Wycliffe, John

Wycliffe, John

the first translator of the entire Bible into English., and "the morning-star of the Reformation," was also eminent as a scholar, a diplomatist, and a preacher. There seem to have been three other persons of the same name contemporaneous with him; one a seneschal of Merton College in 1356 (probably the author of a weak chiliastic treatise entitled The Last Age of the Church, usually attributed to the Reformer [ed. Todd, Dublin, 1840]), another who was master of Balliol College in 1340, and still another who was vicar of Mayfield from 1361 to 1380.

I. Antecedents. — The career and work of Wycliffe cannot well be appreciated without a brief review of some of the literary and ecclesiastical, and especially the Biblical, circumstances of the times.

1. The midnight of the Dark Ages had been broken by the establishment of high-schools, whose light was sensibly felt along the pathways of scientific and religious inquiry. Europe was emerging from the semi-barbarism which the northern hordes had poured over the older seats of civilization, and the invaders themselves, now Christianized and educated, were sending back streams of missionary and literary culture to their fatherlands. England was foremost in realizing these ameliorating influences. From the times of the Roman sway she had enjoyed pre-eminent advantages through contact with Latin Christianity, which then embodied all the learning and piety of the Western empire; and the displacement of the Britons by the Anglo-Saxons, and the subjugation of these in turn by the Normans, had added successively elements of refinement to her originally wild strength, as the compound English language itself attests today. At the period of which we write the French tongue was still used in courts of law, a vestige of which exists in many of the commonest legal terms to the present day; and side- by-side was the Latin as the medium of literary intercourse, which likewise is yet indicated by other legal titles of well-known processes. The English universities, established about two centuries prior to Wycliffe's graduation, and a little later than those of Italy and Paris, but some three centuries before the oldest of Germany, were originally divinity schools, or, at least, were conducted by divines and largely for sacred learning. In fact, theology was the chief and almost the sole science of that early day, and the only other forms of knowledge that took a scholastic form were languages and philosophy, both of which then had a decidedly theological aim and coloring. Moreover, the students were almost exclusively novitiates of some of the various monastic ranks with which at that time all parts of Europe particularly swarmed. Wycliffe himself, while in college, was a candidate for holy orders, and his own studies of course lay in that direction, as doubtless did those of most of his pupils.

2. The Lollards, as all the predecessors of Protestantism in England were called, had already begun a comparison of the glaring corruptions of Rome with the simple truths and practices of early Christianity, as well as with the obvious laws of morality and social decency; and in this discussion, which usually was rather indirectly than ostensibly carried on, the Bible, and especially the New Test., was of course continually appealed to as an authority against the papal dogmas, ecclesiastical traditions, and priestly denominations. These latter were especially open to the shafts of ridicule, and, as in the Reformation afterwards, the wits of Wycliffe's day, including Chaucer and Gower, were not slow in pointing out Romish inconsistencies to the public eye.' The mass of the people were thoroughly awake to the religious questions thus raised, and every educated person who mingled freely with them, as Wycliffe did, had constant occasion to ascertain their feelings and apprehend their necessities.

3. The political condition of the country at the time greatly stimulated these debates, which had not yet been nationally agitated elsewhere. One century before Wycliffe was born, the English barons had extorted from the violent and vacillating king John the famous Magna Charta, which, although quickly denied by that prince, and denounced by the pope, who claimed the vassalage of the realm, yet, renewed by the next and confirmed by the subsequent sovereign, has remained to this day the substantial basis and bulwark of British constitutional libert. From that document definitely dates the great struggle between the Romish and the secular arm, on the one side, and the aristocratic and the popular rights, on the other, which has characterized English as well as Continental history ever since. The reign of Henry III, who followed John upon the throne of England, was a but a series of contests between the king and the newly instituted House of Commons; which after a lull during the reign of Edward I, who was the next prince, but who was chiefly occupied in settling the Scottish succession, broke out afresh under Edward II, and culminated in his dethronement and horrid death. All these fluctuations of civil power the Roman pontiff watched at a safe distance, like a vulture snuffing the field of battle, ever ready to pounce upon the weak or the wounded of either side. Edward III, who came to the throne at the-age of fourteen, three years after the above-assumed date of Wycliffe's birth, soon engaged in wars with Scotland and France, which occupied his entire reign; but he nevertheless resisted the claims of Rome, and Parliament supported him in statutes declaring the independence of the English clergy. The effect of all these political turmoil's was to create and foster a spirit of free inquiry into human rights, both civil and ecclesiastical. The seeds of the English Reformation of a later age were widely and deeply sown by these public measures and private experiences.

4. It must be borne in mind, however, that the art of printing had not yet been discovered. All books, being in MS., had to be laboriously copied by hand, and were therefore rare and costly. This was especially true of the Bible, from its large size and the dead languages in which it was written. The Latin Vulgate was the authorized, or rather, as we shall presently see, the only accessible form and this the common people, of course would not understand, nor even read. Hence, Wycliffe, in his familiar intercourse with the populace, for which, as we shall see, his earliest public appearance was distinguished, must have orally translated for their benefit such passages of Scripture as he had occasion to cite in their hearing. The inconvenience and indirectness of this process seem to have induced in him the determination from his very college days to furnish a more adequate text than then existed for popular religious instruction. This purpose his whole career afterwards confirmed.

The only professed or real versions of any part of the Bible in English proper before Wycliffe's were those of the Psalms, made nearly simultaneously by William of Shoreham and Richard Rolle in the early part of Wycliffe's century. They were both made from the Latin were exceedingly crude, fragmentary, and encumbered with notes in most copies, and never had any great celebrity or circulation. The earlier efforts: at translation in English were mere poetical paraphrases of portions of Scripture, such as the Ormrulum, a versification of the narrative of the Gospels and Acts, belonging probably to the former part of the preceding century; the Biblical poem entitled Souleele, dating about the same' period; a rhymed rehearsal of the principal events of Genesis and Exodus of a somewhat later date; and apparently contemporalleous with the last named, a metrical version of the Psalms, which existed with many variations in different MSS. The Anglo-Saxon versions that had preceded namely, Catnon's historical poem in the 7th century, Aldhelm's and Guthlac's Psalter of about the same date, "the Venerable" Bede's Gospel of John in A.D. 735, Aldred's "Durham Book," and Owen and Farmen's "Rushworth Gloss," about the middle of the 10th century; Elfric's abstracts from the historical books and Job a little later; besides king Alfred's attempts and a few other imperfect glosses on the Psalms; Proverbs, Canticles, etc. — were altogether sporadic; moreover their language was quite unintelligible to Wycliffe's generation. The Anglo-Norman dialect which intervened was partially represented by a series of versions, or rather revisions, of these scattered elements, covering probably most of the Bible, and certainly the Gospels, the Psalter, the Canticles, and the historical books of the Old Test.; but these were of a mongrel character, and: scarcely attained the authority or currency even of the Anglo-Saxon relics. There was an obvious and urgent need of a new and truly English version adapted to the actual condition and vernacular of the people.

I. Life. — Wycliffe's name (spelled also Wiclif De Wyklef, etc.) is thought by Vaughan (John de WycliTe, [1853,]. p. 4) to have been originally Wye- cliffe, i.e. Wafterclyfe. referring to a rocky hill on the banks of the Tees about eleven miles north of the city of Richmond, in Yorkshire, where the family mansion was located. The estate has since passed into the possession of the Roman Catholic families of the Tonstalls and Constables; but the parish church adjoining is still known by the old name of Wycliffe. Of the Reformer's immediate parentage and early education nothing is recorded, nor is the exact date of his birth known. From the fact that he entered while yet a youth as one of the-first commoners of Queen's College, Oxford, which was founded in 1340, he is generally believed to have been born in 1324. Somewhat later he became a probationer, and apparently also a fellow, of Merton College, and at the period of his first introduction to notice he was associated with some of the best scholars of the university, Chaucer being said to have been at one time his pupil. His hours were doubtless chiefly occupied, like those of an English college tutor of the present day, with private instruction to the undergraduates; and his intervals of recreation appear to lave, been largely spent in social rambles among the peasantry in the neighborhood. His scholastic culture, warmed by a genial temper, gave him great influence as well as ready access in thus acting the rare function of a link between the literary aristocracy and the sturdy populace of a collegiate borough. Hence he was enabled to sympathize with the wants and sentiments of the lower classes, and to meet them with the higher qualifications and views-of a Christian student. In person considerably above the medium height, straight, slender, but wiry, with features indicating penetration and refinement, a thin aquiline nose, firm month, smooth forehead, and clear though somewhat deep-set eyes; his expression at once frank and cautious, bland but well bred, intellectual and yet sympathetic, Wycliffe was a man to rivet attention and secure respect at the first glance.

In 1360 Wycliffe became known as a public opponent of the mendicant friars who infested England, interfering with the school discipline as well as with domestic relations; and to this date his tracts on 'that subject are accordingly' assigned. This was an effort in behalf no less of the people, who were weary with the obtrusive sanctimony and beggarly squalor of these church fleas, than of the university authorities, who were equally sick of their impertinent ignorance and proselyting usurpation. It won him such popularity that in 1361 he was made warden (or master) of. Balliol Hall (afterwards Balliol College), an office for which he was well qualified by his eminent diligence and reputation as a student of civil and canon law, and especially by his skill in philosophical and theological dialectics. This preferment gave both a wider scope to his scholastic abilities, and greater prestige to his popular discussions. In the same year he was made rector of Fillingham, in Lincolnshire, a position which he exchanged in 1368 for that of Ludgershall in the same diocese. These livings did not require his removal from Oxford, yet afforded him a clerical function and' a pastoral opportunity to come still more closely than before into communion with the common people, and that in a rustic neighborhood.

In 1365 archbishop Islip of Canterbury appointed Wycliffe master of his new college of Canterbury Hall (afterwards merged in that of Christ Church) at Oxford but soon after the accession of Langham to the see in 1366 the monks who-formed a majority of the members of the college, induced that prelate to eject Wycliffe, on the ground of some informality in the appointment, and the pope (Urban V) being appealed to, sided of course against Wycliffe by a special bull issued in 1370, of which the monks purchased the royal confirmation in 1372. How little heed Wycliffe, although still professing to be a faithful son of the Romish Church, paid to the papal order of silence accompanying the bull-since it was not only gratuitous, but illegal under the Parliamentary statutes above mentioned we may judge from his tract in defense of the national policy against the pope, published about this time, This production doubtless contains the substance of his argument be., fore the court, in reply to the same pontiff's summons to the king to pay the homage due from the time of John to the see of Rome-a demand which, as we have seen, Edward had refused to acknowledge, and now openly resisted. Thus introduced to the royal favor, Wycliffe acted as the king's chaplain, and was presented (Nov. 6, 1375) to the prebend of Aust, in the diocese of Worcester; and through the duke of Lancaster he was compensated (about 1376) for the loss of his college mastership by being made rector of Lutterworth where he had full scope for the reformatory principles which he now began to, avow more pointedly., He had already (in 1372) been created "doctor in theology by the University of Oxford, then a not a mere honorary title, but an official one, authorizing him to lecture publicly before the students; and he used the privilege to expose the venality and superstitions of the monkish orders with a vigor of reasoning and a keenness of satire which are conspicuous in his published tracts on the subject. These abuses had come to be such a public burden, especially the occupancy of benefices by aliens, that in 1373 the king appointed a commission, and next year renewed it, with Wycliffe as a prominent member, to confer with the papal authorities for the abrogation of the evil. An arrangement was finally made, but the pope soon violated the compact, and Parliament again took action against the Roman usurpations. These developments more fully opened .Wycliffe's eyes to the intolerant corruption of- the Romish see, and he henceforth began to argue and preach, and teach and write, boldly and without reserve. As with Luther in a later age, the hierarchy was alarmed and exasperated; by a formal convocation they summoned him to answer, Feb. 19, 1377 (Lewis erroneously says 1378), to accusations of erroneous doctrine. The trial opened regularly in St. Paul's on the day appointed; but an unfortunate altercation of a personal nature, arising between the bishop of 'London and the duke of Lancaster, threw the assembly into an uproar, and even led to a popular tumult outside. In the melee, Wycliffe was carried off in safety by. his friends. The pope (Gregory XI) was now induced to take up the matter. Formal articles were prepared against Wycliffe, and in five papal bulls, three of them dated simultaneously (May 22, 1377), he was cited to answer to the charges of insubordination and heresy. Before these summonses arrived, Edward III died, and Richard II was crowned; and the new Parliament was slow to surrender Wycliffe for a trial at Rome, or even to suffer his imprisonment at home. However, in February of the following year (1378), the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, to whom one or more of the bulls had been addressed, ordered a second trial, which was accordingly held in Lambeth Palace in April. Wycliffe responded by a formal paper; but the proceedings were again abruptly, although not violently, ended by the interference of the populace in mass and the command of the king's mother; the prelatical judges retired in confusion with a pusillanimous injunction of silence upon Wycliffe, to which, of course, he paid no respect. The prosecution shortly expired with the death of Gregory, and a schism occurred by the election of two popes as his rival successors. This gave Wycliffe fresh opportunity of exposing the corruption of the papacy, and, at the same time, a season of quiet for the prosecution of his cherished design of translating the Scriptures, somewhat like that of Luther at the castle in the heart of the Thuringian Forest.

We rapidly pass over the residue of Wycliffe's life. Early in 1379 he had a severe fit of sickness, during which he was visited by the papal emissaries, who urged him to recant; but he soon recovered to denounce them more vigorously than ever. In 1382 a court constituted by the pope, with the aid of the new archbishop of Canterbury, controverted certain propositions of Wycliffe, who had begun to question the, doctrine of transubstantiation; and as his patron, the duke of Lancaster, withheld his support, now that the Reformer ventured upon doctrinal ground, Wycliffe's position was eventually condemned, and the king was induced to remove him from the university. It is probable that the odium of Wat Tyler's insurrection in 1381 fell upon Wycliffe, as it was supposed by his enemies to have been fomented by the "poor priests," whom he sent out as itinerants to propagate his own views. The Wycliffites, as his numerous followers were called, were subjected to much persecution; but Wycliffe himself continued, unmolested, to preach at Lutterworth. On. Dec. 29, 1384, he was seized with a second fit of paralysis, while (as some say) in the act of celebrating the Lord's supper, and died on the last day of that year. The Council of Constance (May 5,1415) condemned his doctrines, and in 1428 his remains were dug up and burned; the ashes were cast into the adjoining Swift, which, as Fuller prosaically, and Wordsworth poetically, remark, conveyed them through the Avon and the Severn into the sea, and thus disseminated them over the world. His doctrines, carried into Bohemia by the members of Queen Anne's retinue, originated the Hussite movement. The celibacy of the clergy being then a universal custom, Wycliffe died unmarried; his, flock was his family, and the English Bible his heirloom to posterity.

II. Writings. — Wycliffe's literary productions are very numerous (Shirley [List of the Original Works of John Wycliffe (Oxf. 1865)] enumerates more than two hundred, chiefly tracts, many of them still unpublished); some of them are in Latin, others in English, and nearly all are on the religious questions of the day. Many of them still remain in MS.. The most important, by far, is his New Testament, which appears to have been published about 1378, and again in 1380; the first printed edition was by John Lewis (Lond. 1731, fol.), the next by Henry H. Baber (ibid. 1810,4to), and the latest at the Clarendon Press (Oxf. 1879,12mo); it is also contained in Bagster's Hexapla (ibid. 1841,4to), and, in part, in Bosworth's Anglo-Saxon Gospels (ibid. 1868, 8vo). It was likewise printed from a considerably different MS. by Pickering (ibid. 1848, 4to). Wycliffe also translated, either in person or by assistants, the entire Old Testament, including the Apocrypha, which seems to have been completed shortly before his death. His whole Bible has been accurately printed from a collection of 170 MSS., with valuable dissertations, etc., by Forshall and Madden (Oxf. 1850,4 vols. 4to). Wycliffe translated directly from the-Latin Vulgate, not deeming himself competent to use the Hebrew and Greek originals as a basis. His version is quite literal and plain, but stiff and Latinized; yet less so than many of Wycliffe's other writings. It has, of course, little critical value; but its influence, at the time, was immense, and has since been incalculable. It can hardly be considered the foundations of our present English Bible, but rather its precursor; and, no, doubt, Tyndale largely used it in his translation from the original tongues. Wycliffe's Bible was revised, about 1388 by John Purvey, who had been his curate; and it is Purvey's edition, rather than Wycliffe's own, that has generally passed as Wycliffe's Bible. (so in Lewis's, Baber's, the Clarendon, and Bagster's text). Both are printed in parallel columns by Forshall and Madden. SEE AUTHORIZED VERSION.

See Lechler's ed. of Wycliffe's Trialogus (Oxf. 1869); also id. De Oficio Pastoralli (Leips. 1863), and Wycliffe's Wiciet (Oxf. 1612); — Arnold, Select English Works of Wycliffe (Lond. 1869-71,3 vols.).; Vaughan, Tracts and Treatises of John Wycliffe (ibid. 1854); Lives of Wycliffe, by Lewis (Oxf. 1820), Tyter. (Edinb. 1826), Murray (Lond. 1829), Vaughan (ibid. 1828, 1831, 1853), Le Bas (ibid. 1832), Lechler (Leips. 1873; - transl. by Lorimer, Lond. 1878).

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