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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

§ 13. Wyclif and Popular Movements

The church, which had been so long the guardian of unity, found itself confronted by forces forming nations and tending to disruptions. To control and guide these forces would have been a noble work, but it was a work of supreme difficulty, not to be wrought by short-sighted or selfish men. To begin with, the church which recognised its duty of teaching the nation should have brought out an authorised version of its own. There is no proof that it ever tried to do this on a complete scale; it was, indeed, content to use the Wyclifite versions, as it well might be, until the growth of Lollard prologues and commentaries made it suspicious. Thus, some of the Wyclifite MSS. have the tables of lessons added, and some smaller MSS. contain the Gospels and Epistles alone. The claim made by the Lollards that “eche lewed man that schul be saved is a real priest maad of God” tended to weaken the power of the church, its power for good as well as for evil, and, naturally, made “worldly clerkis crien that holy writ in Englische wole make cristen men at debate, and suggetis to rebelle against her sovereyns and therefor” ought not to be “suffered among lewed men.” Medieval notions of freedom differed from our own, and, as a rule, freedom to do any special work was held to belong only to a corporation licensed for the purpose.

The danger of popular excitement was made pressing by the Peasants’s Revolt. The appeal to a democratic public, the recognition of the simple layman’s place in the church, the crusade against endowments and the growing criticism of ecclesiastical institutions, worked along with other causes of the rebellion, while Wyclif’s exaltation of the power of king and state was lost sight of. His own sympathies, indeed, went strongly with the rebels. His “poor priests” were charged with having incited to revolt, and Nicholas Hereford hurled back the charge at the friars. Friars and “poor priests” were both parts of the large floating population which was all in a ferment, and there was probably some truth in the charges on both sides. If John Ball’s confession that he had learnt his views from Wyclif be somewhat suspicious, it should still be remembered that Wyclif’s revolutionary views on endowments had been before the world for some years. Both in Ball’s confession and in a popular poem of the day, Wyclif’s attack upon the doctrine of transubstantiation was connected with the general excitement. That attack stirred up many animosities new and old; it was the result of a gradual development of Wyclif’s views, and it had important historical results.