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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

§ 17. The Lollards; Wyclif’s Personality

Meanwhile, the suppressed activity of the Lollards lived on. The archbishop had used the ordinary episcopal powers of inquisition for heresy, which, in England, were never superseded by the inquisition, so that the earlier punishments of heresy by death took place under canon law. But, with the act De Haeretico Comburendo (1401), a new basis was given to the persecution, and the state, as usual, showed itself more severe than the church. The Lollard party in parliament was, at one time, strong, and, more than once, brought forward suggestions of sweeping changes and confiscation. But, with the condemnation for heresy of Sir John Oldcastle (Lord Cobham, by marriage) in 1413, it ceased to be coherent and effective. Oldcastle himself escaped, after a severe examination, and, until his execution for treason (1417), was a centre for disaffection and rumours of rebellion. Much popular ridicule, such as may be read in the political poems of the day, was thrown upon him, and some of it, by a curious change, was transferred to the Norfolk soldier Sir John Fastolf. The chief result of Oldcastle’s life was, thus, a strangely confused impression upon literature, but his Lollardism had been driven back by Arundel’s strong action and the wider sweep of domestic politics into the lowlier paths of the national life. The old centres of Lollardy, nevertheless, remained; the activity of Lollard writers, in adding prologues to works already known and in copying or abridging them, went on. The work of Lollard schools, and the circulation of Lollard tracts—for the most part of little merit—had yet both a religious and a literary significance. They come mostly before us in trials, and isolated examples (such as the appeal to parliament in 1395, which, in its English dress, presented, in many slightly varying forms, originals possibly first composed in Latin); but a literature of this kind has often more effect than more ambitious and larger works. There always had been, before the days of Wyclif, this literature of lowly discontent. If, after his days, it was raised to rather a higher level, for a time a little invigorated, and nourished by vague memories, it had, nevertheless, no very precise connection with his teaching. The religious literature of discontent lived on side by side with the more recognised literature of devotion. Tracts and sermons, handed about and read as treasured teachings to little gatherings, loosely copied and at times condensed, are difficult to classify, or to appreciate. But the exact relation of the later Lollard sect to Wyclif’s doctrines, and its influence upon the reformation, are difficult and distinct historical problems. It is certain that, while like him in denying transubstantiation, the later Lollards were not like him in their positive view of the Eucharist; his views upon endowment might reappear again and again in parliament, but had no permanent effect. If there was much floating discontent with the church, and still more with the abuses of the day, it is difficult to trace this to Wyclif’s influence, and the same, probably, would have been found without him. In weight of learning, and power of argument, those who wrote against his views outmatched his English followers.

But, in Bohemia, the influence, which was denied Wyclif in England, was permanent and strong. It is sufficient to refer to Loserth, who has treated the whole question fully and with an adequate knowledge of both Wyclif and Hus. Bohemian students had been at cosmopolitan Oxford in the days of Wyclif himself, and the connection thus begun continued long. The whole Hussite movement in its beginning was Wyclifite, and was called so by its friends and enemies alike; Wyclif’s influence was firmly established there even before 1403. His views became part of a national and university movement which, on its philosophical side, was also realist. Hus was simply a disciple of Wyclif, and his works were mainly copies of Wyclif’s; this revival of Wyclifite teaching led to the condemnation of forty-five selected errors at the council of Constance (4 May 1415). But, when, in the early years of the reformation, the works of Hus were printed, and came into the hands of Luther and Zwingli among others, it was really Wyclif who was speaking to them. Everything seemed to work together in disguising the real influence Wyclif had exercised.

A survey, then, of Wyclif’s life and works, as they can be estimated now, shows that much at one time assigned to him was not really his. He was the last of a school of philosophers, but, as such, his intellectual influence was not enduring; he was the first of a school of writers, but his literary influence was not great. His connection with our English Bible, difficult as it may be to state precisely, is, perhaps, his greatest achievement. His personality does not become plainer to us as his works are better known. Even his appearance is hardly known to us, for the portraits of him are of much later date and of uncertain genealogy. But Thorpe—an early Lollard and, probably, a disciple at Oxford—describes him as “held by many the holiest of all in his day, lean of body, spare and almost deprived of strength, most pure in his life.” That he was simple and ascetic, quick of temper and too ready to speak, we hear from himself and can gather from his works. The secret of his influence, well suited to his day, whether working through the decaying Latin or the ripening English, lies in the sensitive, impulsive and fiery spirit of the Latin scholastic and English preacher, sympathetic towards movements and ideas, although not towards individual minds. But the medium through which that spirit worked belongs to an age that has passed away, and we cannot discover the secret of it for ourselves.