Wycliffe’s England: A Time of Turmoil

The medieval map gives a hint of 14th Century England as it was. The countryside was more deeply wooded than now. The rivers show prominently, probably because boats were more reliable transportation. Roads, more like wide tracks or paths, are marked on the map as the crow flies. Already London was the hub of communications with the main roads fanning out in all directions. Figuring 20 to 25 miles a day by small cart or horseback, the mileage shown between towns helped the pilgrim calculate how many days journey from London to Canterbury. Not seen on the map were the four million who populated England. Ninety percent were villagers and most were illiterate.

The language of the people was in transition during Wycliffe’s time. The wealthy generally spoke French from past Norman influence. They used the local English dialect only when they spoke with inferiors. But in 1362, English replaced French as the language of the courts. By 1385, English schoolboys were interpreting their Latin into English instead of French. Latin remained the language of the church, of the university, and of universal communication. Of the many English dialects, the Midland English eventually prevailed since it was spoken in London and Oxford. Also, Midland English was popularized by Chaucer and Wycliffe, both of whom wrote in this dialect.

Everyday life was so time-consuming and tiring that there was no time left for general education. Most lay people were small farmers, rural laborers, personal servants, staff members of great households, soldiers, and small craftsmen. Some might have gone to a small local ABC school as children but nothing after that. There is little evidence that girls went to school at all. By Wycliffe’s time, the people were slowly growing out of this illiteracy.

Grammar schools were run by parish churches, religious orders, and some private benefactors. Most students were there to learn Latin well enough to study at the University where it was the language of instruction. Children of upper classes often had private tutoring in their manors until seven when they would become a page in another great household to continue their education, especially in the manner of the court. At 14 many were ready for the university.

Because most medieval schools were run by the church, each university student became a “clerk in holy orders” because he had to take minor orders to become eligible to enroll. Usually his destination as a “clerk” was the teaching profession, not the priesthood.

A student would be assigned a college. For example, when William of Wykeham founded New College, Oxford in 1379 we are told he provided room “for a warden, three lay clerks, ten priests, sixteen choristers, and seventy scholars, who were to be 16 years of age at admission to the university.”

The student’s first years of university education included Grammar (including language), Rhetoric, and Logic or Dialectic, climaxing in a Bachelor’s degree. For his Master’s degree, he studied Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. If he chose to study for a Doctorate, he could get it in law, medicine, music, or theology. Throughout was the study of philosophy—natural, moral and metaphysical.

The Church

Nothing dominated medieval life in Europe as much as the church. In behavior, there was one ethical code. In belief, there was one body of doctrines. In ritual, there was a common core of liturgical worship. In education, the church ran the schools, shaped the curriculum, taught the classes, and its graduates were the only educated persons available. In money and property, the church made its demands on all individuals and on all governments of Christian countries. In political power, the church tried to be the ruler of all Europe. In personal thought and behavior, the church tried to be ruler of all life. And to contradict the church was heresy.

The clergy of the medieval church were divided into two parts—regular and secular. The regular clergy were those living under a rule or order, such as monks and friars. The secular clergy consisted of the higher and lower grades of priests and prelates charged with “cure of souls” and in addition an army of “clerks” engaged in every type of employment.

The original intent of monks and friars were beneficial—to pray, practice poverty and chastity, do welfare, live simply, beg alms to aid the poor, and teach. But by Wycliffe’s time, their good intentions were blemished. He joined others in chastising them for their wealth, their gluttony, their fancy estates, their hiring others to do their work, and their misusing alms. Of course, there were exceptions, such as teaching the young to read and copying manuscripts.

As for bishops, they had become "men of the world." Appointed by the king, a bishopric was often a reward. Of the 25 bishops in England and Wales between 1376 and 1386, thirteen held high secular offices under the Crown and others played a key role in politics. English prelates were among the best lawyers and most prominent statesmen in a time when educated laymen were rare. But the church suffered from their lack of diocesan responsibility and the country suffered from their not practicing their faith in their secular office. Wycliffe called them “Caesarean clergy.”

As England developed its nationalism and as the French kings supported Popes at Avignon, the papacy found influence in England being challenge by king and Parliament. And the Great Schism shattered further the credibility of the papacy.

Local Parish

Even the smallest village had church. Everyone was expected to attend mass at 9 a.m. on Sundays. Outside the door of the church, couples were married before entering for the nuptial mass. Inside babies were baptized by immersion in a large font. If the local priest were so moved, he would preach a sermon on the Sunday gospel at the parish Mass. If he did not know the Bible stories or if he felt a lack interest from his listeners, he might tell stories to amuse his congregation. His stated job was to instruct his people the creed, commandments, sacraments, seven works of mercy, seven virtues and seven deadly sins. He was to care for the poor out of his own stipend or else exhort his parishioners—those living or about to die—to give alms for the poor. He also collected tithes. Since he was not normally a university graduate and often could not read Latin, he would receive instruction in the language of the people from an arch-deacon, which instruction would then be repeated to his parishioners. But not all parish priests were so conscientious. Many parsons, without a vicar in charge, deserted their dull duties in the villages to live in the more fascinating cities or in the more prosperous mansions of the nobility.

The Black Death

The people then called it “The Great Dying”. We know it today as the Black Death. Medieval Europe feared this mysterious evil coming out of the East following the trade routes. We know it as bubonic plague whose bacillus is carried by fleas and rats, of which there were plenty in the 14th Century. With no known medical diagnosis then, the people panicked. They felt helpless. No way to escape. Death struck fast—in a day or two. It hit all ages and all classes, but more of the poor than the rich. Estimates vary as to the number of deaths—from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population, but, whatever the number, the toll of life was greater than any epidemic or war in human history.

It reached Constantinople in 1347 and spread through Europe to England by late 1348. Congested and unsanitary areas were hardest hit. Often the dead so outnumbered the living, burial became difficult. Among parish priests who cared for their flock, mortality was high. Courts of justice were closed. People were afraid to buy meat and prices dropped. Laborers demanded high wages to harvest crops or they would rot. Animals wandered the fields and perished for lack of care. Houses collapsed in the absence of inhabitants. Illiterate peasants whose wives died in the plague often rushed into holy orders.

Many died without last rites. One bishop told his people that if at death no priest were present, “faith must take the place of the Sacrament.” Although some people turned to superstition for security, most felt it was God’s anger against the wickedness of the people of that day. Wycliffe seemed to have yielded to a popular apprehension that the final judgment was approaching. He describes the “covetousness, sensuality, and fraud” of the clergy as infecting all of humanity, thus causing the chastisement under which Europe mourned.

Although the nation was shaken by the loss of life and by the fear of the unknown evil, penitence was lacking. Shortage of labor hastened economic changes and social unrest. Substitution of wages for services accelerated. Distinction between classes became less rigid. The arts reflected the melancholy and morbid. Exaggerated forms of religious mysticism developed. Lack of educated clergy reduced the church’s intellectual vigor.

In the years to follow, there were further outbreaks of bubonic plague, not stopping in England until the early 1600’s when medical knowledge improved and brown rats began to drive out the black, plague-carrying rats.

The Hundred Years War

A military tactic, devised by King Edward III of England, went a long way toward changing medieval warfare, raising England as a power among nations, and shaking the feudal system. The French feudal knights had been the best among the Crusaders in the Holy Land and French military power in the early 14th Century was dominant in Western Europe. Edward’s strategy was simple. He noted the superiority of the long bow to the crossbow. He supported the archers with “knife-men” with long daggers and protected them all with divisions of the feudal heavy cavalry. When the English bowman’s arrows threw the enemy into confusion, the knights charged into the struggling mass and completed the rout. The French were slow in learning to counteract the superior effectiveness of the English long bow over the French knights in armor. Repeatedly against greater odds at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356). and Agincourt (1415), the English victories were startling.

The English soldier-citizen was in the forefront of breaking down class and cultural divisions and strengthening nationalism. While at home the yeoman farmer enjoyed his sport of archery. When he buckled on his armor for battle, he felt his responsibility both as a defender alongside the noble knight and as an Englishman alongside others from his island.

The Hundred Years War was not one long battle, but a series of invasions and treaties, challenged succession to the French throne, disputes over trade and ports, territorial claims and counterclaims, years of peace interrupted by war.

Although the wars drained England economically, caused much suffering, and contributed in part to uprisings, and to political corruption, English trade and commerce increased and towns untouched by war’s destruction flourished.

The Norman-Anglo-Saxon mix began to meld itself into “English.” Aided by its unique Common Law, by a feudal system less dominant than on the Continent, growing representative government, insular protection from invasion, England became a national power demanding respect for itself and for its people.

The Peasants Revolt

It was the first major popular rebellion in English history. It lasted less than a month. It failed completely as a social revolution. The passage of a poll tax, which hit hardest at the poorest, was the final spark igniting growing general unrest among the peasants, both in the city and in the countryside. Workers were still seething against the fixing of maximum wages following the Black Death. The wealth and worldly attitude of the higher clergy incensed the people. Dreams of a better way of life following the French wars urged others on. John Ball preached the freedom of the individual. And disgust with the weakness and poor management of the government angered others.

Rebels under Wat Tyler reached London on June 13, 1381. They killed Flemish merchants and razed the palace of the unpopular John of Gaunt. On the 14th, King Richard II met with the rebels outside London at Mile End and promised cheap land, free trade, the abolition of serfdom and forced labor. While the king was gone, rebels inside the city captured the Tower of London and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury. On the following day, the king met at Smithfield with Wat Tyler and unexpectedly the enraged mayor of London killed Tyler. But the king made further promises to the rebels if they would disperse. They left London. Once the rebellions ended in the provinces, all promises were forgotten. The only gain was the prevention of further poll taxes.

Although Wycliffe’s enemies tried to blame him for stirring up such unrest and although he was sympathetic with some of the peasants’ concerns, there is no evidence that he directly encouraged or supported them in their violent uprising. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #3 in 1983]

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