English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall
In all the land there is perhaps no book so common as the Bible. In homes where there are no other books we find at least a Bible, and the Bible stories are almost the first that we learn to know.
But in the fourteenth century there were no English Bibles. The priests and clergy and a few great people perhaps had Latin Bibles. And although Caedmon's songs had long been forgotten, at different times some parts of the Bible had been translated into English, so that the common people sometimes heard a Bible story. But an English Bible as a whole did not exist; and if to-day it is the commonest and cheapest book in all the land, it is to John Wyclif in the first place that we owe it.
John Wyclif was born, it is thought, about 1324 in a little Yorkshire village. Not much is known of his early days except that he went to school and to Oxford University. In time he became one of the most learned men of his day, and was made Head, or Master, of Balliol College.
This is the first time in this book that we have heard of a university. The monasteries had, until now, been the centers of learning. But now the two great universities of Oxford and Cambridge were taking their place. Men no longer went to the monasteries to learn, but to the universities; and this was one reason, perhaps, why the land had become filled with so many idle monks. Their profession of teaching had been taken from them, and they had found nothing else with which to fill their time.
But at first the universities were very like monasteries. The clerks, as the students were called, often took some kind of vow,—they wore a gown and shaved their heads in some fashion or other. The colleges, too, were built very much after the style of monasteries, as may be seen in some of the old college buildings of Oxford or Cambridge to this day. The life in every way was like the life in a monastery. It was only by slow degrees that the life and the teaching grew away from the old model.
While Wyclif grew to be a man, England had fallen on troublous times. Edward III, worn out by his French wars, had become old and feeble, and the power was in the hands of his son, John of Gaunt. The French wars and the Black Death had slain many of the people, and those who remained were miserably poor. Yet poor though they were, much money was gathered from them every year and sent to the Pope, who at that time still ruled the Church in England as elsewhere.
But now the people of England became very unwilling to pay so much money to the Pope, especially as at this time he was a Frenchman ruling, not from Rome, but from Avignon. It was folly, Englishmen said, to pay money into the hands of a Frenchman, the enemy of their country, who would use it against their country. And while many people were feeling like this, the Pope claimed still more. He now claimed a tribute which King John had promised long before, but which had not for more than thirty years been paid.
John of Gaunt made up his mind to resist this claim, and John Wyclif, who had already begun to preach against the power of the Pope, helped him. They were strange companions, and while John of Gaunt fought only for more power, Wyclif fought for freedom both in religion and in life. God alone was lord of all the world, he said, and to God alone each man must answer for his soul, and to no man beside. The money belonging to the Church of England belonged to God and to the people of England, and ought to be used for the good of the people, and not be sent abroad to the Pope. In those days it needed a bold man to use such words, and Wyclif was soon called upon to answer for his boldness before the Archbishop of Canterbury and all his bishops.
The council was held in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Wyclif was fearless, and he obeyed the Archbishop's command. But as he walked up the long aisle to the chapel where the bishops were gathered, John of Gaunt marched by his side, and Lord Percy, Earl Marshal of England, cleared a way for him through the throng of people that filled the church. The press was great, and Earl Percy drove a way through the crowd with so much haughtiness and violence that the Bishop of London cried out at him in wrath.
"Had I known what masteries you would use in my church," he said, "I had kept you from coming there."
"At which words the Duke, disdaining not a little, answered the Bishop and said that he would keep such mastery there though he said 'Nay.' " Thus, after much struggling, Wyclif and his companions arrived at the chapel. There Wyclif stood humbly enough before his Bishop. But Earl Percy bade him be seated, for as he had much to answer he had need of a soft seat.
Thereat the Bishop of London was angry again, and cried out saying that it was not the custom for those who had come to answer for their misdeeds to sit.
"Upon these words a fire began to heat and kindle between them; insomuch that they began to rate and revile one the other, that the whole multitude therewith disquieted began to be set on a hurry."
The Duke, too, joined in, threatening at last to drag the Bishop out of the church by the hair of his head. But the Londoners, when they heard that, were very wrathful, for they hated the Duke. They cried out they would not suffer their Bishop to be ill-used, and the uproar became so great that the council broke up without there being any trial at all.
But soon after this no fewer than five Bulls, or letters from the Pope, were sent against Wyclif. In one the University of Oxford was ordered to imprison him; in others Wyclif was ordered to appear before the Pope; in still another the English bishops were ordered to arrest him and try him themselves. But little was done, for the English would not imprison an English subject at the bidding of a French Pope, lest they should seem to give him royal power in England.
At length, however, Wyclif was once more brought before a court of bishops in London. By this time Edward III had died, and Richard, the young son of the Black Prince, had come to the throne. His mother, the Princess of Wales, was Wyclif's friend, and she now sent a message to the bishops bidding them let him alone. This time, too, the people of London were on his side; they had learned to understand that he was their friend. So they burst into the council-room eager to defend the man whose only crime was that of trying to protect England from being robbed. And thus the second trial came to an end as the first had done.
Wyclif now began to preach more boldly than before. He preached many things that were very different from the teaching of the Church of Rome, and as he was one of the most learned men of his time, people crowded to Oxford to hear him. John of Gaunt, now no longer his friend, ordered him to be silent. But Wyclif still spoke. The University was ordered to crush the heretic. But the University stood by him until the King added his orders to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then Wyclif was expelled from the University, but still not silenced, for he went into the country and there wrote and taught.
Expelled from the university, Wyclif went into the country and there wrote and taught.
Soon his followers grew in numbers. They were called Poor Priests, and clad in long brown robes they wandered on foot through the towns and villages teaching and preaching. Wyclif trusted that they would do all the good that the old friars had done, and that they would be kept from falling into the evil ways of the later friars. But Churchmen were angry, and called his followers Lollards or idle babblers.
Wyclif, however, cared no longer for the great, he trusted no more in them. It was to the people now that he appealed. He wrote many books, and at first he wrote in Latin. But by degrees he saw that if he wanted to reach the hearts of the people, he must preach and teach in English. And so he began to write English books. But above all the things that he wrote we remember him chiefly for his translation of the Bible. He himself translated the New Testament, and others helped him with the Old Testament, and so for the first time the people of England had the whole Bible in their own tongue. They had it, too, in fine scholarly language, and this was a great service to our literature. For naturally the Bible was a book which every one wished to know, and the people of England, through it, became accustomed to use fine stately language.
To his life's end Wyclif went on teaching and writing, although many attempts were made to silence him. At last in 1384 the Pope summoned him to Rome. Wyclif did not obey, for he answered another call. One day, as he heard mass in his own church, he fell forward speechless. He never spoke again, but died three days later.
After Wyclif's death his followers were gradually crushed out, and the Lollards disappear from our history. But his teaching never quite died, for by giving the English people the Bible Wyclif left a lasting mark on England; and although the Reformation did not come until two hundred years later, he may be looked upon as its forerunner.
It is hard to explain all that William Langland and John Wyclif stand for in English literature and in English history. It was the evil that they saw around them that made them write and speak as they did, and it was their speaking and writing, perhaps, that gave the people courage to rise against oppression. Thus their teaching and writing mark the beginning of new life to the great mass of the people of England. For in June, 1381, while John Wyclif still lived and wrote, Wat Tyler led his men to Blackheath in a rebellion which proved to be the beginning of freedom for the workers of England. And although at first sight there seems to be no connection between the two, it was the same spirit working in John Wyclif and Wat Tyler that made the one speak and the other fight as he did.