The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts

By Kantik Ghosh | Go to book overview

Introduction

'Non est finis potencie sic glosantis' ('There is no end to the power of glossing so'), says John Wyclif disapprovingly in his De Apostasia of a particular interpretation of a biblical passage relating to the Eucharist. 1 His statement invokes the twin counters of the following study: 'power' and 'glossing', 'authority' and 'interpretation'. The 'text' to be glossed or interpreted is of course the Bible. Wyclif, and the heresy which arose from his dissident thought, placed the notion of an unglossed, indeed deglossed biblical text at the centre of both academic and popular politics. 2 Such a gesture both was premissed on and implied various startling radicalisms. Preeminently, it involved the notion of reclamation: the Bible had to be reclaimed from the discourse of glossing. For Wyclif, this primarily signified a reclamation from contemporary academia and Church and the hermeneutic practices institutionalised therein. Equally importantly, such a reclamation would only be the prelude to the liberation of the deglossed text into discourses other than those traditionally empowered to deal with the Bible, discourses outside the institutionally demarcated ones of Church and University with their attendant mechanisms of control and security. Such a liberation is simultaneously also a reclamation: this was what Christianity had been like 'originally', the fides antiqua scripture referred to in De Apostasia. 3

Indeed, the three elements I have just pointed to are central to the thought of Wyclif and his later followers: a Bible liberated from a corrupt academia and its associated intellectual practices, as well as its perceived values and norms; a Bible self-consciously made accessible to a readership considered — at least theoretically — to be 'simple' and unlearned; the above processes seen as culminating in, indeed constituting, a return to the lost truths of Christ, of the apostles, and of the ecclesia

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