Feeling Like Saints: Lollard Writings after Wyclif
While lollardy has attracted much attention in recent years, much of what we think we know about this English religious movement inspired by John Wyclif is based on records of heresy trials and anti-lollard chroniclers. This book demonstrates that this approach has limitations, just as would an account of Franciscans based on antifraternal writings. A better basis is the five hundred or so manuscript books from the period (1375-1530) containing materials translated, composed, or adapted by lollard writers themselves. Many of these have been little studied, for they present problems of definition and classification: what after all is a lollard text, and how can we tell? These problems can be resolved, Somerset shows, by beginning from what these writings draw from Wyclif, rather than seeking consistency with hostile accounts or protestant historiography; and by examining the lollard archive as a whole, rather than isolating polemical writings from the devotional, biblical, catechetical, and even mainstream writings in the same manuscripts. When considered together, these writings provide rich evidence for how lollard writers collaborated with one another and with their readers to produce a distinctive religious identity based around structures of feeling. Lollards wanted to feel like saints. From Wyclif they drew an extraordinarily rigorous ethic of mutual responsibility that disregarded both social status and personal risk. They recalled their commitment to this ethic by reading narratives of physical suffering and vindication, and remained mindful of these extremes through allegory, martyring themselves by inviting scorn for their zeal, and enclosing themselves in the virtues rather than in prison. Yet in many ways they were not that different from their contemporaries, especially those with similar impulses to exceptional holiness. Indeed, what is distinctive about lollard writings cannot be appreciated if we view them in isolation, or fail to appreciate their broader appeal.
The book’s argument proceeds in three stages. Part 1 shows what lollard writers wanted their readers to do, tracing closely how their normative account of religious practice as an ethics of everyday life in the world differed from the mainstream. The texts surveyed here are largely pastoral writings. Some are polemical in aim, but most are largely focused on instructing their readers or deepening their engagement with fundamental teachings on the law of God and on prayer. Chapter 1 examines the lollard pastoral program laid out in the sermon cycle found in Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College MS 74; chapter 2 considers commentaries on the commandments and gospel precepts, while chapter 3 brings together prescriptive and instructional writings on prayer.
Parts 2 and 3, on the other hand, focus on how lollard writers strove to make this alternative form of religious practice compelling for their readers, in works that are often more ambitious, whether in scope or in style or in the nature of their innovations, than the shorter works treated in Part 1. Part 2 examines how lollard writers wanted their readers to feel, and how through exhorting their readers to model their feelings and actions on biblical narratives they encouraged them to feel like saints. Chapter 4 examines lollard narrative forms, distinguishing the kinds of storytelling commonly disparaged by lollard writers from the forms of life-narrative with which they sought to engage their readers. Chapter 5 turns from the Wycliffite bible, the accurately translated text of the full bible that has largely preoccupied biblical scholarship on lollardy, to parabiblia, forms of biblical commentary and summary that appear in one form or another in many of the extant manuscripts of the Wycliffite bible, in some of its prologues, and in the summary of the whole bible found in Oxford, Trinity College MS 93.
While part 2 focuses more on individuals, albeit as members of groups, part 3 reverses this emphasis as it turns from narrative structures to metaphorical ones, and from feeling to imagination. Metaphorical redescription of the materials and institutions of the late medieval church is a central element in how lollard writings reimagine what they call ‘Christ’s religion’ and redefine what it means to be a member of their ‘true church’. Chapter 6 demonstrates that allegory (or as they often call it, ‘gostly vnderstondynge’) is central to the lollard imaginary, and a means for articulating social as well as personal reform. Chapter 7 examines allegories of the soul as cloister presented as models for reform in Book to a Mother and the Dialogue between Jon and Richard. Chapter 7 and the Conclusion suggest that this book has arrived at more insightful ways to read texts whose ideological alignments have seemed especially puzzling. Rather than ‘reformist’ or ‘orthodox’ yet ‘tolerant’ texts that demarcate the limits of lollardy, Somerset argues that the Book to a Mother and Fyve Wyttes are very typical, indeed paradigmatic examples of lollard pastoral instruction, inflected throughout with characteristic lollard emphases and reflecting lollard spiritual ambitions.