Lollards and Their Influence in Late Medieval England

By Fiona Somerset; Jill C. Havens et al. | Go to book overview

Wycliffite Representations of the Third Estate

Helen Barr

According to Adam Usk, Wyclif's followers "most wickedly did sow the seed of murder, snares, strife, variance, and discords, which last unto this day, and which, I fear, will last even to the undoing of the kingdom.” 1 Usk was not alone in associating Wycliffites with civil dissent and unrest. Walsingham stated that the failure of the late Archbishop Sudbury to suppress the heresy of Wyclif and his followers was the primary cause of the revolt in 1381. 2 Both Walsingham and Knighton frame John Ball as an associate of Wyclif; the latter terming him "Wycliffe's John the Baptist.” 3 While modern criticism is generally sceptical of the notion that Wyclif and/ or his followers were the cause of the uprisings in 1381, it is hard to ignore the considerable body of contemporary opinion which apparently believed that there was a very strong connection between Lollardy and insurrection. 4 When one turns to what the Wycliffites actually wrote themselves, however, rather than what was written about them, it is clear that Lollard texts are unanimous and univocal in their declaration of obedience to secular authority. The king must be obeyed, even if he be a tyrant, and members of civic society must be ordered according to the normative tripartite division into lords, clergy and labourers. 5 How is such a polarity of view possible? If the stated opinions of the Lollards on civil society were so declaredly orthodox, and even quietist, how could contemporary commentators associate them with a series of uprisings for which the third estate ― the peasants, or "rustics," as the commentators term them ― were held to be chiefly responsible? 6 This investigation of Wycliffite representations of the third estate is, in part, an attempt to answer that question.

____________________
1
Adam Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, 1377―1421, 2nd ed., ed. E.M. Thompson (London: Henry Frowde, 1904), 3―4.
2
Thomas Walsingham (223, 310―11).
3
Walsingham (223, 320―21); Henry Knighton (164, 2.151).
4
For discussion of the connection, see Margaret Aston (269); Anne Hudson (723, 85―106), and Steven Justice (765, 67―101). Hudson notes that the furthest that Wyclif went in condemning the commons in De Blasphemia was to say that "they acted rather outside the law” (98); while Justice argues that Wyclif's programme of disendowment put into circulation a vocabulary that could be put to insurgent use, even if Wyclif himself stressed secular obedience to the king (89―101).
5
See Anne Hudson (713, 362 and 366―67), and English Wycliffite Sermons (158, 4.152―60).
6
Although modern historians have established that the majority of the rebels were artisans rather than peasants, together with some priests in minor orders (e.g. John Ball) and a spattering of lesser gentry, see Rodney Hilton, Bondmen Made Free: Medieval Peasants and the English Rising

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