Lollards and Their Influence in Late Medieval England

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

Wyclif, Lollards, and Historians, 1384―1984

Geoffrey Martin

John Wyclif is probably the most famous academic figure in the English- speaking world. There may be other academics who are as widely or even more celebrated, but they have had some other calling besides. An academic reputation is by its nature established in and then largely or wholly confined to academic circles. Academics whose names are familiar in the wider world have, like Aristotle, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or Woodrow Wilson, had to cut some other figure in it. Wyclif attained and then sustained fame, the kind of fame that has inspired Wyclif colleges and institutes, and street- names and statues as well as biographies and icons and college songs, through nothing more than a lifetime of study and argument and exposition. He discharged some priestly duties, though not as many as he might have performed, he had some limited administrative experience, and he undertook several commissions for the crown, but his contemporary reputation and his enduring authority rested simply upon the force of his personality and his academic prowess, and the impression which they made upon his colleagues, friends and enemies alike, and his pupils.

The great volume of commentary on Wyclif's life spans more than six centuries of posthumous fame, but for much of that time it has been only incidentally historical. The reasons for that are complex. In the first place we know almost nothing, in any ordinary sense, of his life. His death is documented, but not his age nor, thereby, the date of his birth. The conventional markers of his early academic career ― matriculation, baccalaureate, even his mastership ― can only be inferred. Wyclif had exceptional qualities, but there were many less influential men amongst his contemporaries who happen to be better documented. 1 The archival sources of the day, though abundant, touch the great majority of individuals only tangentially. Even the universities then lacked systematic administrative records, a deprivation for which they have since been amply compensated.

Wyclif's acknowledged writings are voluminous, but in the nature of things they contain little personal matter, and that not precise. In his own time both his friends and his enemies recognized him as an outstanding master of his profession, but their recorded concern with him was,

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1
As a random glance at A.B. Emden's magisterial Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (6) will show.

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