The NCS at Siena and Scholarship on Wycliffism

Work on Wycliffism has changed over the past decade; the conferences this spring and summer at Kalamazoo and Siena (for the NCS) show a pretty striking comparison to the conferences of the 1990s. In 1994, to take a key example, the NCS conference at Dublin was dubbed by Derek Pearsall as the “not-Chaucer” conference because there were so many papers about contexts, including Wycliffism. Eamon Duffy gave a plenary at the conference–shortly after the publication of his Stripping of the Altars–and said that his 700-page book was “not a book, but a pamphlet” to argue against the view that Wycliffism or other types of proto-protestant arguments for reform had been immensely exaggerated by scholars in their effects upon the laity and much of the clerical class.

I’d read Duffy’s comment, in hindsight, as a comment on the fact that studies of Wycliffism at the time were largely theological, predicated upon tracing theological threads from Wyclif’s work (or clearly Wycliffite works) through other texts. His book traces the disruption of (what he argues are) vibrant orthodox lay practices by intellectual elites. Be that as it may, theology is of course key, and will remain so, especially as we learn more about Wyclif’s work itself: Stephen Lahey, for instance, presented an argument that Wyclif’s anti-fraternalism lay not in anti-mendicantism per se or in disagreements over transubstantiation, but developed out of a general disapproval with “sectis.”

I’d describe what has changed, however, in two developing threads. The first, to Duffy’s credit, is an increasing emphasis on religious practice, which is what much of he focuses on. Duffy is really only interested in the laity, but there has been much work on, for instance, Carthusians and Carmelites and other orders and their practices, and how these changed over the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I’m thinking here of one neat paper from this year’s NCS conference by Cynthia Camp, focusing on Osbern Bokenham, in which she argued that there was reformist pressure on the Augustinian friars in the mid-fifteenth century to justify the “seduction of the claustral” life–as opposed to going out and becoming involved with the world.

The second is about modes of reading, ours and later medieval. I heard papers at Kalamazoo and Siena on, for instance, modes of literacy (academic, popular, devotional), vernacularities (literary, devotional, academic), and ecclesiology and reform. Within communities of religious, for instance, we know that reading habits were changing: Sheen and Syon are the best-known examples of this, but at Siena Alan Fletcher also talked about Benedictine preaching in the vernacular; Paul Patterson talked about vernacular devotional materials circulating among the enclosed; Jim Rhodes talked about the Plowman’s portrait, labor, and the Epistle of James; I gave a paper on Chaucer’s Prioress and her vernacular devotional trendiness; and Shannon Gayk talked about Capgrave and St. Katherine.

Now, Camp and Patterson never mentioned Wycliffism, as far as I remember (and neither did I). But all of these papers talked about modes of reading which were very characteristically later medieval, propelled by many of the same political and linguistic trends that also fueled talk of reform, most dramatically Wycliffite arguments for reform. You don’t have to be a heretic to want reform: read Wimbledon’s Sermon for a great example of non-heretical high dudgeon. Where Wycliffism did crop up in papers, it was (usually) not invoked simplistically, or as a simple polar example–as it often could be in 1994–but as an extension of other issues. That’s the key. Perhaps the metaphor of a “grey area” between heterodoxy and orthodoxy needs to be changed: the “grey area” image implies that everything between is somehow fuzzily out of focus or not committed enough either way–and the point isn’t about a heterodox/orthodox binary anyway.

There are in fact a variety of continua at stake that need to be plotted in many more intersecting dimensions that focus dynamically on the nature of their development over time, not their poles. Heresy is defined theologically, but it seems clear that interest in it by Chaucer, Langland (I’m thinking very much of of Andrew Cole’s recent book here, which also discusses Hoccleve, Lydgate, and Kempe), compilers of devotional miscellanies, and writers who synthesize works various devotional specula see that there is much more going on here. Wycliffism was about much more than theology, and–as Cole argues–we buy into its critics (and its extreme apologists) if we treat it that way.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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