I was looking through one of my dictionaries this week in an effort to find definitions of some of the terms I used in last week’s post. Instead, I stumbled across something far more interesting, to me at least.
I have always been confused by the terms minor orders and secular clergy. When I came across both in the same article I thought it was time to clear up the mystery for myself.
We’ll look at secular clergy first. I’ve always thought of secular being the opposite to religious, so the idea of secular clergy made no sense. It does, however, when you realise that secular means ‘in the world’ in Latin. There were two types of clergy: the regular clergy (so called because they lived according to a rule (regula in Latin)) who lived in monasteries and secular clergy who did not. The latter included archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, deans and parish priests. Friars, although living mostly in the world, were included among the regular clergy.
All of these regular clergy and secular clergy were part of the major orders, of which there were three: deacons, priests and bishops. This last included archbishops.
Like members of the major orders, members of the minor orders had to receive the tonsure from a bishop. This meant that their heads were shaved to leave a bare circular patch on the top and their hair was cut short. This shape was symbolic of the crown of thorns inflicted on Jesus on Good Friday.
There were four types of minor orders: acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter. An acolyte was an assistant to a priest who mostly helped with tasks connected to the altar. An exorcist assisted at and performed exorcisms, but also poured the water during mass. A lector, as the name suggests, was a reader who read aloud in church. I can’t find a definition of porter, so must assume that he had something to do with the door of the church, possibly unlocking and locking it each day. If anyone knows what a porter did, please put something in the comments.
Some years ago, when this blog was young, I wrote about the popes of the fourteenth century and why they were mostly French and based in Avignon rather than Rome. Last week the Great Schism came up in the comments, so I thought I’d write something about it. I’m afraid it turned out to be rather long, so I hope that you can spare the time to read it.
In 1305 Clement V, a French pope under pressure from the French king to stay in France, moved the papacy to Avignon, which wasn’t then in France but most definitely wasn’t Rome, and made lots of French cardinals who, unsurprisingly, elected a French pope when he died. This pattern continued for most of the fourteenth century, with each pope saying that he wanted to move the papacy back to Rome, but now just wasn’t the right time.
The English weren’t happy having French popes. They believed, not without foundation, that the French popes supported France in the Hundred Years War. The popes made many appointments to important clerical posts in England (and other nations) from men who attended the papal court in Avignon. Again, these were mostly French.
This was mostly seen in the appointments to canonries, prebends and archdeaconries of cathedrals. In 1326 the bishop of Salisbury complained that out of fifty posts available within the cathedral administration, twenty-eight had been filled by order of the pope and only three of the office holders had ever been seen in Salisbury. Half the chapter of York and a quarter of that of Lincoln were foreigners around the middle of the century.
In 1376 Gregory XI managed to return the papacy to Rome. When he died two years later the people of Rome didn’t want yet another French pope and a mob stood outside the building in which the cardinals met to choose his successor shouting that they wanted an Italian, preferably Roman, pope. By now the number of non-French cardinals must have been fairly small, so the options for finding a pope of different nationality were reduced. This can be the only reason why the cardinals chose the archbishop of Bari, who became Urban VI. It soon became clear that since his election he had developed a temper which sometimes drove him to physical violence, even during services in church. This was not a desirable attribute in a pope. The cardinals reconsidered their choice and left Rome, all but three of them. In Anagni they said that they had been coerced by the mob and declared the election invalid. They had another election and chose someone who was neither French nor Italian: Clement VII. This was the beginning of the Great Schism.
When the appointment of another pope was announced, Urban VI simply made new cardinals and stayed in Rome. Clement VII went to Avignon and each pope excommunicated the other. It seems that neither man was really someone who should have been pope. They held similar views and ran things in a similar way. Which pope you supported depended on your nationality. Scotland, France and Spain supported Clement VII. England, the Italian states and most of the Holy Roman Empire supported Urban VI.
This wasn’t the first time there had been two popes at the same time. For 75 years between 1059 and 1179 there were always two popes, each one declaring the other an antipope. The issues here were mainly about the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.
This new schism was a real challenge to the unity of the church that previous schisms had not been. There had been disillusionment with the church since the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century and the appearance of two popes who were divided by no great theological issues or by different approaches to running the church caused people to question papal authority. No one could work out how to solve the problem and both popes died before it was resolved. Rather shockingly, both popes were replaced. These new popes promised they would resign should it become clear that their resignation would bring about the unity that everyone desired, but neither they nor their own successors, who made the same promise, did so.
You would think that the situation could not get worse, but it did. The one thing everyone agreed on was that the only way to end the schism was to call a general council of the cardinals, but only the pope could do that and there was no agreement as to who that was.
In 1409 all the cardinals, regardless of which pope they supported, called a council themselves, declared both popes invalid and elected another pope. You can probably see where this is going better than they could. Since it wasn’t clear that the council was entirely legal, the two existing popes didn’t see any need to accept its decisions and remained in post. Alexander V (the third pope) took up residence in Pisa. You won’t be surprised to know that when he died a successor was elected.
Since the popes were supported along national lines, mainly decided by who was or wasn’t at war with one another, this made it even harder to obtain agreement about who was really the pope. It was the nations that took the first step, however, with enemies joining together in support of calling a council to resolve the issue. Eventually a pope was forced to call a general council in Constance. After thirty years, though, a divided church had changed greatly. It was no longer as international as it had been and the rulers of Europe were growing used to having more control over their national churches. It was clear that whoever emerged as pope would not have the pre-eminence his predecessors had had.
It was during this time of schism that theologians such as John Wyclif and Jan Hus were teaching against the pope. One of the actions of the council was to declare Hus a heretic and burn him.
Each of the three popes fought hard to remain pope, but all three were deposed. Eventually Odo Colonna was elected and he became Martin V.
One of the remits of the council was to reform the church, but it didn’t. The cardinals didn’t really get to grips with reform until the Council of Trent in 1545. By then it was already far too late. Luther had issued his 95 theses almost thirty years earlier. Having a single pope didn’t really solve any of the issues around the church’s loss of authority, and the abuses that had prompted talk of reform in the fifteenth century were much worse a century later.
Last week a reader asked a question on the Glossary of Medieval Terms page and I thought the answer was interesting enough to warrant a post of its own, albeit a short one. The question is: what does “presented to the living” mean?
A benefice is an office of a priest, vicar or rector, usually associated with a parish. In return for carrying out parochial responsibilities the rector was given some land and its revenues. The rector was the priest responsible for the parish. He wasn’t paid a salary, but lived on the revenues of the land associated with the parish and its tithes. For this reason, it was known colloquailly as a living. It should be noted that not all priests were parish priests and not all benefices were parishes where a priest had responsibility for parishioners.
England was, and is, divided into parishes. Although the number of parishes now is almost 25% greater than it was in the Middle Ages, the population is 18.5 times greater, so there are many more people in most parishes than there were then.
The parish system was fully developed by the end of the twelfth century. There were about 9,500 parishes in England and most of the appointments to parish priest were made either by the local bishop or a monastery. Monasteries were responsible for about a quarter of parishes, which meant that a monastery was the rector for these parishes, a role that it could not fulfil, since a monastery isn’t a person. Monasteries had to appoint a vicar to carry out these duties on their behalf. A vicar is a substitute, that is someone who represents someone else.
The practice of rectors appointing substitutes wasn’t just limited to the instances where a monastery was the rector. Going into the church was an established way for younger sons of nobles to make a living. They were not going to inherit, so there was little point marrying and raising a family. Generally, though, they didn’t have the money to marry and raise a family. If they went into the church, they weren’t necessarily guaranteed a glittering career ending up as a bishop or archbishop, either. The best they could hope for was to be presented with the living of one or more parish, hire someone to do the work in their place and live off the difference between what they paid the vicar and the revenues and tithes provided for the rector.
You’ll note that I wrote ‘one or more parish’. In the Middle Ages it was possible for a priest to be responsible for more than one parish. Although this pluralism was banned at the Lateran Council of 1215, it was easy enough to get a dispensation from Rome.
In England (and probably in other countries) the situation was exacerbated by the fact that many pluralists were foreigners appointed by the pope, or at his behest. Since they didn’t speak English, it was clear that neither they, nor the pope himself, expected them to take up their parochial duties.
When Pope John XXII suspended all earlier dispensations in the early fourteenth century and declared that a priest could only have one living, about 200 benefices became available in England. Whilst it might look as if the pope was concerned about the negative effect of absentee priests on parishes, it was more an attempt to gain more control over appointments to benefices.
In 1291 Bogo de Clare, the son of an earl, had twenty-four parishes, plus a few other church positions, all of which brought him £2,200 a year. I’ll just remind you that a skilled labourer in the mid-fourteenth century earned 4d a day. I don’t know how much parishioners knew about all this, but had I been one of Bogo’s parishioners I expect I would have been horrified to know how much money he was making.
Last week I mentioned the legends of St. Ursula and presented the rather scary picture above of her martyrdom along with that of the 1,000 virgins travelling with her. Since there were some questions, I thought I’d tell her story, or one of them, for there are many.
This, I think, might be the most complete version of the story. Ursula was the daughter of a king of Brittany (presumably in the third century, but possibly earlier). Both were Christians. A pagan king of England wanted her to marry his son, Conon. Ursula, not wanting to marry a pagan, insisted on some conditions. Conon would have to be baptised a Christian and go with her on a pilgrimage to Rome. For the journey, she would be given ten virgins as companions and each of them would have a thousand virgin attendants. Somewhat surprisingly, the English king and his son were able to meet these conditions and Ursula and her husband-to-be set off for Rome with their virgin companions.
They sailed along the Rhine, disembarking at Cologne and Basle. In Rome Pope Ciriacus (a late third-century pope) baptised Conon, who chose the name Etherius. The pope decided to return with them, but when they arrived at Cologne, it was being besieged by the Huns. These killed Etherius and, having failed to rape them, the virgin attendants. No mention is made of what happened to the pope, but his own story says that he was martyred around 303 just outside Rome. The leader of the Huns proposed marriage to Ursula and was refused. She was then shot with an arrow.
Yes, it doesn’t make much sense. It makes even less sense when you read that the whole thing grew out of a Latin inscription found in the church of St. Ursula in Cologne around 400. All that the inscription said was that a man named Clematius had restored a ruined church in dedication to some local virgin martyrs. There was nothing about who they were nor how they died.
Over the centuries embellishments were added and there’s one version of the story that has Ursula as a Cornish princess who sailed to Brittany to be married with 11,000 maidens and 60,000 serving women.
As a saint she was very popular in the area around Cologne; Northern France; what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg; and Venice. Considering her supposed connection to England, she wasn’t at all popular here. One of my sources tells me that only two churches were dedicated to her in the early Middle Ages.
In 1969 the calendar of saints in the Roman Catholic church was reformed and saints for whom there was no real evidence that they had ever existed were dropped. St Ursula was one of them.
I don’t want you to think that I’m mocking the idea of virgin martyrs; I’m not. The ease with which Ursula’s story was created and embellished is a testament to how many young Christian women (and men) were martyred for their refusal to conform to the pagan world in which they lived. The names of the women martyred in Cologne are unknown, but their memory lives on in Ursula’s legends.
Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.
Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.
To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.
A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.
The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.
Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.
One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.
Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.
Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.
I promised you a post about hermits and here it is. Monasteries had their origins in the practice of Christians from the third century on of going out into the deserts of Egypt and what is now Israel to be alone with God, among them St. Jerome, pictured above.
In the sixth century Saint Benedict created the first monastery as we would recognise it so that people could live a solitary life, but in community, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms, but made sense to him and to the people who gathered together in response to what he was doing. ‘Monk’ is derived from the Greek ‘monos’ which means alone. In the eleventh century a revival in eremitism started in Italy which spread across Europe and there were still many hermits in England in the fourteenth century. In some ways it was, by then, seen as a revolution against monasticism, although it was usual in most Benedictine monasteries for there to be two or three hermits associated with the monastery.
Hermits were allowed to leave their hermitages which were usually caves or hovels, but recluses (anchorites and anchoresses) were not. We’ll come on to them next week. Hovel is not necessarily a pejorative term. It just means a hut or small cottage. Living in caves seems dreadful to our modern sensibilities, but people were living in caves in England well into the twentieth century. They only became unfeasible when most homes had electricity, running water and gas. Not all hermitages were small, however, some were quite substantial outposts of a monastery containing chapels and accommodation for travellers
Generally hermits could go where they liked, but their ability to wander was eventually seen as a threat to the stability of the church. Hermitages began to be placed under the supervision of a nearby monastery or bishop in order to maintain some kind of control over where they went and what they did. In 1389 a law was passed stating that hermits had to have letters of accreditation from their bishops in order to prove that they weren’t vagrants. According to the writer, William Langland, there were men who thought their lives would be easier if they pretended to be hermits. I’m not sure what their lives were like if they thought a hermit’s life was better, since the hermit was supposed to renounce the world and be a servant to everyone.
They wore special clothes: a brown habit and white scapular. A scapular is a short cloak that covers the shoulders. This clothing was blessed by a bishop when a man became a hermit. It served two purposes. It was plain, which demonstrated the hermit’s lack of vanity and it also symbolised his rejection of family and society.
Hermits were supposed to provide hospitality to visitors. Their lives were about public service and they could work as guides, ferrymen and river pilots. It was also common for them to earn their keep by repairing roads or bridges.
Hermitages were usually found near these bridges, ferries, fords and causeways and where roads went into a dangerous or unwelcoming area. This goes some way to explaining why so many hermits appear in medieval romances, that is novels in the form of poetry. They usually help the knight with his quest. Knights in romances were always on a quest for one thing or another.
Some fourteenth-century hermits expressed themselves in their writing. Richard Rolle was a hermit in Yorkshire and he wrote commentaries on the Bible as well as devotional lyrics in both Latin and English. A lot of what he wrote was for women recluses (anchoresses). Despite this, he was read by both clerics and lay people.
We’ve seen before that there was a lot of lay interest in the religious life. This was tempered by dissatisfaction with what the church could provide in terms of the spiritual life for people who could not become monks, nuns or priests. Walter Hilton was another hermit and he wrote a book about how lay people could accommodate their desire for spiritual contemplation with the necessities of their secular lives.
Although being a hermit was considered by some to be the pinnacle of monastic life, requiring years of preparation, some lay people showed such an aptitude for it that they were allowed to become hermits by their local bishop.
We’re still with the church this week, but on a smaller scale. The church wasn’t just the pope and senior clerics in important secular jobs; it was also priests working in parishes trying to do what they could for their parishioners. Parish priests weren’t paid a wage, but received a tithe from their parishioners. Essentially the tithe was ten percent of a harvest or general agricultural produce. The tithe was quite a bit more complicated than I’m going to represent it as being.
There were two types of tithes: greater tithes, which were wood, corn and hay, and lesser tithes, which were flour, fish, salt and young animals. We saw last year that the clergy in Southampton parishes received a tenth of the pigs born in their parishes.
One of the reasons why this is more complicated than I’m suggesting is that the tithe didn’t always go to the parish priest. Sometimes parish priests were monks and the tithe went to their abbey. For the purposes of this post, though, we’ll assume that all tithes went directly to the priest.
Tithes weren’t the only way of ensuring that priests had enough to live on. Priests also tended to have glebe lands. This was land within the parish used to support the priest. They were on average 100 acres of various kinds of land and about three-quarters of it was demesne land, i.e. it was farmed by the villeins of the person who owned it and was not rented out. Some priests had much more than 100 acres. In 1305 the rector at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight had 600 acres of land with a dovecote and a mill. He also received rents from tenants and the normal tithes. He received more income from his glebe lands than from his tithes, but for most priests it was the other way round. Just as some priests had much more than the average, so many would have had much less, or none at all. For them their tithes were their only source of income.
Glebe lands became increasingly unpopular as lay people were worried that their priests would spend more time studying agriculture and managing their land than they would looking after the spiritual health of their parishioners. In some cases this was not an unrealistic fear.
You’ll have spotted that this was all very well for rural priests, but what about those in urban parishes and what did the priests in Southampton do with all those pigs, because it turns out that almost every household in the town would have had at least one, so there would have been a lot of pigs born each year.
In towns, priests were supported by tithes on commerce, probably money rather than goods. Although tithes were much more suited to rural areas, they were mostly accepted in towns as well. There were very few complaints about how they were calculated.
For most priests, who were, obviously, single men, the tithe gave them more than they needed of those particular items, so they sold the excess to buy other things that they needed, but weren’t included in the tithe, furniture, for example, or non-local foodstuffs or labour.
In some parishes the parishioners could give money at a set rate instead of a young animal. There were only so many chickens, calves or sheep a single man could use or manage, and giving money instead meant that the parishioners had the use of animals they would otherwise have lost for eggs, milk and wool, as well as for breeding, while the priest had the money to buy what he needed.
I don’t know how much of a context this is, but in 1302 a priest in the Meon Valley in Hampshire received 150 lambs in tithes. If he kept them, he would soon have a huge flock, so it’s understandable that they were sold. He still might have had a small flock, but he would have had to pay someone to look after them.
Tithes were amongst the things attacked by the Lollards at the end of the fourteenth century. Once again, they were ahead of their time, but this time by several centuries. Tithes were finally abolished in England in 1836.
Last week I wrote about John Wyclif as a man who articulated views that were not terribly unusual in his time and I want to look this week at others who held similar views, but were not as fortunate as Wyclif when church and state began to crack down on those they considered heretics after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 showed them how dangerous those views might be. It was one thing for an Oxford theologian like Wyclif and his aristocratic/royal supporters to call for the church to be dispossessed of its property and for clerics to give up their secular positions, it was quite another for “uneducated peasants” to take matters into their own hands.
The Lollards, as those who agreed with Wyclif’s teachings were called, were not an organised group; they didn’t even come from the same social strata. They were nobles, clerics and laymen. The only common denominator was that they all wanted to reform a church that had become corrupt.
Depending on who you believe, lollard either derives from a Dutch word meaning ‘to mumble’ or from ‘lolium’ the Latin for weed. I don’t really understand why a Dutch word would be used for a group of English heretics, but I can understand why a Latin word could.
It was used in a letter from the pope to the chancellor of Oxford University in which he said the university had allowed itself to become infected with weeds (lolium) by which he meant heresy. He was referring to the parable of the wheat and the tares in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which a farmer sows wheat in his field and his enemy sows weeds. The farmer decides not to dig up the weeds in case he pulls up the wheat with them, thus reducing his harvest, but when harvest time came he would dig up the weeds first and burn them. At that time heretics weren’t burned in England, but they were in France and Italy. It was, however, a practice that was taken up with enthusiasm in England in the sixteenth century.
I wrote last week that the papacy had fallen into disrepute after the move to Avignon in the early fourteenth century, but in the middle of the century, the Black Death had harmed the church as a whole. Monks, priests and bishops, including an archbishop of Canterbury, had died along with everyone else. If God had withdrawn his protection from the church, it could only mean the church didn’t please Him. If it didn’t please him, things needed to change.
Oxford, where Wyclif taught, was seen as a hotbed of heresy and archbishops of Canterbury had been trying to bring the university to order for years and it wasn’t until the 1390s, when the religious atmosphere in England had fallen more in line with what was required by the pope, supported by Richard II and Thomas Arundel, a very strong-minded and powerful archbishop of Canterbury, that they succeeded.
The closet followers of Wyclif were Nicholas Hereford, Philip Repingdon, John Aston and Laurence Bedeman. They were students and masters at Oxford and were also theologians. When church and state began to clamp down on heretical beliefs about the mass, they, unlike Wyclif, were still young men, who had quite a lot to lose, and they hadn’t spent as much time as he had mulling over the theology.
In 1382 they were persuaded on threat of excommunication to recant, which they did, not only in private to the church authorities, but also in Oxford in front of other scholars and masters. Philip Repingdon eventually became bishop of Lincoln and a persecutor of Lollards.
Nicholas Hereford, however, had to recant a second time, having run away to appeal to the pope, who put him in prison. He escaped, but was arrested in England in 1386 and escaped again. In 1388 he was captured again and (probably) tortured. He then recanted.
Some Lollards were probably bribed with money to retract what they had formerly believed. Even the chronicler Henry Knighton, an enemy of Wyclif’s, could see that these confessions changed nothing for the people who made them, as they were not dissuaded from their beliefs. What was important to the church at this point, though, was that the confessions were made publicly in front of people who knew the people confessing and who knew what they had done. This priority changed as time went on, however.
By the time John Pulvey, probably Wyclif’s closest follower and the man who wrote down his treatises and who translated the Gospels into English, was asked to recant in 1402, the threat was no longer excommunication, but burning. He had been in prison since the late 1380s and had been tortured. Just to make sure he understood that the threat was real, a priest called William Sawtre was burned alive, the first Englishman to be burned for heresy. After Purvey’s recantation many Lollards followed his example. Some did not and were burned.
At least eight knights in the royal household and possibly Richard II himself were Lollards. The king was certainly slow to come to the aid of the church against them and Queen Anne received a copy Purvey’s English Gospels. The regent, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt was, of course, Wyclif’s protector. Richard’s attitude changed after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the church emphasised the links between Lollardy and popular unrest. By the end of the 1380s he had become an unyielding defender of orthodoxy. For the same reason support for Lollardy lessened among the landholders and the wealthy.
In January 1395 Richard was in Ireland. A parliament was held in Westminster while he was away and Lollards nailed their manifestoes to the doors of Westminster Hall, where the parliament was being held, and St Paul’s, where important sermons were preached to the people of London. Richard’s council asked him to return, which he did as quickly as possible. He immediately set to work in support of orthodoxy, starting with those closest to him. One of the Lollard knights in his household was made to swear an oath recanting his heresy. Once he had done this, Richard told the knight he would be executed if he went back on his word. The knight concerned had given loyal service to Richard’s grandfather and father, and had been one of the executors of his mother’s will. More junior members of the household were also made to renounce their beliefs.
It’s no accident that the real persecution of the Lollards began soon after Henry IV usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399. One way of making his reign appear legitimate was to be ultra-orthodox in religious matters. It might also have been an act of deflection. If people were worried about being burned for their religious beliefs, or their friends being burned, they were less likely to draw attention to the illegitimacy of Henry’s reign. As the son of John of Gaunt, he probably also wanted to ensure that no one ever thought to suggest that he also might be tainted by Lollardy.
It is generally thought that Geoffrey Chaucer, who was friendly with many highly-placed Lollards and was also a protégé of John of Gaunt, wasn’t one himself, but Lollardy certainly informs The Canterbury Tales, which was written at this time.
Lollardy eventually died out in the second half of the fifteenth century, or went far enough underground to be left alone. It was over a hundred years before calls for the church to reform were heard all over Europe.
Having avoided political controversy last week, I thought I’d have a go at religious controversy this week. I apologise in advance, because I know that I’ll be using terms that aren’t in everyday use and I won’t always remember to define them. Please call me out in the comments section if anything isn’t clear.
In a very rare post about a single historical person, I’m looking at the proto-Protestant John Wyclif. He was probably born in the late 1320s or the early 1330s in Yorkshire. For a short time he was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford in the 1350s. In 1360 he was Master of Balliol and he received his doctorate in theology in 1372. By this point he was considered the leading master of theology at the university. Even his many enemies admired his intellect, but they were nonetheless his enemies and worked against him.
It’s easy to understand why he is often considered a proto-Protestant, as many of the things that he advocated were core beliefs of Protestants in the sixteenth century and for the same reasons. He believed that being part of the church did not necessarily mean that one was a member of the elect. He said that even the pope might not be saved. In fact, he was even more outspoken, but we’ll come to that.
Like the reformers of the sixteenth century, he read the Bible thoroughly and studied the Church Fathers. This led him to challenge the church’s view of what happened in the mass and he said that there was no reason to believe that the bread and wine physically became Christ’s body and blood, a doctrine that had only been confirmed in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council. Wyclif’s view was fairly commonplace and was not considered problematic even in the middle of the fourteenth century. By the 1370s it made him a dangerous man.
Wyclif lived in a time in which the church was letting the laity down. They were being urged to confess, but the church couldn’t deal with the spiritual concerns that arose from the concomitant self-examination. Increasing literacy meant that lay men and women were reading the Bible and spiritual works and were becoming more evangelical at the same time as the church was becoming more legalistic. It wasn’t a good combination. Thanks to Wyclif and his followers, the Bible was being translated into English and many theological works were written in English, which made it accessible to people who weren’t members of the clergy.
Wyclif himself wrote in Latin for an educated and learned audience, but a group of his followers went out preaching in English about his teachings. Despite this, he believed that the Bible and any discussion about it should be in English. The church wanted to keep both the Bible and any discussions in Latin, which few people understood.
Henry Knighton, a contemporary chronicler expressed the church’s view, “This Master John Wyclif translated into the Anglic (English) -not Angelic-tongue, the Gospel that Christ gave to the clergy and the doctors of the Church, that they might minister it gently to laymen and weaker persons, according to the exigence of their time, their personal wants, and the hunger of their minds; whence it is made vulgar by him, and more open to the reading of laymen and women than it usually is to the knowledge of lettered and intelligent clergy; and thus the pearl of the Gospel is cast forth and trodden under the feet of swine.” This was a view that continued to hold sway even two centuries later when the Reformation was finally making it possible for people with no understanding of Latin to read the Bible. As an aside, the Gospels were originally written in a form of Greek that was widely spoken around the Mediterranean in the first century, that is, it was written to be read/heard and understood by as many people as possible, not a select few.
Wyclif wanted the church to be reformed and, like many at the time, thought it was being corrupted by wealth and power. Redistribution of the church’s wealth through taxation and other means was a popular demand. If the clergy held a third of the land in England, it made sense to many people that they should pay a third of the taxes. He also said that the monastic orders should be abolished.
He was the protégé of John of Gaunt, which was a double-edged sword, since John of Gaunt was really unpopular, partly because he wasn’t his father, Edward III, or his brother, the Black Prince. He, John of Gaunt, had made an enemy of William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, and the country as a whole. He was regent for his brother’s son, Richard II, and was widely suspected of wanting to be king himself. It is, of course, not known whether John of Gaunt supported Wyclif because he believed what Wyclif was saying or whether there was a large element of self-interest. Wyclif’s supporters included men who had served in the households of Edward III and the Black Prince, so it’s possible that he did agree with Wyclif.
Less pleasing to John of Gaunt, doubtless, Wyclif questioned the concept of the just war, espoused by St Augustine, at least as far as the Hundred Years War was concerned. John of Gaunt wanted to continue the Hundred Years War, possibly to emulate his older brother, the Black Prince, who had been a very successful commander in the 1340s and 1350s. He was however, not the man his brother had been and nor were the times the same.
In 1374 Wyclif negotiated with the pope on Edward III’s behalf when the pope wanted to tax English clergy to pay for wars he was fighting in Italy. In that year he was given the living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which was in the gift of the king.
On 19th February 1377 John of Gaunt rescued Wyclif from William Courtenay, the bishop of London, and others when he was called to appear before them in St Paul’s accused of seditious preaching. John of Gaunt had become Courtenay’s enemy when he persecuted William of Wykeham, who was Courtenay’s own protégé. Courtenay was very keen to retain the privileges and liberties of the church, the very things against which Wyclif was preaching.
Wyclif addressed the Commons in 1378 to say that debtors did not have the right of sanctuary and that the king could take the property of the church in time of war. The papacy, and by extension the church, was damaged in the fourteenth century by the move to Avignon in 1305 and by the fact that the popes were French and very partisan. This made them less than trustworthy when they were supposed to mediate between the French and the English in the Hundred Years War. In 1378 things became even worse when two different popes were elected, one in Rome and one in Avignon. It’s no surprise that Wyclif identified the pope with the Anti-Christ, another belief of the Protestants.
In 1379 he wrote De Eucharistia which covered his beliefs about the mass.
In 1381 he was blamed by the church for sparking the Peasants’ Revolt, during which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, was beheaded. Wyclif’s old enemy, William Courtenay succeeded him. Wyclif condemned Sudbury’s murder, since there had been no trial and the punishment exceeded the crime, in Wyclif’s eyes, of a cleric exercising a secular job: Sudbury was England’s chancellor (the medieval equivalent of prime minister). He also asked for mercy for the rebels as they had grievances that needed to be resolved. None of this helped his cause with the church.
In May 1382 he appeared before the Commons advocating that the church be broken up. He said that England should stop obeying the pope, churchmen should be removed from secular positions and the church’s property taken over by the king. This was his undoing, for they were also amongst the things demanded by Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt the year before. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders of the revolt had been influenced by Wyclif, simply that Wyclif didn’t hold views that were particularly unusual. The danger with Wyclif was that he could articulate them and back them up with years of studying theology.
Courtenay called him to a council of carefully selected bishops in Blackfriars in that month in order to declare his teachings heretical. Wyclif defended twenty-four points of his teaching. Ten were declared heretical and the rest erroneous. He was banned from preaching until he had renounced his heresy and done the necessary penance, which he didn’t do. Despite this, he wasn’t excommunicated and he wasn’t made to give up his parish.
Wyclif died in December 1384 after a stroke while he was saying mass in the parish church at Lutterworth, doubtless still believing that Christ was not physically present in the bread or the wine.
Early in the fifteenth century the study of his works was forbidden, as was the translation of the Bible into English. The church in England and the state were so worried about the fuse that Wyclif had lit that a law was made in 1401 that allowed them to burn heretics at the stake. In 1415, Wyclif himself was declared a heretic. It wasn’t a good sign.
I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.
Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.
Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.
By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.
He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.
His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.
John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.
Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.
In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.