The Medieval Review 17.11.07

Hornbeck II, J. Patrick, Mishtooni Bose, and Fiona Somerset. A Companion to Lollardy. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 67. Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. 262. ISBN: 9789004309791 (hardback) 9789004309852 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Schirmer
New Mexico State University

This book tells two stories: one is about the late-medieval English lollards themselves, their practices, beliefs, opponents, and impact; the other is about the stories lollardy has been used to tell, from its earliest appearances in the historical record to the present day. Both stories are richly told and badly needed, not just by students and newcomers to the field, but also by more jaded scholars of lollardy like myself, who may be surprised by how much they learn.

On the one hand, Hornbeck et al.'s Companion to Lollardy offers a thorough account of our collective knowledge about lollardy and its immediate afterlife. The sheer volume of material synthesized here is remarkable--about the Oxford theologian John Wyclif and the development of his key ideas; about his immediate associates and academically-trained followers as well as later, lay-dominated lollard communities; about those who wrote against them and put them on trial for heresy; and about the long-contested relationship between lollardy and the English Reformation. Hornbeck's historical survey of lollardy is framed, moreover, by an equally important survey of lollardy historiography, that is, of the ideological purposes and historical meta-narratives lollardy has been made to serve. This story reaches back to the monastic chronicles of the 1380s, moves through Reformation and Empire, and into the "professional" histories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Interweaving history and historiography, Hornbeck exposes the extent to which lollardy has been and continues to be an "ideological football," borrowing Peter Marshall's term (9). A central aim of the Companion is to unpack the grand teleological narratives that have shaped our knowledge of lollardy, clearing away the ideological brush to provide a clearer view of the lollards on their own terms, and as "a window on religion, culture, and society in late medieval England" (2). We are repeatedly reminded to expect variety and change, to avoid "pigeonholing" and resist the "seductive" pull of accounts driven by ideology and interest (143, 23). This has become a familiar move in lollard studies of late: resisting dichotomies that mimic inquisitorial discourse, and emphasizing the many ways that lollardy overlapped and interacted with mainstream religious culture. Hornbeck's volume will make such work considerably easier to do well, while also exemplifying some of the challenges involved.

Hornbeck's introduction announces his historiographical project: "The Study of Lollardy" opens with a succinct retelling of the traditional story about Wyclif and the lollards and closes with a promise to deconstruct its enabling assumptions, namely, that lollardy was a coherent movement of dissent, fueled directly by Wyclif's theological ideas and easily distinguishable from mainstream religious culture, and that as such lollardy was formative of English reformation theology. In between, Hornbeck surveys three broad phases of the study of lollardy, namely, medieval, Protestant, and professional. He provides a useful overview of common points of focus in the field today, including lollard spirituality, literary form, prosopography, domestic and Continental impact, and theoretical approaches to dissent. And he tackles the "terminological quandaries" that continue to plague a field whose central terms remain "disputed" (15). Hornbeck, like many of us, juggles competing imperatives here: to resist the false coherence imposed variously by persecutors and historians, while preserving "lollardy" as a meaningful category for historical study (as most of us still believe it is). Walking this difficult line, Hornbeck, who reserves "Wycliffite" as "a term both of heresiography and intellectual history," defines "lollards" as "a not particularly well-defined set of individuals whose beliefs, actions, and social affiliations caused them to be thought of as suspect by the religious authorities"--a solution that might seem to rest ultimately on an inquisitorial perspective Hornbeck elsewhere resists (18-19). But there is no perfect solution here. As Hornbeck himself notes, he and others at once resist the notion of any single "litmus test" for lollardy and persist in developing lists of qualifying beliefs or practices, resorting as often as not to negative definitions even while attempting to focus on the lollards' "positive" spirituality and theology. Perhaps the best we can do at the moment is to hold the category lightly and in tension, under correccioun.

The following four chapters of this Companion survey, in turn, the people, practices, writings, and beliefs associated with lollardy. Variety and fluidity remain touchstones throughout, and the work of Fiona Somerset looms large, shaping an emphasis on lollard spirituality and religious practice as well as a commitment to thorough research in primary sources. Chapter Two, "The People," lays the groundwork for much that follows, introducing key themes and dramatis personae. Especially strong is the discussion of Wyclif's own evolving theological views, on universals, dominium, and the Eucharist in particular; Hornbeck, himself a professor of theology, is an able guide to Wyclif's embroilment in contemporary academic debates. The territory necessarily becomes murkier as we move away from Wyclif's writings and further afield from his alma mater. While insisting that there was "no single pattern" among those whom churchmen identified as lollards, Hornbeck nevertheless traces a narrative in the historical record in which prominent individuals with academic affiliations (who far overshadow the so-called "lollard knights" in this account) gradually give way to more dispersed lay-dominated groups, and lollard preaching moves from public pulpits to domestic conversations (57). Following upon this social overview, Hornbeck deliberately takes up lollard "Practices" (Chapter 3) before their writings and beliefs, which, he argues, have disproportionately dominated the field. Invoking recent work on "practical theology," this chapter follows Somerset (Feeling Like Saints, 2014) in tracing the contours of the lollards' "practical spirituality." While Hornbeck describes this approach as a "riposte to intellectualist accounts," the line between intellectual and practical spirituality begins to blur when the central practices of lollard communities are identified as reading and theological discussion (60). If practical theology has something to offer lollard studies, perhaps the study of lollardy might productively challenge such binaries as practical/intellectual, theological/spiritual, intellective/affective, or even pastoral/speculative.

Somerset herself contributes a magisterial account of lollard "Writings" (Chapter 4), focusing not just on individual texts but on the "life histories" of the books that contain them (76). Identifying relevant works as much by their manuscript affiliations as by their confessional biases, Somerset describes three overlapping phases in the production and reception of lollard writings: an early phase of "rapid, large-scale collaborative production" that generated major works of/for biblical scholarship; a concurrent and longer phase of "individual, idiosyncratic" works that tend to travel alone or with other, clearly lollard texts; and a final, more diffuse phase in which earlier materials are reworked and recirculated in contexts that overlap with the religious "mainstream." I cannot overemphasize how helpful it is to have such a wealth of material laid out so clearly here. Along the way, Somerset deftly tackles thorny questions of identification (e.g., The Book to a Mother as a phase-2 work of "lollard learning" that also appears in phase-3 "compilations") and circulation--from the "standardization" that characterizes phase 1 manuscripts and texts to the far more "varied palette" of phase 3 (104). Here in particular Somerset echoes--though neither she nor Hornbeck cites--recent work associated with the Geographies of Orthodoxy project, which has given rise to terms like "devotional cosmopolitanism" and "hospitable reading" to characterize this later, messier fifteenth-century milieu. [1]

In keeping with the central theme of the Companion, Somerset emphasizes the "wide variation in genre, purpose, audience, style, and tone" she finds in lollard writings--contra revisionist historians like Eamon Duffy who had characterized lollardy as a mono-vocal and relatively isolated phenomenon (79). In Chapter 5, "Their Beliefs," Hornbeck does similar justice to the variety of lollard doctrinal positions, challenging the notion that Wyclif's academic theology simply "migrated" to the lay realm in increasingly simplified forms, and identifying several central themes across "patterns of variety" (141, 143). Hornbeck again proves an excellent guide to the range of lollard thinking on soteriology, sacrament, and ecclesiology. He draws on his own What is a Lollard? (2010) to suggest, for example, that most lollards might better be described as "hyperclerical" than "anticlerical," seeking to return the church to its apostolic purity (132). This coinage puts useful pressure on the unstable fault lines between clerici and eccclesia in the period, opening up new ways of thinking about lollard ecclesiology.

Chapter 6, "Their Opponents," is contributed by Mishtooni Bose and benefits from her considerable expertise in the area. Bose attends productively both to developments across time and to the embeddedness of anti-lollard discourse in "broader intellectual and institutional currents" (146). She identifies a shift, for example, from "relatively open" Ricardian to "relatively closed" Lancastrian phases in the official response to lollardy, roughly tracking Hornbeck's shift from public preaching by academics to lay-dominated, domestically-based communities (153). And just as Hornbeck read Wyclif as an Oxford don immersed in contemporary academic debates, so Bose finds anti-lollard discourse shaped by conflicts between the University of Oxford and the ecclesiastical authorities regarding scholastic liberties. Along the way, Bose gives us brief but very rich portraits of such key figures as Thomas Netter, Richard Gascoigne, Reginald Pecock, and Nicholas Love, which together paint a "mixed picture" of the opposition to lollardy in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (149).

Chapter 7, "Their Trials," turns from academic to inquisitorial discourse. Hornbeck provides a very clear account of the inquisitorial process and of the kinds of records that survive, from "alternative narratives" like the Testimony of William Thorpe to bishop's registers, court rolls, and dedicated heresy books. A thorough survey of extant trial records traces the temporal and geographic range of heresy trials as well as the variety of practices and beliefs they sought to eradicate. Hornbeck is cognizant of the limitations of trial documents as records of the beliefs and practices of the lollards themselves. But Bishop Alnwick's Norwich trials (1428-31), and in particular the work of his scribe John Exeter, suggest to Hornbeck that while such documents must always be approached critically, they can provide some evidence of individual lollard views. Finally, Chapter 8 tackles the thorny question of "Their Afterlife," attempting to untangle the "actual afterlives" of lollard texts and communities from the ideological and historiographical uses to which they have been put. The central question is the relationship between lollardy and the English Reformation. Hornbeck approaches this question from several angles, including the influence of Wyclif's ideas on the Bohemian Hussites in the fifteenth century; potential overlap between lollardy and Lutheranism in sixteenth-century reformist communities; and the reprinting and reframing of lollard texts by English reformers. The final section of this chapter brings the volume full circle, returning to a historiographical approach and tracing debates about the role of lollardy in the English Reformation up to the present day.

In his conclusion Hornbeck returns his focus to the study of lollardy as a "dynamic and multi-faceted religious phenomenon," less a heretical movement than "one among a number of forms of Christianity current in late-medieval England" (210, 212). To understand lollardy in this way is better to understand the broader religious culture of which it is an inextricable part. I might add in closing that Hornbeck's Companion gave me a sharper appreciation, not only for how lollardy might serve as a "window" onto the religious worlds I study, but also for how the study of lollardy might serve as a window on to the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary academic discourse. If Hornbeck productively asks what stories have been told about lollardy and to what ideological ends, I am moved, both by this volume and by my own experiences in the field, to ask further how we read each other as scholars, and to what extent the discursive structures of the materials we study shape and even limit our own knowledge-seeking conversations. That it prompted this kind of thinking suggests how generative Hornbeck's double approach to lollardy, as at once history and historiography, can be. Hornbeck and his co-authors have done us an invaluable service. If there are gaps here--and I did feel a resistance to more theoretical approaches; I was surprised, for example, not to see Carolyn Dinshaw's work cited, and I'm not sure I myself would have characterized the view, recorded in a trial record, that marriage should be abolished and all women held in common as "simply roguish" (129)--they are by far outweighed by its many strengths as both a synthetic and a critical work of social, textual and theological history. As someone who has been publishing in the field for over twenty years, I could feel my perspective shifting subtly as I read, with my own work settling into more secure frameworks. And I will eagerly recommend this book to my own advanced students, especially those with a hunger for historical detail and a curiosity about how stories like these get told.

-------- Note:

1. Queen’s University Belfast, Geographies of Orthodoxy Project (2007-2010),, accessed 11/2/2017. See also Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry, ‘Devotional Cosmopolitanism in Fifteenth-Century England’, in After Arundel: Religious Writing in Fifteenth-Century England, ed. V. Gillespie and K. Ghosh (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 363–80.

Copyright (c) 2017 Elizabeth Schirmer

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