- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Lion Books (18 Nov. 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0745951546
- ISBN-13: 978-0745951546
- Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16 x 2.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 539,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
John Wyclif: A Biography Hardcover – 18 Nov 2005
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More About the Author
About the Author
G.R. Evans is a Professor of History in the University of Cambridge. Her books include works on Anselm, Augustine, Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux.
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Throughout the first one hundred pages of the book, the reader begins to suspect that the real subject of the book is not John Wyclif, but the daily life of an Oxford student in the 14th century. Evans is to be commended for thoroughly setting Wyclif's historical context. One suspects, though, that move overshadows her thesis. However, Evans does do a good, if very short, job of describing the intellectual currents which form the context of Wyclif's doctrine. More importantly, she notes how the implications for these ideas.
As a biography, though, the book fails to narrate Wyclif's own life beyond a passing glance. I suppose she assumes her readers know enough about Wyclif that she can avoid narrating his life. That's fair enough, if she lets us know ahead of time. In the meanwhile, each chapter begins with an unidentified source talking about something that will figure later in the chapter, neither of which the reader knows (coupled with the fact the book is endnoted, further confusing the issue).
The last chapter does a decent job "distilling" Wyclif's theology. Wyclif's main points of contention boiled around his doctrine of the Eucharist and his idea of "dominion by grace." Earlier in the book, Evans ties Wyclif's denial of transubstantiation with philosophical currents that were prevalent. For example, all sides accepted that God cannot cause the past not to be. As such, he cannot cause matter that now exists to not have existed. The question remains, which was not original to Wyclif, if the bread changes to Christ's body, where is the bread (Evans 62)? On a more practical note, it seems that Wyclif's objections to transubstantiation can be placed in the same line as those of Berengar.
Evans' book is somewhat disjointed. It alternates between interesting and new insights and whatever else Evans wants to talk about. The book oscillates between the average life of a medieval academician and John Wyclif. Evans' account suffers from undue speculation ("it seems," or "it's not impossible that") that distracts the reader. Some of the chapters appear to end without warning.
With that said, Evans does a good job in showing how ordinary Wyclif really was. Wyclif's view of the Bible was the same for any Oxfordian. While he advocated lay reading in their own language, there is some warrant that he was not uniquely responsible for the translation that bears his name. It is true that he rejected transubstantiation, but the actually doctrine wasn't formally taught a few centuries before Wyclif, and likely taught in an unsatisfactorily manner given the repeated--and seemingly Catholic--objections to it. Wyclif wasn't even anti-Papalist in approach, as he supported Urban against the Avignon Pope! Evans' conclusion is that Wyclif's view of Reform was simply not that of the later Reformation, whatever their outward similarities may have been (210). This means that any Roman Catholic attack on Wyclif must deal with the fact that Wyclif attacked an element of the Catholic Church that had been criticized by Catholics for many, many years. Further combine this was the fact that Wyclif had no intention and never saw himself as separating from the Church.
One last word of criticism: Evans suggests that Wyclif ended his life unable to control his anger and depression, supposedly evidenced in his last writings. Therefore, she concludes that Wyclif was a "deeply troubled" man. I think a more obvious and fair conclusion can be found elsewhere: Wyclif championed the church and the pope for most of his life, only to find himself betrayed by Church and University. As such, he isn't going to write about "puppies and bunnies" and rainbows. He is going to be angry, but that's not the sign of a troubled mind. It's the sign of being human.
Let me stop before I'm guilty of being as unfair to Evans as she occasionally appears to be to Wyclif. The book is very well written, even if it is fairly tedious at times. The problem seems to be the scant biographical evidence that actually exists on Wyclif, at least the kind of interesting and anecdotal personal information that has become the staple of the genre in modern times. This is, in fact, a historical and intellectual biography of the enigmatic figure that has been called (Evans believes naively) "The Morning Star of the Reformation."
And, to be fair yet again, Evans does make her case very well that what biographical work has been done on Wyclif (and there has not been very much at all) has tended to be hagiographical. That's common enough. Such romanticizing and glossing is common in John Foxe, for instance, as well as in the writings of those who wish to present the Reformation, and, in the case of Wyclif, its precursors as a monolithic movement of like-minded saints driven by pure conviction and principle.
Evans demonstrates that this is, indeed, naïve when it comes to Wyclif. Wyclif was an enigmatic figure: an Oxford intellectual who appears to have smarted about being passed over for career advancement in the heady intellectual, ecclesiastical, and civil crosscurrents that intersected in and around 14th century Oxford. Evans also demonstrates clearly enough that Wyclif was prone to brooding, bitterness, and anger.
I cannot help but believe, though, that Evans overplays her hand. Time and again we are told that Wyclif is bitter, that Wyclif is angry, that Wyclif seemed unable to pull himself out of a pit or resentment. When Wyclif returns to a favorite theme of his - that true religion is, as James said, caring for the orphan and widow - Evans opines that there's no real evidence of any concrete philanthropic tendencies in Wyclif and that his appeal to this definition of true religion was more a polemic against the friars and religious orders he detested as being predatory and parasitic on the laity than an actual conviction that this was, in fact, the true nature of religion. In fact, Evans suggested that most of Wyclif's positive assertions were probably, in fact, responses to his enemies and not so much positive convictions.
We are told that Wyclif's views of Scripture really weren't so revolutionary. There were plenty of others who wanted the Word to be made available to the people. Regardless, Evans assures us, it's unlikely that Wyclif actually did any translation work himself anyway. We are told that he was a snobbish preacher, insulting the congregations he should be nurturing. We are told that he drove most or all of his friends away, that he was inconsistent in what he thought should be and in what he actually did. We are told that, in most respects, he was a typical medieval scholastic. We are told, in essence, that Wyclif was essentially a man of his times...which does seem odd indeed.
In short, I believe that Evans goes too far even while making an overall helpful contribution to Wyclif studies. Her appeal for biographical balance seems to lean towards the negative in ways that are disheartening. We do not need to naively gloss our heroes. And it's probably true that Wyclif's role as a pre-Reformer has been glossed in this way. But without Evans' consistent meanderings that probably what Wyclif was actually writing and arguing was driven more by anger than conviction, we would probably see from the same raw data that Evans presents that Wyclif's views were, in a very real sense, precursors to what would become the fully bloomed doctrines of the Reformation two hundred years later.
It seems to me an uncharitable way to do biography. But, you will learn a great (excruciating?) deal about the workings of Oxford as well as of Wyclif's own views. You will get some fascinating insights into the tumultuous religious, political, and intellectual landscape of Wyclif's day.
Was Wyclif "The Morning Star of the Reformation"? It's a bit hard to say after reading Evans' biography. He was an imperfect man, prone to fits of temper, but he did articulate Reformation tenets in a pre-Reformation era in ways that were compelling and admirable.
either she was so determined to present her subject in a way that did not seem biased that she swung too far the other way, or she simply dislikes her character. In nearly every instance where she must surmise or assume a conclusion about Wyclif (which, by the way, involves a better portion of the book) she portrays him in the worst light. He does not receive the benefit of the doubt as other individuals do. I felt myself questioning the credibility of the entire work as I began to see the pattern of conscious bias in her deductions about Wyclif and his actions. She did go to extraordinary lengths however to include a great deal of detail about the events concurrent to Wyclif's life that had an affect on him and his contemporaries and weaved them into the story with skill.