Please indulge me as I share my own odd Reformation-era enthusiasm: the Lollards. Originating in the work of priest and Oxford scholar John Wycliffe (d. 1384), Lollardy flourished as a movement for church and civil reform from the 1370s and the Peasants’ Revolt. After rebellions led or inspired by Lollards in 1414 and 1431 were suppressed, the movement scattered, but it never disappeared. Its influence was evident in the reforms of Jan Hus in Bohemia, Luther in Germany, all the way to the English Puritans.
In theology, Wycliffe and his followers blazed the trail for ideas that would go further in the 16th century, as well as some that would end up in eccentric dead ends. They taught that the sacrament was “very Goddis body” and yet bread at the same time; they criticized the temporal power and wealth of prelates; they criticized the use of pilgrimages, images, and prayers to saints. Rightly or wrongly, Lollard views of church and state were considered dangerous to public order, as well as heterodox in theology. Specific Lollard views were condemned by the church in the 1370s and 1380s. Suppression by the civil authorities followed as Lollard preaching continued and was intermingled with civil unrest.
This suppression was effective enough to limit the number of original Lollard texts available today. But it was far from total. Apart from their specific theological claims, the Lollards changed the shape of Christianity in England by translating the Bible partially into English and stressing vernacular preaching. Archbishop Arundel forbade the possession of any Bibles by Wycliffe or later translators in 1407, as well as English tracts.
And it is in this surviving vernacular literature that we can sense the real import of the Lollard movement. Wycliffe’s translations, unlike later efforts, did not return to Greek or Hebrew, but rendered the Vulgate in homely, vivid English. Of the Prodigal Son: “And aftir that that he hadde endid alle thingis, a strong hungur was maad in that cuntre, and he bigan to haue nede.” The tradition of editing and translating that would swell majestically through Tyndale to the Authorized Version owes little to Wycliffe except his belief that English was a suitable language for Scripture and theology (or politics!) at all. As one scholar of the Lollards says, it is not their literary merit, but this attempt to create a vernacular public discourse that was “their greatest achievement.” For decades, simply to write in English–then a language of commoners, not the clerical elite or the Norman rulers–was nearly to be suspected of heresy or sedition.
I appreciate both the insight and the eccentricity of the Lollards. Even more, I admire their brave commitment to preach and teach directly to a new public in a language whose rapid evolution they would help to advance and shape. An early critic lamented that the language of angels (i.e., Latin) was being supplanted by the language of Englishmen. Leaving aside the status of Latin, he was not wrong. From those few radical seeds, a whole vernacular theology and literature has grown.