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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

§ 8. Attack on Wyclif

Wyclif’s earliest writings are of a purely philosophical nature, and, of course, academic in origin and style. De Logica, De Enter Predicamental, De Materia et Forma, De Benedicta Incarancione and De Composicione Hominis are ordinary university lectures: in the case of the last it is probable that we have only the lecture-notes as they were delivered. They may be dated—not, of course, with certainty—from 1360 to 1370 or thereabouts. They give us Wyclif’s philosophical basis, and show him as a follower of St. Augustine, named after his master, “Joannes Augustini.” Hence, also, came his views on predestination, upon which he had a friendly controversy with the logician Ralph Strode: his doctrine of the presciti (foreknown) remained unchanged throughout his life. Already, too, he denied the possibility of the annihilation of anything, a view which he led him to his later denial of transubstantiation. His Latin works show how large a part these discussions, which both influenced others and gained him a great reputation in controversy, played in his life, and his chief opponents, with the exception of Wadfore or Wodefored (probably a Franciscan), were monks. The abbot of Chertsey, for instance, came up to Oxford to draw him into a discussion, and many others opponents attacked him. Through these controversies, Wyclif’s views, as to the wrongfulness of endowments (to which he ascribed all the evils of the church), as to the duty of the state and of lay authorities to enforce reformation by seizing church property, must have become widely known. But, probably, he had not yet made his entry into political life, and, certainly, he had not as yet any controversy with the mendicants. It is probable that Wyclif’s Determinatio, printed by Lewis, containing a supposed account of a parliamentary debate upon papal taxation, belongs (as Loserth has pointed out) not to 1366–7 but to a date some ten years later. At the former date, it stands isolated in Wyclif’s life; at the later date, it finds a fitting place in the controversy recounted in De Civili Dominio and De Ecclesia; the papal demand made upon England in 1366 was repeated in 1374, so that we are not restricted to the earlier date alone. Before 1374, also, great debates had taken place upon the taxation of the church for national needs, while the employment of churchmen in high secular offices had been opposed by a strong court party since 1371. The latter question caused the main struggle about the time, 1376–7, of the Good parliament. Wyclif’s visit to Bruges (July 1374), as member of an embassy to discuss papal provisions, might deepen his interest in these questions.

A new parliament met 27 January 1377 and convocation assembled a little later (3 February). Wyclif, who had been asked up to London (22 September 1376) to help John of Gaunt and his party by his sermons, was now called before convocation to answer for his views, but what the charges against him were we can only infer from his writings: they probably arose out of his views as to ecclesiastical endowments. He appeared in his defence accompanied by John of Gaunt and Lord Percy, together with four mendicant friars. A quarrel between Courtenay, bishop of London, and John of Gaunt broke out, which led to a popular riot against the duke; and the proceedings against Wyclif were thus interrupted. But bulls—five in number—were now got from Rome against him: three were addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury, one to the king and one to the university of Oxford. Much discussion has arisen as to the originators of this attack. It was, largely, the result of the Oxford controversies, and was led by the monks; but some among the bishops—especially Brunton, bishop of Rochester—may have worked along with them; political dislikes embittered the controversy; and one reason why his enemies raised these controversies against him was, says Wyclif, their wish to get him deprived of his benefices. Eighteen errors were charged against him which centred in his views on endowments, but his assertions that the church in its censures and excommunications should conform to the law of Christ, and that churchmen should be subject to civil jurisdiction, were also brought against him. The complaints were thus concerned with the organisation and outside relations of the church rather than with its doctrines.

Both the young king Richard II and the parliament seemed to support him; and he now speaks of himself as Peculiaris clericus of the king; he was consulted as to the action of parliament (which met 13 October 1377) with regard to the drain of money to Rome, and he also defended himself in a document addressed to parliament. Bishop Brunton had spoken in parliament, as early as February or March, of the expected bulls: they were dated 22 May 1377, but it was not until 18 December 1377 that the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London—as commissioners appointed by the pope—began to move by requesting the university to enquire into the charges. The university resented the tone of the pope’s bull to them, which had reproved their laxity in admitting heresy, and it was not thought lawful for the pope to order the imprisonment of anyone in England. But the archbishop’s request to examine the truth of the charges was another matter. They made the investigation, during which they confined Wyclif to his rooms, and their verdict was that the doctrines although capable of a bad construction, were not heterodox.

But Wyclif was further summoned before the two prelates at Lambeth—probably in February or March 1378. He had drawn up a defence of himself for transmission to the pope, which was sent through the hands of the bishops, and was also widely circulated in England, doubtless through the “poor priests.” Once again, the proceedings were interrupted: a message from the princess of Wales stayed the trial, and the fickle and turbulent Londoners broke into the hall, this time on the side of Wyclif, and not on that of their bishop as before. He was, however, directed not to preach or teach the doctrines charged against him, which, although not judged erroneous, were likely to cause trouble. It is possible that the changed attitude of the Londoners was due to Wyclif’s preaching among them, and, as a matter of fact, he did not obey the command of silence. In more ways than one, this year (1378) was a turning point in his life, and one of his larger Latin works, De Varitate Sacrae Scripturae, written at this very time, gives us unusual insight into his mind and his feelings.