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Biography of John Wycliffe

Throughout history numerous individuals have influenced the times in which they lived. These individuals have done so in a variety of ways ranging from literary works, to religious and political involvements. However, in many instances various time periods have acted as catalysts to bring about the reception of such figures. The English theologian and reformer John Wycliffe (ca. 1330-1384) was the most influential ecclesiastical writer in England in the second half of the 14th century. His activity was set in the very crucial period of late Scholasticism, when the new ideas and doctrines accelerated the transition to the modern way of thought. He led a movement of opposition to the medieval Church and to some of its dogmas and institutions, and was a forerunner of the Reformation. Wycliffe is a representation of many individuals of his time who were beginning to stray from the previously eminent pressures of the church and their ecclesiastical beliefs. He was also the most prominent English philosopher of the second half of the 14th century representing the people of the late middle ages of his ecclesiastical beliefs.

Early Life

John Wycliffe was born near Richmond (Yorkshire) before 1330 and ordained in 1351. Since little is known of his early life, we can only speculate concerning those events which influenced him. A Yorkshire man, living in a secluded area, he probably was educated by a village priest. There was also in Yorkshire in Wycliffe's childhood an unusual interest in the writing and study of English preaching manuals. In 1342 Wycliffe's family village and manor came under the lordship of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, son of King Edward III. Because of the close ties seen later between Gaunt and Wycliffe, it is possible that the two knew one another well before Wycliffe came to national prominence. It is not known when he first came to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected until the end of his life, but he is known to have been at the university around 1345. We find Wycliffe leaving for Oxford in 1345, being but a teenager, yet this was the common age for entry into university. The early years of his studies were marked by the general dislocation of university life caused by the epidemics of the Black Death between 1348 and 1350. As a northern man, he probably attended Balliol College first, which school had been founded by John Balliol of Yorkshire between 1263 and 1268. Public records also place him at Merton College in 1356 and again at Balliol as a Master prior to 1360. Not only because of the threat of epidemic, but also because of the scholastic disciplines and physical hardship, life as a student was extremely arduous experience in Wycliffe's day. He was influenced by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine and William of Occam. Wycliffe owed much to William of Occam's work and thought. He showed interest in natural science and mathematics, but applied himself to studying theology, ecclesiastical law, and philosophy. His opponents acknowledged the keenness of his dialectic, and his writings prove he was well grounded in Roman and English law, as well as in native history. Wycliffe became deeply disillusioned both with Scholastic theology of his day and also with the state of the church, at least as represented by the clergy. In the final phase of his life in the years before his death in 1384 he increasingly argued for Scriptures as the authoritative centre of Christianity, that the claims of the papacy were unhistorical, that monasticism was irredeemably corrupt, and like the Donatists that the moral unworthiness of priests invalidated their office and sacraments. This serves as an example to the extent in which his works affected the time period not only that he lived in, but also generations after him. The Council of Constance (1414-18) condemned Wycliffe's writings and ordered his books burned and his body removed from consecrated ground. This last order, confirmed by Pope Martin V, was carried out in 1428.

Early Political Career

In 1360, Wycliffe was presented Master of Balliol College. In 1361, Wycliffe was presented by the college with the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire. In current terms, the word parish would be called an associate pastor. Wycliffe accepted the offer, for this he had to give up the leadership of Balliol College, but still continued to live at Oxford. On his return to Oxford for study Wycliffe 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.

During his time as a baccalaureate at the university, Wycliffe studied the natural science and mathematics. Since Wycliffe had obtained the mastership at Balliol College he also had the right to read in philosophy. While still engaged in his doctoral studies in 1370, Wycliffe put his first debatable doctrine of the Eucharist. The doctrine had three stages on Wycliffe's views of the Eucharist. The stages were about accepting the current doctrine of transubstantiation (changing bread and wine into the body of Christ), but Wycliffe debates that matter is permanent and is indestructible, making it impossible. This being his position, and unable to answer what the changed substance actually became, Wycliffe was forced to not solidify his argument because of the lack of evidence. Years later, Wycliffe reached a positive opinion on the matter, believing that only bread would remain, he felt bound to teach his vital doctrine. Since debate was a part of the discipline of Wycliffe's theological study, it was not a fully developed or controversial position leaving the doctrine unappealing to Rome. The final stage of Wycliffe's doctrine truly shows how he influenced people of his time, even in his early life. The result of Wycliffe's view of the Eucharist was a controversy. Wycliffe not only had to oppose his former enemies, the monks, but secular priests, and friars. All three being taught with much persistence that the Eucharist was the center of their system. Wycliffe believed that since they were bound to poverty that they must sympathize with him and therefore join him. This did not turn out the way Wycliffe wanted it to, instead of joining with him, they broke all friendships with him. Wycliffe began to regard their way of life as hostile. Obviously, the priests, friars and monks were now concerned, for their position, completely believing in the central doctrine that Wycliffe now attacked, retorted with their own vigor. Being attacked by the papacy, overshadowed all other views that Wycliffe had, which were all later forgotten. In conclusion, societal and political advancements were sparked by a more educated debate provided by Wycliffe.

Political Career

It was not as a teacher or preacher that Wycliffe gained his position in history; this came from his activities in ecclesiastical politics, in which he engaged about the mid-1370s, when his reformatory work also began. In November 1368 Wycliffe exchanged the Fillingham living for the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, it is worth observing 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 this showing some hypocritical acts by Wycliffe, which he did not believe was right, to fund and spread what his beliefs were. In De civili dominio, a work by Wycliffe, Wycliffe reports an argument in favor of the right to use church property in time of need. The tithes were given to Wycliffe in order to obtain canonry (a position or chair in the prebend of Lincoln), which would allow him to obtain votes for the position at Westbury.

When Wycliffe completed his theological degree in 1372, he entered the service of the King as a theological adviser and diplomat. Wycliffe's entrance into ecclesiastical politics made quite an impact and made his name very well known. Wycliffe questioned the feudal tribute to which England had rendered liable to King John, which was not paid for thirty three years until Pope Urban V demanded it. Parliament declared that neither King John nor any other had the right to subject England to any foreign power. Should the pope attempt to enforce his claim by arms, he would be met with national resistance. Pope Urban immediately dropped his claim realizing it was a mistake. Wycliffe, just being a scholar, had the power to influence even the prestigious position of the Pope.

Wycliffe started participating in the peace congress at Bruges, because commissioners from England were trying to remove papal delegates, calling them ecclesiastical annoyances. Wycliffe was among these, under a decree dated in 1374. At first he attended the parliament accompanying two Austin friars, arguing the thesis of dominion (the right to exercise authority and to own property was granted by God only to those in a state of grace). This would ultimately deprive sinful clergy of their property for the common good. This concept was known as the lordship of grace which was accepted by the members of parliament, who was trying to raise funds to support war against France. Later, he made these issues his own. Over the next few years he argued the validity of expropriation by the government using the Church's wealth using a series of treatises. In the treatises he attacked the monastic establishment rather than the friars, who believed the idea of apostolic poverty directly serving the needs of the people. Wycliffe tried to influence them in his sincere campaign, but his antagonism towards the monks resulted in his dismissal from the college at Oxford. Though he did not convince the friars as he had thought, he was still regarded by other papal partisans as trustworthy, making it difficult for the church to recognize him as a heretic. In conclusion, it is possible that Wycliffe was reflecting the mindset of the time and was inspired to debate the thesis of dominion as a result of individuals pursuit of beliefs.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and younger son of the Edward III, became closely associated with Wycliffe in 1376. Gaunt summoned Wycliffe to appear before the king's council. Gaunt had identified Wycliffe from the schoolman's teaching in Oxford as his tool for a campaign against the church, and that Wycliffe also spread those views in public sermons in London . Wycliffe was summoned to appear before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, to answer charges of seditious preaching or explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth. This was because Wycliffe wrote of support of certain dubious politics on part of Gaunt, who accompanied Wycliffe hoping to take advantage of the situation to propagandize the cause of taxing the Church. Gaunt's very manner in entering St. Paul's Cathedral had already caught the eye of the Londoners, who hated him, who were gathering outside the Church. Gaunt hinted to secularize the possessions of the church. This not only made the Bishop frustrated, but also started a riot with the Londoners outside the church. All of the hostility was directed primarily toward Gaunt, who fled, and the meeting was abandoned. The outcome of the charges against Wycliffe is still unclear. But it is claimed that the Bishop 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. Later, the next year, Wycliffe was again summoned to the Archbishop of Canterbury to answer charges of false teaching but Gaunt again intervened and Wycliffe was freed with another warning to stop teaching questionable doctrines. It is apparent that Wycliffe's reflection towards the people of the church is negative and that he will continue to keep teaching his beliefs of the dogma that stands.

Later years

Probably the most influential thing that Wycliffe did, for not only his time but still today, was the translation of the Bible into English. Though he is credited for the translation, the Catholic Church had already started the translation to English as early as the seventh century. Though there is no doubt that it was his iniative, and that the success of the project was due to his leadership. It is said that Wycliffe himself translated the New Testament, while his followers translated the Old Testament. Wycliffe explored the ecclesiastical beliefs, and moral ambiguities, which were clearly of great relevance to the fourteenth century, while society was being forced by the church to a represent the beliefs of their own translation. Thus reflecting his own thoughts to the people.

Wycliffe continued writing in his later years with increasing energy judged by the content of his works even after he was stricken with apoplexy (stroke). John Horn, who was a preacher who knew Wycliffe for the last years of his life, said that he 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. He was buried in the churchyard, until spring of 1428 on the instruction of Pope Martin V, that his bones would be exhumed and burnt, and scattered across the River Swift.

In conclusion, Wycliffe influenced the time in which he lived through his writings which were signified as a form of motivation to the reader to become more conscious of the role in which the church was playing in society. Wycliffe's repute as a philosopher and theologian was cut short. But the issues that he raised still remain today. His arguments were not only influential of the people of his time but also all of history. Wycliffe's view of himself was of a controversial figure, and his teaching of dispassionate evaluation is hard to reach. Along with his ready and outspoken criticism of others, Wycliffe 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. Wycliffe reflected the concerns of his time by presenting his beliefs, mostly written, to anyone that cared enough to acknowledge his knowledge. Not making a huge impact in his lifetime, but presenting knowledge for future controversies on religion, shows that this intellectual outspoken man was ahead of his time in ecclesiastical beliefs. Wycliffe clearly exemplifies a figure in history that was able to influence the time in which he lived.


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