Wycliffite Spirituality

Article excerpt

Wycliffite Spirituality. Edited and translated by J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Stephen E. Lahey, and Fiona Somerset. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist, 2013. Pp. xii + 412. $39.95; $29.95.

The very fact that a volume on the Wycliffites has warranted inclusion in a series devoted to spiritual writings in the Western tradition illustrates the significant transition that has been taking place over the last few decades in the study of late medieval Christianity. Not too long ago the notion that Wycliffites might take their place within the great chain of Catholic spirituality would have raised some eyebrows. Were not the Wycliffites a confederation of English "heretics" (Lollards), destructive outriders in an otherwise pious Catholic society, most accurately defined by all that they opposed rather than by any positive spiritual vision of their own? The present volume goes a long way toward dispelling such a reductionist and deeply engrained characterization.

A new appreciation for the richness and complexity of late medieval Christian culture has meant that we have substantially revised previous categories of orthodoxy and heresy. We have come to recognize just how difficult it can be to designate a given belief as uniquely heretical in the fifteenth century amid the range of opinions that sat side by side, however uneasily, and lacked formal confirmation. As it was, the determination of heresy in the late Middle Ages remained a matter for ecclesiastical courts to decide; but these judicial decisions, although theologically informed, were not designed to withstand sustained theological reflection. Indeed, the defendant in a heresy trial--as this volume lucidly demonstrates--was most often asked to abjure a set of starkly worded propositions that could scarcely capture the deeper, more nuanced, doctrinal import and religious sensibilities that lay behind them.

Perhaps, therefore, we should set aside judicial constructions of heresy and read the texts themselves to see what they have to offer. In this praiseworthy effort, the volume's editors have made it possible for a general audience, which might be unfamiliar with Scholastic Latin or Middle English prose, to read from a wide array of sources. The volume is arranged in three main parts: John Wyclif, English Wycliffite Writings, and Heresy Trials. Part I contains translations of Latin sermons and devotional works. Part II, which comprises the bulk of the volume, is broken down into four sections: forms of living, exegesis and commentary, Wycliffite devotion, and ecclesial spirituality. And part III provides trial records from the Norwich (1428-31) and Winchester (1511-13) dioceses. Comprehensive introductions and explanatory notes accompany all of the volume's selections. …