The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts

By Kantik Ghosh | Go to book overview

4
The English Wycliffite sermons:
'thinking in alternatives'?

The 294 Wycliffite sermons of the long English cycle 1 remain somewhat of a mystery. That they were composed as parts of a single unified whole seems, on the evidence supplied by Anne Hudson, beyond doubt. 2 Not only are they found in the extant manuscripts either in the form of the full cycle or in the form of selections based on comprehensible liturgical patterns, but there is also no evidence that any part of the cycle was allowed to circulate before the whole was complete. The sheer volume of material would suggest a collaborative effort, but authorship, whether single or multiple, remains obscure. 3 What is even more puzzling is the intended purpose of the sermons. Some are in the nature of skeleton-pieces, providing only a basic gloss on the lection, with the implication that the speaker should build upon the framework provided; others offer extended passages of polemic and fuller exegeses. The tonal variation is great: occasionally, the sermons seem to assume a fairly learned audience and therefore include logical references and recondite academic jokes; at other times, the audience visualised seems to have been secular and lay, one which would sympathise with the denigration of academics and the mockery directed against clerical pretensions. Equally interesting is the presentation of the text in the manuscripts. 4 The amount of time and attention evidently devoted to matters of lay-out and textual correction, the general size of the volumes, and the scrupulous distinction made, by means of underlining, between the lection and the rest of the text would seem to suggest that the sermons were meant for reading. 5 A possible hypothesis, advanced by Hudson, is that the 'sermons' were used for group study in Lollard schools. 6 Such a hypothesis would also explain the occasional erudite reference: if the discussions were led by a

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