5. John Wycliffe, The English Peasants’ Rebellion

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Each of Eckhart’s descendants, Johann Tauler, Henry Suso, Jan van Ruysbroeck, strove to adjust his mystical theology to strict orthodoxy but none of them succeeded. Even Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, the most popular devotional manual ever written in the West, and the only universally known exposition of the religious sensibility of the Brethren of the Common Life, is to this day not accepted without qualification by Roman Catholics. Tauler was to have a great influence on Luther, who was to popularize the Theologica Germanica, a collection written or edited by an unknown disciple of Tauler’s. By the time we get to Nicholas of Cusa the tradition has become completely divorced from and antagonistic to medieval philosophy. Nicholas of Cusa’s Of Learned Ignorance is Eckhart reinterpreted in Renaissance terms. With Jakob Boehme’s (1575-1624) complex theosophy we have moved into a world entirely foreign to Catholicism and Lutheranism.

To this day, Quakers and Mennonites and similar groups insist that they are neither Catholic nor Protestant, but belong to an older church that goes back to the life of the apostles and that emerges again in history in the two centuries before Luther. This is true. We should think of this great wave of spirituality in Northern Europe not as something new, but as the rediscovery of something old; not as a body of doctrinal, mystical theology, and least of all in terms of the sensational episodes of the history of its struggle with the pope and the Church, but as a way of life. In every city there were little groups of people meeting together in one another’s homes, or in large rooms barren of decorations and images, living together in communes in town houses or in seclusion in the country. Most of them still went to Mass on Sundays and to confession at Easter. But their religious life was centered on their own meetings, where they sat quietly listening to the readings of the Scriptures and their exposition, praying together spontaneously or sitting quietly waiting for the Inner Light, the movement of the Spirit. Behind all the conflicts and controversies, persecutions, trials, burnings, and wars, this way of life would go on. The apocalyptic men and the apocalyptic events would rise up, flourish in the melodramas of history, and then pass away, to be absorbed in the quiet life of the apostolic communities.

By the middle of the fourteenth century the tensions generated by the profound economic and social changes of the ending of the Middle Ages were becoming unbearable, yet the shell of the old way of life grew ever tighter and harder. The objective situation grew steadily worse. England was convulsed with the War of Roses, an internecine struggle of the aristocracy over the control of the wool trade. There were peasant revolts everywhere. The papacy was in captivity in Avignon to the French king. Eventually there would be two popes, each claiming the throne, and finally three. Rome was left to decay and Italy was overrun with warring armies of Guelphs and Ghibellines, papalists and imperialists. In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death struck Europe and killed off a third or more of the population. The resulting economic and social dislocation, especially the rise in prices and the scarcity of labor, accelerated the breakdown of the feudal system. Meanwhile the new empire of the Ottoman Turks was spreading steadily up the Balkan peninsula until at last it would reach the walls of Vienna, control the Mediterranean Sea, and threaten to overwhelm Christendom. From the Black Death to the end of the Thirty-Years War, three hundred years, Western Europe would be in continuous turmoil.

The first explosion occurred in Bohemia, with the preaching of John Hus (c. 1369-1415), his burning by the Council of Constance, the growth of a schismatic Bohemian Church, and the Hussite Wars. Except for the Albigensian crusade, religious conflict had been local, even individual. In Bohemia it became a national movement involving large-scale military conflicts, and here for the first time religious communism ceased to be a matter of small, often clandestine, intentional communities and came to involve whole towns and territories.

Since John Hus was charged by the Council of Constance with preaching doctrines of the English heretic John Wycliffe, we should first go back and discuss Wycliffe, even though the accusations of the Council were unjust. John Wycliffe (c. 1329-1384) was the first of the Reformation leaders rather than the last of the medieval heretics. He spoke to the entire English nation, not to an obscure clandestine sect. Although he began as a philosopher and theologian, his concerns finally became largely political. He was not a personal leader but a preacher and writer. He claimed no special revelation and preached no apocalypse. His revolutionary ideas were developed rationally from the accepted terms of scholastic realism. Most of his active life was spent as master of Balliol College at Oxford and after he was expelled, or rather, after he retired to his parish at Lutterworth, he continued to write and publish and died in full communion with the Church. He was by no means a spokesman for social revolution, although his followers and popularizers of his ideas, the Lollards, were blamed for the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381. He was himself the spokesman, not of the poor or the working class, but of the great magnates, the lords, the king, and the State power against the Church. Although many of his ideas became part of the creed of Protestantism, they have little to do with the apocalyptic and communal movements that challenged the power of both State and Church and strove to establish a society modeled on the community of the apostles.

For Wycliffe the Bible was the sole authority in all matters religious or secular. He held a peculiar notion, derived from his extreme scholastic realism, of the Bible as the earthly embodiment of the uncreated word of God, an eternal Bible in heaven which reflected as in a mirror the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Word. This is a Muslim idea, the uncreated Koran, and appears in Wycliffe for the first time in the West. Although it ceased to be held in so extreme a form, this notion does go far to explain the bibliolatry of English Protestantism. Wycliffe too was responsible for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Its effect was such that the Church forbade unauthorized bibles in English and eventually, for a time, the private possession of vernacular bibles of any sort.

Wycliffe believed that the Church should be completely subject to the State and should be disendowed by force of the temporal power and should then have no temporal, or even religious, possessions, much less temporal power. The religious orders should be abolished. All ministers and priests should preach. Preaching was more important than Mass. There was no scriptural authority for Mass as a sacrifice in which Christ was present sacramentally. Oral confession was unnecessary. The sacraments were invalid if administered by a priest in mortal sin, and so too was the authority of the hierarchy. No sinful pope should be obeyed. Since according to Wycliffe the clergy generally were in mortal sin by definition, the entire structure of the Church fell to the ground.

Wycliffe’s preaching of disendowment took a strictly practical turn. In a petition to Parliament his followers pointed out that if the Church were deprived of its property and reduced to evangelical poverty it would be possible to finance fifteen new earldoms, fifteen thousand knighthoods, fifteen universities, one hundred almshouses, and fifteen thousand new ministers of the Gospel, with twenty thousand pounds left over for the royal treasury. This was a theology ready to the hand of Henry VIII. It was hardly a movement of folk mysticism or spirituality, but the beginning of a struggle for power between the two ruling classes of the Middle Ages.

Wycliffe by no means condemned secular wealth. “Secular men may have worldly goods enough without number . . . so that they get them truly, and spend them to God’s honor, and the furthering of truth, and help of their Christian brethren, and that they suffer not Antichrist’s clerks to destroy secular lordships, and rob their tenants feigned jurisdiction of Antichrist.” The property of the king, the great lords, and the wool barons and merchants has become holy, and the pope, archbishops, and abbots Antichrist. Directly over the question of the new form of property Wycliffe was historically correct — England would owe its great leap forward in the development of capitalism to Henry VIII’s secularization of the wealth of the Church.

Wycliffe was too early on the scene, however. The State and the great lords were not prepared to embark on so revolutionary a program. The Holy Inquisition had been banned from England and the English Church was more independent of the pope than most, especially during the Avignon papacy when the pope seemed to most Englishmen a vassal of the French king. After the Peasants’ Rebellion and Wycliffe’s death, his followers, the Lollards, were increasingly persecuted. The State eventually established its own inquisition. As literacy in the movement declined, popular Lollardry came to appeal more and more to a decision by force, postponed of course until a time when the Lollards themselves had sufficient power. And so they became directly subversive, not because they were apocalyptics, struggling for the millennial kingdom, but because they demanded a political revolution in the relations of Church and State. This is the first pre-Reformation movement of which this is true, and it in part accounts for the political character assumed immediately by the Hussite revolt in Bohemia. Lollardry went on all through the Wars of the Roses, always providing the throne with a ready-made justification for economic attacks upon the Church.

Amongst the Lollards, as is the case with any such movement, there were more extreme radicals. It is true that once in all his writings Wycliffe had briefly justified a communist society. He had said first in his De Civili Dominio: “All good things of God ought to be in common. The proof is as follows: every man ought to be in a state of grace. If he is in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all it contains. Therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But because of the multitudes of men this will not happen unless they hold all things in common.” But this is in Latin and in a learned treatise, and Wycliffe immediately went on to say that history since the sin of Adam had led to authority and the unequal distribution of wealth in which all good Christians should acquiesce, as long as it is in the hands of laymen. This is the standard orthodox treatment. If all men were in a state of grace, wealth and poverty would not exist.

The English Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 began as a spontaneous eruption in Essex, a mass protest of yeomen against increasingly heavy taxes, and what today would be called deflationary measures with which the State was attempting to overcome the high wages and inflation which had resulted from the Black Death a generation before. The peasants were revolting against the attempts of the nobles to destroy the feudal status of the yeoman and reduce him to a serf. The rebels elected Wat Tyler as their leader and he appointed Jack Straw his chief lieutenant. As the revolt spread they captured towns and castles in Essex and Kent and eventually took over London. It was not until they sacked the archbishop’s palace and liberated the prisoners in the episcopal prison that they liberated John Ball, called a Lollard, but more likely a millenarian heretic of the old style. William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball has made Ball famous and given him a greater role in the revolt than in fact he actually had.

The official demands of the peasants presented to the king were simple and practical enough. In essence they were demanding the abolition of feudal dues and obligations and the substitution of wage labor and the drastic reduction of taxes. That they were not inspired by Wycliffites is shown by their sacking and burning of the great palace in Savoy of John of Gaunt, long the patron of Wycliffe.

John Ball on the other hand is famous for his distich, “When Adam dalf and Eve span, Who was then a gentilman?” The historian Jean Froissart quotes what he says was a typical sermon of John Ball’s, delivered before the insurrection and for which he had been put in prison:

Ah, yes good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villages nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right. Let us go to the king, he is young, and shew him what servage we be in, and shew him how we will have it otherwise, or else we will provide us of some remedy; and if we go together, all manner of people that be now in any bondage will follow us to the intent to be made free; and when the king seeth us, we shall have some remedy, either by fairness or otherwise.

Thomas Walsingham in his Chronicle quotes a sermon of Ball’s — in indirect discourse:

In the beginning all human beings were created free and equal. Evil men by an unjust oppression first introduced serfdom against the will of God. Now is the time given by God when the common people could, if they only would, cast off the yoke they have borne so long and win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the scriptures who gathered the wheat into his barn, and uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for the harvest time was come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers. They must all be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community of the future. Then, once the great ones had been cut off, men would all enjoy equal freedom, rank, and power, and share all things in common.

This is all that we really know of Ball. At the height of the revolt the young king met with Tyler and Jack Straw twice and eventually granted the abolition of serfdom, all feudal services, the removal of all restrictions on freedom of labor and trade, and a general amnesty for the rebels. At the second meeting the rebels were dispersed. Wat Tyler was killed and the rebellion suppressed. John Ball, Jack Straw, and one hundred and ten others were executed. The promises of the king were revoked. The last rebels were hunted down in East Anglia and the revolt died away with no immediate effect.

The Peasants’ Rebellion was much more articulate and apparently led by better educated men than similar uprisings in France and Flanders. In it we can see the beginning of a pattern that was to be repeated many times. There is a popular uprising against the economically moribund feudal relationships. It takes the form of the demand for free labor and free markets of capitalism. The revolt gets out of hand and turns into a general uprising against the rich. In its course it throws into prominence ex-priests and others who preach the advent of a religious revolution, the coming of the apocalypse and the millennium. They are not part of the main body of the revolt but parasitic upon it and when the revolt is suppressed, and even more if it is successful, they are executed. However, there is a certain continuity. Since the apocalypticists are the most passionate preachers and propagandists, their words are remembered and passed on and provide fuel for the next revolt.