Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
John Wycliffe (c. 13241384)
[John Wycliffe, the year of whose birth is conjecturally fixed as 1324, was born at Spresswell, which has been identified as a hamlet near the town of Old Richmond, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but has now disappeared. His religious attitude was largely affected by the course of events in the preceding generation. The power of the Papacy in England had reached its highest point in the reign of John, who was content to hold his kingdom as the vassal of the Pope. But the Papal encroachments soon provoked resistance. This resistance first appeared under the leadership of one so entirely different in doctrinal position from Wycliffe as Grosstête, the Bishop of Lincoln, who had united to the most strict orthodoxy of doctrine, an attitude of firm independence towards Papal domination, when pushed to the disadvantage of the Church. Grosstête died in 1253; and the latter part of that century saw the resistance to the Papacy increased by a movement based on political and constitutional grounds. This, again, had deepened during the fourteenth century into a general discontent at the corruptions both of the Papacy and the Church generally; and the feeling which thus prevailed is seen in the poem of The Vision of Piers Plowman, which belongs to Wycliffes own age.
The first English reformer was educated at Oxford, where he spent the greater part of his life, and where he appears to have held office at Merton College, and to have been, for a time, Master of Balliol College. It is difficult to say how far his influence extended during the earlier part of his life; but the most conspicuous instances of his intervention in public affairs, as well as the greater part of his writings, appear to belong to the few years before his death. In 1366 he came forward as an opponent of Papal claims, and in 1374 he went with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on an embassy to Bruges, where these claims were under discussion. He seems to have acted as the close ally of the Duke of Lancaster during the very obscure and tangled struggles of the Parliament of 1376, in which the influence of the Prelacy was ranged against the party of the Duke. By this time Wycliffes attitude as a religious reformer had become more clearly defined, and he was summoned to appear before some of the bishops to answer for his heresies. By the help of the Duke of Lancaster he was able to withstand the attempt to silence him, but his opponents afterwards obtained his condemnation by a bull of the Pope. Even this, however, failed to crush him, as he found strenuous adherents at Oxford, and seems by this time (1378) to have had a considerable following in the country. In the later years of his life his doctrinal divergencies from the orthodox creed seem to have attracted more attention if they did not indeed become more pronounced. The outbreak of the Social Revolt under Ball was asserted by Wycliffes enemies to have been fostered by the itinerant preachers whom he had trained as a counterpoise to the more regular priesthood. But the efforts of his opponents, from whatever cause, failed to make him the object of any violent persecution; and, although after his death, Wycliffes name was recalled as that of one of the most pronounced heretics and maligners of the Church, he died quietly in 1384 as rector of Lutterworth in Leicestershire.]
THE INCIDENTS of Wycliffes life are interesting to us here, only as they serve to illustrate the position of his writings in English literature. Trained at Oxford, in the usual scholastic learning, he had considerable scholarship, had studied natural science, and in his Latin writings (which form the larger part of his works) he commonly employs the technical terms of the scholastic philosophy. We see the influence of this, the more professional side of his intellect, operating to some extent also in his English works.
As a writer of English prose, he came at a critical time. The older English was giving way to something which, when we strip off peculiarities of spelling and of verbal forms, approaches very nearly to our modern language. Comparing Wycliffes style with that of the book of travels to which the name of Mandeville is attached, we see at once that his English is that of a scholar who has lost much of what may be called the childishness of archaicism, and who is ready to enrich his language with words borrowed freely either from a French or a classical source. We recognise that we are in the hands of one who, though he has nothing that could fairly be called a formed style, yet uses the direct and forcible English of a master, and whose example could not fail to influence the future of English prose.
In this connection Wycliffes position as a religious teacher is of marked importance. The share which he took in the controversies of the day; his efforts to place the salient points of these controversies clearly before a popular audience; his occasional use of philosophical argument; his introduction of strokes of satire against those whom he attackedall these gave directness, force, and precision to his style. But his influence upon English prose was, above all, based upon the part he took in providing a translation of the Scriptures in the vernacular. There had already been translations into Anglo-Saxon, and detached parts of the Scripture had been translated into Old English for the use of priests. But the complete translation, which was planned by Wycliffe, and prepared under his supervision, was designed strictly for the use of the English people. It is impossible to say what parts of it were his own work, and the whole was not issued until after his death. But he frequently introduces passages of Scripture in the vernacular into his English sermons and homilies; and from those which occur in the following extracts it will be seen how greatly Wycliffes work in this sphere influenced later English prose, and gave to it that simple force and directness which subsequent hands brought to greater perfection, without abandoning the original type, which it was his to set.