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Dissidents in an Age of Faith? Wyclif amd the Lollards

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The formidable intellectual challenge to the English church by Wyclif and the pastoral work of his followers challenged the hitherto unquestioned acceptance of clerical authority and opened the door to individual judgement and conscience in religious matters.

Neither dissent nor heresy have any continuous history in medieval England. Before about 1340, it is very unlikely that deep disagreement or even sustained argument on religious topics occurred outside the universities and friars' schools, and even there it seems to have been sporadic and academic in character. Conversely, the beliefs of intellectuals and people alike were not constrained by sharply defined criteria or orthodoxy. The few accused of heresy, like Margaret Syward, seem no more than eccentric. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, England's innocence of heresy had been compromised for good. A powerful and determined body of reformers had challenged the authority of the Church and had provided the materials for individual judgement of religious issues, and in response to this challenge of Wyclif and the Lollards, temporal and spiritual authorities had together instituted criteria of necessary belief and provisions for enforcing them. In retrospect, the lasting consequence of Lollardy was an established public religion: an ecclesia anglicana which in various mutations would survive, as a national standard of belief, both Reformation and civil war, and remnants of which are still with us today.

The principle that the enforcement of religious conformity was a function of the secular power and an aspect of social order and harmony had not been known before the fourteenth century; yet in England as in other countries" it was embraced with vigour by the monarchy, beginning with Henry V and continuing until at least the reign of George I. At the same time, Wyclif and the Lollards had challenged beyond recall the prescriptive authority of the pope or the bishops to govern laymen's religious lives: the leaders of the English church now had to reckon with the personal conscience and individual judgement of the laity, sometimes submissive in temper, sometimes assertive, always autonomous. 'Of whom has thou thy cunning?' 'Of the Holy Ghost,' the visionary Margery Kempe was asked and replied in the 1430s, with a certitude unthinkable a century before.


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