03.02.12, Ghosh, Wycliffite Heresy

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Katherine Little

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.012


Ghosh, Kantik. The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 296. ISBN: 0-521-80720-4.

Reviewed by:
Katherine Little

Ghosh's study, a revision of his 1995 doctoral dissertation, is a valuable contribution both to the growing field of Lollard studies and to late medieval intellectual history. Like the related studies by Rita Copeland (Pedagogy, Intellectuals and Dissent in the later Middle Ages: Lollardy and Ideas of Learning [Cambridge, 2001]) and Fiona Somerset (Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England [Cambridge, 1998]), Ghosh's study argues for the centrality of the Wycliffite heresy to the intellectual world of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England. Here the Wycliffite heresy is a challenge to traditional hermeneutics (organized around biblical exegesis) that ended up transforming orthodoxy itself. Ghosh traces this challenge through the "Latinate scholastic debates" (16) of Wyclif and William Woodford at Oxford in the 1370s and 1380s, through the translation debates and "vernacular Lollardy" (the English Wycliffite Sermons) in the 1390s, and, finally, to the fifteenth-century orthodox responses to Lollardy in Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ and Thomas Netter's Doctrinale Antiquitatum Fidei Catholicae Ecclesiae. As apparent from this trajectory, Ghosh is as interested (perhaps more interested) in the response to Lollardy as in Lollardy itself.

John Wyclif's De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (the focus of Chapter 1) is both the origin and the center of this study. For Ghosh, Wyclif introduces an insistence on monologism (one truth) into a biblical hermeneutics that had thus far relied on the dialogism of the scholastic method. In this way, Wyclif is the source of the contradiction that would come to characterize all late fourteenth-century and early fifteenth century biblical exegesis: on the one hand authority is located in the scriptural text (the text is, therefore, a kind of object that can be studied), and, on the other hand, authority is located in the interpreter (and his virtuous life) because the bible is the "Book of Life" in the mind of the reader (43). Ghosh describes this contradiction in terms of a "conceptual polarity of 'scientia-sapientia'" (terms he has defined in his introduction) (23). For example, Ghosh writes, "Wyclif seems to be laying down coherent intellectual, 'sciential', strategies to make sense of the biblical text, only to leave this academic discourse behind suddenly, without warning, and launch into full, revelatory flight into the mind of God" (42). Ghosh offers a number of passages from the DVSS in order to demonstrate Wyclif's "sciental strategies," such as his discomfort with figuration (30) and his attempt to redefine the literal sense (37). These contradictions ultimately produce what Ghosh describes as a "cul de sac" and a collapse of the scholastic model (66).

The second and third chapters are concerned with orthodox responses to Wyclif. The second, on William Woodford's "anti-Wycliffite hermeneutics," focuses on the Quattuor Determinationes and is most fruitfully read along with the final chapter on Thomas Netter as a compelling argument for the impact of Wyclif's thinking on orthodoxy. For Ghosh, Woodford is an intelligent critic of Wyclif, aware of the contingencies of 'authority' (81) that Wyclif refuses to concede, the problems of locating authority in a text with all the uncertainties raised by textual transmission. And, Ghosh sees Woodford's tract as the best that traditional scholasticism has to offer, an approach "broadly skeptical and essentially humane" (85) that is set aside by the time Netter writes his Doctrinale.

The third chapter takes up the debate over Biblical translation in terms of Wyclif's and the Wycliffites' shift in thinking about "valid religious authority" (87). Here Ghosh focuses on orthodoxy's contribution to the debate -- the"unpolemical orthodoxy" of Ullerston (87) and the more polemical tracts by Butler, and Palmer. Although Ghosh states at the opening of the chapter, "one of the most significant of these [issues raised by the Lollard heresy] was centred on the validity or otherwise of Biblical translations into the vernacular" (86), he does not address Lollard views of translation. This reader had, therefore, a somewhat unmoored sense in reading about a response without reading about what instigated that response. To be sure, the Lollard view of translation is easily accessible (e.g. in the General Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible), but do Ullerston, Butler, and Palmer reproduce any of the same terms or concerns that the Wycliffites use? Nevertheless, Ghosh provides a cogent account of a development of arguments against translation in response to Wyclif's views on authority, from Ullerston, who writes as if Wyclif did not exist, to Butler and Palmer, who, conscious of Wyclif's impact, see that translation must lead to interpretation.

Chapter 4 shifts from the Latinate world of the universities to the attempt made by the authors of the English Wycliffite sermons to translate that world into English (113). Ghosh focuses on the sermons as exegesis, and argues that they are beset by the same contradiction as Wyclif's writing in DVSS: "an attempt to fix and define meaning theoretically while in practice retaining the creative prerogative of traditional exegesis" (114). Ghosh is persuasive in his analysis of the sermons interest in "an extratextual interpretative community" as an alternative site of authority, e.g. the ubiquitous phrase "men seyin" (125). And, he is also persuasive in his account of a hermeneutic collapse that results when "the sermons enact a confrontation between the discourse of persuasion, rhetoric, and dialogue and the discourse of 'truth' (144).

Chapters 5 and 6 address the hermeneutic contradictions that appear when orthodox writers attempt to respond to Wycliffism and Wyclif. Chapter 5 concentrates on Nicholas Love's translation of the Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ and argues that "an overt rejection of Lollard assumptions and aims coexists with a complex and uncertain accommodation of certain primary hermeneutic emphases of the heresy" (148). This contradiction is also apparent in the layout of the text, with its separation of text and marginal notations (158). As Ghosh illuminatingly remarks, "Love's inadequately realized, yet, given the unexceptionable nature of his source-text, unusually punctilious gesture in the direction of textual precision suggests once again that ideas about textual authority akin to those of the Lollards are being imposed upon a translation based on principles which simply refuse any such imposition" (172).

In Chapter 6, Ghosh demonstrates Wyclif's hermeneutic victory, in that Thomas Netter, a voice of orthodoxy in the 1420s, "shares, to one's initial surprise, in the hermeneutic world of his opponent" (174). This means that Netter argues for a monologic "determinate religious truth" (174), like Wyclif. Also, like Wyclif, the desire for monologism leads to contradictions about where authority is located (in the text or in the interpreter). Most importantly, Netter takes over the "textual, and contextual, fidelity" that characterizes Wyclif's writing (203). In this way, Netter's text demonstrates the limits of the scholastic method - "the time had come for a radical overhauling of all the hermeneutic and ecclesiological 'idées reçues'" (208).

For Ghosh, an investigation of Lollardy ultimately helps us understand the "fracture" in late medieval Scholasticism (215). For this reason, the study insists that Lollardy is " an intellectual heresy" (2) and an "academic heresy" (20) and that its "central institutional context is provided by medieval academia in general, and more specifically, by Oxford University and its intellectual practices" (3). While this argument is certainly persuasive, I had two reservations (and perhaps they are merely reservations about a title that promises a broader investigation of Wycliffism than it delivers). The first reservation is with the evidence for Wycliffism as an academic heresy: the only Wycliffite texts that Ghosh investigates are the English Wycliffite sermons. Indeed, the study neglects the later history of vernacular Wycliffism entirely, despite references to what happens in and because of vernacular Wycliffism: its "threatening presence" and the "massive civil and ecclesiastical repression" it caused (16). This neglect is particularly striking, given the chapter on Nicholas Love's Mirror, which is clearly responding not just to the academic world of Wyclif, but to the vernacular world of the Lollards, in their sermons, polemical tracts (collected by F. D. Matthew and Thomas Arnold), and trials. My second reservation has to do with what it means to understand a religious controversy as primarily academic (and, therefore, largely unconcerned with practices). In separating "academic dissent" from "popular heresy" (which he leaves to Anne Hudson's The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollardy History [Oxford, 1988]) (15), Ghosh isolates Wycliffism within the university, and thus from the practices, such as the sacraments and preaching, that became the material for political, ecclesiastical, and literary debate outside the walls of the university. As a result, his view of the heresy is rather more hermetic than that offered by Copeland, Hudson, and Somerset. That said, Ghosh's study should be read and debated by all those with an interest in late medieval religion and late medieval intellectual history. It is an illuminating and immensely learned account of authority and interpretation in the late medieval academic world.

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Katherine Little