Title Background

<i>Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer </i>

Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer

This book argues that Wycliffism was one of the central forces that shaped English literary history. Chapter 1 re-examines a foundational episode in English politics and religion — the Blackfriars Council of 1382 — and identifies how Archbishop William Courtenay overcame the restrictions that jurisdictional differences between the church and university had always imposed on him and his predecessors when dealing with heresy at Oxford University. Using canon law in strategically political ways, he rendered the academic heresy of Wycliffism as primarily a heresy espoused by persons who ‘usurp to themselves the office of preaching’. As a consequence, Courtenay with the help of Bishop William Wykeham made Wycliffism a matter, finally, of his jurisdiction as archbishop and in the process brought this heresy to national attention. This chapter sets the stage for the subsequent ones by concluding that the Blackfriars Council was not primarily concerned with literary censorship or even ‘vernacular theology’ and that poets were free to explore Wycliffite ideas without fear of retribution from censors. Yet the subsequent chapters do not assess merely authorial ‘responses’ to Wycliffism, which would be a passive claim involving Wycliffites who act and others who react, a claim undergirded by the mistaken idea that Wycliffism was somehow ‘outside’ of mainstream literary and interpretive communities. Rather, the following chapters discover the making of Wycliffism and ‘lollardy’ in the hands of authors who adopted Wycliffite terms and ideas that in many cases — such as L’s — then became a cultural norm.

Chapter 2, then, explores L’s relation to the most visible form of anti-Wycliffite polemic in the wake of the Blackfriars Council: the discourse of ‘lollardy’. L, this chapter argues, neutralizes this polemic and offers in the C text of PPl a searching study of ‘lollardy’ as a construct and social form. In passus 9, the poet defines the term ‘lollard’ as heresy but applies it to corrupt friars instead of Wycliffites, contrary to the practice of others who were calling Wycliffites ‘lollards’ in the wake of the Blackfriars Council. The poet simply would not want the term to be applied to the Oxford scholars and the reasons become clear in the next chapter, which shows that L values Wycliffite models of Christian discipleship in C passus 9. Chapter 3 begins by looking at L’s relationship to the appropriation of the epithet ‘lollard’, whereby the typology of the ‘lollard’ is idealized by Wycliffite and non-Wycliffite texts into a new Christian identity involving lay discipleship and moderate living. Among the texts considered here are a dialogue in Cambridge, University Library, MS Ii.6.26, The Fyve Wyttes, the Epistola Sathanae ad Cleros, and John Clanvowe’s The Two Ways. L expressed features of idealized ‘lollardy’, as articulated in these texts, through his apostolic ‘lunatyk lollares’ in passus 9, thus showing himself to be directly engaged with post-Wycliffite controversies. In sum, Chapters 2 and 3 suggest that L had something like ‘Lollard sympathies’ on account of his handling of ‘lollare’ discourse in ways favourable to Wycliffism. The implications are clear: what makes the C text the C text is all that new poetry devoted almost exclusively to the specific sociosymbolic issues that became prevalent after the Blackfriars Council and the emergence of Wycliffism.

In ‘Intermezzo: Wycliffism is not “lollardy”‘, the book pauses to reflect on the problems of terminology and recommends that critics not use ‘lollard’ as a blanket term to describe texts and practices that do not name themselves as ‘lollard’. Rather, scholars should recognize that ‘lollard’ is a precise and conscientiously deployed word denoting those forms of Christian discipleship of moderate living detailed in Chapter 3. Only texts that speak of ‘lollardy’ in its positive aspects should be described as ‘lollard’. In all other cases, scholars should use the more historically neutral term, Wycliffite, to describe that religious and political movement partially known to us in all its varieties.

Chapter 4 evaluates the Wycliffite significances of Chaucerian vernacularity. In arguing that Chaucer was a close reader of a specific Wycliffite text on translation, this chapter considers some adjacent but important questions. Did the Blackfriars Council place a pall upon vernacular writing itself? Did the authorities consider English writing as inherently heretical such that non-Wycliffite authors feared retribution from censors if they chose English as their medium? After surveying the evidence and answering ‘no’ to these questions, the chapter discusses how Chaucer’s circle presented the poet opportunities to read and cite English Wycliffite texts.

Chapters 5 and 6, on Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate respectively, turn to later ecclesiastical (and secular) events. Chapter 5 examines Hoccleve’s relation to two major persecutions in the fifteenth century — the burning of John Badby in 1410 (the first layperson to be executed for eucharistic heresy) and the trial of Sir John Oldcastle in 1413, the subsequent hunt for the escaped heretic, and his execution in 1417. Hoccleve, it is argued, differs from the legal and chronicle publications that portray these events as orthodox triumphs. Engagingly, he cites but revises the public record about the trials and persecutions of Wycliffites and, in so doing, assumes postures of pity and mercy that are authentically sympathetic with Wycliffism but foreclosed in the recorded orthodox staging of these trials. Chapter 6 attends to Lydgate’s handling of the most problematic theological issue of his day — the Eucharist — and shows that the poet explores the possibilities of eucharistic theology by rejecting the mainstream, juridically orthodox interpretation and adapting a uniquely historically informed model that reasserts the relevance of form and figural interpretation.

The final chapter, on Margery Kempe, returns to the issues of Chapters 2 and 3 — ‘lollardy’ — but views this typology as an affective form. Kempe embraces the identity of the persecuted ‘lollard’ in order to make salient her own affective investments in being ‘shamed’ for Christ through persecution. This chapter then expands these affective considerations in an examination of what is perhaps the most topically loaded moment in the Book: Kempe’s encounter with the former Wycliffite, Bishop Philip Repingdon. Kempe appears to be fascinated by Repingdon, whose own status as a recanted heretic serves as an example of how the categories of orthodoxy and heterodoxy can be productively fused and intentionally confused within a larger discourse of shame. Together, these chapters suggest that the major anti-Wycliffite persecutions from the Blackfriars Council to the burning of Badby, to Archbishop Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions, do not produce the cultural effects we would assume — a dampening down of ideas, a disinterest in vernacularity, and a quashing of experimentation in theology and literary form. Indeed, much of the evidence suggests that the major ecclesiastical and secular initiatives against Wycliffism did not succeed as planned and in some instances had the opposite effect of making this heresy an item of great and lasting interest. As the Epilogue argues, literary history attests to this fact. (AWC)

Reviewed by:
  • Linda R. Bates, Marginalia 8 (2007-2008) [http://www.marginalia.co.uk/journal/08cambridge/bates.php]; 
  • Ian Forrest, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 60 (2009), 808-09; 
  • John M. Ganim, The Medieval Review, 09.05.05 [http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.baj9928.0905.005]; 
  • Kantik Ghosh, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 31 (2009), 301-04; 
  • J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Church History, 78 (2009), 678-80; 
  • Seth Lerer, Times Literary Supplement (January 30, 2009), 23; 
  • Maura Nolan, Studies in Philology, 87.1-2 (2008), 185-191; 
  • Karen A. Winstead, Review of English Studies, 60 (2009), 479-80; 
  • Simon Yarrow, History Today (19 May 2009) [http://www.historytoday.com/MainArticle.aspx?m=33426&amid=30285010]
  • Mishtoni Bose, YLS, 24 (2010), 210-12; 
  • Margaret Harvey, Journal of Theological Studies, 60 (2009), 741-42; 
  • Henry Ansgar Kelly, Speculum, 85 (2010), 123-24; 
  • Derrick Pitard, JEGP, 109 (2010), 401-03;
  • Helen Marshall, English Historical Review, 126 (2011), 418-19; 
  • Emily Steiner, Religion and Literature, 43 (2009), 153-57.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.


Cole, Andrew