Wycliffe's writings were to prove controversial and proved an interesting early echo of the Reformation. They heavily influenced the view of Jan Hus and the movement in Bohemia. And his ability to develop and present those views owed a lot to Oxford University, and its desire to protect intellectual debate and investigation.
The University of Oxford
By the 14th Century, Oxford had become rather like a Guild - the Chancellor at the top; the Doctors and Masters of Arts as it's Masters; the Bachelors of Arts as it's Journey men, and undergraduates as Apprentices. Into this world Wycliffe walked at the age of 12 or 14 - for the 7 years that made up the Bachelor of Arts 'Degree'. Degree referred to the stages one should take to become a Doctor - a series of stages - Bachelor, Master, Doctor.
Oxford was a chaotic place. Every student found themselves their own Regent Masters to teach them. They found their own lodgings, or maybe joined on eof the new Academic Halls. There were serious troubles with eh locals, such as the St Scholastica Day riots which led to open warfare on the streets.
John Wycliffe and his career
Wycliffe was born around 1330 in Yorkshire, to a reasonably up and coming family. He would have been taken to Oxford by a bringer. He became a Bachelor, Master, and then finally in 1372/3, a Doctor of Theology. For a while in the 1370's he had friends. John of Gaunt because of where he came from, and his helpfully anticlerical writings. The Black Prince and his wife Joan, because of his helpfully anticlerical writings. he acquired a living in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. But as he became more controversial, that support died away in the face of persecution from the church. By the 1380's he retired to Lutterworth, and died in 1384.
Why was he controversial?
Wycliffe considered himself a good Christian. He considered that his writings were based on the opinions and teachings of the fathers. But of course the Church were unlikely to enjoy his conclusions about their wordly wealth and privilege. Wycliffe's main conclusions were:
- The Church had forfeited its rights to its wealth and power, through its corruption. The Crown should take them back
- There is no support in the scriptures for all these bishops, and the bloated infrastructure on the medieval church. It should all go.
- The Pope should model himself on Christ and live according to his model if he wanted to have the moral authority.
- The principle of transubstantiation as taught by the church was deeply hooky.
- The Bible is the only reliable reference point for Christians, since it’s the word of God. Priests cannot know if they are saved, and therefore have no special powers or moral authority.
You pays your money, and you takes your choice. Here are 3 interpretations:
- He's a religious prophet and reformer transforming our relationship with God and establishing an early Protestant reformation
- He's nothing but a disappointed careerist, embittered by his world failure, venting his frustration on the hierarchy that had turned their back on him
- Wycliffe was just an Academic. In the atmosphere of Oxford he argued and studied and wrote; he had a powerful but inflexible mind, sensitive to criticism like many academics, since it’s not an easy world, and before he knew it he was a religious radical. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he ever tried to create a movement behind his argument – he was just telling the truth as he saw it, inconvenient or not.