John Wycliffe was a theologian, priest and reformer. A seminary professor at the University of Ocford, he theorised a series of ideas about how the church ought to be reformed. His ideas were theoretical, but over time became popular in a non academic of ecclesiastical setting. Wycliffe first appeared in a political setting in 1374 when he was the second signatory to a tract sent for discussion with papal representatives. He then published De civili dominio which was condemned by the Pope but had some support in England, possibly from John of Gaunt. his theories developed through the 1370s and he argued that the church was operating in a sinful manner. It saw him develop a series of critiques and theoretical standpoints. As England descended into the chaos of the Peasants Revolt, these views were preached quite widely: though not neccessarily by Wycliffe himself. Following the suppression of the Peasants Revolt there was a concerted effort to silence Wycliffe and those who shared his views. An Anti-Wycliffe synod condemned him, and the church in England appealed to Rome for intervention, which was soon to come in the form of Papal Bulls and a summons to be tried in Rome on charges of heresy. He was posthumously found to be a heretic and his books were burnt.
Bull of Pope Gregory XI Against John Wycliffe, 1382
Gregory, bishop, servus servorum dei, to his beloved sons the Chancellor and University of Oxford, in the diocese of Lincoln, grace and apostolic benediction.
We are compelled to wonder and grieve that you, who, in consideration of the favors and privileges conceded to your University of Oxford by the apostolic see, and on account of your familiarity with the Scriptures, in whose sea you navigate, by the gift of God, with auspicious oar, you, who ought to be, as it were, warriors and champions of the orthodox faith, without which there is no salvation of souls, —that you through a certain sloth and neglect allow tares to spring up amidst the pure wheat in the fields of your glorious University aforesaid; and what is still more pernicious, even continue to grow to maturity. And you are quite careless, as has been lately reported to us, as to the extirpation of these tares; with no little clouding of a bright name, danger to your souls, contempt of the Roman Church, and injury to the faith above mentioned. And what pains us the more, is that this increase of the tares aforesaid is known in Rome before the remedy of extirpation has been applied in England where they sprang up. By the insinuation of many, if they are indeed worthy of belief, deploring it deeply, it has come to our ears that John de Wycliffe, rector of the church of Lutterworth, in the diocese of Lincoln, Professor of the Sacred Scriptures (would that he were not also Master of Errors), has fallen into such a detestable madness that he does not hesitate to dogmatize and publicly preach, or rather vomit forth from the recesses of his breast, certain propositions and conclusions which are erroneous and false. He has cast himself also into the depravity of preaching heretical dogmas which strive to subvert and weaken the state of the whole church and even secular polity, some of which doctrines, in changed terms, it is true, seem to express the perverse opinions and unlearned learning of Marsilio of Padua of cursed memory, and of John of Jandun, whose book is extant, rejected and cursed by our predecessor, Pope John XXII, of happy memory. This he has done in the kingdom of England, lately glorious in its power and in the abundance of its resources, but more glorious still in the glistening piety of its faith, and in the distinction of its sacred learning; producing also many men illustrious for their exact knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, mature in the gravity of their character, conspicuous in devotion, defenders of the Catholic Church. He has polluted certain of the faithful of Christ by sprinkling them with these doctrines, and led them away from the right paths of the aforesaid faith to the brink of perdition.
Wherefore, since we are not willing, nay, indeed, ought not to be willing, that so deadly a pestilence should continue to exist with our connivance, a pestilence which, if it is not opposed in its beginnings, and torn out by the roots in its entirety, will be reached too late by medicines when it has infected very many with its contagion; we command your University with strict admonition, by the apostolic authority, in virtue of your sacred obedience, and under penalty of the deprivation of all the favors, indulgences, and privileges granted to you and your University by the said see, for the future not to permit to be asserted or proposed to any extent whatever, the opinions, conclusions, and propositions which are in variance with good morals and faith, even when those proposing strive to defend them under a certain fanciful wresting of words or of terms. Moreover, you are on our authority to arrest the said John, or cause him to be arrested and to send him under a trustworthy guard to our venerable brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of London, or to one of them.
Besides, if there should be, which God forbid, in your University, subject to your jurisdiction, opponents stained with these errors, and if they should obstinately persist in them, proceed vigorously and earnestly to a similar arrest and removal of them, and otherwise as shall seem good to you. Be vigilant to repair your negligence which you have hitherto shown in the premises, and so obtain our gratitude and favor, and that of the said see, besides the honor and reward of the divine recompense.
Given at Rome, at Santa Maria Maggiore, on the 31st of May, the sixth year of our pontificate.
Wycliffe responded to the Papal Bull by issuing a further text. This summarises his views, and is copied below:
The Condemned Conclusions of John Wycliffe, 1384
1. That the material substance of bread and of wine remains, after the consecration, in the sacrament of the altar.
2. That the accidents do not remain without the subject, after the consecration, in the same sacrament.
3. That Christ is not in the sacrament of the altar identically, truly and really in his proper corporeal presence.
4. That if a bishop or priest lives in mortal sin he does not ordain, or consecrate, or baptize.
5. That if a man has been truly repentant, all external confession is superfluous to him or useless.
6. That it is not founded in the gospel that Christ instituted the mass.
7. That God ought to be obedient to the devil.
8. That if the pope is fore-ordained to destruction and a wicked man, and therefore a member of the devil, no power has been given to him over the faithful of Christ by any one, unless perhaps by the Emperor.
9. That since Urban VI, no one is to be acknowledged as pope; but all are to live, in the way of the Greeks, under their own laws.
10. To assert that it is against sacred scripture that men of the Church should have temporal possessions.
11. That no prelate ought to excommunicate any one unless he first knows that the man is excommunicated by God.
12. That a prelate thus excommunicating is thereby a heretic or excommunicate.
13. That a prelate excommunicating a clerk who has appealed to the king, or to a council of the kingdom, on that very account is a traitor to God, the king and the kingdom.
14. That those who neglect to preach, or to hear the word of God, or the gospel that is preached, because of the excommunication of men, are excommunicate, and in the day of judgment will be considered as traitors to God.
15. To assert that it is allowed to any one, whether a deacon or a priest, to preach the word of God, without the authority of the apostolic see, or of a Catholic bishop, or of some other which is sufficiently acknowledged.
16. To assert that no one is a civil lord, no one is a bishop, no one is a prelate, so long as he is in mortal sin.
17. That temporal lords may, at their own judgment, take away temporal goods from churchmen who are habitually delinquent; or that the people may, at their own judgment, correct delinquent lords.
18. That tithes are purely charity, and that parishoners may, on account of the sins of their curates, detain these and confer them on others at their will.
19. That special prayers applied to one person by prelates or religious persons, are of no more value to the same person than general prayers for others in a like position are to him.
20. That the very fact that any one enters upon any private religion whatever, renders him more unfitted and more incapable of observing the commandments of God.
21. That saints who have instituted any private religions whatever, as well of those having possessions as of mendicants, have sinned in thus instituting them.
22. That religious persons living in private religions are not of the Christian religion.
23. That friars should be required to gain their living by the labor of their hands and not by mendicancy.
24. That a person giving alms to friars, or to a preaching friar, is excommunicate; also the one receiving.
The spread of Wycliffe’s teachings and the influence that they had had on things such as the Peasants Revolt in England were a large part of the problem. In a strictly theological setting, professors could theorise on any matter. Once it is preached, it becomes an issue that can be examined by ecclesiastical specialists, and the hierarchy of the church. This is precisely what happened with Wycliffe, seeing him being summoned to attend the Pope in Rome.
Wycliffe’s response to the summons is below. He did not travel to Rome, his age and ill health prevented that.
Reply of John Wycliffe to his Summons by the Pope to come to Rome, 1384
I have joyfully to tell to all true men that believe what I hold, and legates to the pope; for I suppose that if my faith be rightful and given of God, the pope will gladly confirm it; and if my faith be error, the Pope will wisely amend it.
I suppose over this that the gospel of Christ be [the] heart of the corpus of God’s law; for I believe that Jesus Christ, that gave in His own person this gospel, is very God and very man, and by this heart passes all other laws.
I suppose over this that the pope be most obliged to the keeping of the gospel among all men that live here; for the pope is highest vicar that Christ has here in earth. For moreness of Christ’s vicar is not measured by worldly moreness, but by this, that this vicar sues more Christ by virtuous living; for thus teacheth the gospel, that this is the sentence of Christ.
And of this gospel I take as believe, that Christ for [the] time that He walked here, was [the] most poor man of all, both in spirit and in having; for Christ says that He had nought for to rest His head on. And Paul says that He was made needy for our love. And more poor might no man be, neither bodily nor in spirit. And thus Christ put from Him all manner of worldly lordship. For the gospel of John telleth that when they would have made Christ king, He fled and hid Him from them, for He would none such worldly highness.
And over this I take it as believe, that no man should sue the pope, nor no saint that now is in heaven, but in as much as he sues Christ. For John and James erred when they coveted worldly highness; and Peter and Paul sinned also when they denied and blasphemed in Christ; but men should not sue them in this, for then they went from Jesus Christ. And this I take as wholesome counsel, that the pope leave his worldly lordship to worldly lords, as Christ gave them,—and move speedily all his clerks to do so. For thus did Christ, and taught thus his disciples, till the fiend had blinded this world. And it seems to some men that clerks that dwell lastingly in this error against God’s law, and flee to sue Christ in this, been open heretics, and their fautors been partners.
And if I err in this sentence, I will meekly be amended, yea, by the death, if it be skilful, for that I hope were good to me. And if I might travel in mine own person, I would with good will go to the pope. But God has needed me to the contrary, and taught me more obedience to God than to men. And I suppose of our pope that he will not be Antichrist, and reverse Christ in this working, to the contrary of Christ’s will; for if he summon against reason, by him or by any of his, and pursue this unskilful summoning, he is an open Antichrist. And merciful intent excused not Peter, that Christ should name him Satan; so blind intent and wicked counsel excuses not the pope here; but if he ask of true priests that they travel more than they may, he is not excused by reason of God, that he should not be Antichrist. For our belief teaches us that our blessed God suffers us not to be tempted more than we may; how should a man ask such service? And therefore pray we to God for our Pope Urban the Sixth, that his old holy intent be not quenched by his enemies. And Christ, that may not lie, says that the enemies of a man been especially his home family; and this is sooth of men and fiends.
Portrait of John Wycliffe by Bernard Picart, showing the burning of his works (1714). Source, wikimedia commons.