Monday, December 17, 2012

John Wycliffe and the Necessity of Taking Sides in History

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Ascribing motivations—I’ve heard it said before that this is one of the main differences between historical novelists and historians. The historian aims to tell what historical characters did. The historical novelist aims to tell why they did it. The historian gives us the facts. The historical novelist embroiders the facts with what was going on in the actors’ heads and hearts. The historian gives us an impartial account of what happened. The historical novelist biases the account by giving us a hero and a villain and manipulating events to create a story arc.

While it is certainly true that good historical novelists try to get inside the heads of their characters, it’s also true that historians do the very same thing. Historians are telling a story, just as historical novelists are, and instead of assuming that everything we read in a history book is plain, unadulterated fact, we should instead learn to look at it as a piece of literature that must be evaluated. Who is the historian casting as the hero? Who is the historian casting as the villain? What events is the historian including in order to shape the story into the arc he wants? What events is he leaving out?

The story of John Wycliffe is a prime example of a man who has been dealt with in many different ways by historians. John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century intellectual who tried to reform the corruption in the church. He was an opponent of papal authority in England, which, as I discussed in an earlier post, had gradually increased over the centuries until the Roman pope claimed complete authority over all matters spiritual and secular. He believed that the Bible should be the sole authority for Christians and urged it to be made available in the vernacular so that every man could read it. He condemned pilgrimages, veneration of the saints, and transubstantiation. 

Wycliffe’s followers became known as the Lollards. They agitated against the established church with their anti-clerical views and were eventually suppressed by the civil rulers. Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned posthumously at the Council of Constance in 1415, and since he was no longer alive to face the punishment for his heresy, the church exhumed his bones and burned them. Historians would later refer to Wycliffe as “The Morning Star of the Reformation” since so many of his ideas were seminal to the ideas of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

File:Wycliffe bones Foxe.jpg
Burning Wycliffe's Bones - Illustration from Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Thomas Walsingham, a fourteenth century monk of St. Albans, was quite clear what role Wycliffe played in the storybook of history:
There arose in the university of Oxford a northerner called John Wycliffe, a doctor in theology, who maintained publicly in the schools and elsewhere, erroneous, absurd and heretical conclusions against the teachings of the whole Church, resounding poisonously against monks and other religious possessioners…. The lords and magnates of the realm and many of the people favoured John Wycliffe and his followers in their preachings of such errors, especially since by their assertions they gave great power to the laity to take away the temporal possessions of the clergy and the religious. 
To Thomas Walsingham, Wycliffe is a villain, with “poisonous” teachings. His followers flocked to him only because it was to their own material advantage. They hoped to take the wealth belonging to the clergy.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a work written two centuries later during the English Reformation, has a much different part assigned to Wycliffe. Foxe wrote:
This Wickliff, perceiving the true doctrine of Christ’s Gospel to be adulterated and defiled with so many filthy inventions and dark errors of bishops and monks…determined with himself to help and to remedy such things…. This holy man took great pains, protesting, as they said, openly in the schools, that it was his principal purpose to call back the Church from her idolatry, especially in the matter of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. But this boil or sore could not be touched without the great grief and pain of the whole world: for, first of all, the whole glut of monks and begging friars was set in a rage and madness, who, even as hornets with their sharp stings, did assail this good man on every side; fighting, as is said, for their altars, paunches, and bellies…. Notwithstanding, the said Wickliff, being somewhat friended and supported by the king, bore out the malice of the friars and of the archbishop; John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the king’s son, and Lord Henry Percy, being his special maintainers.
To Foxe, Wycliffe’s words are not poisonous; rather, it is the “filthy inventions and dark errors” of the established clergy which come under censure. The accusation of greed, which Walsingham said motivated Wycliffe’s followers, is now leveled against Wycliffe’s opponents who rejected Wycliffe’s teachings for the sake of “their altars, paunches, and bellies.”

In a later passage, Foxe goes out of his way to show that John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was a true believer in Wycliffe’s teaching, not just an opportunist. He quotes a sermon given by Philip Reppyngdon, a colleague of Wycliffe’s, in which he said “that the Duke of Lancaster was very earnestly affected and minded in this manner, and would that all such [those who held Wycliffe’s views] should be received under his protection.”

The bias shown by each of these medieval historians is easy to spot. Their work is weighed down with adjectives containing moral judgments: holy, filthy, poisonous, dark, erroneous, absurd, heretical, good. Modern historians take more pains to hide their judgments, but the judgments are there all the same.

Jackson Spielvogel, in his monumental tome Western Civilization, tells the story in a way of which Foxe would probably approve:
Wyclif has sometimes been viewed as a forerunner of the Reformation of the sixteenth century because his arguments attacked the foundations of the medieval Catholic church’s organization and practices. His attacks on church property were especially popular, and he attracted a number of followers who came to be known as Lollards. Persecution by royal and church authorities who feared the socioeconomic consequences of Wyclif’s ideas forced the Lollards to go underground after 1400.
Spielvogel steers clear of the word “greedy”, but notice that it is Wycliffe’s opponents who “fear the socioeconomic consequences of Wyclif’s ideas.”

Brian Tierney, in Western Europe in the Middle Ages: 300-1475, describes things with a bit more skeptical tone:
John Wyclif (ca. 1330-1384), a theologian of Oxford University, first became prominent around 1375 for attacking the wealth and luxury of the church and for maintaining that all church property was held only at the discretion of the secular authorities. At this time, a group of English nobles headed by John of Ghent, duke of Lancaster, were looking with greedy eyes on the possessions of the church and were delighted to find an ecclesiastical supporter. Wyclif was lucky in having the protection of the powerful duke of Lancaster for the rest of his life.
Tierney does not go so far as to impugn Wycliffe’s motives, but John of Gaunt is certainly only in it for the money—just like the monk from St. Albans asserted.

Elizabeth Hallam, in one of the essays included in Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry, shows even more skepticism than Tierney:
Desperate for money to prosecute the faltering war with France, Gaunt looked to the English clergy, already hard-pressed by papal taxation. He needed to stem papal demands and also to coerce the clergy into paying even higher taxes to the state. To do this he harnessed prevailing anti-clerical and anti-papal prejudices and used Wycliffe as his propagandist. The don relished the task, developing the doctrine that it was laity’s right and duty to reform the erring Church.
With the loaded words “prejudices” and “propagandist”, Hallam manages to imply that Wycliffe was a tool in the hands of the money-grubbing John of Gaunt and that he might not even have truly believed in the doctrines he was drawing up.

In all of the examples I have given, the historians—both medieval and modern—ascribed motivations to John Wycliffe’s followers, John Wycliffe’s opponents, or John Wycliffe himself. The differing treatment from the pens of different historians is an eye-opening example of how moral judgments permeate history books. Like it or not, we must admit that historians take sides in the same way that historical novelists do. 

But at the same time, we must also realize that bias, per se, is not a failing for a historian. Bias is an inevitability. The historian puts John Wycliffe in the role of hero or villain because stories—even real stories—have good guys and bad guys. The historian makes a moral judgment about John Wycliffe’s teachings because there really are some right views and some wrong views in the world. And the historian—the modern historian—makes a concerted effort to hide his bias as best he can, because everyone knows that history books don’t take sides. That’s what historical novelists do.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can visit Rosanne at her Facebook Page or her Official Author Website where she blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. USA: Whitaker House, 1981.

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London: Greenwich Editions, 2002.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. Third Edition. Minneapolis: West Publishing Company, 1997.

Tierney, Brian. Western Europe in the Middle Ages: 300-1475. Sixth Edition. USA: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.


  1. Great post Rosanne. One of my earlier medievals (which will never see the light of day!) was called Lollard's Daughter. Those early reformers were so brave. Most people think it all started with Martin Luther but JW and others were raising those questions long before.

    1. Thanks, E.M.! Whenever an author mentions an early novel attempt "which will never see the light of day", it makes me so interested to read it! :-)

  2. I am working on my BA Dissertation this year, and one subject I intend to cover is the attitudes towards treason and sedition in the reign of Henry V. A nobleman called Sir John Oldcastle who had become a Lollard had apparently caused many of them to gather together in London with intention of kidnapping the King (though the chroniclers said they wanted to kill him and take over).

    1. That will be a very interesting dissertation! I believe Oldcastle was one of the reasons public opinion and the civil authorities turned so harshly against the Lollards.

    2. Yes that was indeed the case. As sympathetic as I am to the Lollards as a modern Protestant, I cannot help but think sometimes that the actions of Oldcastle and his followers in this instance was a bit- well- silly.

      BTW I wrote a response recently to Ian Mortimer's biography of Henry V which seems very biased to say the least. Pop over to Medieval Reader to see it.

  3. Great post, Rosanne. Most interesting. The issue of bias is so important to remember.

  4. Fascinating analysis...thanks for posting it.

  5. Isn't the answer to the biases we all have to become aware of them and even perhaps declare them, so that people can read the work (fiction or history) with that clearly in mind?

    1. Yes, I think we should definitely be aware of our biases. Declare them? Maybe. But not every author is going to do so (or even know himself well enough to declare it thoroughly), so I think it is imperative for the reader to read critically.

      Where we get into trouble is when (a) readers think that authors have the ability to be totally unbiased/objective, or (b) readers think that since every author is biased all viewpoints should be received equally--which leads to things like Hitler's actions might be fine depending on your point of view.

    2. I read a biography of Henry V once by a major historian. What got me is even though it seemed incredibly biased, the author seemed to be claiming that those who did not agree with him, or held differing viewpoints (such as those which cast Henry in a more sympathetic light) were the ones lacking in objectivity.

      Objectivity can be a difficult issue. I remember my mother told me that is why we should always try to read more than one source. Not sure about the idea of all viewpoints being 'equal'. Could that be postmodernism?

  6. Thanks for a great post! As historical fiction authors we can, of course, take sides and make moral judgements (as historians can), but I don't think we are compelled to do so. What we do is show things from a particular point of view. The voices of our characters should not be mistaken for our own voice. As a person living in 21st Century Britain, for example, I abhor slavery in all its forms but, if I am writing a novel set in Roman Britain, I need to take the reader with me inside the minds of people for whom it was just a normal part of life, whether they are slaves themselves, or slave-owners, or soldiers fighting to defend a system of which slavery is an integral part.

    1. I agree that the voices of our characters should not be mistaken for our own voices--but I also think that it is impossible for the historical novelist to completely remove his own voice from the story. The way you frame your main character's life, like a photographer choosing what to crop out and what to include, shows what *you* think is important. If you abhor slavery, you would probably choose to show some of the uglier sides of it, not to glorify it in the novel by only showing good things about it--but to accurately portray your characters, you would not have *them* abhor slavery.


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