; and we must not forget in judging that style that it is the expression of a mind acute rather than strong; supporting views which were not inspired by devotion, but developed with ingenuity; following a method borrowed from the schoolmen, but choosing a medium by which he might reach the ear of the people.