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Wyclif [Wycliffe], John [called Doctor Evangelicus] (d. 1384), theologian, philosopher, and religious reformer, was, according to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, a northerner.

Background and early academic career

There is good reason to think that Wyclif was a member of the Richmondshire family from the North Riding village of Wycliffe; he can probably be identified with either Johannes filius Willelmi de Wykliff or Johannes filius Simon de Wycliff, the first of whom was ordained acolyte on 18 December 1350, and both of whom were ordained subdeacon on 12 March 1351, deacon on 18 April 1351, and priest on 24 September 1351. This would suggest he was born in the mid-1320s. Since he is recorded as steward at Merton College for the week 28 May – 4 June 1356 (an outlay of £4 7s. 5d. for the entertainment of eighteen college guests on Ascension day that week), by which time as a probationary fellow he must have been a bachelor of arts, it would seem that Wyclif went to Oxford about 1350 or a little earlier. The Merton Catalogus vetus, a list of fellows compiled before 1422 by Thomas Robert, includes Wyclif's name under the reign of Edward III, though a side note, probably in Robert's own hand, comments that ‘he was neither a fellow of this house nor did he keep his year of probation fully in it’ (Oxford, Merton College, Records 3690, 4.16, fol. 64v). However, by December 1360 Wyclif was master of Balliol, an election which makes it likely that he had previously been fellow there, perhaps before migrating temporarily to Merton; Balliol had strong northern connections, and the influence of Archbishop John Thoresby of York (d. 1373) at this time on other members of the college may suggest that Wyclif could have had similar affiliations. Other Balliol documents show Wyclif's energy in pursuing arrears of rent from property of the college's living in St Lawrence Jewry, London, up to his resignation as master, when he was promoted to the college's benefice of Fillingham, Lincolnshire; he was admitted on 14 May 1361.

Wyclif held the living of Fillingham until 1368. On 29 August 1363 he was granted a licence of non-residence for one year from Fillingham for study at Oxford; this was belatedly renewed for a further two years in April 1368. In 1362 Oxford University sought for him preferment as a canon of York, but he received only a canonry in the collegiate church of Westbury-on-Trym, Gloucestershire, with promise of a prebend when one fell vacant; he gained the prebend of Aust (annual value around £10) in 1365 or 1366. On 28 June 1367 Bishop Whittlesey of Worcester instigated an enquiry into the fulfilment by the Westbury prebendaries of their obligations; in the case of Aust this involved assistance in the collegiate church but did not include the cure of souls. The results of this reveal that most had seriously failed to fulfil their duties: Wyclif, however, had appeared in person for his induction, but was found not to have resided, nor to have provided the required substitute for at least a year. For the failings of all the prebendaries the bishop ordered sequestration of the revenue of their holdings until the obligation was met; this condition was evidently fulfilled in Wyclif's case. His canonry, with the prebend of Aust, was ratified in November 1375; this followed an apparent attempt to grant the position to another person, an attempt that was revoked a month later at the intervention of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. In 1377 the accounts of the papal collector, Arnaud Garnier, indicate that Wyclif had paid the annates on the Aust prebend and it seems that he continued to hold it until his death.

On his return to Oxford for study Wyclif took lodgings at the Queen's College: between October 1363 and October 1364 his name appears twice in the records, once for payments to two workmen on his room, once in reference to his servant; he was later resident in the college again between September 1374 and September 1375 (payment for a latrine with walls, roof, and key for the door), and annual rent was paid for the year beginning 2 August 1380.

Advancement and disappointments

On 9 December 1365 Wyclif was appointed by Archbishop Simon Islip (d. 1366) to be warden of his recently founded Canterbury College; Islip's original intentions for the college seem to have been for a mixed society of monks and seculars, and this appointment, which displaced a monk, Henry Wodehull, must have been designed to strengthen the role of the seculars. However, Islip's successor, Simon Langham (d. 1376), in the spring of 1367 moved to modify the college to one solely for Benedictine monks, appointing first John Redyngate as warden, but then almost immediately reinstating Wodehull. The changes were resisted by Wyclif and the other secular fellows, who continued to reside and appealed to Rome. The legal case was long and bitter, but eventually was concluded on 15 May 1370 by the restoration to the monks of both occupation and revenues of the college; Wyclif later commented that the foundation of Canterbury College had been sinful, but its dissolution (as he described it) worse.

In the restoration document, which promulgated a judgment given on 23 July 1369, Wyclif is described as ‘in sacra theologia bacallarius’; this implies that he must have begun studying theology at the latest by 1362–3. His further promotion to the degree of DTh is datable to 1372 or 1373 by an amplification in the renewal in December 1373 of a papal document originally of January 1371; this amplification describes Wyclif at the later date as ‘soon afterwards to be licenciate in theology, and at this point master’ (CEPR letters, 4.193), implying that Wyclif had in the meantime incepted as doctor of theology.

In November 1368 Wyclif exchanged the Fillingham living for the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, on the presentation of the prior of St John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell; it is worth noticing that in May 1371 a portion of the tithes, which belonged to the prior of Bermondsey (an alien priory), was granted to him by the king, for which his guarantors were Robert Wyclif, clerk, and John Santon, mayor of York. On 28 January 1371 Wyclif by papal letter was granted expectation of a canonry and prebend of Lincoln; the confirmation of this, dated 26 December 1373, explicitly allowed that he might hold this in plurality with the position at Westbury. It seems that Wyclif did receive the canonry: in an Oxford document of January 1376 Wyclif is described as canonicus Lincolniensis; but his tenure of the Caistor prebend was brief, since the papal provisor, Philip Thornbury, displaced him. He appears again in the accounts of the papal collector, Arnaud Garnier, as in debt for the annates of the prebend; part was paid on his behalf by Robert Wyclif on 4 May 1377 after two warnings; the remainder was postponed to 13 January 1378 because he had been deprived by Thornbury. Wyclif regarded himself as having been ousted from his rightful position by an upstart young foreigner. Ludgershall rectory was again exchanged for the rectory of Lutterworth, Leicestershire, to which he was presented by the king on 7 April 1374. He held Lutterworth to his death on 31 December 1384. Robert Hallum, bishop of Salisbury (d. 1417), is reported by Thomas Netter (d. 1430) to have alleged that Wyclif was disappointed not to have been chosen as bishop of Worcester; the story, if it has any substance, must relate to the vacancy that ensued on the death of William Lenn in 1373, a vacancy not effectively filled until September 1375, by which time Wyclif might have hoped for some recognition of his work in the Bruges mission.

Royal service and political involvements

In 1371 Wyclif was an executor of William Askeby, archdeacon of Northampton and chancellor of the exchequer, suggesting that he already may have had connections with those in high position. The point at which Wyclif first became associated with the royal service is not clear. In De civili dominio, book 2, chapter 1, he reports an argument in favour of the right of the secular powers to use church property in time of need which he heard in the parliament in London; this probably refers to business in the parliament of February–March 1371. The grant by the king of a portion of the Ludgershall tithes in May of that year may suggest that Wyclif had himself contributed something to urging the case. The royal presentation to the Lutterworth rectory in April 1374 likewise may indicate unspecified service on Wyclif's part. The first documented instance, however, is the appointment on 26 July 1374 of Wyclif as one of five new envoys to continue negotiations in Bruges with papal officials over clerical taxes and provisions. Unfortunately, more is known about Wyclif's finances in this embassy than about his contribution to the discussions. The negotiations in Bruges ended without conclusion, and the representatives of each side retired for further consultation; Wyclif was not reappointed for the next stage in August 1375. But some three or four years later Wyclif still spoke of himself as peculiaris regis clericus (‘special clerk of the king’).

Two years later, in September 1376, Wyclif was summoned from Oxford by John of Gaunt to appear before the king's council. Walsingham suggests both that Gaunt had identified Wyclif from the schoolman's teaching in Oxford as his tool for a campaign against the church, and that Wyclif also spread those views in public sermons in London. It is unclear what part if any Wyclif played in the parliament that ensued. On 19 February 1377, according to Walsingham, Wyclif was summoned to appear before Archbishop Simon Sudbury (d. 1381) and other bishops in St Paul's, charged with seditious preaching. Wyclif appeared, accompanied not only by a representative of each order of friars but also by Gaunt and Henry, Lord Percy (d. 1408), the last bearing his marshal's staff. Percy ordered Wyclif to be seated, a move that William Courtenay, bishop of London (d. 1396), forbade; angry words ensued between Gaunt and Courtenay. The tumult inflamed a riot, which worsened the following day, among the Londoners outside the church; the hostility was directed primarily against Gaunt and Percy, who fled—at which point the meeting was abandoned. Wyclif's teaching at this point seems to have offended on three matters: that the pope's excommunication was invalid, and that any priest, if he had power, could pronounce release as well as the pope; that kings and lords cannot grant anything perpetually to the church, since the lay powers can deprive erring clerics of their temporalities; that temporal lords in need could legitimately remove the wealth of possessioners. Whether the charges against Wyclif were dropped with the abandonment of the meeting is unclear: Walsingham states that the archbishop ordered him to be silent, forbidding him to allude to or argue the subject again anywhere, and ordering him to stop any others from airing it, but this follows a reference to the papal bull against Wyclif which had not been issued at the time of the meeting.

Papal censure

On 22 May 1377 Gregory XI (r. 1370–78) issued five bulls condemning the views of John Wyclif, three to the archbishop of Canterbury and bishop of London, one to the king, and one to the chancellor of the University of Oxford. The first three exhort the ecclesiastical officials to inquire into Wyclif's activities and views, and, if this should prove difficult in Oxford, to cite Wyclif to appear in person before the pope within three months; the same officials should explain the problem to the king. The nineteen conclusions on which the condemnation was based are all derived, for the most part verbatim, from Wyclif's De civili dominio, book 1, though some of the views can be traced in earlier writings. According to one chronicle the list was reduced from a longer one of about fifty sent to the pope. The source of the pope's information seems certain to have been the Benedictine Adam Easton (d. 1397), at that time resident in the papal court in Avignon; Easton's prior correspondence to obtain writings by Wyclif, and his subsequent response in his Defensorium both confirm this.

Wyclif said that the bishop of Rochester (Thomas Brinton) in fury told him of the papal condemnation as it had been made known to him by a notary's report from the papal court during the public session of parliament; if correct, this points to a date between 13 October and 28 November 1377, indicating that the bulls were unusually slow to reach England. Before their arrival, in the autumn of 1377, according to the Fasciculi zizaniorum, in response to a request put to him by ‘the lord king Richard II of England and his great council’, Wyclif wrote a text regarding the legitimacy of withholding taxes due to the pope in time of national need; the papal collector concerned was Arnaud Garnier, against whom Wyclif had previously written, and in whose accounts he had twice appeared as a defaulter. The same source concludes the story, ‘and here silence was imposed on him concerning these matters by the lord Richard and the council’ (Fasciculi zizaniorum, 271). Given Richard's youth, it must have been the council, and presumably particularly Gaunt, that was responsible for this request and also for the suppression of Wyclif's excessive zeal.

Gregory XI's bulls were received in Oxford a few days before Christmas 1377. The continuator of Eulogium historiarum describes the objections of Wyclif and his associates in congregation to allowing imprisonment of an English subject as a result of a papal letter, but comments that the vice-chancellor thought that some response was needed, if only to maintain the privileges of the university; he consequently called Wyclif and ordered him to stay in the ‘Black Hall’. The university's chancellor (Adam Tonworth), following scrutiny of the conclusions by the regent doctors in theology, declared that the condemned conclusions in the pope's bull ‘were true, but sounded badly to those who heard them’ (Eulogium historiarum, 3.349). Wyclif appears to have been soon released by friends. Oxford having blocked any process against Wyclif as Gregory had anticipated, Archbishop Sudbury and Bishop Courtenay ordered the chancellor of Oxford to cite Wyclif to appear within thirty days at St Paul's to answer the charges. Some time in the early spring of 1378 (the exact date is unclear, but was before Gregory's death on 27 March, or possibly before news of that death had reached England), Wyclif duly appeared, though at Lambeth not St Paul's. Once again the investigation was disrupted. This time Sir Lewis Clifford (d. 1404), declaring himself an emissary from Joan of Kent, the king's mother, appeared to direct the prelates not to pass any decision sententialiter (‘formally’) against Wyclif. But Wyclif was questioned on the condemned conclusions, clarified his position in regard to some, and, Walsingham comments, ‘fooled his investigators’ (Historia Anglicana, 1.362). During the inquiry the Londoners burst into the chamber, but this time to express their support of Wyclif. Though no formal verdict was given, Wyclif was ordered not to discuss such matters in the schools or in sermons, for fear of scandalizing the laity. A similar prohibition at this time on John Acley, a Durham monk who had attempted to oppose Wyclif, indicates that the authorities were above all anxious to avoid any public airing of the issues.

The Westminster scandal and the peasants' revolt

On 11 August 1378 Sir Alan Buxhull, keeper of the Tower of London, invaded the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey to arrest two escaped prisoners who had there taken refuge, Robert Hawley and John Shakyl; the two had been imprisoned for failing to release to Gaunt the count of Denia, a Spanish hostage for whom they were seeking ransom. Shakyl was seized, but Hawley killed while trying to avoid arrest. Three days later Archbishop Sudbury excommunicated those guilty, and Courtenay reinforced this. Gaunt was regarded by the Londoners as responsible for this blasphemy. During the session of parliament in Gloucester in October the matter was discussed; although there is no mention of Wyclif's name in the official record, it seems certain that Wyclif prepared material to defend the invasion of sanctuary, and that this material, along with rebuttals of subsequent objections, is incorporated into his De ecclesia from chapter 7 onwards. Wyclif comments that he writes ‘at the order of the lord king … in my treatise’, though later he also describes ‘the decision of my lord, the lord duke [of Lancaster]’ (Wyclif, De ecclesia, 266).

After this it is hard to trace Wyclif's direct involvement with political affairs, or the use of his powers of argument by Gaunt (though, as will be seen, contact between them was maintained). Most difficult to assess is the relation between Wyclif and the peasants' revolt of June 1381. The chroniclers almost unanimously link his ideas with the instigation of rebellion, and some attempt to portray John Ball as Wyclif's disciple, but their picture may well be distorted by the fact that the rising began within a month of the condemnation of Wyclif's eucharistic views in Oxford (Ball had been in trouble with the bishops since at the latest 1355). On 13 June 1381, Corpus Christi day, the rebels reached the outskirts of London, and forced their way into the city, where they destroyed Gaunt's palace of the Savoy and the New Temple; on 14 June, following the Mile End conference with Richard II, Sudbury and others were killed by the rebels; on 15 June, Wat Tyler was killed at Smithfield. From chapter 13 to the end of De blasphemia Wyclif discusses the revolt: a dispassionate reading of that analysis reveals Wyclif as shocked, though not surprised, by the violence, deeply sympathetic to the plight of the poor laity, and fiercely critical of the policies, whether ecclesiastical or lay, that had led to that plight, but not as consciously implicated in the origins of the revolt—however much his preaching, if as provocative as Walsingham reports, and as the warning at the end of the Lambeth trial implies, may have inadvertently contributed.

Condemnation in Oxford

The month before the revolt, in May 1381, a committee organized by the Oxford chancellor, William Barton, condemned the views of unnamed heretics that had been preached ‘in this university and publicly outside it’ (Fasciculi zizaniorum, 110–13). The views concerned the eucharist: that material bread and wine remain after the consecration, and that the body and blood of Christ are not present ‘in substance, nor indeed physically, but figuratively or symbolically’. The condemnation was announced to Wyclif while he was lecturing in the schools of the Augustinian friars; though confused, he continued, saying that no chancellor or his allies could deter him. Though Barton asserted that the condemnation was unanimous, Wyclif claimed that the vote had gone against him by seven to five. He appealed to the king, and then to Gaunt; Gaunt appears to have come to Oxford and ordered Wyclif's silence. Not complying, Wyclif appears to have produced a declaration of his views, dated in one manuscript to 10 May 1381. In the later Trialogus Wyclif wrote, ‘I agreed not to use in future outside the university the terms “the substance of material bread or wine”’ (Wyclif, Trialogus, 375), an undated undertaking but one which may have been given at this stage in the hope of satisfying the committee. The ensuing outcry, however, appears to have made it plain to Wyclif that he could no longer remain in Oxford, and he withdrew in the autumn to Lutterworth; the latest evidence for his presence in the university is his deposit, along with three colleagues, of a copy of the Decretum (surviving as BL, Royal MS, 10 E.ii) in a loan chest on 22 October 1381.

After Sudbury's murder by the London rebels Courtenay became archbishop of Canterbury, and action against Wyclif became much more strenuous. Courtenay, realizing from the continued activities of Wyclif's disciples in Oxford through the winter of 1381–2 that action from outside the university was required, first initiated enquiries through his agent Peter Stokes (d. 1399). Subsequently he called a council (known from its venue as the Blackfriars Council, or at the time more often as the Earthquake Council from the tremor that was felt in London during its course—a portent interpreted in opposite ways by Wyclif's foes and by his friends) that assembled first on 17 May 1382. Four days later a list of twenty-four conclusions were condemned, ten as heretical, fourteen as erroneous; the first group concerned the eucharist, oral confession, the lack of powers of a priest or a pope in mortal sin, the temporalities of the church, and that no pope after Urban VI (r. 1378–89) should be accepted; the second group covered views on excommunication, unlicensed preaching, the powers of the secular rulers to deprive erring ecclesiastics, tithes, special prayers, and the religious orders including the friars. Wyclif later commented that some of the conclusions were reasonably condemned, but that no one had actually maintained them (a fair enough point, at least in regard to the seventh heresy ‘quod Deus debet obedire diabolo’—‘that God ought to obey the devil’). The signatories to the proceedings vary slightly in the copies, but include eight or ten bishops, representatives of the four fraternal orders, and other clerics.

On 26 May a parliamentary statute was issued, requiring sheriffs and other officials to imprison unauthorized preachers or those defending the condemned articles, and a month later the king's letters patent reinforced this statute. Through all this process none of the documents name the author of the heresies and errors, and at no point was Wyclif formally condemned. The chancellor of Oxford, by then Robert Rygge (d. 1410), on 28 May resisted the demand to publish the condemnation in Oxford, and Philip Repyndon (d. 1424) on Corpus Christi day (5 June) preached an inflammatory sermon using Wyclif's eucharistic teaching. On 30 May a London procession to proclaim the condemnation concluded with a sermon from the Carmelite John Kenningham (d. 1399). A second meeting of the Blackfriars Council on 12 June reiterated the condemnation, and this time the signatories were largely Oxford men; after dispute the condemnation was finally published in Oxford on 15 June, and Wyclif and his disciples were forbidden to preach or teach until they had purged their heresy. On 13 July the chancellor and proctors of Oxford University were ordered to inquire for supporters of Wyclif or his disciple Nicholas Hereford, to search for books or tracts by the two, and to hand them over to the archbishop.

Last years

The obscurity into which Wyclif was allowed to disappear is indicative of some continued protection by John of Gaunt, though whether this was his active deflection of pursuit or the ecclesiastical authorities' unwillingness to tangle with a magnate who had once been linked with Wyclif is unclear. Certainly Wyclif in two later works wrote anxiously about a plot by the friars against Gaunt, ‘because he did not wish that true priests should be punished’ (Wyclif, Polemical Works, 1.218, 227, 332). At Lutterworth, Wyclif continued to write with increasing energy, and, to judge by the form and content of those works, continued to have channels of communication to academic and political circles. Though no formal summons has yet been traced, Wyclif himself indicates that he was cited to appear before the pope. In De citacionibus frivolis Wyclif writes that ‘one who is paralysed and lame has been ordered to that papal court, but royal prohibition stops him going’ (Wyclif, Polemical Works, 2.556); since the pope is in the same text described as refuga (‘exile’), the summons was presumably to Urban VI after his flight from Rome to Naples in 1383. The rubric to another text, the letter to Urban VI, as that appears in the Fasciculi zizaniorum (but not in the other thirteen copies), gives an even later date of 1384 to the citation.

Thomas Gascoigne (d. 1458), in a narrative transcribed from British Library, Cotton MS Otho A.xiv before that was burnt, reports on the authority of John Horn, a man of over eighty years who had been priest with Wyclif for the last two years of his life, that during that time Wyclif was paralyticus. Horn also stated that Wyclif was struck by further paralysis at the elevation while hearing mass in Lutterworth church on 28 December 1384, and that he did not speak again, and died on 31 December; the date of death is confirmed by the institution material for his successor. He was buried in the churchyard. But in the spring of 1428 on the orders of Richard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln (d. 1431), acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V (r. 1417–31) of 9 December 1427, officials exhumed the bones, burnt them, and scattered the ashes on the River Swift. Thus was completed the anathema pronounced on Wyclif, and on a list of 267 articles from his writings, at the Council of Constance on 4 May 1415.

The spread of Wyclif's ideas

The anathema of 1415 reflected the inability of the ecclesiastical authorities to contain, let alone eradicate, the spread of Wyclif's ideas. Before Wyclif's departure from Oxford in late 1381 there is already evidence for the dissemination of his views and of his writings not only in England but also abroad. As early as c.1378–80 Nicholas Biceps in Prague was already debating the relevance of the view about universals that he identified as Wyclif's to the doctrine of the eucharist; a student in Paris, at the end of the somewhat abbreviated copy he made of the De civili dominio, recorded that on 16 January 1382 in the university a friar had been obliged to recant some views from the text that he had been defending. These contacts, and the others with Bohemia that quickly developed, began through the traditional channels of academic life. It is now clear that issues that Wyclif had raised continued to dominate Oxford academic circles up to the end of the first decade of the fifteenth century, and that defenders of Wyclif's views remained powerful in Oxford. More unconventionally Wyclif appears to have fostered the spread of his views to an audience outside the university world, an audience that had to use English rather than Latin.

Opponents observed this move, and were alarmed by it, even though, according to Wyclif, they responded in like mode. Five of his followers, Philip Repyndon, Nicholas Hereford, John Aston, Robert Alyngton, and Laurence Bedeman, had by mid-1382 undertaken expeditions to spread Wyclif's doctrine at least as far afield as Odiham, Hampshire, and Brackley, Northamptonshire; Repyndon may well have been one source of that doctrine's appearance in Leicester the same year. Whether or not Wyclif organized these expeditions, or the bands of ‘poor preachers’ which the chronicler Henry Knighton later recognized, Wycliffite ideas, through the medium of peripatetic priests and through the medium of the written word, spread rapidly, especially in the midlands and south of the country. Those favouring Wycliffite views came from an early stage to be known as Lollards; the first instance of the use was apparently by Henry Crump in 1382, when he was suspended from the Oxford congregation for calling the heretics ‘Lollards’. Walsingham and Knighton also identify a group of ‘Lollard knights’, who, they allege, continued to influence the royal court against the church; research has confirmed the alliances between the men specified, though how far their activities veered towards Wyclif's own radicalism is less clear.

From 1382 onwards the ecclesiastical authorities attempted to stamp out the dissemination of Wycliffite views and materials, and to involve the secular authorities in their efforts; notable stages in the reaction against Wycliffism were the introduction in 1401 of the death penalty for heresy, and the constitutions of Archbishop Thomas Arundel (d. 1414), devised in 1407 and issued in 1409, the second of which largely ended academic involvement in Lollardy. In June 1410 a list of eighteen conclusions from named works by Wyclif was condemned by the Oxford convocation of regent and non-regent masters, and the Opus evangelicum and Trialogus were banned from further debate; in March 1411 a list of 267 propositions was added. The rising of January 1414 by Sir John Oldcastle (d. 1417), a condemned Lollard, and his supporters finally ensured the support of the royal administration for the extirpation of this heresy. Lollardy, however, persisted throughout the fifteenth century, even though the number of cases recorded between c.1435 and c.1475 is small; but the correspondence of views between suspects investigated in the early fifteenth century and in the period c.1480–c.1535, and the reappearance of the same geographical areas, such as London, the Lichfield–Coventry and Berkshire downs–Chilterns areas, and eastern Kent, make it plain that the movement, however clandestine its survival, never died out. Though there is still debate about the precise contribution of Lollardy to the sixteenth-century English Reformation, connections can be traced in numerous ways.

The influence of Wyclif was arguably greater on the continent. By means that are still largely unclear, Wyclif's writings appear to have become well known in Bohemia by 1400. Elements in his ideas fitted in closely with native preoccupations there: the realism of his philosophy proved a useful mode of opposition to the prevailing nominalism of the German majority in the University of Prague, and was eagerly seized on by the Czech minority; his outspoken criticism of the abuses in the contemporary church, and his desire for a purging of its worldliness, coalesced with the strong native reform movement of men such as Matěj of Janov and Milič of Kroměřiž. In 1397 Jan Hus copied five of Wyclif's philosophical works, and in the following years was increasingly influenced also by his theological and ecclesiological writings; his own works frequently mention and quote from Wyclif's (notably Hus's De ecclesia, completed in 1413, which incorporates large sections from Wyclif's text of the same name). Opposition to Hus had identified the English heretic as his teacher, and, when the Council of Constance turned its attention to heresy, the ideas of the two men were closely linked. A list of 45 opinions by Wyclif was condemned on 4 May 1415, a longer list of 260 views condemned on 6 July in the presence of Hus, and the same day Hus was burnt at the stake for his heresy, a heresy that consisted, in the view of the council fathers, largely in adherence to those anathematized conclusions. The reverence for Wyclif's name and opinions, and the copying of his works, continued in Hussite Bohemia.

The transmission of Wyclif's writings

The listing of Wyclif's writings has a long history, going back at least to the early years of the fifteenth century when a comprehensive catalogue, with title, incipit, and in most cases number of chapters for each work, was put together in Hussite Bohemia. Location lists of manuscripts start with John Bale in the mid-sixteenth century. Most recent and complete of the catalogues (though modifications and additions can be made) is that by W. R. Thomson (1983).

The analysis of the transmission of Wyclif's numerous writings has been complicated by the variety of audiences to which he appealed at different times of his life. His output from the time when he was still lecturing on logic in the Oxford arts faculty may appear in either English or continental manuscripts, alongside a variety of contemporary textbooks of a similar kind; recent scrutiny of these collections has turned up new manuscripts of Wyclif in Oxford, Italy, and Spain. But the transmission of his main philosophical and theological output has been largely through English, and especially Bohemian, copies; the suppression of his ideas and followers in both areas complicates any attempt to assess textual relations. There have also been less readily explicable later losses: though three copies of the De civili dominio are known to have survived in England until the sixteenth century, only a short extract is now found there. Many of the major texts—De ecclesia, De officio regis, De potestate pape, De eucharistia, Trialogus, and a multitude of the short polemical works—are now only known in manuscripts originating in Bohemia. The authenticity of the majority of texts is not in question: authorial cross-references between the major works are common, allusions to contemporary affairs frequent, along with a characteristic vocabulary; the scholarly catalogue of the writings of the Doctor Evangelicus made early in the fifteenth century by Bohemian disciples confirms most.

Chronology of writing is a much more substantial problem. Not surprisingly given the amount he wrote, Wyclif habitually reused or rearranged old material (a De religione criticized by William Woodford and mentioned once by Wyclif himself survives, but divided between De civili dominio, book 3, and De apostasia), and grouped together as a single whole arguments that seem to have originated as rough papers (De ecclesia incorporates various sets of material, and refutations of objections, produced for the Gloucester parliament of 1378). An apparently firmly dated text such as the Confessio on the eucharist turns out to be replicated exactly in a series of passages in De apostasia, with its coda (available only in Bohemian copies) in a sermon for Corpus Christi day. More troublesome is Wyclif's habit of revising early texts late in his career: a striking example is the appearance of his final eucharistic ideas at one point in the De logica tercia (cited in the Oxford list of 1411 as from De arte sophistica), deriving in origin from the 1360s. Existing editions, incomplete as they are for the Summa de ente, non-existent for the Postilla and some other works, based on only a small proportion of the manuscripts now known, are insufficient for a final view of chronology, and the following comments must be regarded as provisional.

Early writings on logic and theology

Wyclif's early works mirror his academic career. Recent exploration of late medieval logical manuscripts has produced two parts of what may be one guide for students to modes of argument and terminology. The first two parts of the certainly authentic De logica, and probably the De proposicionibus insolubilibus (or Summa insolubilium), derive from Wyclif's period as a regent in arts, though all may have been revised later. The last named may be the first part of a largely lost collection of tracts whose outlines are traceable from references in the De actibus anime, itself perhaps a revised version of the fifth book; material now in the De ente predicamentali may have begun as the third part. This collection, the questions on Aristotle's Physics (still unedited), and the record of three proposiciones Wyclif in determinacione sua found in a Worcester student's notebook probably originated in the late 1360s. More readily discernible is the final shape intended for the Summa de ente, arranged in two books, the first with seven sections, the second with six, though that shape probably represents various revisions. The first four tracts of the first book and the first three of the second form two coherent sequences and were probably written consecutively about the late 1360s and 1370–73 respectively; none of them seems to have gained wide circulation, and the second book may reflect Sentences study. The fifth section of the first book may have been reused material; the final section of the second book, which must be later than 1368, incorporates a tract De anichilacione, perhaps originally independent but relevant to later views on the eucharist. The remaining four tracts are more substantial works, may be slightly later, and were far more popular: De tempore was added to book 1, De trinitate and De ydeis to book 2. The last, together with the De universalibus, the fifth and most important section of book 1 in the final arrangement, set out very clearly and influentially Wyclif's mature understanding of universals and of the relation of God and time, hence laying down the underlying thought behind his views on predestination and free will. De logica tractatus tercius and De materia et forma, both standing outside the Summa de ente, probably derive from about this stage.

Wyclif's transition to a study of theology is reflected in the two tracts De composicione hominis and De benedicta incarnacione (both possibly part of a commentary on the Sentences) but most extensively in his Postilla in totam Bibliam. This last, now surviving only in part, was the most comprehensive biblical commentary since Nicolas de Lyre in the early fourteenth century; it is almost entirely uncontroversial and largely derivative from standard authors. Parts of it probably represent Wyclif's notes for his required lectures on scripture, and the second prologue to the commentary on the Song of Solomon is Wyclif's inaugural lecture for the degree of DTh; these sections thus originate between 1371 and 1373, but composition was apparently not in strict biblical order. Some parts equally may have an origin other than lectures: the extended debate in the Oxford schools on biblical interpretation between Wyclif and the Carmelite John Kenningham, probably c.1372–3, surviving only in part, disputes understandings of specific biblical passages that are not found in the Postilla. Even if this is not the Postilla privata to which Wyclif later alludes, it certainly provided him with a resource on which he repeatedly drew until his death.

Dominion and law

From about 1373 Wyclif turned his attention to the more contentious area of dominion and law. His first investigation was, to judge by the unfinished state of all three books in all surviving manuscripts of De dominio divino, tentative. More systematic were the next three discussions of law that later became the opening sections of the twelve-book Summa theologie: on divine law in De mandatis (which a reference to Arnaud Garnier places in 1375), on human lordship before the fall in De statu innocencie, and on human lordship since the fall in De civili dominio, book 1. This last can be fairly closely dated to 1375–6, since it was from this source that Gregory XI's bull of 22 May 1377 derived its nineteen condemned propositions. The shape that the Summa theologie finally took was distorted by that condemnation and the refutations produced, to which Wyclif replied in material that now forms De civili dominio, books 2 and 3. From this point it becomes even more difficult to fix precise dates to most works as they stand: Wyclif's involvement in political affairs, and the growing opposition from academics and other clerics, meant that he often was at work on several fronts simultaneously.

The De ecclesia, eventually book 7, reads as a sequence of ill-combined drafts, which, judging by internal cross-references, may have been substantially abbreviated, though the basic subject matter of many chapters, the Hawley and Shakyl sanctuary case, gives a date post quem of 1378 (as does a reference to Pope Urban). Equally the De veritate sacre scripture, finally the long sixth book, incorporates a number of sections that may have started as independent tracts; internal reference to Gregory XI's condemnation and to the outbreak of the papal schism make a date of 1377–8 feasible for parts at least of the text. The next three books of the SummaDe officio regis (with reference to the Hawley and Shakyl case, and to the papal schism), De potestate pape (which alludes to the conflicts between the rival popes, and is dated by an extract written by Adam Stocton as 1379), De symonia (this last forecast in the final words of De veritate)—could reasonably be assigned to the ensuing two years, though precise internal dating is not available. De apostasia, the eleventh, as it stands incorporates Wyclif's mature thought on the eucharist; it uses verbatim the Confessio of 10 May 1381, but may have been compiled two years later. The final book, De blasphemia, is more closely datable: its first twelve chapters frequently allude to the Oxford condemnation of his eucharistic theology in the spring of 1381 and to the growing hostility of the friars, while from chapter 13 to the end the dominant concern is the peasants' revolt—it seems reasonable to date the work to May–July 1381.

Occasional writings and late compositions

Along with these works whose titles provide an impression (not entirely borne out by their content) of a rational sequence, Wyclif wrote a large number of more occasional pieces; some of these were subsequently incorporated into the longer works, others remained freestanding. Thus, for instance, the opening of De civili dominio, book 2, provides Wyclif's answers to the objections of an unnamed Benedictine, and a large section of book 3 of the same work replies to Woodford's Determinatio de civili dominio; within De veritate sacre scripture is a reply to an attack ‘by one doctor, whom I had believed to be my firm friend, and an important defender of catholic truth’ (one manuscript marginally identifies this as William Barton, a credible, if not inevitable, suggestion); sections of De officio regis deal with arguments of the abbot of Chertsey, John Uske. Freestanding replies include answers to the objections of Uthred Boldon (d. 1396) and William Binham concerning Wyclif's views on endowment and the relations of the secular ruler to the church, a controversy associated with the events of 1377–8, the earlier academic answers to John Kenningham, four replies to Ralph Strode (d. 1387) on various topics, and a long and hostile response to a set of forty-four conclusions advanced against him by the Cistercian William Rymington written after Wyclif's retirement to Lutterworth. There is also a host of short tracts, dating mostly from the last ten years of Wyclif's career; some of these were provoked by easily identifiable events (such as the De iuramento Arnaldi by the activities of the papal collector Arnaud Garnier), while others are less easily datable.

Wyclif's retirement to Lutterworth in the autumn of 1381 brought a renewed outburst of new works, long and short, and of revisions of earlier texts. It was probably at this stage that a collection of early sermons was made, many of them precisely datable between 19 October 1376 and 28 August 1379 (Sermones quadraginta), though rearranged into a single liturgical sequence. To the Lutterworth years are also assignable three longer sets of sermons in their surviving form, on the Sunday gospels and epistles, and for the sanctorale; despite their date, these and the equally late Sermones viginti group seem incredible as a record of Wyclif's preaching to a small-town congregation, and must have been intended for a more academic readership. Equally academic is the Trialogus, a summary in four books of Wyclif's philosophical and theological views. Contemporary issues, involving the problems of the papal schism and of the lamentable English contribution to its process in the ‘Despenser crusade’ of 1383, or of the opposition to his own views, form the starting point for a number of short tracts. The final composition was the incomplete Opus evangelicum, to which the scribes of all four surviving manuscripts appended the note ‘Auctoris vita finitur et hoc opus ita’ (‘The life of the author came to its end at the same time as this book’; Wyclif, Opus evangelicum, 2.336); this reverted to biblical commentary on Matthew 5–7 and 23–25, and John 13–17, though in peculiar and almost certainly provisional form.

English texts: the Bible

It seems clear from allusions within his own works that Wyclif, in addition to his vast Latin output, also composed material in English; some allusions could be to oral teaching, but others point towards a written form. Wyclif certainly advocated the teaching of the laity in the vernacular, and those who attempted to silence him, from Gregory XI onwards, mention the dangers ensuant on the spread of his doctrines through use of the vernacular and imply that this means had already been used. Biographers from John Bale (d. 1563) onwards have attempted to link surviving English Wycliffite texts to Wyclif himself; the attempt has been largely unconvincing, and modern sceptics regard it as probable that nothing in English direct from Wyclif's pen now exists despite the large debt that certain vernacular works owe to his ideas and terminology.

One case deserves fuller consideration: the first complete English translation of the Bible. The claim for Wyclif's responsibility for this immense work goes back to the chronicler Henry Knighton, writing not later than 1394: the gospel, which Christ had entrusted to clerks and the doctors of the church, Wyclif ‘translated from Latin into the language not of angels but of Englishmen, so that he made that common and open to the laity, and to women who were able to read, which used to be for literate and perceptive clerks’ (Knighton's Chronicle, 242–4). Critical investigation of the processes that lie behind the final translation, itself an idiomatic revision of an earlier very literal version, as these are discernible from the account in the General Prologue and from a comparison of even a small proportion of the numerous surviving manuscripts, indicates that one person certainly cannot be regarded as solely responsible; a large team of academic helpers must have been involved. Whether Wyclif himself participated at an early stage seems irretrievable, though the multitude of his Latin writings from 1378 onwards can hardly have left him time. The association of biblical translation with his followers, an association which by 1407 was so close as to be an identifying mark, confirms Wyclif's inspiration as a crucial factor in the collaborative labours. The continued use of the term ‘Wycliffite Bible’ seems therefore justifiable, even if Wyclif's direct participation in its production seems improbable.

Authorities and influences

From Wyclif's quotations and his own references it is possible to build up a picture of the influences on his thought which closer analysis of individual works shows to be largely correct. The range of his reading was enormous, even if, compared with a Paris scholar of the same period, it was restricted to relatively well-tried authors. Philosophically Aristotle was the overwhelming formative thinker—in this Wyclif was typical of medieval scholastic writers. Less familiar are Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) and the thirteenth-century Polish scientist Witelo, whose works on optics Wyclif frequently cites. Theologically Augustine was, again conventionally enough, the overriding influence; while other patristic authors—Ambrose, Gregory, Pseudo-Chrysostom, Jerome—are often cited, Augustine was rightly recognized by himself and by his opponents as Wyclif's single master; Thomas Netter's description filius Augustini was not a misnomer. Post-patristic writers are only infrequently mentioned: Bernard of Clairvaux (whose views were not always accepted) and Hugh of St Victor make frequent appearances, but only Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253), Lincolniensis, seems to engage Wyclif's consistent enthusiasm. Despite the distaste Wyclif in his later works shows for canon law and even more for its practitioners, his mastery of its details has led to suggestions that he may at some time have intended to study in the law faculty; the Decretum copy deposited in October 1381 indicates a continuing interest in this area.

Two fourteenth-century writers provided crucial and acknowledged stimuli to Wyclif's thought: Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) in the area of determinism and Richard Fitzralph (d. 1360), whose ideas of dominion underlie Wyclif's more radical views. Aquinas is quoted with respect even if sometimes in disagreement; the commentary on the Sentences of William Ockham (d. 1349) is used in the early works, but his later political works, with large parts of which Wyclif might have found himself in sympathy, were apparently unknown; Duns Scotus is the pre-eminent example of the doctores signorum (‘doctors of [superficial] signs’) and as such deplored. Gregory XI in his bull of 1377 claimed that Wyclif was setting forward the repugnant views of Marsiglio da Padua and Jean de Jandun; but any claim for the similarities between Wyclif's support for the secular ruler against ecclesiastical claims and that of the Defensor pacis has to face the difficulties that Wyclif never mentions Marsiglio or quotes from his works, and that it is unproven that the text was known in England before Wyclif's death. Wyclif's concern with precise verbal accuracy, and with the historical status of his authorities, is frequently visible, and that concern affected some of his more perceptive opponents: his doubts about the authenticity and date of the text he quotes sometimes as Ambrose or as Fulgentius, and more often as Auctor de divinis officiis, are mirrored by Netter, as shown by the latter's story of the enquiry, allegedly at the instigation of Henry IV, in Oxford in the early years of the fifteenth century into the identity of this text's author.

Philosophical writings

Wyclif's writings during the first decade of his academic career add up to a substantial corpus of philosophical writing. It is one that has rarely been studied for its own sake. Protestant writers have been repelled by its scholastic subtlety; Catholic writers have preferred to concentrate on scholastics who made a more orthodox end. It is not easy to make a judgement of Wyclif's philosophical originality, because this depends on a comparison with his immediate predecessors, whose works have only recently become objects of interest to scholars. Wyclif himself was in general reluctant to acknowledge debts to his Oxford teachers and predecessors: Bradwardine, Fitzralph, and Walter Burley (d. 1345) stand out as exceptions. He preferred to base his system on more august and distant authors, such as Grosseteste, Anselm, and above all Augustine. But the philosophical system that he gradually developed, whatever proportion of it is original and whatever proportion derived, is of considerable interest in its own right.

Wyclif's early lecture courses on logic, it is true, make no substantial contribution to the subject, though they have their interest in the light of his later career. His De logica is a brisk but unadventurous treatise of elementary Aristotelian logic; it is unusual only in that most of the examples are biblical texts, and the logic itself is described as the logic of scripture. The Logice continuacio is more original and more discursive, and defends a novel form of atomism. Both works probably date from 1360 or shortly afterwards. The De actibus anime of about 1365 displays an interest in contemporary astronomy and optics; it is in part a commentary on the Perspectiva of Witelo.

Much more interesting is the compendium in whose composition Wyclif was engaged from about 1365 to 1371, and which was eventually given the comprehensive title of Summa de ente. This compendium consists of thirteen treatises grouped into two books, the first philosophical and the second largely theological and political. Wyclif's reputation as a philosopher must depend on the seven treatises of the first book of this Summa. However, an informed judgement of his stature has been difficult to make, since the most important of these treatises, that on universals, was not published until 1984, 600 years after his death.

Wyclif's position on universals

In that treatise Wyclif presents a realist view of universals, and bitterly attacks the opposing nominalist position. Take the sentence ‘Socrates is human’. By common consent, the word ‘Socrates’ stands for the individual Socrates. But is there anything in the real world which is related to the predicate ‘human’ in the way in which the man Socrates was related to the name ‘Socrates’? No, says the nominalist: predicates like ‘human’ are simply words. Yes, says the realist: the predicate ‘human’ names the universal, humanity, just as ‘Socrates’ names the individual Socrates. Wyclif's realism is, therefore, first and foremost a theory of the nature of predication.

Wyclif's favourite examples of universals are species (such as dog) and genera (such as animal). A realist can define genus simply as what is predicated of many things which are different in species. A nominalist has to offer a complicated circumlocution: ‘A genus is a term which is predicable, or whose counterpart is predicable, of many terms which signify things which are specifically distinct.’ The nominalist begins his definition by trying to identify genus with a term (that is, a sound or mark on paper); but by the end of his definition he has had to abandon his pretence that species and genus are mere signs and admit that specific difference is something belonging not to the signs but to the things signified. To talk of species and genus, Wyclif insists, is not to talk of ink blots on paper; if it were, a man could be changed into a donkey by altering the significance of a term. But of course the species and genus of things cannot be altered by fiat, as the meanings of words can be altered.

Wyclif's writing includes descriptions of many different kinds of universal, of which four types may be singled out. The lowest kind are the universal terms, or grammatical universals, which even the nominalists admit. Above them are the logical universals, the concepts in created minds which are expressed in language in the grammatical universals. By means of these concepts humans grasp the metaphysical universals—the Aristotelian genera and species—which are prior to language and to human minds. Supreme above all other kinds of universal are the eternal universals, or exemplar ideas, in the mind of God: the patterns and paradigms by which he can create. Wyclif is a realist but not a Platonist: he does not believe that there are any universals outside the divine mind which are independent both of the existence of individuals and of the existence of created minds. Hence he can claim that his realism about universals is orthodox Aristotelian doctrine.

Wyclif's argument for his realism is essentially simple. Anyone who believes in objective truth, he maintains, is already committed to belief in real universals. Suppose that one individual A is perceived to resemble another individual B. There must be some respect C in which A resembles B. But seeing that A resembles B in respect of C is the same thing as seeing the C-ness of A and B; and that involves conceiving C-ness, a universal common to A and B. So anyone who can make judgements of likeness automatically knows what a universal is.

The implications of realism

On his chosen ground Wyclif seems victorious against the opponents he describes, whether or not the targets he sets up are accurate representations of Ockham and the great nominalists of the previous generation. But his enthusiasm for real universals takes him far beyond the narrow ground of logic and metaphysics into that of ethics and politics. All the sin that reigns in the world, he claims, is caused by intellectual and emotional error about universals: nominalism leads to preferring the lesser good to the greater, and to the individual's valuing of self over the humanity of fellow humans. The germ of Wyclif's later communism is found in his early metaphysics.

Wyclif's theory of being is related to his theory of universals. Every creature, he maintains, can have four different kinds of being: first, ideal being in the mind of God; second, essential being in its causes; third, existence, or actuality at a given point in time; fourth, accidental being, that is to say the possession of transitory properties. Of these kinds of being it is the second, essential being, which is both the most difficult to understand and also the most characteristic of Wyclif's system. Essential being, he explains, is the kind of being that lies behind the truth of two particularly important kinds of propositions: those that identify to what species and genera things belong, and those that inform of the causal relationships between individuals at different times of the world's history.

It is the theory of essential being that lies behind the opposition to the notion of annihilation for which Wyclif later became notorious. Some theologians argued that God by his almighty power could annihilate substances. Wyclif replied that, though individuals go out of existence, they retain their essential being. Not even God could destroy the relationship to the species to which the individual belongs, or its place in the causal web of the universe. Whatever happens to the individual, that essential being could not be obliterated without the annihilation of the whole universe. Wyclif's denial of the possibility of annihilation was later to bring him into conflict with current theological accounts of the eucharist, according to which in the mass the bread and wine were annihilated when the host became the body of Christ.

A heresy for which Wyclif was condemned after his death was the doctrine that everything happens by absolute necessity. Close study of his philosophical writing shows that on this issue he was not necessarily more determinist than other scholastics whose reputations were not impeached. He introduces a battery of careful distinctions in order to reconcile God's omniscience and omnipotence with human free will. To be sure, everything that the individual thinks and does is entailed by thoughts and volitions in the mind of God; but this does not take away human freedom because the relationship between divine volition and human action is a two-way one: if God's volition causes man's act, so, in a sense, man's act causes God's volition.

Wyclif is no more successful than other theologians in providing a convincing resolution of the problem of freedom and omnipotence. But he does not go beyond other theologians in limiting human freedom in the interests of divine power; on the contrary, he safeguards human freedom by attributing to it control over God's eternal will. His posthumous reputation as an arch-determinist was unjustified.

The foundations of authority

Wyclif did, of course, believe in predestination; that is to say, he believed that no one could be saved who had not been predestined to salvation by God. But in this he did not differ from orthodox Catholic theologians both before and after the Reformation. What first took him beyond the bounds of contemporary orthodoxy was the link that he made between the commonly held doctrine of predestination and his own theory of political authority.

The nineteen conclusions condemned in Gregory XI's bull of 1377 derived from De civili dominio, book 1, and concerned the relation of divine grace to the authority wielded by earthly institutions, and especially that of the church. Underlying the various aspects affecting fundamental issues in Christian society is Wyclif's concept of dominion, a concept that is more bluntly outlined in the list of his early heresies in that collection of anti-Wyclif materials the Fasciculi zizaniorum: ‘no one in a state of mortal sin is a ruler, a priest or a bishop’ (Fasciculi zizaniorum, 2). Drawing in part on Fitzralph's views, as they had been set out in De pauperie Salvatoris, Wyclif claimed that, since dominion only inhered by right in God, it could only be transmitted to humankind when the recipient remained in a state of grace; in such a state man was lord of the whole world. But when man was separated from God by sin, he could not properly be said to exercise dominion; in mortal sin man has no authority. Civil dominion was a result of the fall, and hence inherently imperfect; its administration was a necessity, but from that necessity the church should distance itself. Modern critics have questioned the practical significance of Wyclif's radical theory: since Wyclif stressed that only God could know whether any man was in a state of grace or, conversely, in mortal sin, how could this idea be used to question contemporary organization? This underestimates the effective removal of the locus of authority from the office to the holder of that office: if ‘there is no civil dominion, unless it is based in evangelical righteousness’, then it follows that ‘no one has true dominion for as long as he sins mortally, or correctly true civil dominion’ (Wyclif, De civili dominio, bk 1, 21, 37). It also underestimates the practical deductions that Wyclif drew from his theory; central to these is the unrighteousness of any perpetual grant to an institution or individual, whether of property or of moral authority.

Coupled with his view of divine foreknowledge concerning the salvation or damnation of each individual, it is a logical implication of this theory to question, as Wyclif went on to do more explicitly in later parts of the Summa theologie, the right of the pope to moral, let alone civil, power in Christendom. The deductions were drawn more inexorably in regard to ecclesiastical rule: in the civil domain Wyclif drew a distinction between dominium and potestas, as in the extreme case of tyrants who ‘have unspecified power to rule and tyrannize, but that power is not dominion’ (Wyclif, De officio regis, 17). The imperfection of any civil dominion implies that the clergy should not be involved in it; thus it is justifiable for the secular rulers to recall their previous abdication of wealth and of areas of rule from the church. From this it follows that the donation of Constantine, however well intended, was a grave sin; in particular it was a dire error that Pope Sylvester accepted it, and to this error the increasing corruption of the church can be attributed. The disendowment of the church was seen by Wyclif, and even more insistently by his followers, as the sine qua non for the restoration of the Christian community to its primal purity.

Although Wyclif explored the implications of his theory of dominion more fully in regard to the church, he did not ignore those for the secular authorities. From an early stage in his writing he emphasized the responsibility of king and lay lords towards their subjects, and their powers in regard to the church. But it is particularly in De blasphemia, with Wyclif's anguished reflections on the peasants' revolt, that he becomes most outspoken in his reproaches to the secular rulers: ‘it is indeed an insupportable mistake for the king or any other lord of the realm to tyrannize over his people’ (Wyclif, De blasphemia, 197); his seven petitions to the king, though they echo claims made in De civili dominio, book 1, now impart the urgency of current civil strife to the earlier theory.

Coupled with this theory of dominion is Wyclif's view of the true church. Underlying varying distinctions lies a threefold division: the true church of the predestined, established by Christ, living with him in heaven but incorporating those on earth foreknown by Christ to salvation even though indiscernible by humans; the physical church of wood and stone; and the institutional church on earth, encompassing both the predestinate and also those presciti, foreknown to damnation, the distinction between which is impossible for humans to ascertain. Only the first of these is properly the church, the ‘bride of Christ’, to which Christ's authority descends. Again the implication of such a view is a diminution of the authority to be given to ecclesiastical rulers: if any individual pope may not merely be sinful, but may not even be a member of the true church, why should men obey him? Contemporary and modern attempts to label Wyclif's views as Donatist seem, however, misconceived: ‘the priest foreknown to damnation ministers the sacraments to the faithful even while in a state of mortal sin—damnably for himself, but usefully for his flock’ (Wyclif, De ecclesia, 450). But the whole structure of the contemporary church, as well as its detailed procedures, comes under question.

The centrality of scripture

The standard against which that contemporary church must, in Wyclif's view, be measured is that of scripture, and more particularly the gospels and the picture of the early Christian communities that emerges from the epistles and Acts. Wyclif, it is often said, acknowledged scriptura sola as the source for men of a model for all aspects of life; this may oversimplify, in that it ignores the complexity of Wyclif's hermeneutics, his respect for patristic writers such as Augustine, and his acceptance of certain traditions (for instance the three creeds, or in his own practice the liturgy) that cannot be traced to scripture, but it rightly identifies what for Wyclif was the sole unassailable source of law. In particular it is against that model that the practices of the contemporary church must be measured. Like others before him, Wyclif castigated at a length that often seems inordinate the malpractices of the papacy, the prelates, the monastic and fraternal orders, the abuses of indulgences, excommunication, images, pilgrimages; but in the last resort what is distinctive of Wyclif's peculiar contribution at the end of the fourteenth century is that he disputed not the malpractice but the theory of such offices because they are not to be traced to scripture—this inherently lays them open to question, and their blatant contemporary corruption merely exaggerates and reveals their misconception. The outbreak of the papal schism in 1378, he comments, is a blessing sent by God to reveal the more clearly to men the evil inherent in the institution of the papacy.

Again scripture provides the ammunition for the condemnation of clerical property: the early church, in so far as it administered wealth, held goods in common and used the laity to distribute, and hence once more the donation of Constantine with all its consequences must be regarded as damnable. From an early stage in De civili dominio, book 1, Wyclif castigated endowment, and hence the monastic orders; the ideal for all, but particularly for the clergy, must be paupertas evangelica (‘evangelical poverty’)—not a simple deprivation of wealth, but a separation of the mind from the affection for earthly things that wealth inculcates. But, while in the writings of his middle career Wyclif's comments often seem close to the founding ideals of St Francis, his final condemnation of the orders of friars is the logical end to his use of scripture (and not just an angry reaction to the mendicants' opposition to his eucharistic teaching). If it is easy to outline what Wyclif condemned in the church of his time, the shape of an institutional church, if any, of which he would have approved is less readily discernible. Its central function is clear: the preaching of the gospel is the single overriding duty of each priest, and indeed his only defining characteristic, though it is a duty shared by every Christian. Equally Wyclif is less than consistent in his view of the maintenance of the clergy. The mendicancy of the friars is stridently deplored, along with the endowment from which secular clergy and possessioner monks currently benefit. But support of parish priests poses problems: at times Wyclif seems content to leave in place the traditional tithes and offerings (though with the condition that these should be withheld by parishioners from those failing in their evangelical duty), but at others he seems so anxious about their potential for corrupting the recipients that he advocates a less organized charity by the laity to worthy priests, supplemented as needed by manual work from the latter.

Both of the main prerogatives of the contemporary clergy, the administration of the sacraments of confession and of the eucharist, Wyclif called in question. Just as God alone could distinguish the predestinatus from the prescitus, so God alone could know the contrition of the erring Christian; hence properly God alone could pronounce absolution, or withhold that pardon, and the priest was at best God's bedel. Oral confession, as enjoined by Pope Innocent III in 1215, had no model in scripture and should be abandoned as regular practice (even if the advisory function of private confession might occasionally be valuable); the biblical model was public, usually communal, confession, and the only proper penance was a change of life. The penalties of current excommunication were illicit and should be ignored; indulgences, and penances that involved payments or such acts as pilgrimage, were merely outrageous means of enriching the clergy. Prayers for the dead were worthless, not exemplified in scripture and improper in view of God's predestination.

Wyclif's insistence on the centrality of scripture goes back to a very early stage in his career. His Postilla in totam Bibliam, despite its reliance upon traditional commentators, brought him an awareness both of the variety of scriptural discourse and of the diversity of exegesis. From the surviving fragments of Wyclif's Oxford debates with the Carmelite John Kenningham it is possible to see the extent to which Wyclif was attempting to use his philosophical outlook to inform his reading of scripture; also evident in some of the understandings that Kenningham disputes is Wyclif's stress upon the literal sense of scripture.

A more extended and nuanced discussion of scripture comes in Wyclif's later De veritate sacre scripture. Here the apprehension of scripture's problems is much more evident: scripture is more than the volumes in which it is preserved, and that preservation may be imperfect; while the literal sense is that which is to be adopted, that literal sense is sometimes not the bare historical meaning, but rather allegorical, moral, or tropological. Scripture is the measure for the contemporary state of both church and state, and other laws are valid only in so far as they are grounded in it. Along with his views about the meaning of scripture goes a preoccupation with the need for that meaning to be known, not just to the clergy but also through preaching to the laity. Wyclif's emphasis on scripture and its modelling role is the pivot of all his mature writing.

Eucharistic ideas

More central, however, to the final heretication of Wyclif was his teaching on the eucharist; this formed the first three of the views condemned by the Blackfriars Council in 1382. Those three provide an epitome of the negative aspect of Wyclif's final opinion: that the substance of bread and wine remains after the consecration, that accidents do not remain without a subject after the consecration, and that Christ is not in the sacrament of the altar ‘identice, vere, et realiter in propria praesentia corporali’. Positively Wyclif, acknowledging that Christ was really present in the consecrated elements, described that presence variously as realiter, figurative, tropice, sacramentaliter, virtualiter. But, though the condemnation of his views came only in 1381, there is much evidence that Wyclif had been working towards such a position for a very long time and had been uneasy about the contemporary theology of the eucharist for many years. One source of his unease was plainly philosophical; the implications for the eucharist of his refusal to allow the existence of an accident without a substance were already being discussed in Prague about 1378. Scripture again indicated a difficulty with the contemporary explanations: substancia and accidencia do not occur there; the words of institution in the gospels, reiterated in 1 Corinthians, speak of bread and wine; but est in scripture often has the sense of figurat (as when the seven lean oxen or the seven thin ears are said ‘to be’ the seven poor years, or Christ is said ‘to be’ a worm and no man). Further, the stress that the Thomist or Scotist view of the eucharist placed on the nature of the change in the elements removed the sacrament as a true means of grace: it forces attention on various practical problems, such as how Christ can be physically present in a thousand simultaneous consecrated hosts, while detracting from the purpose of the sacrament—the observer of a statue does not bother whether it is made out of oak or ash, but considers whom it represents. In the Trialogus Wyclif stated that he undertook not to use the terms ‘substantia panis materialis aut vini’ (‘the substance of material bread and wine’; Wyclif, Trialogus, 375) outside the schools, but the terms recur in his late works, including the addresses purportedly designed to be ‘unpolished sermons to the people’ (Hudson, 64, n. 31). Wyclif never went the further step, a step certainly taken by some of his followers, to regard the eucharist as solely a memorial of Christ's passion.

Wyclif's speculation about the eucharist began as a normal part of academic theology, a part almost inevitably confronted by the lecturer on Lombard's Sentences, book 4. Had he confined his discussion to the university world, and especially if he had eschewed political notoriety, it is possible that his ideas, even if not welcomed, would have been left for the normal processes of intellectual debate. Certainly by the 1380s the bounds of orthodoxy were more closely defined than they had been at the start of the century, but school debate was still possible. A concatenation of circumstances, some of them his own responsibility, removed Wyclif from that liberal world: the hostility he had already aroused because of his views of the church, the papacy, and ecclesiastical temporalities, the alliance he appeared to have made with secular rulers against the church, the destabilization caused by the schism and later in England by the peasants' revolt (for which many churchmen saw Wyclif as partially responsible), and the choice by Wyclif and by his Oxford disciples to spread the debate on the eucharist outside the university by the use of English. This last, it is clear from the authorities' reaction in the years after 1380, was by no means the least important reason for the outlawing of Wyclif's eucharistic speculation.

Posthumous influence and reputation

Wyclif's repute as a philosopher and theologian was drastically curtailed, or at least diverted, by the condemnation of 1382 and its aftermath; the victory of the ecclesiastical opposition, with which the secular powers quickly aligned themselves, was complete with the banning in Arundel's constitutions of academic discussion not just of Wyclif's own arguments but also of the issues that he had raised. Whether Arundel was aware of the extent to which, even by 1409, Wyclif's ideas had been taken up by Jan Hus and his followers in Bohemia is unclear. But the perception at the Council of Constance that Wyclif was ultimately responsible for Hus's errors, and later for the division of Western Christendom wrought by the Hussite revolution, ensured that Wyclif's ideas found no dispassionate discussion in the fifteenth century and, indeed, that they largely disappeared from academic discourse. Unlike the works of even so contentious a thinker as Fitzralph, Wyclif's writings were not early put into print; the only one of his texts that was issued down to the end of the sixteenth century was the Trialogus, which appeared in one edition of 1525, probably from Mainz or Worms. Responsibility for that edition certainly rests in the circle of Luther. But the extent of Wyclif's influence on sixteenth-century reformers remains hard to trace; the route of that influence was certainly through Hussite channels, and Wyclif's contribution seems not to have been distinguished from that of more immediate Bohemian writers. Despite some obvious anticipations of later ideas, and despite continuing anathematization of his conclusions at the Council of Trent and in later Counter-Reformation writers, Wyclif's contribution to sixteenth-century religious thought seems constantly underestimated.

Wyclif has from his lifetime to the present remained a controversial figure, and a dispassionate evaluation is hard to reach. Along with his ready and outspoken criticism of others, Wyclif did from time to time acknowledge his own failings: he recognized his own tendency towards arrogance and anger, and acknowledged the mistakes of his younger days. While his opponents naturally concentrated on what they regarded as his mistaken ideas and his deplorable dissemination of these, they acknowledged his learning and the uprightness of his life. Woodford tells of Wyclif's willingness to exchange notes in the intervals of public debate; Winterton plainly hoped to hold back one he admired from outright heresy. Netter at the start of his Doctrinale fidei ecclesie wrote that he was stunned beyond measure by his enormous claims and by his wide authorities and fierce arguments. A note beside Wyclif's name in the Merton Catalogus vetus calls him ‘doctor in theology who, as it is reported, trusted excessively in his own skill’ (Oxford, Merton College, MS 4.16, fol. 64v). Even allowing for irony, Kenningham accords his opponent respect, and a chronicler such as Walsingham records that Wyclif was regarded as flos Oxonie. That Wyclif outshone all his contemporaries in the university as a lecturer seems clear from notes, observations, and the debates he engendered, though some of the qualities that must have contributed to his reputation may be hard to discern from the surviving writings.

Wyclif's dominance at Oxford, and the spread of his influence outside the university, contributed largely to the vehemence of the reaction against him once his opinions had been pronounced heretical. Adam Stocton's description venerabilis doctor magister of 1379–80 was altered only a year later to execrabilis seductor. While Wyclif in Hussite Bohemia was honoured as ‘Doctor Evangelicus super omnes evangelistas’, in England denunciation reached its peak in Thomas Netter's Doctrinale fidei ecclesie of 1421–9.

English Lollards in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries remained aware of their indebtedness to Wyclif, of course, and some of them apparently regarded him with a reverence that in more orthodox circles would have looked similar to that bestowed upon the saints. They did not, however, always practise exactly what their master had preached; rather Lollardy seems to have become something of a broad church in the decades after Wyclif's death, with his doctrines acquiring a penumbra of other beliefs and practices. On the issue of the reverence due to images, for instance, many Lollards took up a position of outright rejection some way removed from the cautious reservations expressed by Wyclif himself. Much in Lollard doctrine that struck an answering chord in the early protestant reformers can be traced back to Wyclif, but there was no Wycliffite canon, and no equivalent to the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone.

During the sixteenth century writers such as John Bale and John Foxe attempted to reinstate Wyclif as the ‘morning star of the Reformation’, but, despite Bale's assiduous search for manuscripts, and the biographical endeavours of both, it is doubtful how much genuine Wyclif either they, or any of those who consulted their writings, had read. The same seems true of the host of English antiquaries and bibliographers from the next two centuries. Even Milton, with his extravagant claim that, had it not been for the persecution of the prelates, ‘the glory of reforming all our neighbours had bin compleatly ours’ (Milton, 552–3), shows little sign of having read Wyclif. Catholic opponents likewise seem to have derived much of their information from the list of condemned conclusions at the Council of Constance or from other second-hand detail.

Wyclif in recent times

Curiosity, none the less, remained, and in some of it, as for example in the work of John Lewis (whose History of the Life and Sufferings of … John Wicliffe first appeared in 1720), occasional details remain valuable. Modern investigation of Wyclif began with the edition by W. W. Shirley of parts of the Fasciculi zizaniorum (a collection of hostile materials gathered by the Carmelite order up to about 1439) in the Rolls Series in 1858; in his preface he examined the evidence for Wyclif's life, and in an appendix listed printed books connected with him. In 1865 Shirley produced A Catalogue of the Original Works of John Wyclif, including both Latin and English works, and giving manuscript references. The foundation of the Wyclif Society in 1882 had the express purpose of printing the Latin works as catalogued there; between 1883 and 1921 thirty-five volumes appeared, though these did not exhaust the total, and though some erroneously attributed texts were included. Despite shortcomings, the Wyclif Society's editions remain the only available editions, supplemented more recently by a few further texts. H. B. Workman's biography published in 1926 remained the most extensive at the end of the twentieth century, though its details and some of its interpretations have been modified. In the study by K. B. Macfarlane, first published in 1952 as John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity, the author's determination to free his subject from what he described as ‘several layers of rich brown protestant varnish’ resulted in a notably unsympathetic portrayal of Wyclif, who is presented as the very type of the doctrinaire intellectual—arrogant, dogmatic, and humourless. His subsequent canonization, in Macfarlane's eyes, was due entirely to ‘a Reformation he did little or nothing to inspire, and in effect everything possible to delay’ (Macfarlane, 10, 186). A full modern account, relating individual works to their contemporary context, and exploring Wyclif's political involvement, remains a desideratum.

Only when such an account has been written will a fair assessment of Wyclif's stature be possible. Respect for the philosopher has been increasing, as more work has been done: if Wyclif was dismissed in the 1950s as a mere schoolman, a later twentieth-century view describes him more positively as ‘the last of the major scholastics … when the scholarly account can at length be cast Wyclif will be seen to rank with Scotus and Ockham as a worthy member of a great Oxford triumvirate’ (Kenny, ‘Wyclif’, 113). Respect for Wyclif the reformer may encounter prejudice that is harder to eradicate: despite the passage of over six centuries, the issues Wyclif discussed still seem to engender distorting passions.

Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny


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