J. Patrick HORNBECK II, Stephen E. LAHEY and Fiona SOMERSET, translators and editors. Wycliffite Spirituality. Classics of Western Spirituality Series. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013. pp 432. $29.95 pb. ISBN: 9780809147656. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
Wycliffite Spirituality is a recent entry in the Classics of Western Spirituality series by Paulist, and incorporates translations of Medieval Latin manuscripts by John Wyclif, the Middle English writings of fourteenth and fifteenth century Wycliffite and Lollard followers, and the official trial proceedings against individuals and small groups of disciples accused of formal heresy. Its three translator-editors, Hornbeck (Fordham), Lahey (Nebraska) and Somerset (Connecticut), are each scholars with expertise in the English Wycliffite-Lollard movements.
Wyclif (1331-84), was a Scholastic philosopher, theologian, proto-reformer, and master of Balliol College at Oxford University during the Avignon papacy. As an English Catholic priest, he began advocating for both the priesthood of the laity and vernacular translations of the Scriptures, over a full century before Luther raised similar issues. While his treatises on political philosophy quickly spread across the European continent, his theological and spiritual writings had a direct influence upon Jan Hus and would contribute to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation in Eastern Europe. Until recently, however, the spiritual teachings and practices of Wyclif and his followers have been largely ignored in most Western historiographies; few have undertaken a serious look at the positive or practical dimensions of the spirituality that he and his followers advocated.
The editors of this volume have sought to correct this imbalance by presenting twenty-five texts written by Wyclif and his disciples. Five of the most spiritually significant works written by Wyclif himself (Sermon 29, The Six Yokes, On Love, On the Divine Commandments, and On the Lord’s Prayer), were each translated from extant Latin manuscripts that clearly date to the crest of his meteoric rise in England; eighteen tracts from various fourteenth and fifteenth century followers of Wyclif, all originally written and circulated in Middle English, are here translated and arranged under four thematic subheadings (Forms of Living, Exegesis and Commentary, Wycliffite Devotion and Ecclesial Spirituality). Rounding out the volume are fresh translations of two sets of Latin ecclesiastical records that document the proceedings held against Wycliffite and Lollard adherents in both Norwich and Winchester – proceedings which inadvertently provide many rich details of the daily spiritual lives and devotional practices of those who followed in the footsteps of Wyclif.
Throughout these texts, readers will find many examples of stinging anti-clerical, anti-papal and anti-mendicant sentiment, all justified as appropriate responses to the wide-spread clerical abuse, corruptions and laxity observed by Wyclif and his followers across much of England, during the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Within these texts, there are clear rigorist preferences on how to deal with the traditional seven vices, as well as underlying elements of their initially-Augustinian but eventually fairly negative anthropological basis for all human interactions.
Wyclif and followers advocate a particularly strong and consistent emphasis on the faithful observance of the Hebrew Decalogue, as the primary Christian grounds for all moral behavior. One can easily prove her or his love of Jesus Christ by cultivating a necessary, strict, careful and practical adherence to each of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, these same texts also seem to exaggerate or even promote an excessive fear of the devil (“the Fiend”), who is often depicted as lying in wait and plotting against individuals up until the precise moment of their death; this can lead to a real potential for human despair at the near-impossibility of avoiding temptations and damnation in the very moments just prior to one’s death i.e. in a final, cosmic and unexpected entrapment of the human soul, resulting in the permanent separation of the reader from God and his eternal reward. Thus, for Wyclif and his followers – as for a great many individuals of that particular era – fear itself became a highly utilitarian motivating force toward the individual attainment of salvation.
The translator-editors have provided a great introduction to Wyclif, his early efforts to reform the spiritual practices of the Catholic Church in England, and the twenty-five texts included in this volume. Their collection is an important contribution to the Classics of Western Spirituality series, as it intelligibly reproduces significant but somewhat overlooked, ignored or even missing sources of a particularly fast-growing stream of Judeo-Christian spiritual practice in medieval England.
While the selected texts inevitably prove to be a bit repetitious from chapter to chapter, I found both the original writings of Wyclif, and the details of the Heresy Trials to be fascinating for their insights into the lived realities of fourteenth and fifteenth century spiritual adherents.
This volume would prove especially helpful as a supplementary text in graduate courses treating English mystics or medieval spiritual practices. It will also be a helpful supplementary text for graduate courses exploring the antecedents of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation.