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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

§ 15. Wyclif’s Later Works

The sum of his work, Latin and English, in these last two years (1382–4) is enormous, but there are traces of his utilising former lectures ready to hand. To this time most of his former lectures ready to hand. To this time most of his undoubted English writings belong, as does the Trialogus in Latin, perhaps the best known and most connected, although not most interesting, statement of his views. His struggle with the mendicants who opposed him now was at its height, and his language was unmeasured; we must suppose that much of what he said was put forth without due consideration of possible dangers from its being misunderstood. But, in some of his later Latin works—especially his Opus Evangelicum—notes of a growing calmness of mind may also be heard beneath the controversies. He had always been inspired by the warmest national feeling, and it was not at all strange that he should, therefore, address the nation as he did; it is this consciousness of the wide audience to whom he was speaking that made his English writings distinctly different from any that had gone before. The nation that had proved its unity in the battle-field and in parliament was now, we may say for the first time, addressed as one body in popular literature. Neither in style nor in power, however, have his English works any special note of distinction. The style of his sermons ranks higher than the early version of the New Testament, commonly ascribed to him, and it would not be surprising to find that, like many other medieval works, they had undergone some revision by a faithful disciple. In these English works there is a strange mingling of simple directness and ruggedness; their true significance lies in their instinctive feeling for their large audience. Wyclif had proved his power over an academic world, democratic in itself, and so he easily passed to a more democratic public still; his conception of the state, and his experience of parliament, gave a peculiar vividness to the manner of his address, but an even higher quality gave it spiritual force.

For Wyclif had an intense reverence for the Incarnate Christ, communis homo, unicus homo. His realist mind made him unite Christ, as the type, with all Christian men. A like belief, worked out in practice, had been the strength of the early Franciscans, and hence had come Wyclif’s original sympathy with them. In his later years, after he had parted from them, the same belief was the real basis of his popular appeal, and it was also connected with another characteristic of his last phase. After he had left Oxford, and the university had drifted, although reluctantly, away from his teaching, he came to undervalue learning; the simple, “lewd” man, if a follower of Christ, could do all the educated man might do. This side of his teaching, which would naturally be exaggerated by the later Lollards, had a real theological basis in his intense desire to see the Christ in every man; an idea which, taught (1370–2) in De Benedicta Incarnacione, links together his earlier and later writings.