14th. Century England was mainly forested and transport was mostly by river since the roads were less reliable. London was a centre of communications in a total population of around four million. The vast majority, however, were illiterate villagers.
The standard language until Wycliffe's time was Norman French, spoken by the wealthy, but in 1362 English became the language of the courts. Latin remained the Church language. The Middle English dialect, spoken in London and at Oxford university became the standard. It was popularised by the writings of Chaucer and the Wycliffe Bible, written in this dialect.
John Wycliffe, (1330–1384) was an English theologian, philosopher, Franciscan and a reformer of the Church. He taught divinity at Oxford.
King Edward III and his successor, Richard II were engaged in the costly Hundred Years War with France and Wycliffe was appointed to discuss differences with the papacy, which had two representatives, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. (The Pope Luna fled from Avignon to Peñíscola in 1411.) Taking advantage of the split papacy, England's aim was to limit the Church's power in England.
Wycliffe preached against Church policies arguing that it was sinful and should return to poverty. This coincided well with the King's search for more money to finance his war. The pope called for Wycliffe's arrest in 1377, but he increased his attacks on Church beliefs, including repudiation of transubstantiaton and rejection of its traditional authority from Jesus.
Wycliffe's followers, the Lollards, believed confession to be unnecessary because a priest did not have any power to forgive sins. They also challenged the practice of clerical celibacy. Wycliffe promoted a theology of the two domains, an earthly Church and an idealized Church. It was based on neoplatonic ideas, developed through his reading of Augustine of Hippo.
In his effort to make Christian thought available to more people, in 1380 he and his Lollard followers involved themselves in the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, Middle English. This provided an authority for religion outside of the Church and subverted ecclesiastical power, since understanding Scripture was thus not mediated by the clergy. The Lollards, from the Dutch, lollaerd, meant a 'mumbler', a reference to their reading of the bible in a low voice.
The Lollards were blamed for supporting the Peasant Revolt of 1381, which was a rebellion against the favouring of the wealthier classes. The Church and Parliament formed the Blackfriars Synod to remove Wycliffe from his divinity post in Oxford. Richard II acquiesced to this and ruled that all who preached or wrote against Catholicism were to be imprisoned. Wycliffe's books were banned.
The Council of Constance (1415) declared Wycliffe a heretic postmortem. His body was exhumed, burned and the ashes were thrown into the river. However, 200 years later his writings inspired Reformation leaders such as Luther.
The name Wycliffe's Bible is given to biblical translations from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English by the Lollard movement under the direction of John Wycliffe. They first appeared around the period 1382 to 1395. The Lollards rejected many of the main teachings of the Catholic Church.
Several possible linguists have now been named, contradicting the idea that Wycliffe was the only translator. Included in their texts were the Apocrypha. It was Jerome who arranged the Latin Vulgate in 405 which included prologues identifying certain books of the previous Old Latin Old Testament as apocryphal, meaning non-canonical.
Even though it was not an authorised text Wycliffe's Bible is the most common manuscript in Middle English. Over 250 such manuscripts survive. In the 15th. century the Church in England undertook a campaign to censor this biblical translation. However, the translations all referred to the same original text, the Latin Vulgate, and as manuscripts were carefully dated before the ban in 1409, there was no way to distinguish the unlawful from the outlawed versions. In this way they circulated widely in South Eastern England and South Western Scotland. The Lollards' influence is mapped here:
The earlier version is a highly literal, word for word, translation, sometimes leading to a meaningless text. The second version, issued ten to twelve years after Wycliffe's death, was more coherent. Since there was no printing press the price was well above the pockets of most people, but the advantage over Latin was that it could be read to and understood by the population. Bibles at that time were also uses as a law-code which gave power to ecclesiastics who could read Latin.
The Lollards were not a movement with a central doctrine or authority. They were basically anticlerical in the sense that they thought the ecclesiastical authorities were corrupt. Their response was to create a new authority in the Scriptures by translating the Bible.
Some clear idea of their tenets can be found in their petition to Parliament: The Twelve Conclusions. These ideas were refuted in a text written for King Richard II, "Against the Twelve Heresies" (1396-97). The conclusions were presented to Parliament, but were not followed up. They affirmed: that the Catholic Church had been corrupted by temporal aims; the priesthood is not that of Christ; clerical celibacy provokes sodomy; transubstantiation encourages idolatry; exorcism leads to necromancy; ecclesiastics should not hold temporal posts; prayers for the dead is akin to simony; pilgrimages cause idolatry; confession relies on a false power; the Church is not pacifist; female vows of continence were ending in sin; arts and crafts are increasing immorality through waste and curiosity. The Lollard focus on scripture also led to many refusing to take oaths.
Wycliffe's anticlericalism encountered a supporting theory in that of lordship. It was the anarchical concept that no respect is due to the property and orders of the wicked. The idea is summed up in the phrase: “Dominion is founded in grace.” Dominion in itself was a summary of feudalism since it covered sovereignty and property. God alone has dominion and any lordship held by humans is given up by sin. Wycliffe applied the Franciscan distinction between property and use to clerical possessions. He extended this to all spiritual lords, so that any ecclesiastic who sinned could have their property deprived of them by the authorities.
However, he did not include temporal authorities in his concept of dominion. This makes it more difficult to connect him intentionally with the Peasants' revolt, which was a political movement.
Until Wycliffe's Bible the Western Christian text was only in Latin. Few people, except the clergy, could read Latin. This suited the ecclesiastical hierarchy since they could maintain power over the meaning of the book and its interpretation. Originally the Scriptures had been translated by Jerome and others, from Hebrew and Greek into Vulgate Latin. This was considered the Word of God by the Church.
However, partly for reasons of power and partly to ensure a single interpretation biblical texts had to be approved by the Church. Wycliffe ignored this ruling and his translation created a conflict with the Church authorities. He also held heretical views on some basic Church beliefs. Nevertheless, Wycliffe reasoned that the Vulgate was already a translation, so why not translate it again into the common language.
His work was printed by xylography, a technique using woodblocks. It was a bestseller, despite the high levels of illiteracy, since people could now hear the Scriptures read to them. The ecclesiastical authorities, unsurprisingly, saw this as a challenge to the Church since anyone who could read or be read to could now check on Church teachings.
Wycliffe continued his work based on the belief that:
“Holy Scripture is the preeminent authority for every Christian, and the rule of faith and of all human perfection.”
For Wycliffe the Bible was his primary reference, above the Magisterium of the Church. He rejected the temporal and spiritual authority of the clergy in favour of the law of the Scriptures.
“It alone is the supreme law that is to rule Church, State, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes.”
His translation of the Bible aimed at extending knowledge of this reference so that all could decide its interpretation.
"The laity ought to understand the faith and, as doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.”
He developed 5 rules for Bible study: a reliable text, comprehension of the logic of the Bible, compare parts of it, adopt a humble, exploring attitude and remain open to the Spirit.
Wycliffe rebelled against the Church which was dominant in everyday life, in his time. He did this with the most powerful tool he knew: spreading knowledge.