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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

§ 6. Wyclif and Scholasticism

The passage from the ranks of the learners to those of the teachers was better defined in medieval days than it is now, and it is important to know, therefore, that the date of Wyclif’s doctorate (S.T.P., D.D. or S.T.M.) can now safely be placed about 1372. He could, after that, lecture upon theology, and not long after his own day, this promotion was noted as a turning point in his teaching: it was then he was held to have taught at least the beginnings of heresy. Up to this time, his life had been mainly passed at Oxford, as boy (for undergraduate went up at an early age, and much elementary teaching, even in grammar, was given in the university), as pupil and as teacher, in arts before he taught theology. There is no evidence that he had taken much part in parish work, although he had held preferments, and the incidental dates that have come down to us, no less than the Latin writings lately edited, imply great activity in teaching. He would probably “determine,” and take his Bachelor’s degree some four years after matriculation; in three more years he would take his Master’s degree and “incept” in arts, and, after some thirteen years more, in two stages, he could take his Doctor’s degree and “incept” in divinity. But, these periods might, of course, be prolonged in special cases; all the Fellows of Balliol, for instance, except six theological Fellows, were until 1364, prohibited from graduating in theology; and, from some cause of this kind, Wycliff was, apparently, delayed in reaching his Doctor’s degree. But his reputation as a lecturer had been made some years before; Masters of arts lectured to students specially under their care, while, just before his doctorate, a Bachelor of divinity could lecture upon “the sentences.”

It is difficult for us to understand, not indeed, the intellectual eagerness of the university, but its hold upon the country at large. From all parts of England, and from foreign countries too, youths were flocking to Oxford, where a new intellectual world opened itself to them. The fact that medieval thought and enquiry followed paths differing greatly from those we tread to-day sometimes hides from us the value of their intellectual training. Their material was, of course, limited, although not so limited as in sometimes thought: thus, although Wyclif, for instance, knew nothing of Greek beyond a few names and words, he had studied widely in natural science, of which Roger Bacon had left a tradition at Oxford. Their method had been originally formed to train the mind, in which it had once succeeded. By Wyclif’s day, however it had become too technical, and, far from helping thought, the scholastic method had become a cumbrous routine under which thought was cramped. The weight of the authorities whom he was excepted to know, the knowledge which he had to accumulate, and the order in which his thoughts had to be arranged, checked a scholar’s originality. Thus, the first reading of Wyclif’s Latin works does not give one any idea of his mental vigour, for the thought has to be sifted out from under appeals to authorities and cumbrous apparatus. When that has been done, it is found, as a rule, that the thought is strong, tenaciously held and fearlessly applied. But, even then, we of to-day can hardly feel the power of Wyclif’s personality. It was different in his own time, for these things were the medium through which minds influenced each other.

It is easy for us to understand the influence of Wyclif’s English writings, and we are even likely to exaggerate it, but not so with his Latin works. In their case, we have to make the allowances spoken of above, and to remember, moreover, that, in the fourteenth century, men were almost ceasing to think in Latin; with Wyclif himself, the turn of expression, even in his Latin works, is English. It was not surprising, then, that even a scholar trained, as he had been, to regard Latin as the proper vehicle of deeper thought, should, in the end, turn from it to English; the old literary commonwealth of the Middle Ages was breaking up, to be replaced by a number of nations with separate ways of thought and a literature of their own. Wyclif’s free use of English is, therefore, significant. In his double aspect, as standing at the close of a long series of Latin writers, and as an English writer early in the file, he belongs partly to the age that was going out, partly to the age that was coming in. But it would be a mistake to think that his democratic, popular impulses, shown by his choice of English and his appeal to a larger public, came to him solely from the national side. The modern conception of a scholar standing apart from the world, of a university professor working within a small circle and influencing a few select pupils, must be cast aside. For no place was more democratic than a medieval university: thither all classes came, and the ideas which were born in a lecture-room soon passed, as we have seen in the case of Rolle, to the distant villages of the north. When Wyclif threw himself upon a wider public than that of the university, he was, after all, only carrying a little further that desire to popularise knowledge and thought which was common to all medieval teachers. The habit of thinking in Latin, the necessity of writing in Latin, had been almost the only barriers to hinder any previous thinker from doing what Wyclif afterwards did. For him, those barriers hardly existed, and, hence, the passage from his lecture-room to the field of the nation was not so strange as it seems to us. The same impulses worked in both phases of his life; the great formative influences of his life were scholastic and academic, but this does not imply any isolation or intellectual aristocracy.

There were many great schoolmen whose works were known to him and to whom he owed his really great learning, but a few had specially influenced him. He belonged, like other great Englishmen, to the realists, who attributed to general ideas a real existence, and who were in the closest intellectual sympathy with the great fathers of the church, St. Augustine above all others. The strife between them and the nominalists was bitter and prolonged, but, towards the close of the Middle Ages, the latter were victorious, and became, together with those who, as conceptualists, held their opinions in a slightly modified form, the prevalent school. Realism went out of fashion, and realists, Wyclif among them, were forgotten. To this cause, nearly as much as to the taint of heresy, he owed the neglect into which he fell. But, at Oxford, in his day, the realists championed by Wyclif more than held their own. But for one nominalist, William of Ockham—the great Franciscan writer and advocate of the rights of the state—Wyclif had a great regard, and he refused to count him a heretic. Ockham had been a warm defender of the Franciscan doctrine of poverty—a doctrine which had a special charm for Wyclif—and, from it as a basis, had gone on to attack the existing constitution and power of the church. Wyclif, who, in his later years, followed the same course and took up the same position, owed him a certain intellectual debt.