Protest and renewal: Reformers before the Reformation

‘THEY GO ABOUT TWO BY TWO, barefoot, clad in woollen garments, owning nothing, holding all things common like the apostles, naked, following a naked Christ. They are making their first moves now in the humblest manner because they cannot launch an attack. If we admit them, we shall be driven out.’ So wrote twelfth-century churchman Walter Map in response to the early Waldensians. His words illustrate how eager were the late medieval ‘heretics’ to experience in their own time the vitality of the earliest Christians. They show too that members of the medieval religious establishment could feel severely threatened by attempts radically to renew the church. In the late Middle Ages there were three major movements which shared that goal: the Waldensians, the Lollards and the Czech Brethren. These movements differed in various ways, but they had significant similarities. Each of them reacted against a church which through wealth, privilege and power had moved far from the teachings of Jesus and the dynamic simplicity of the early Christians. Each of them emphasized preaching from a Bible in the language of the people. Each of them owed its strength to the dedicated involvement of laymen and laywomen. And despite the fact that in every case the church responded by Inquisition and burning, each of these movements survived into the sixteenth century to encounter the Reformation.

The Waldensians were first on the scene. This movement began in the 1170s with the conversion of a prominent merchant from Lyons named Valdes. (His precise dates are unknown but he died before 1218). Valdes was moved by a minstrel’s recounting of the story ofSt Alexis, who had left his patrician Roman parents to live a life of apostolic poverty. He went for counsel to a theologian, who shared with him Jesus’ words to the rich young man: ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have.’ Having made provision for his wife and daughters, Valdes-like Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the Gospel story - made restitution to those from whom he had made unjust profits. He commissioned two priests to translate major portions of the Bible and the Church Fathers from Latin into the Provencal dialect, and then proceeded to study and memorize these. Joyfully he gave to the poor all his remaining property, and began to travel on foot. His watchword was, ‘No man can serve two masters!'

From the outset people warmed to Valdes’ attractive preaching and lifestyle. Soon some of them, both men and women, were leaving their security and joining him. Their commitment was to spread the gospel in their native tongue, to identify with the poor by becoming poor themselves, and to take the teachings of Jesus - which had often been viewed as optional advice for the holy or eccentrics -as the rule of life for all Christians.

Valdes’ hope was that the preaching and example of his itinerant followers (the ‘Poor in Spirit') would be a spur to the renewal of the whole church. At first some churchmen, including Pope Alexander III, gave them cautious encouragement. But within a decade the bishops had forbidden them to preach. They persisted, quoting Peter and John’s words in Acts: ‘We must obey God rather than men'. And so they were banished from Lyons. For the next 300 years they were to be on the run, at times persecuted severely. Nevertheless, the movement spread. Inspired by the story of Jesus commissioning the Twelve, Waldensian evangelists preached throughout southern France and established a network of sympathizers extending as far north as Alsace and the Netherlands. They also found a ready audience in northern Italy, where for some time already dissident religious groups had been gaining strength. The Italian Waldensians (the ‘Poor Lombards') soon asserted independence of their French brothers (the ‘Poor Lyonists'), for they were developing distinctive features of their own. Their concern was not only to travel and preach. They worked to nurture the ordered life of Christian community, based on the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Their style was more organized and less spontaneous than their French brothers and sisters. But the Italians also evangelized. By 1211 their community in Strasbourg was strong enough spiritually and numerically to produce eighty martyrs And soon there were other Waldensian communities of the Italian connection as far north-east as Moravia and as far south as the heel of Italy.

The dangerous Bible

During the thirteenth century the church, through the newly-founded Inquisition, did its best to snuff out the Waldensian movement. The fear of the churchmen was transparent and, from their point of view, well-grounded. For the Bible is a dangerous book. In the hands of the ‘stupid and uneducated’ it can be subversive. Hence the churchmen preferred to keep it in a learned tongue, Latin, for the use of privileged intellectuals.

The Waldensian translations opened the Bible to laypeople, for whom it became the final authority for belief and life: ‘Whatever a doctor of the church teaches that he cannot prove by the text of the New Testament, they consider to be a complete fable.'

To their critics, their interpretations seemed unduly literal. The Waldensians believed that Jesus had meant what he had said when he told his disciples not to swear oaths or to accumulate treasure on earth. He had likewise expected his disciples obediently to sheathe their swords and to love their enemies. According to the New Testament, the apostles and the early Christians had been faithful to his teaching. Not so, the Waldensians were convinced, the churchmen of their own day: ‘The apostles did not live this way, nor do we, who are imitators of the apostles.’ This negative comparison was a potent corrosive for dissolving the legitimacy of the established church.

At first the Waldensians did not want to displace the church. They simply wanted to supply what was lacking in it-obedience to Jesus, authentic community, and ‘the voice of the gospel'. But as its resistance to change stiffened and its persecuting zeal intensified, the Waldensians were forced either to accommodate themselves to the church or, at the risk of burning, to get out.

In the early thirteenth century many chose the former course, some even forming what was almost a monastic order, the ‘Catholic Poor'. Yet others chose to leave the church. It had been seduced by power, they came to believe, since the time of the emperor Constantine; it was ‘infused with the venom of temporal wealth.’ Thereby it had departed from the apostolic heritage. So, although many Waldensians made public appearance in services in their parish churches, they found their true fellowship and nurture in illicit cells of brothers and sisters.

These Waldensian cells, meeting generally at night, in houses and barns, were marked by intense activity. Those present were laypeople, often ‘persons of basest occupations’ such as tailors, shoemakers and smiths. Women were there in disproportionate strength. Largely excluded from using their gifts in the church, they were finding among the ‘heretics’ liberty to teach and preach. Everyone participated: ‘Old and young, men and women, by day and by night, they do not stop their learning and teaching others.’ Illiterates were learning to read: ‘Learn but one word a day,’ they admonished each other, ‘and after a year you will know three hundred, and then you will progress.’the Bible was memorized and recited. In Austria one critic found an ‘unlearned rustic who could recite the Book of Job word for word, and many others who know the entire New Testament perfectly'. After recitations, the Bible would be commented upon and applied. Many of these applications were anticlerical; and Waldensians had little tolerance for medieval beliefs and practices such as relics, holy days and purgatory. They were especially suspicious of sacraments administered by priests of dubious morals.

Before long the Waldensians began to develop a leadership structure of their own. At the behest of a rector (bishop), majores (presbyters) and minores (deacons) travelled from one Waldensian cell to another, preaching and hearing confessions. On Maundy Thursday, when cells met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the believers often washed each other’s feet, after which the itinerant minister distributed the elements of bread, wine and fish.

The Lollards

By the late fourteenth century, the Waldensian movement was losing momentum. Persecution was finally beginning to be effective, not only in burning Waldensians or forcing them to recant, but also in causing them to become introverted and to lose their evangelistic zeal. Geographically the communities clustered in mountainous areas - especially the Cottonian Alps - where they were more secure. And two other movements arose to take over from the flagging Waldensians the task of challenging medieval Christendom.

One of these, the Lollards, came to resemble the Waldensians in many ways, even though it developed quite independently. They got their name from a Middle Dutch insult meaning ‘mumbler’ of prayers, and they were adherents of an English movement which was the offspring of a brilliant Oxford don, John Wyclif(died 1384). It was not Wyclif’s charisma which launched the movement; it was his ideas.

Wyclifwas a mature convert to ‘realism’ in philosophy and to Augustine’s theology. As these ideas germinated in his mind, their practical implications became clear, and he set these forthwith undiplomatic boldness.

The Bible, he was convinced, had been conceived in God’s mind before creation. It was therefore entirely true, and the exclusive criterion of faith and practice, far superior to church tradition. Everyone ought to have access to its truth in his own language: ‘No man is so rude a scholar but that he may learn the words of the gospel according to his simplicity.’ The church likewise was an ideal reality, predestined by God to be the body of the elect. Thus both the Bible and the true church stood in judgment upon the actual church, which Wyclif increasingly came to see as a ‘synagogue of Satan'. It had departed from the purity of its early poverty; it had lost its authority to interpret the Bible; and it had become entangled in a great web of abuse. Pilgrimage, purgatory, transubstantiation, along with many other aspects of ecclesiastical life, came under Wyclif’s searing attack. Only the king, he was convinced, as God’s true vicar could intervene to reform the hopelessly compromised church.

At first Wyclif had many politically influential supporters. But his ideas, especially on the ‘eucharist', or holy communion, soon developed to a point where he alienated many of them. In 1382 the church authorities were able to purge him and his followers from Oxford. And in the next two decades, despite attempts by ‘Lollard knights’ and other sympathizers to secure reform by parliamentary means, the repression of the movement proceeded. A rebellion led by Sir John Oldcastle in 1414 was a desperate expression of frustration, and its easy suppression by Henry V marked the end of the Lollard attempt to reform the church from above.

From the outset, however, there had been many Lollards who had sought renewal from below, through preaching rather than politics. Wyclif had equipped his university-trained followers with an arsenal of arguments. And soon they had both popularized these arguments in a series of tracts and sought to justify them by the Bible, which they twice translated into English. Preachers criss-crossed England and Wales carrying Wyclif’s ideas in simplified form. And even after persecution had removed the first-generation evangelists from circulation, less educated preachers arose to take their place. Despite successive waves of persecution, the Lollard movement survived in many places, as cells of believers continued to gather.

The life of the Lollards

The Lollard cells did not, so far as we know, administer the sacraments. For that they would attend their parish churches, even though they might give indication of their disaffection by ‘sitting mum like beasts’ at the elevation of the Host. Nor do these cells seem to have had membership rolls. Attending their meetings in ‘nooks and corners', houses and barns, were friends who knew that they could trust each other. These ‘known men’ and women were links in a chain of inspiration and support joining one Lollard community with another.

Not surprisingly they tended to intermarry. They were served by roving booksellers and evangelists, one of whom with his wife ‘had turned six or seven hundred people unto those opinions'. A few priests participated in the movement, as did some wealthy urban merchants. But predominantly the Lollards were laypeople, especially those in the cloth trade. As with the Waldensians, women were prominent in the movement, reciting and expounding the Bible. One woman exulted—probably accurately enough—that she was as learned as her priest, except in the mass.

The central activity of these cells was reading the English Bible. One group in Buckinghamshire asked a boy whom they were not sure they could trust to leave them ‘that he should not hear and tell.’ Then the leader ‘did recite certain places to them out of the Epistles ofSt Paul, and of the Gospels'. These Scriptures were of course available only in manuscript, and so expensive to buy; like other English books, they were also dangerous to possess. So, although some people had good collections ('book of Luke and one of Paul. and a gloss of the Apocalypse'), many others could possess the Bible only by memorizing it. Groups of believers stayed up all night to do this. Some of them took private instruction to commit the Beatitudes to heart. Whenever the Lollards in Burford met, they called upon a woman who could declaim in English ‘the declaration of the Ten Commandments, and the Epistles of Peter and James.’

From the Bible the Lollards obtained fuel for their anticlericalism, which at times they expressed quite rudely. They could | find no warrant in the Bible for pilgrimages or images, which they viewed as idols. Nor did they have much patience with priestly or saintly mediators.

‘What need is it,’ one woman asked, ‘to go to the feet, when we may go to the head?'

Another believer was convinced that ‘it was as good for a man to confess himself alone to God, or else to another layman, as to a priest, upon the saying of St James, where he saith “Show your sins one to another"'. There was also among the Lollards an ethical earnestness which impelled them not only to hear the word of God but also to try to keep it. Some of the early Lollards were vigorous pacifists. Others had a special concern for the poor: ‘True pilgrimage,’ one Lollard commented, ‘is barefoot to go and visit the poor, weak and sick; for they are the true images of God/

Renewal in Czechoslovakia

The last major medieval renewal movement was the Hussite movement in Czechoslovakia. Unlike the Waldensians and the Wycliffites, the Hussites did not spring into existence independently of other ‘heretical’ groupings; they were indirectly indebted to both of these predecessors. Yet despite these influences, in a very real sense the Hussites were a distinctive, Czech phenomenon.

In the fourteenth century, spiritual life in Czechoslovakia was becoming more intense. Popular religious writers insisted that the customary annual communion was not enough: all believers, for their souls’ health, must participate frequently in the eucharist. There was also a growing appetite for sermons. To meet this demand, the Bethlehem Chapel was erected in Prague in 1394, with seating for 3,000 persons. This chapel quickly became a centre for a style of preaching marked by both anticlericalism and Czech nationalism. Significantly, side by side on its walls were paintings of the pope, resplendent on horseback, and of Jesus, cross-laden on foot.

In 1400, shortly after a conversion experience, John Hus was appointed rector of the Bethlehem Chapel. And during the next twelve years he preached tirelessly, delivering no less than 3,000 sermons. We can tell from his surviving sermon notes that he prepared these with amazing care. Yet he delivered them with fiery freedom in language which the Prague poor could understand. Overflowing congregations warmed to his straightforward instruction, and to his denunciations of an over-endowed, abuse-ridden church.

Wyclif’s writings, which were avidly discussed in university circles in Prague at that time, were formative in his thinking; indeed, some of his own writings copy extensively from Wyclif. But Hus was a more cautious, less logical theological thinker than Wyclif. Only in his view of the papacy, which he was convinced had originated at the time of Constantine, did Hus clearly break with medieval orthodoxy. Nevertheless, conservatives felt that his entire ministry was insubordinate and threatening in its tone. In 1412 he was exiled to the South Bohemian countryside, where he led services of worship in barns. And in 1415, at the Council of Constance—despite a safe-conduct, after a rigged trial—he was burned as a heretic.

The burning of Hus rallied the Czech people. In a letter of defiance, 452 Czech nobles declared that Hus had been falsely burnt. Czechs of lesser station were likewise outraged. Religious turbulence began to spread both in Prague and in the countryside. Much of this was associated with the practice of giving to the laypeople at the eucharist both the bread and the chalice rather than solely the bread as in medieval custom. This practice of ‘Utraquism’ (communion sub utraque specie, under both kinds) had been begun by some Hussites as early as 1414, and was a logical expression of the developing Czech concern to breathe new meaning into their communion services. Now Utraquism spread rapidly. Often it was either imposed or repelled by violence. CH

By Alan Kreider

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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