A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre Persoun of a toun;
But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benign he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient …
Geoffrey Chaucer is the best-known English poet of the Middle Ages. His lifetime also happens to span the period of tremendous turmoil we were considering in the previous post to this one. He and most of those he served at England’s court as a secretary and bureaucrat survived the ravages of the Plague, while witnessing the early stages of the Hundred Years War. He was an early Renaissance man, and helped English finally emerge as the dominant language of government and society in England. He made himself a master of it and did much to fashion it into the flexible, powerful communication tool it has become. He played a role in making it “respectable” for educated people to use it every day at court and in official business because, despite being a great linguist in his own right, he preferred it over the ‘superior’ tongues of Latin, Italian, and French, all of which he knew and spoke with facility.
Chaucer was a contemporary with another great scholar and force of that age, John Wycliffe (1320-1384). There is no evidence the two ever met, but it is certainly not impossible, and is even probable. Wycliffe was a chaplain to King Edward III for some years in the early 1370s and Chaucer was frequently at court. Wycliffe was also a master of Latin and certainly knew French. He was a professor at Oxford University, and for a time was considered the leading light among its faculty and quite popular with students. His work would have enormous impact on Western culture and society over the next two centuries at least. In his way, he contributed perhaps even more to the emergence of the modern world than Chaucer, although he is now mostly a footnote in religious and cultural studies.
Chaucer was religious in a conventional way, as was required of those moving in the upper echelons of late Medieval society. He would not ‘rock the boat’—although his unfinished ‘magnum opus’, The Canterbury Tales, raised many of the really important issues facing the culture of that time. He had already published other, well-received works. The Tales were only published posthumously, whereas Wycliffe’s work went very public during his lifetime and shook the very foundations of English society.
It would have been extremely interesting to have listened to these two converse about the problems of their age, especially of society and church. They had a common link which could have made that happen: they both enjoyed the patronage and protection of John of Gaunt (Gaunt being Ghent in Belgium), the ‘black sheep’ of the royal family. Gaunt was also known as the Black Prince, and was the fourth son of King Edward III.
Wycliffe sought what we have been calling ‘The Third Way’. He diligently studied the New Testament, assessing the whole ecclesiastical and social system of the time as aberrant from Christ’s true Kingdom. He lamented the alienation and estrangement of the humble folk from the sacramentalism which seemed most suited to hold the populace bound in submission to the clergy and their lordly allies as they used their hard-won and meagre wealth and offering little solace and practical support in return. He became more and more convinced that the paradigm of Christendom had to change and that it represented very little of what Jesus had taught by example and word.
After all, Jesus had not gone to the religious establishment of his day to initiate the Kingdom of God. From the day of his birth he had lived, ministered, and died among the humble, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the hopeless, those scorned and rejected by the rich and powerful. From the first, the worldly powers, in the person of Herod the great, had sought Jesus’ death.
Wycliffe agonized about how to bring Jesus back to the common mass of people of his time and country. The whole sacral system depended on everyone meekly accepting their God-ordained lot as serf, free holder, landless labourer, apprentice, etc., while turning to the Church to ensure access to God’s mercy and grace for the hereafter. The priest and prelate were the instruments dispensing this mercy and grace via the sacraments and sacramentals, the intermediaries ordained to advocate with the great Judge.
Wycliffe concluded that the Good News had to be taken directly to the people, just as Jesus and the disciples had done. He determined that Jesus had eliminated the need for a special class of intermediaries when he died on the cross as the ultimate, final sacrifice for sin and alienation from God. The true and final authority in God’s family was his Word, not a Pope or set of “Princes of the Church” who mocked God with their scandalous lives and opulent lifestyle supported by the poor and hard-working faithful. God the merciful and loving is everywhere and does not need a special ‘holy place’ to meet his people. The people themselves are his temple and his body. The people had to be able to hear and even read the story for themselves, ending their dependence on half- and even un- educated priests who cared little if at all for their temporal welfare, let alone their fate in eternity.
Wycliffe’s predecessor at Oxford, William Ockham (1280-1349), had shared many of the same views about the Papacy and the Church. He had been condemned as a heretic in 1326 and excommunicated. Similarly, the dissidents in the 12th and 13th Centuries in France and Italy, the Waldensees and Humiliati, had already been much persecuted and killed for holding many of the same views and their stubborn remnants were still hunted. Thus Wycliffe fully understood his eventual probable fate.
Wycliffe was too outspoken, and for this he was ejected from his teaching post at Oxford and his royal appointment as a chaplain. He was confined to his parish of Lutterworth where it was hoped he would fade into obscurity. But he did not. Many of his students and hearers followed him. He began a great project of re-evangelization of England, knowing his time was limited and he could look forward to ultimate condemnation and probable execution. His enthusiastic disciples agreed to help him to translate the Bible into English, make multiple manuscript copies, and then take it to the humble folk in their villages and towns.
Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic in 1384, six years after the western Great Schism of two rival Popes began. John of Gaunt was politically forced to withdraw his protection. The priest of Lutterworth was to be arrested, but he inconveniently died before they could get to him.
The sheen of Rome’s appeal was much tarnished in those years. Kings, Princes, and Emperors all resisted and resented the imperial Papacy and ultimately refused to accept its claims to final authority in things temporal as well as spiritual. But the allure of absolute spiritual sovereignty still carried great weight. There was still the call to unity in Christendom, at least in theory and doctrinal and ritual conformity.
If, as Scripture says, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Father of all” then to threaten the unity of Christendom by questioning the Church’s central authority to define “God, faith, baptism (who is in and who is not)” was to threaten the very community under the Lord and Father of all who had created the Church and given it the final authority over spiritual things, including matters of salvation and how to achieve it. But that was the very nub of all the disputes that were brewing. Was the Church under an absolutist spiritual monarch the true Church as Jesus and the Apostles had first created it, the church of God’s family? Or was it an aberrant, corrupt hybrid, as more and more were beginning to suspect and question? Was the whole office of “Pope” and “Vicar of Christ on earth” a human usurpation in the old pagan Roman spirit rather than the Holy Spirit’s way of guiding those seeking to know and worship the Creator “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus had put it?
TO BE CONTINUED