This year we are building and, Corona Virus notwithstanding, hoping to display a huge model to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflwower. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs about the events that paved the way for her voyage and the reasons for those on board, who have been called the Pilgrim Fathers, for making the risky voyage across the Atlantic and establishing an English colony at Plymouth (or Plimoth) Colony, Massachusetts, America. In this blog we look back the 14th century and John Wycliffe, whose work would influence the English Reformation two centuries later.
John Wycliffe (c 1330–1384) was a philosopher, theologian and priest whose writing on Christianity and the relationship between man and God would bring him in conflict with the Church in Rome, but would have a lasting influence of the development of Protestantism in England many years later. His followers were known as Lollards. The origin of their name is uncertain, but may have come from the Dutch word 'lollaerd,' meaning 'mumbler, perhaps from their practice of praying or reading the Bible together.' By the mid-1400s, the word had essentially become synonymous with 'heretic.'
Wycliffe was born about 1330 in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He was educated at Oxford and was the author of many books. As a priest he served in a number of churches with his last appointment was as rector of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire. In the 1370s Wycliffe became embroiled in the politics of the English Kingdom, with Edward III giving him a royal commission to discuss a number of disputes the king had with the Church in Rome and so in 1374 he met w with representatives of the Church to discuss matters including papal taxes and appointments to Church posts. The experience left Wycliffe dissatisfied with his government role as a means of propagating his ideas and so began to express them in tracts and longer works. His ideas on lordship and church wealth caused his first official condemnation in 1377 by Pope Gregory XI, who called for his arrest. This went unanswered in England.
The main tenant of Wycliffe’s beliefs however were that the Bible as the only sure guide to God’s truth. He believed that all Christians should look to God’s Word rather than the teachings of Popes and his clerics. The problem of course was that original texts of the Bible were written over many years in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and translated into Latin in the 300s by the Italian scholar and priest Jerome (c 345 – 420). This version became known as the Vulgate, Latin being the “vulgar” or “common tongue” and became the dominant translation used in the Catholic Church in the medieval period.
By the 14th Century, parts of the Bible had been translated into early forms of English, but the complete Bible was only available in the Vulgate version. This meant that only the those who could understand Latin could read the Bible for themselves, leaving those who could not dependent on the educated clerics, such as Wycliffe, to read and explain God’s Word. With his belief in the authority of God’s Word, and that everybody should have direct access to it, Wycliffe went on to promote the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, Middle English. The result was the first complete version of the Bible in English. He started his work in August 1380 in his rooms at Oxford. By 1384 Wycliffe and his colleagues had translated the entire Bible. Many consider that Wycliffe himself translated the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and possibly the whole of the New Testament, while his colleagues worked on the Old Testament. Updates were produced in the succeeding years by men such as Nicholas of Hereford in about 1390, and John Purvey (c 1353 – 1428) in 1388 and 1395.
Furthermore, Wycliffe denied the Catholic doctrine transubstantiation (where it is believed that the bread and wine used in Communion are turned into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ) which greatly displeased Rome and the Pope.
In the same year as the Bible translation was completed, Wycliffe suffered a stroke on 28th December and by the end of the year this led to his death. Naturally, his work was not well received by the Catholic Church and at the Council of Constance in 1415 his teachings were condemned and he was declared a heretic.
Despite Wycliffe’s death, the Lollards continued to support and propagate his ideas. In our next blog in this series we will tell their story. These scenes were built by James Pegrum; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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