Teaching in the "Schole of Christ": Law, Learning, and Love in Early Lollard Pacifism

Article excerpt

In June, 1391, while in hiding after being charged with heresy, Leicester's notorious Wycliffite preacher, William Swinderby, wrote a letter to his accuser, the bishop of Hereford, John Trefnant, in which he retracted his earlier recantation and reiterated obstinately his unorthodox views on a whole range of doctrines then associated with early Lollardy. One of the most detailed of his arguments dealt with the legality of war, violence, and being at peace with others:

For whereas Christ's law bids us to love our enemies, the pope's law gives us leave to hate them and to kill them, and grants men pardon to war against heathen men and to kill them. . . . Whereas Christ's law teaches peace, the pope with his law assails men for money and gathers priests and others to fight for his cause.1

Two years later, another Lollard, Walter Brut, said much the same when he declared before the bishop,

Christ, the king of peace, savior of all humankind, came to save, not to condemn, and by giving the law of charity to the faithful, taught us to show respect, not anger, and not to hate our enemies. . .. But the Roman pontiff promotes wars and the killing of men in war... in exchange for earthly goods.2

These encounters, noted in most accounts of early Wycliffite activity, also prove to be two of the most revealing in ways not usually considered. The overt, passionate pacifism found in both Swinderby's and Brut's rhetoric usually has been either ignored or marginalized for its simple, naive ignorance which no one really took very seriously.3 Until recently, it was commonly held that since the first Lollards like Swinderby and Brut were largely uneducated, especially in the classics, they were unable to produce sophisticated responses to theological and philosophical issues, including contemporary just-war arguments as well as the reasons offered for their own persecution and harsh treatment.4

Today, this simplistic interpretation fortunately has been discredited for the most part. This study intends to lend such revisionism additional support by showing that many of the points raised in these years by Lollards, against wars and violence in favor of peace, reflect a surprising amount of knowledge, not just about classical just-war arguments or Wyclif 's dominion theory, but also about the political and religious environments in which they were raised. Both Swinderby and Brut used legal terminology in an attempt to contrast God's law with that of the Church or pope. It is more accurate in fact to argue that Lollards were constructing an alternative legal justification for peace that contrasted fundamentally with the just-war idea, and were insisting that this came from Christ himself, as the only truly legitimate authority.

For Lollards understanding the law correctly was no small matter, and so it was imperative that people be taught the truth through biblical instruction rather than by adopting the specious reasoning of the schools. And since the Bible teaches peace based on a law of Christ, the heart of which was a love for others, then by preaching and writing, the truth can be communicated, confusion eliminated, and a sound basis for godly action put forth.

Most of this article will be a consideration of how Lollards understood that law and then attempted to apply it. We will see that by breaking down the constituent elements of the simple principle that it is a Christian's duty to learn this divine law based in charity, Lollards offered a compelling counter-argument to the more scholastic and arcane teachings of the Church. In the context of tragic events unfolding before them, the Lollards used their knowledge of the Bible and Wyclifflan dominion theory to forge a consistent belief in the sanctity of human life that ecclesiastical authorities found quite threatening and secular powers seditious. Before looking at this pacifist language that appealed to a higher law, however, we might first develop a bit of the larger historical, philosophical, and discursive contexts which the Lollards were both consciously responding to and participating in. …