John Wycliffe.

Tracts and treatises of John de Wycliffe : with selections and translations from his manuscripts, and Latin works online

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power but of God, Princes be not to the dread of good workers, but of
evil. Wilt thou not dread the power — do good and thou shalt have
praising of the same. For he is God's minister to thee for good.
Surely if thou hast done evil, dread thou, for he beareth not the sword
in vain.*

" Our Saviour, Jesus Christ, suffered meekly a painful death under
Pilate, not excusing himself from his jurisdiction by his clergy.'' And
St. Paul professed himself ready to suffer death by doom of the
emperor's justice, if he were worthy of death, as Deeds of the Apostles
showeth. And Paul appealed to the heathen emperor from the priests of
the Jews, for to be under his jurisdiction, and to save his life. Lord ! who
hath made our worldly clergy exempt from the king's jurisdiction and
chastening, for since God giveth kings this office over all misdoers, clerks,
and particularly high priests, should be most meek and obedient to the
lords of this world, as were Christ and his apostles, and should be a
mirror before all men, teaching them to give this meekness and obedience
to the king and his righteous laws. How strong thieves and traitors
are they now to lords and kings, in denying this obedience, and giving
an example to all men in the land to become rebels against the king
and lords. For in this they teach ignorant men, and the commons of
the land, both in Avords and laws, and open deeds, to be false and
rebellious against the king and other lords. And this seemeth well by
their new law of decretals,*^ where the proud clerks have ordained this —
that our clergy shall pay no subsidy nor tax, nor keeping of our king,
and our realm, without leave and assent of the worldly priest of Rome.

« Ordinance of man. 4 1 Peter ii. 13, 14. Rom. xiii. 1—4.

<• By any ecclesiastical pretext, or plea of priesthood.

'' Forged decrees, meant to sustain the more extravagant pretensions of the papacy.
D 2


And yet many times this proud worldly priest is an enemy of oui' land,
and secretly maintaineth oiir enemies in war against us with our own
gold. And thus they make an alien priest, and he the proudest of all
priests, to be chief lord of the whole of those goods which clerks possess
in the realm, and that is the greatest part thereof! Wliere, then, are
there greater heretics to God or holy church, and particularly to their
liege lord in this kingdom ? To make an alien worldly priest, an enemy
to us, the chief lord over the greater part of our country !

" And commonly the new laws which the clergy have made are
contrived with much subtlety to bring down the power of lords and
kings, and to make themselves lords, and to have all in their power.
Certainly it seemeth that these worldly prelates are more bent to destroy
the power of kings and lords, which God ordained for the government
of his church, than God is to destroy even the power of the fiend : — for
God setteth the fiend a term which he shall do, and no more ; but he
still suflfereth his power to last, for the profit of Christian men, and the
great punishment of misdoers ; but these worldly clerks would never
cease, if left alone, until they have fully destroyed kings and lords, with
their regalia and power." •*

The next chapter relates to the excommunication commonly pro-
nounced against all perjured persons : and prelates, and the beneficed
clergy generally, are admonished, that to this sentence they are them-
selves jiistly exposed, by reason of the many things in their conduct
which are contrary to their oaths, taken when entering upon their office.
Another point against which this periodical anathema was directed, was
the conduct of men who should in any way prevent the due execution
of the " will of a dead man." But our blessed Lord, in his testament, is
said to " bequeath to his disciples and their successors, peace in them-
selves, and in the world persecution and tribulation for his law. But
worldly clerks break shamefully this worthy testament of Jesus Christ,
for they seek the peace and prosperity of this world — peace with the
fiend, and with their flesh, and will endure no labour for keeping or
teaching God's law, but rather persecute good men who would teach it,
and so make Avar upon Christ and his people, to obtain worldly muck,
which Christ forbids to clerks. In the life of Christ, and in his Gospel,
which is his testament, and in the life and teaching of his apostles, our
clerks will find nothing but poverty, meekness, spiritual labour, and the
despisings of worldly men, because reproved for their sins, and great
reward in heaven for their good Ufe, and true teaching, and cheerful
suffering of death. — Therefore Jesus Christ was so poor in this life,
that he had no house of his own by worldly title to rest his head in, as

« Chap. xi.

sp:ntence of the curse expounded. 87

he himself saith in the Gospel. And St. Peter was so poor, that he had
neither silver nor gold to give to a poor crooked man, as he witnesseth
in the book of the Apostles' Deeds. St. Paul was so poor in worldly
goods, that he laboured with his hands for his Livelihood, and suffered
much persecution and watchfulness, and great thought for all churches
in Christendom, as he himself saith, and as is said in many places of
Holy Writ. And St. Bernard writeth to the pope, that in this worldly
array, and plenty of gold, and silver, and lands, he is successor of
Constantine the emperor, and not of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
And Jesus said, on confirming this testament after rising from the
dead — As my Father sent me, so I send you, that is, to labour, and per-
secution, and poverty, and hunger, and martyrdom !""

Thus, in the judgment of WyclifFe, the church, and especially the
clerg}^, should be regarded as in the place of executors to the will of
Chiist, that will being strictly confined to the setting forth of it in
Holy Scripture ; and the ecclesiastical persons of the age are charged
with grossly violating their obligations in respect to that testament, both
by their teaching and example. The next anathema was that pro-
nounced on all persons who should " falsify the king's charter, or assist
thereto." But it is alleged that the lands of the clergy were granted by
the king for certain specified piu'poses, and that clergymen commonly
apply the produce of such lands to purposes the opposite of those
specified, and that in so doing they sin against the charter both of their
earthly and their heavenly sovereign.

"AJso they falsify the king's charter by great treason, when they
make the proud bishop of Rome, who is the chief manqueller on earth,
and the chief maintainer thereof, the chief worldly lord of all the goods
which clerks possess in our realm, and that is almost all the realm, or
the more part thereof For he should be the meekest and the poorest
of priests, and the most busy in God's service to save men's souls, as
were Christ and his apostles, since he caUeth himself the chief vicar of
Christ. Hereby these worldly clerks show themselves traitors to God,
and to their liege lord the king, whose law and regalia they destroy by
their treason in favour of the pope, whom they nourish in the works of
Antichrist, that they may have their worldly state, and opulence, and
lusts maintained by him."

The sixteenth chapter commences with these words : " All those who
falsify the pope's bulls or a bishop's letter, are cursed grievously in all
churches four times in the year." Here Wycliffe proceeds to ask.: —

" Lord, why was not Christ's Gospel put in this sentence by our
worldly clerks ? Here it seems they magnify the pope's bull more than

" Chap. xiv.


the Gospel ; and in token of this they punish more the men Avho tres-
pass against the pope's bulls than those who trespass against Christ's
Gospel. And hereby men of this world dread more the pope's lead," and
his commandment, than the Gospel of Christ and God's commands ; and
thus Avretched men in this world are brought out of belief, and hope,
and charity, and become rotten in heresy and blasphemy, even worse
than heathen hounds. Also a penny clerk, who can neither read nor
understand a verse of his psalter, nor repeat God's commandments,
bringeth forth a bull of lead, witnessing that he is able to govern many
souls, against God's doom, and open experience of truth. And to pro-
cure this false bull they incur costs, and labour, and oftentimes fight,
and give much gold out of our land to ahens and. enemies, and many
thereby are dead by the hand of our enemies, to their comfort, and our
confusion. Also the proud priest of Rome getteth images of Peter and
Paul, and maketh Christian men beUeve that all which his bulls speak
of is done by aiithority of Christ ; and thus, as far as he may, he maketh
this bull, which is false, to be Peter's, and Paul's, and Christ's, and in
that maketh them false. And by this blasphemy he robbeth Christen-
dom of faith, and good life, and worldly goods.

" And if any poor man tell the truth of Holy Writ against the hypo-
crisy of Antichrist and his officers, nought else follows but to curse him,
to imprison, burn, and slay him, without answer. It now seemeth that
John's prophecy in the Apocalypse is fulfilled, that no man shall be hardy
enough to buy or sell without the token of the cursed beast ;* for now,
no man shall do aught in the street without these false bulls of Anti-
christ ; not taking reward^ to the worship of Jesus Christ and of the
Holy Ghost in men's souls, but all to these dead bulls, bought and sold
for money, as men buy or sell an ox or beast !"

In the seventeenth chapter the Reformer says : —

" The Gospel telleth that at doomsday Jesus Christ shall reckon gene-
rally with men for works of mercy, and if they have not done them, then,
as Christ biddeth, they shall be damned without end. But Christ shall
not then speak a word of tithes. If indeed men grant that tithes are works
of mercy and alms, as feeding and clothing poor men, certainly it seemeth
that all this cursing is for their own covetousness, not for the sins of the
people, or any trespass against God. For then their curse shoidd be
most where there is most sin, and despite against God. But this is not
done, as all knowing men see manifestly." The law, it is alleged, teaches
— that no man who is himself '' rightfully cursed" may lawfully cui'se
another ; but the clergy who fail to discharge the duties of their solemn
office are under the curse of the Head of the church, and are sinners " a

• The seal attached to papal documents. * Rev. xiii. 17,

' Not having regard, kc.


thousandfold more" ihan are their people when their great fault is, that
" they pay not their tithes."

The Reformer expands this grave accusation in the follo^\4ng terms : —

" Christ said that the Son of man came not to lose men's lives and
souls, but to save them, as the Gospel of Luke -witnesseth. Why then
dare these wayward curates to curse so many men's souls to hell, and
bodies to prison, and to the loss of chattels, and sometimes to death,
for a little muck, while they are themselves cxirsed of God for simony
done at their entrance into office, and for failure in preaching, and in
example of holy life, tithes being not therefore due to them, but only
pain in hell ? Oftentimes they are evil tormentors, and slay the soul
bought with Christ's precious blood, which is better than all the riches
of this world. They are not spiritual fathers to Christian soids who
would damn them to hell by their cursing for the sake of a little perish-
ing clay. Even pagan persecutors were content to torment the body,
and not the soul for evermore ; but these children of Satan cast about by
all means in their power to slay the soul in everlasting pain ! Certainly
these wayward curates of Satan seem in this thing worse than the fiends
of hell ; for in hell they torment no soul except for everlasting sin, while
these clerks of Satan curse souls to hell for a Httle temporal debt, which
they will pay as soou as they are able, and oftentimes when it is no debt,
except by long error, and theft, and custom, brought in against God's
commandments !"

In the next chapter, the Reformer insists, that the clergy, in place of
demanding tithes from the more needy of their flock, should employ their
influence with the rich to procure relief for the necessities of the poor.

" Men wonder highly," he observes, " why curates are so charrouse
to the people in taking tithes, since Christ and his apostles took no tithes
as men do now ; and neither paid them, or even spoke of them, either in
the Gospel, or the Epistles, which are the perfect law of freedom and
grace. But Christ lived on the alms of Mary Magdalene, and of other
holy women, as the Gospel telleth, and apostles lived, sometimes by the
labour of their hands, and sometimes took a poor livelihood and cloth-
ing, given of free-will and devotion by the people, without asking or
constraining. And to this end Christ said to his disciples that they
should eat and drink such things as were set before them, and take
neither gold nor silver for their preaching, or giving of sacraments.
And Paul giving a general rule for priests, saith thus, ' We having food
and clothing to hile" us, with these things be we assayed, ** as Jesus
Christ.' And Paul proved that priests preaching truly the Gospel
should live by the Gospel, and said no more of tithes. Certes,"" as tithes
was due to priests and deacons in the old law, so bodily circumcision was

• Cover us. * Satisfied— content. ' Certainly— surely.


tlieii needful to all men, but it is not so now, in tl»e law of grace ; and
yet Christ was circumcised. But we read not where he took tithes as
we do, and we read not in all the Gospel where he paid tithes to the
high-priest, or bid any other man do so. Lord, why should oui' worldly
priests charge Christian people with tithes, offerings, and customs, more
than did Christ and his apostles, and more than men were charged in
the old law ? For then all priests, and deacons, and officers of the temple
were maintained by tithes and offerings, and had no other lordship.
But now, a worldly priest, who is more unable than others, by means of
a bull of Antichrist, hath all the tithes and offerings to himself ! If
tithes were due by God's commandment, then everywhere in Christen-
dom woidd be one mode of tithing. But it is not so. — Would God that
all wise and true men would inquire whether it were not better for to
find" good priests by free alms of the people, and in a reasonable and
poor livehhood, to teach the Gospel in word and deed, as did Christ and
his apostles, than thus to pay tithes to a worldly priest, ignorant, and
negUgent, as men are now constrained to do by bidls and new ordi-
nances of priests.'"'

Wycliffe then demands to know who has given this coercive power to
churchmen, seeing that Christ and his disciples had it not, and adds —
" If the first ordinance of Christ and his apostles come again to Christen-
dom, then shall Christian people be free to take their tithes and offer-
ings from wayward priests, and not maintain them in sin." But it is at
the same time said, that they must contribute " reasonable Uvelihood to
good priests, and this were much better and easier, both for priests and
commons, for this world and the other."

In the beginning of the next chapter, there is mention of the council
in London, at time of the " earth-shaking," an allusion which farther
shows that this treatise was written not more than two years at the
most before the decease of the Eeformer. The clergy present on that
occasion are said to have introduced a " new dispensation," declaring it
to be error to say, " that secular lords may at their doom (in the exercise
of their own opinion or authority) take temporal. goods from the church
which trespasseth by long custom." To which it is repHed, " If this be
error, as they say falsely, then the king, and secular lords, may take no
farthing nor farthing's worth from a worldly clerk, though he should
owe him, or his liege men, never so much, and may well pay it, but will
not." It is insisted, that on this principle, were the college of cardinals
to become an organised banditti, the authority of the king should not
be exercised to curb their marauding. Should such men send money
out of the land to never so great an extent, the monarch must not

• Support— maintain. > Cliap. xviii.


suppose that it pertains to him to prevent such impoverishment of the
realm ; and were a body of monks, friars, or clerks, to conspire the
poisoning of the king, the queen, and all the lords of the realm, " yet
the king, with all the lords, may not punish such offenders with the loss
of one farthing's worth of their goods ! " The same exemption, it is
argued, might be pleaded were these persons to defile the bed of the sove-
reign, to devise the death of the king and queen, to attempt the extinc-
tion of all the gentle blood of the land, and to combine to make one of
themselves "king of all the world." Let it be presumed that the
sovereign may not touch the property of such persons, and it must be
concluded that he may not touch their persons, seeing that their persons
are held to be the most sacred, and thus to concede this clerical preten-
sion would be at once to sheathe the sword of the magistrate, and to
give a license to all wickedness. But such men should know, it is
observed, that holy church consists not of the clergy, " but of all men
and women who shall be saved ;" and that to take away the goods which
worldly churchmen misapply, and to give them to men who will apply
them to their scriptural uses, must be to do the good deeds proper to the
vicar of God, and no king need fear the censures of the clergy in so

In several of the remaining chapters, mention is made of the right of
sanctuary claimed by " Westminster, Beverley, and other places ;" and the
abuses which had grown up in connexion with them are forcibly
exposed. It is remarked that the cities of refuge, to which these places
professed to be conformed, afforded shelter to the manslayer only, and to
such an one when he had slain a man unawares, while these Christian
sanctuaries became a hiding-place to wilful and known offenders, and to
such as might make reparation for their crimes.

But it was not enough thus to prevent the course of civil justice—^
the magistrate was often censured because he could not be made to do
unjustly. " Then these worldly clerks ciu'se the king, and his justices,
and officers, because they maintain the Gospel, and true preachers
thereof, and will not punish them according to the wrongful command-
ment of Antichrist and his clerks. But where are fouler heretics than
these worldly clerks, thus cursing true men, and stirring the king and
his liege men to persecute Jesus Christ in his members, and to exile the
Gospel out of our land ?" In many instances, however, the attempt to
make such use of the civil sword was successful, and kings and lords
were constrained to " torment the body of a just man, over whom Satan
has no power, as though he were a strong thief, casting him into a deep
prison, to make other men afraid to stand on God's part against their

Some observations on legal studies occur in this part of the treatise-


The civil law is said to be studied unduly, and as " ovir people are
bound by the king's statutes," these are accounted as more worthy of
being studied and taught by the clergy. The emperor's law, it is
said, should be studied, and its authority admitted, only in so far as
" it is inclosed in God's commandments ;" and it is demanded of those
who profess to study the civil law, " for the reason they find in it,"
whether the volume placed in their hands by the Author of reason, is
not likely better to repay their labour in that respect ? The pope, says
WycUffe, has forbidden the study of civil law, and for once, he adds,
" the pope's intent is good ;" but he obserf es fui'ther, that the canon law
is more hostile to the religion of the Bible than the code of Justinian.
The whole of the twenty-fourth chapter relates to this subject.

In the next chapter is the following striking observation on one of the
most disgraceful usages in the history of rehgious intolerance. " All
those who commune with accursed men, are cursed by oirr prelates, par-
ticularly if they do it knomngly. But by this sentence it would seem
that God himself is accursed, since no accursed man may be in this life
unless God shall knowingly commune with him, and give him breath and
sustenance, whether he be wrongfully cursed or rightfully : and if he be
ready to give such a man grace and forgiveness of his sins, if he ask it
worthily, and even before he ask it, this sentence seems too large, since
our God may not be accursed." In this manner did theRefoi'mer deal with
a practice in which men have been taught to assign rehgious reasons for
doing violence to all the deeper instincts of our moral natiu-e. It is one
of the strong forms in which we read the demoralising tendency of religious
bigotry. The treatise concludes with the following earnest utterances : —

" Men wonder much why prelates and curates curse so fast, since
St. Paul and St< Peter have commanded men to bless, and not to
have a vrill to ciu-se. And Jesus Christ blessed his enemies, and heartily
prayed for them even while they nailed him to the cross. Still more
men wonder why they curse so fast in their own cause, and for their
own gain, and not for injury done to Christ and his majesty, since
men should be patient in their own wrongs, as Christ and his disci-
ples were, and not suffer a word to be done against God's honoiu- and
majesty, as by false and vain swearing, ribaldry, lechery, and other
filth. But most of all men wonder why worldly clerks curse so fast for
breaking of their own statutes, privileges, and wayward ciistoms, more
than for the open breaking of God's commandments, since no man is
cursed of God but for so doing, whatever worldly wretches may blabber;
and no man is blessed of God, and shall come to heaven, but he who
keepeth God's commandments : and particularly in the hour of death,
let a man have never so many thousand bulls of indulgence, or pardon,
and letters of fraternity, and thousands of masses from priests, and


monks, and friars, and it shall be A^ain. Let prelates and curates there-
fore leave these particulars in their censuring, for many of them are as
false as Satan, and let them teach God's commandments, and God's
curse, and the pains of heU, as inflicted on men if they amend not in
this life, and what bliss men shall have for keeping of them, as they
thereby teach truly Christ's Gospel, in word, and in example of holy
life, and the mercy of God in the highness of his blessing, and so help
all to that end, in right behef, and hope toward God, and fuU charity
toward God and man ! God grant us this end. Amen !"

XI. The treatise which concludes -with this passage is much longer
than most of WycliiFe's English pieces. The next in order, De Stipendus
MiNiSTRORUM, with the English title, How men should find Priests^ is
restricted to one full quarto page. It begins, Think ye wisely, ye men
that find priests, that ye do this alms for God's love, and help of your souls,
and help of Christian men, and not for jjride of the world, to have them
occupied in worldly office and vanity. "■ It exhorts the laity to support
worthy priests, and such only ; admonishing them, that if they furnish
the means of subsistence to men of an opposite character, they will be
found partakers in all the sin, mischief, and punishment attendant on the
course of such unfaithful stewards. Men should be urged to the study
of the Bible, and the aim of the clergy should be the scriptm-al edifica-
tion of the people, not allowing them to suppose that rehgion can consist
in being pleased with chiu-ch singing, or in being attentive to mere

XII. The tract, De Precationibus Sacris, bears the EngUsh title. How
prayer of good men helpeth much, and prayer of sinful men displeaseth
God, and harmeth themselves and other men. It commences with these
words. Our Lord Jesus Christ teacheth ics to pray evermore for all needful
things both to body and soul. *

It is taught in this tract, that the most effectual prayer is a holy life.

Online LibraryJohn WycliffeTracts and treatises of John de Wycliffe : with selections and translations from his manuscripts, and Latin works → online text (page 15 of 45)