The Medieval Review 10.06.03

Somerset, Fiona. Four Wycliffe Dialogues: Dialogue Between Jon and Richard, Dialogue Between a Friar and a Secular, Dialogue Between Reson and Gabbyng, Dialogue Between a Clerk and a Knight. Oxford: Early English Text Society, 2009. Pp. lxxi, 151. 110.00 ISBN 978-0-19-957848-1. .

Reviewed by:

Ian Levy
University of New Mexico
levyian@yahoo.com

In this volume Fiona Somerset provides a critical edition of four Wycliffite texts that heretofore had never even appeared in print. Now, with the aid of a full textual apparatus and extensive explanatory notes, readers will have a chance to read some very interesting Wycliffite material dated to the period c. 1380-c. 1420. The four dialogues are as follows: Dialogue between Jon and Richard, found in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B 14 50 [333]; Dialogue between a Friar and a Secular, found in Dublin, Trinity College, MS 244 [C 3 12]; Dialogue between Reson and Gabbying, found in Dublin Trinity College, MS 245 [C 5 6]; and Dialogue between a Clerk and a Knight, found in Durham, University Library, MS Cosin V.III.6. As is generally the case with Wycliffite material, authorship of these works cannot be verified, although Somerset surmises that two of the dialogues (Jon and Richard and Reson and Gabbying) may be the work of one author or at least the result of the collaborative efforts of a small group. In any event, Somerset locates within all these dialogues a "common concern with staging a debate not only on the ostensible topic or topics under dispute, but on the issue of who has the right to speak and be heard, and on what basis" (xv). In that sense, then, these dialogues contend with the most persistent dilemma facing Late Medieval Christendom: the nature and location of authority itself.

The Dialogue between Jon and Richard is an anti-mendicant tract. While criticism of the mendicant orders was certainly a hallmark of Wycliffism, it was by no means confined to the fringes of the English religious scene. The secular clergy had routinely attacked the mendicant orders since their arrival at the University of Paris in the middle of the thirteenth century. That the central actors in this dialogue are named Jon and Richard is most likely (as Somerset notes) a nod to Richard FitzRalph whose dialogue partners in his own Summa de quaestionibus Armenorum and De pauperie Salavatoris were likewise named. FitzRalph had been a favorite of the Wycliffites, most notably for the manner in which he applied his theory on just dominion so as to attack the mendicants. And another Wycliffite favorite, Robert Grosseteste, is cited at the outset of the tract as he describes the traits of the false friar who wanders outside of his cloister to deceive the unsuspecting public with his satanic hypocrisy.

The purpose of this dialogue is to expose the failings, if not outright illegitimacy, of the mendicant orders. Yet with a certain concession to fair play, Richard soon points to the wickedness that can be found among the secular clergy as well. This leads Jon to lament his own hypocrisy, his neglect of God's work for the sake of the vainglory of the schools. Actually, this too is a late medieval commonplace: secular theologians from FitzRalph and Wyclif to Gerson and Pecock would all criticize the university as a place of inane disputes and worldly vanity. Nevertheless, Jon is sure that, as bad as he and his fellow seculars may be, the mendicants are much worse, precisely because of their pretensions to humility and poverty. As the dialogue gets under way in earnest the traditional linkage of the mendicants to the papacy is invoked as a sign of their inherent illegitimacy. As far as many Wycliffites were concerned the rise of mendicant orders signaled the unloosing of Satan when the friars drew their authorization and attendant privileges from the pope--Innocent III being the chief culprit. Hence we find an extended attack on papal authority as the author cites some of the more egregious claims of the late medieval decretalists ("glosatowres"), such as the pope being God on earth. Indeed, as the friars and the papacy have come to form the inter-locking pillars of a corrupt edifice, so both must be cut down to size. This is not to say that the Wycliffites would completely do away with either, only that they would recall them both to a standard of Christ-like humility and charity. Thus Jon presents the classic Wycliffite argument that a true pope will live in accordance with the apostolic model of evangelical poverty outlined in the New Testament.

Perhaps of more fundamental importance than the abuses or hypocrisies of the mendicants, however, was the very existence of their private rules--rules which have been directly authorized by the papacy. Surely the path to Christian perfection has been set down by Christ himself as recorded in the Gospels; here one finds the true Rule of Christ. It does not need to be supplemented, then, by the rules of the different orders, which are then constantly emended by successive popes. Interestingly, though, this dialogue ends on a benevolent note of sorts. When Richard asks whether Jon is not being rather rough on the friars, even to the point of violating the tenets of Christian charity, Jon contends that his "scharpe speche" is actually borne of his love for the friars in the hope that they might repent upon the recognition of their faults and thereby save their souls.

The Dialogue between a Friar and a Secular is especially noteworthy for its sophisticated examination of the ground of moral truth. The friar begins by arguing that the divine commandments are technically neither true nor false, since they are presented in the imperative mood, and as such, not subject to verification in the manner of indicative statements. In reply, the secular immediately invokes the Psalmist who had said that all God's commandments are true (Ps 32:4). Thus, says the secular, all other sciences must be governed by God's commandments. This to say that all sciences are ultimately subordinated to the science of Holy Scripture, which is theology. And with regard to the specific matter at hand, the secular finds that statements made in the imperative or optative can in fact express truth and falsehood, precisely because they can "be reduced" to the indicative.

The grounding of morality specifically in Holy Scripture itself-- rather than in reason's extra-scriptural apprehension of the natural law (which is also expressed in Scripture)--arises in the question as to whether all that is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23). For the secular argues that all good conscience is grounded in the Ten Commandments, and what is not of good conscience is sin. Here, by the way, one is struck by the similarity of arguments advanced by the secular in favor of a directly scriptural foundation for the moral law and those made by the Augustinian friar, John Bury, in his Gladius Salamonis directed against Reginald Pecock a few decades later. At any rate, further discussions concern the nature of sin. The friar argues that deliberation is a pre-requisite for moral action, and thus the determination as to whether a given act is sinful. He notes that children cannot be held accountable for sin before they reach the age of reason, precisely because they cannot as yet deliberate. Similarly, a man who goes to sleep in a state of grace cannot commit a mortal sin while asleep, since he is not responsible for what he does in this unconscious state. In response, the secular draws a distinction between sins of omission and commission, the first of which often occur without preceding deliberation. And as for the latter, people often make a decision to do the good only to forget it later and do the evil, as a monk who makes a decision to rise at midnight for prayer, but forgets this when the time comes and continues to doze. The point being that failure to deliberate is no excuse, since one should have first deliberated and then chosen correctly.

This sense of personal moral responsibility arises in the following question as the friar argues that a child does not sin while in his mother's womb. Hence he will be cleansed by grace of the original sin inherited from Adam even as he does not yet sin himself. On the face of it the secular, in response, seems to reject the classic distinction between original and actual sin. For he argues that the sin has to be the child's own since Adam is now in heaven and thus free from sin himself. Hence the child must be in a state of his own personal sin, which means that he does actually sin. Holy Scripture, says the secular, does not distinguish between being in a state of sin and the act of sinning. Still, though, the categories of original and actual sin do appear to be intact inasmuch as the secular is simply personalizing the original sin more emphatically. And this would seem to be in accord with the standard Augustinian reading that all people had somehow sinned "in Adam" (Rom 5:12), and thus are personally culpable. At any rate, the secular then turns this discussion to the praise of divine mercy and justice, as God gratuitously forgives sins apart from preceding merit and only condemns someone following the commission of sin--never before.

The Dialogue between Reson and Gabbying is actually a vernacular adaptation of John Wyclif's Latin work, the Dialogus or Speculum ecclesiae militantis. Here truth squares off against falsehood, or even more precisely Christ against the devil. The relationship between the three medieval states of clergy, nobility, and commoners is examined. Ideally, these states will all work together in harmony, thereby imitating the eternal communion of Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As one might expect, the clergy ought to confine themselves to selfless spiritual tasks and leave temporal affairs to the lay nobility. Indeed, the clergy are taken to task for their grasping at worldly power. They thereby prove themselves false disciples who have forsaken God's Law as they gloss Scripture to justify their disobedience. On the other hand, "true men," i.e., Wycliffites follow the rule of their "hooly abbot Crist." It is in this vein that papal decretals (the substance of canon law) are contrasted with the "lawe of Crist," which the clergy have neglected to preach. This contrast between canon law and Scripture, that is between human and divine law, was commonly drawn by medieval theologians who resented the influence of the lawyers. So it is that the "popis lawe," if it is to claim any legitimacy, must ultimately be grounded in "Goddis lawe," the truth of which can be discerned through "resoun" and "hooly writt." Finally, it is interesting to note, amidst the familiar attacks on the mendicants, how Wycliffite expressions of piety can run rather close to traditional Franciscanism, as when Christ is evoked as the "porest man of alle," who had bequeathed a life of holy poverty to his apostles. Of course, what made the Wycliffite program so radical is that it would have reduced the entire clergy to this state of evangelical poverty.

The Dialogue between a Clerk and a Knight follows along the traditional lines of this medieval genre as each man makes the case for his respective state. In this instance, the knight is clearly the champion of the Wycliffite cause as he attempts to rein in the over- reaching clerk. The clerk as it happens is a canon lawyer, a fact that disappoints the knight who had been hoping to discuss these matters with a theologian. That is to say, he wanted to converse with a Master of the Sacred Page wherein God's law is found, rather than a lawyer who will defend papal law. As it happens, though, the clerk immediately appeals to classic papalist passages in Scripture (Jer 1:10 and Matt 16:18-19) so as to prove that the pope has been set over all types of men. Hence this canonist can only marvel that kings and emperors would dare interfere with the affairs of the Church. The knight does not contest the pope's sovereignty within the Church; indeed, he claims to affirm it. There is a catch, though, for papal authority ought only extend to spiritual matters, which is to say the meek care of souls. The word "spiritual" (as opposed to "temporal") is the operative term here, since it is taken in two very different ways by the disputants. For the knight, the Church (and thus the pope) would be confined to administering the sacraments and thus have no role in the temporal concerns of the king. For the clerk, however, the "spiritual" domain includes all ecclesiastical holdings, none of which can ever be alienated from the Church's control. The question of the alienation of Church property clearly touches on the Wycliffite call for clerical disendowment at the hand of temporal lords. One would be forgiven for thinking the knight a bit disingenuous, therefore, when he protests that, while the king should never confiscate the goods of holy clerics, he is duty-bound to relieve wicked priests of their property so that it might be put to better use. Indeed, as far the knight is concerned, the king has an obligation to God to protect the Church (as canon law itself states), even if that involves reducing her to a state of holy poverty.

There is obviously far more to be learned from these dialogues than could be presented in this review. As they can be quite intricate, and their manner of argumentation sophisticated, the reader is well served by Somerset's substantial notes in the latter section of the volume. Church historians and medievalists of all stripes will learn much from these works and thus should be thankful that they have now been made readily available.