Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 4. The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of Clergy; The Repressor and the Lollards

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

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 4. The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of Clergy; The Repressor and the Lollards

A hollow truce was then (1457) subsisting between the two political parties; one of Pecock’s latest pamphlets, addressed to Canynge, mayor or London, contained allusions to disturbances which the Yorkist mayor chose to consider seditious. He accordingly laid the tract before the council. An outcry was raised at once by the politicians, and Pecock’s theological adversaries seized the moment to accuse him of heresy. Archbishop Bourchier, allied with the Yorkist faction, conducted the examination promptly. Nine of Pecock;s works were, in one day, inspected and reported upon by twenty-four divines, who can hardly have been placated by the claim of the assused “to be judged by his peers”s in erudition. After several interviews, Pecock was formally condemned, and the archbishop, in a conventionally fraternal speech, bade him choose at once between recantation and death by fire. Apparently confounded by the charge of heresy, Pecock at length replied: “it is better to incur the taunts of the people than to forsake the law of faith and to depart after death into hellfire and the place of torment.” According to his own principles, indeed, submission to the authority of the church was all that was open to him. A public recantation was exacted, and at Paul’s Cross, before a great crowd whose ferocity, excited by the spectacle of the solitary bishop beside the bonfire, rose so high that they would fain have flung him into it, Pecock handed fourteen of his works (“that cost moch goodes”) to the executioner to be burned, and recited a full recantation in English in his peculiar repetitive style. After a vain attempt to obtain protection from the papacy, Pecock was committed to a dreary imprisonment for life in Thorney abbey; and there, a year or two later, he died.

It is not hard to see why the bishops repudiated their selfappointed champion. Immeasurably their superior in learning as in argument, his conceit galled them, his assertion of the feudal authority of the pope cut at the roots of hierarchical independence; he had treated the friars with contempt, and his mode of defending the condition of the church was felt to be dangerous. One of the charges against him was that he wrote on great matters in English; another, thathe set the law of nature above the Scriptures and the sacraments: in truth, Pecock’s attempt to defend the ecclesiastical system by a appeal to reason was a negation of the principle of authority upon which it rested, and a superficial reading of The Repressor might give the impression that the author minimised the importance of the Bible.

The Repressor was the climax of Pecock’s endeavours to conquer the Lallards on their own ground. Corporal punishment he allowed to be lawful in the last resort; but he held it the duty of the clergy to reclaim heretics by reasonable argument. To attempt this thoroughly, Pecock, in The Repressor, first stated clearly what were the erroneous “trowings” of the Lollards, and then proceeded to reason against them instead of crushing them by merely quoting a mass of authority. Unhappily, this fair statement of his adversaries’s case proved a two-edged weapon, for his own replies were sometimes of a kind so casuistical as to provoke irritation. Again, Pecock’s excellent arguments from history and theological literature made little impression upon contemporaries almost as ignorant as they were biassed, while his philosophical reasoning not only was beyond their grasp, but was suspected of being a greater danger than the Lollardy it controverted. To reason of religion at all, and in the vulgar tongue, was a crime; to reason with heretics appeared to admit that they had some kind of case; worst of all, in those intolerant times, was Pecock’s tolerance.

The book is clearly arranged in five parts, each divided into chapters and a short prologue sets forth the purport and plan, namely, to defend eleven points of “governances of the clergy” condemned by “some of the common people.” Part I deals with the Lollard position in general, while the succeeding parts defend the arraigned practices by special arguments. Part I is the most important and shows by how great a distance Pecock was in advance of his age. Could his methods have been adopted by the English hierarchy, the ecclesiastical revolution of the next dynasty would, perhaps, never have occured, and Hooker would have been forestalled by a century.

Pecock finds the heresies of the Lollards to arise from three fundamental errors in their method of thinking; when these are relinquished, they way will be clear for constructive explanation. The Lollards assume the New Testament to be the origin of religion and morality, holding no ordinance to be binding unless grounded, that is originating, in Scripture; secondly, they maintain they every pious christian can instinctively discover the full meaning of Scripture; and, last, they assert that this pious Christian is then justified in scorning any reasoning or expounding by scholars and churchmen.

These theses of “the lay party” are to be disproved not by counter-quoting of texts, but by reasoning; and Pecock, therefore, enters first upon a brief explanation of the method of logical argument: “Wolde God it (logic) were leerned of al the comon people in her moderis langage for thanne their schulden therbi be putt fro myche ruydnes and boistousness which thei han now in resonying.”

Pecock declares that Scripture was not intended to reveal to man any of the moral laws which he had already discovered by “law of kind,” i.e.light of nature. Scripture, in fact, assumes that men recognise the moral law, and if it were possible that any apparent discord should subsist between the words written in “the outward book of parchemyn or of velym,” and “the doom of resoun write in mannis soule and herte,” then must the written words be interpreted to accord with reason, not reason glosed to accord witht the writing. It is actually worse to undervalue this “inward Scripture” than to undervalue the Bible itself. Because Scripture enforces many points of morality, we are not to regard the book as the foundation of the moral law—any more than men of London say, when men of the country upland bring branches of trees from Bishop’s wood and flowers of the field for the citizens to array their houses with at midsummer, that these branches grew out of the carts or the hands of the bringers. It follows that neither the truths of moral philosophy nor corollaries deduced from either philosophy or the law of nature are “grounded” in Scripture. To ask of any ordinance or custom so deduced by philosophy or common sense: “where fyndist thou it groundid in Holi Scripture?” is as far beside the mark as to ask of a conclusion of grammar: “where findist thou it groundid in tailour craft? or of a point of sadler craftwhere findist thou it groundid in bocheri?” Much that is needful for us to know is left for us to discover by reason and experience: “I preie thee, Sir, seie to me where in Holi Scripture is [char]ouen the hundrid parti of the teching upon matrimonie which y teche in a book man upon Matrimonie and in the firste partie of Cristen religioun?” Nor does Scripture give a hundredth part of Pecock’s teaching upon usury in The filling of the four tables, and yet these books he considers full scanty to teach all that is needful to know upon matrimony and usury. He concludes that pilgrimages, the use of images in churches, or the endowments of the clergy, are not to be condemned because they are not expressly ordained in Scripture.

That the members of the lay party overvalue the authority of Scripture Pecock generously grants to be due to the excellent effect on their minds of studying it. Precisous, indeed, is the effect; but to hold the Bible, therefore, for the sole rule of truth, is as if one should endeavour to live entirely upon that necessary of life, honey. the lay party will, however, allege that reason is fallible; to which Pecock answeres, that so may eyesight ro hearing sometimes prove deceptive, and yet we cannot see or hear save with eye and ear; while the dangers of fallacious reasoning are minimised by a learned clergy, whose gathered knowledge knowledge enables them to expound the whole meaning of Scripture. Another safeguard, he avers, we hav in the infallibility of syllogism; let reason proceed on this method and she cannot err; “for if y be siker and suer in my reason that no man is in the chirche of Seint Poul at Londoun, and that the bischop of London is a man, y may be sekir and sure that the bischop of London is out of the chirche of Seint Poul at London, thou[char] alle anngels in heven wolde seie the contrarie.”

As for the second “trowing” of the Lollards—that every humble Christian can sufficiently interpret Scripture—they can easily recognise its falseness by their own divisions. Do not the Bible-men already distinguish parties, some as doctor-mongers, some opinion-holders, some neutrals? Hath not Bohemia experienced the doom of “ech kingdom devidid in hem silf”? To intepret Scripture aright is evidently difficult, therefore should learned men be consulted; not that every preacher or wearer fo a doctor’s cap is sompetent to expound, and grievous it is to find so little attention paid to the serious scholar who “flotereth not so ofte aboute the eeris of the lay peple as dooth the feet of preaching.”

The third “trowing” of thelay party—that, having (as they assume) attained to the knowledge of Scripture, they should pay no further attention to the arguments of clerks—is as bad as the Mohammedan law which punishes the man who reasons about his faith, whereas truth is ready to some to the light and be confirmed: it is but “countrifeet goold” which abides not the fire.

This mistaken endeavour to make Scripture the sole rule of life springs of ignorance and want of thought. Where does Scripture say that the New or Old Testament “schulde be writt in Englisch tunge to lay men or in Latyn tunge to clerkis”; where,

  • that men schulden make ale or beer of whiche so myche horrible synne cometh myche more than of setting up of ymagis or of pilgrymagis?…without ale and beer and without sidir and wijn and meeth, men and women myte lyve ful long an lenger than thei doon now, and in lesse jolite and cheerte of herte forto bringe hem into horrible grete synnes—
  • and yet the laity think these drinks quite permissible, i.e. lawful, i.e. right. Would that those women who make themselves so wise in the Bible and “so coppid of speche a nentis clerkis” might wear none of their fine “coverchefis of lynnen or of silk of whiche so miche synne cometh” till they could find scriptural warrant for them!

    Illustration is amonng Pecock’s strong points—homely, striking and tersely worded, but too often adding a provocation. He had the unlucky art of selection an irritating topic: “If the king of England dwelt in Bordeaux and should send a noble letter to the judges exhorting them to impartial justice,” was one of his illustrations, when the nation was frantic over the loss of Gascony and not a law-court was freely held.

    The Second part of The Repressor takes point by point the lay party’s objections to the Church and proves, to the author’s satisfaction, that the arraigned customs are not only undorbidden by Scripture, but that each rests upon good grounds. Even if a good custom, such as the use of images, be abused, the abuse is not serious, for nobody makes literal idols of images, taking them to be gods. Besides, scriptural warrant exists for them in the practice of Laban and of Micah and the Levit.

    The necessity of vindicating every ecclesiastical practice compels Pecock to have recourse, sometimes, to casuistry; and his justification of the practice of the mendicants who only touched money with a stick, or of those who deserted necessitous parents to save their own souls in a convent, is not pleasant. But he was unconscious of any weakness in his case; to him, logic was everything; “prove” is his favourite word; he believed men were convinced by logic. Nor was it to the details of his case that his enemies objected. His appeal to reason was the real crime, and his criticism was hardly less weakening to the rule of authority. To nullify the current moral of a fable connected witht the donation of Constantine, he proved the fabulousness of the famous donation itself, imprudently adding that the evils ascribed to the wealth of the church arise from the appointment, nowadays, of unfit persons to bishoprics. He had the audacity to declar that a statement of St. Jerome’s was probably not true. He pointed out a discrepancy between Eusebius and pseudo-Damasus, and decided, on historical grounds, for Eusebius. It could only be expected that he would have to face the charge of denying the authority of Scripture and of the Fathers of the church. The prelates were little likely to think well of a man who dragged their practices to the bar of criticism.