03.02.17, Rex, The Lollards

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Shannon McSheffrey

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.017


Rex, Richard. The Lollards. Series: Social History in Perspective. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xv, 188. ISBN: 0-333-59752-4.

Reviewed by:
Shannon McSheffrey
Concordia University

For the last several decades there has been no easily available and coherent overview of the Lollards, medieval England's only popular heresy movement. K.B. McFarlane's 1952 biography of the Oxford theologian whose ideas inspired the Lollards, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity, is now woefully out of step with the current scholarship on the movement, while Anne Hudson's The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford, 1989) -- magisterial and indispensable to Lollard studies as it is -- is simply too technical and too detailed for assignment to the curious undergraduate. Richard Rex's new book, The Lollards, solves the problem: it provides, in an accessible and affordable form, a short general introduction to the late medieval English heretical movement. Rex's book offers a viewpoint that some will call contrarian, others refreshing, one that is calculated to challenge those who continue to see in the Lollard movement the precursors of modernity, the forerunners of Protestantism, the champions of women's liberation, or the 'Other' against which medieval English Catholic identity defined itself. At the same time as some specialists will differ with his conclusions, Rex always makes clear his place in the scholarly debate, with the valuable endnotes acting as signposts to alternative views.

Rex's book is organized roughly along chronological lines. In the first chapter, he lays out the main lineaments of the late medieval English church, the majoritarian religious culture against which Wyclif and his followers made their critique. The second chapter, outlining the career and thought of Wyclif, is followed by a chapter that examines the spread of Wyclif's ideas in the burgeoning Lollard movement of the late fourteenth century up to the collapse of its aristocratic and academic underpinnings in the 1410s. The fourth chapter looks at the later manifestations of Lollardy once it had been largely confined to small and isolated communities of artisans, and the final chapter examines the evidence for Lollard influence on the English Reformation.

Rex positions his book from its opening pages in the long shadow of the last short general work on the Lollard movement, K.B. McFarlane's influential biography of Wyclif. McFarlane, writing in an iconoclastic vein in order to counter the conventional hagiographical depiction of Wyclif as a proto-Protestant and peculiarly English hero, portrayed Wyclif as an ivory-tower-bound academic whose inconsistent theology was motivated by frustrated career ambitions rather than by evangelical fervor. According to McFarlane, Wyclif's relationship to the band of Lollard preachers who took up his ideas was indirect, and their movement's only lasting effect on English religious life was to impede real church reform for a century and a half. McFarlane's book has exercised a powerful influence on views of Wyclif and the Lollard movement, but it has also been subjected in recent decades to significant and indeed devastating challenges from a number of quarters, particularly from Anne Hudson. Leading a recovery effort of considerable scope, Hudson, along with a number of other scholars, has unearthed a large body of Lollard writings produced at Oxford in the last decades of the fourteenth century and the first decade of the fifteenth. The study of this new material has led Hudson and others to argue for a significant role for Wyclif in the movement's early shaping and, more generally, for a stronger intellectual and academic foundation for Lollardy than McFarlane realized. Hudson has moreover contended that the movement remained a cohesive sect through to the Reformation despite the loss of gentle and academic support in the second decade of the fifteenth century, with adherents maintaining a consistent and sophisticated grasp of Wyclif's theology through the continued reading of the Wycliffite texts produced during the early years.

Rex's The Lollards is a successor to McFarlane's John Wycliffe in more than just its length and popular appeal: while Rex affirms much of Hudson's picture of the early movement and Wyclif's relationship to it, he disputes especially Hudson's vision of the later Lollard movement as retaining the theological coherence and influence of the early years. For Rex, the later movement was made up of a scattered network of small communities, largely unnoticed by and of little concern to the majority religious culture that surrounded it. He also challenges the credo, central to much current Lollard scholarship and best articulated by Hudson, that Lollards must be judged by their own writings rather than through the records of those who prosecuted them. Rex disputes this view on two grounds. Hudson has argued that the records of prosecution convey an incomplete and misleading picture of Lollard belief, emphasizing only the ways in which the heretics denied orthodox beliefs and practices; Wycliffite writings, on the other hand, reveal that the Lollard beliefs went beyond this negativism to a fundamentally new model of Christianity based on biblicism. Rex's reading of the Lollard texts is a different one, suggesting that Hudson's interpretation is overly charitable. To his mind, the Wycliffite writings only confirm the picture derived from the ecclesiastical records, that Lollards focused almost exclusively on their "principled rejection" (61) of the whole panoply of practices and beliefs that made up late medieval Christianity rather than on a new conceptualization of religious life. Secondly, Rex casts doubt on Hudson's contention that Lollard texts are truer witnesses to the movement than the prosecutory record: the texts were composed and copied entirely before 1410, and most of the Lollard texts that have attracted so much scholarly attention in recent years survive only in unique exemplars with virtually no evidence that they were read outside of Oxford. As evidence for Lollard thought beyond the second decade of the fifteenth century, they have no demonstrated relevance.

Altogether, Rex is skeptical both about the extent of Lollard activity in late medieval England (especially after the first decade of the fifteenth century) and about the appeal of the heresy to the English population. Contrary to many scholars who have seen Lollardy's attractions as obvious, Rex usefully emphasizes that Lollardy was a difficult creed that countered almost every aspect of the medieval world-view and was neither "admired [nor] respected in contemporary society" (111). He is unconvinced by claims that Lollardy provided either an increased role for laypeople in general or for women in particular, suggesting that "in comparison with orthodox devotion, Lollardy was making an alternative, and ultimately more limited, appeal to what was essentially the same constituency rather than offering a degree of lay participation that was precluded in conventional parish life" (104). Similarly, Rex argues that the influence of Lollardy on the development of the English Reformation was negligible. Protestantism succeeded because of the ways in which it reached constituencies that had no interest in Lollardy, the clergy (especially the religious orders) and the gentry. "When both the leaders and the led were from the Catholic majority, there is no need to invoke the tiny dissident minority in an explanatory role. In explaining the English Reformation, the Lollards are simply redundant" (138).

Lying behind much recent scholarship on the Lollards has been an attempt to restore the dignity of these late medieval dissidents in the face of the contemptuous dismissal of scholars like McFarlane, whose patronizing disrespect for both Wyclif and the "rustic simpletons" (John Wycliffe, 168) who formed the later movement raises hackles in many modern readers. Rex, on the other hand, may question the influence of Wyclif or of the Lollards on later medieval English society, but he (mostly) treats them and their ideas sympathetically. There is one crucial and jarring departure from this overall tone, in a passage where Rex over-reaches to make his point that the Lollards were not the wellspring from which later English Protestantism developed. Arguing that Lollards had a significantly different moral stance from the later Reformers, choosing outward conformity and quietism rather than the vital, relevant, and self-confident evangelism of the Protestants, Rex characterizes the Lollard movement as "morally bankrupt, intellectually empty, and in a state of terminal decay on the eve of the Reformation" (132). The later Lollards were arguably ineffectual and irrelevant, but morally bankrupt? As Rex himself points out later, the conformism of late Lollards is unsurprising and understandable given their humble socio-economic status, small numbers, and lack of political clout, coupled with the "very real threat" of execution for their beliefs (133-39, 149). It is not morally bankrupt to lack the educational, social, and political advantages that allowed the later Reformers to succeed where the Lollards had not.

If sometimes Rex's provocative tone goes too far, this should not detract from his substantial achievement in composing this concise, lucid account of the Lollard movement. Rex will not convince all his specialist readers, but they will appreciate his clear-headed assessments of the state of the scholarship on the subject. Most importantly, the book will succeed admirably with its intended audiences, the undergraduate students and general readers looking for an introduction to late medieval English religion, heretical and orthodox, and the graduate students and non-specialists looking for a quick entry into the larger literature.

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Author Biography

Shannon McSheffrey

Concordia University