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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

II. Religious Movements in the Fourteenth Century

§ 10. The Poor Priests

Wyclif’s liking for the friars and their fundamental doctrine of poverty has already been mentioned. But he had also sympathy with their popular work, even if he thought it sometimes neglected or badly done. This feeling led him to institute his “poor priests,” who must have begun their work while he was still at Oxford, probably about 1377, as they are certainly mentioned in works of 1378. Originally, they were priests living in poverty and journeying about the country, clad in simple russet, preaching as the Dominicans had done; later, some, if not most, of them were laymen; gradually, too, as his quarrel with the church authorities grew and he became estranged from his university, he demanded less learning from his poor priests; simple piety, a love of the Scriptures and a readiness to preach were all he asked from them. One unlearned man (unus ydiota) might, by God’s grace, do more than many graduates in schools or colleges. There was nothing strange in the original idea of such a body, and it was only by an accident that Wyclif did not become the founder of a new order of friars. Before the end of his life they had spread his doctrines widely, and had met with great success, especially in the vast diocese of Lincoln, and in those of Norwich and Worcester. The districts which were centres of his teaching long remained centres of Lollardy, although the views of the later Lollards can hardly be held the same as his. For they changed his views upon property into a socialism discontented with existing government and the distribution of wealth; his denunciation of evils, which grew gradually more sweeping and subversive of ecclesiastical order, became, with them, a hatred of the whole church; his love of the Bible, and his appeal to it as the test of everything, too often became, with them, a disregard of everything but the Bible; his denial of transubstantiation, based upon philosophical reasoning, became, with them, a contempt for the Sacrament itself.

So far, we have seen Wyclif mainly critical and even destructive. But there was also a strongly positive side to his teaching: his regard for the Scriptures and his frequent use of them in his writings (common with medieval writers, but very common with him) is best seen in his work De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, which he was writing about 1378. He regarded Scripture as the test of everything, in comparison with which tradition had no force. It is impossible to trace fully the development of his views, but the medieval love of speculation and freedom of thought (which was not, as a rule, interfered with, unless it led to revolutionary action) carried him far: there is hardly anything in the constitution or worship or doctrine of the church which, in some of his latest works, was not questioned. Nevertheless, after leaving Oxford, he remained quietly working in his parish, following the ordinary round of a parish priest. It is to be noted, too, that in his English sermons he faithfully follows the church’s choice of Epistles and Gospels, not casting it aside as did some later reformers. But the inconsistency between his life and his words is more apparent than real; the habit of hypothesis, of questioning, of making assumptions, was so ingrained in him that too much weight must not be assigned to all his statements, as if they expressed a deliberate and well-formed conviction. The world at large was, however, different from an academic audience, and many whom his works reached must have drawn practical inferences from them which Wyclif himself never drew. Still, as regards the church—poisoned as he held it to be by the endowments poured into its system first by Constantine and, since then, by others—his mental attitude was distinctly sceptical. His positive appeal to Scripture, however, was another thing; it was directed against the abuses of the time. But, among his opponents, men like bishop Brunton of Rochester also had a deep love for the Scriptures; the language often used as to ignorance or dislike of the Bible at the time is much exaggerated and mistaken, as the works of Rolle indicate. Nevertheless, there were some opponents of Wyclif whom he charged rightly with belittling the Scriptures. These criticisms were directed against the growing school of nominalists against whom Wyclif, as one of the latest medieval realists, fought vigorously, and whose influence had, in the end, the evil effects of which Wyclif complained.