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SOME ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE
JOHN WICKLIFF, D.D.
The state of England during the latter part of the fourteenth century, presents many causes for painful reflection. Luxury and pride characterised the higher classes, while the lower orders were involved in misery, and vice abounded among all ranks. Contemporary historians ascribe much of this dissoluteness of morals to the civil wars of preceding reigns, whereby the land was desolated, and the bonds of society relaxed. The internal peace of the country, it is true, had become more settled, but many causes united to prevent moral improvement.
A long course of foreign victory inflated the national pride; the wealth that accrued to individuals from successful warfare, with the habits acquired thereby, promoted luxury and dissipation among the higher ranks, further stimulated by the introduction of new articles of expense through an increasing commerce. Meanwhile, the people in general were exhausted by calls for pecuniary supplies and personal aid to carry on foreign hostilities; and the feuds and oppressions of powerful barons, with the constant plundering of bands of robbers for many years suffered to exist with impunity, caused much misery among the lower orders, whose sufferings led to the insurrections in the early part of the reign of Richard II. Such in reality was the state of England in the days of Wickliff, as depictured by the annalists who lived near his time, although general historians, engrossed by military
* The ransom of the prisoners taken by sir Walter Mauny in one campaign, A. D. 1340, was equal to 100,0001. of our present money.
Walsingham states that, “ A.D. 1348, such quantities of furred garments, fine linen, jewels, gold and silver plate, rich furniture and utensils
, the spoils of Caen, Calais, and other foreign cities, were brought into England, that every woman of rank obtained
some of them, and they were seen in every mansion. Then the ladies of England became proud and vain in their attire, and were as much elated by the acquisition of that finery, as the ladies of France were dejected by the loss of it.”
The value of the articles regularly imported into England A. p. 1354, was less than 40,0001. not an eighth part of the amount exported, which shows how little the mass of the community were able to indulge in the luxuries or conveniences of life. The imports were of that description, while the exports were chiefly articles of produce. By this difference between the imports ard exports, the vast sums drained from England by the court of Rome and foreign ecclesiastics were supplied.
details and political events, dwell but slightly upon these painful circumstances.*
Another cause tended much to produce and to perpetuate an unhappy state of society. For the soul to be without knowledge is not good, and those were days of ignorance and mental darkness. Some symptoms of a revival of learning appeared, but as yet little progress had been made in science. The subtilties of the schools retarded all advances in useful knowledge, while the improvements in fine arts were made subservient to luxury, rather than beneficial to the general character of the age. But ignorance as to spiritual truth was the greatest and most serious evil. The main object of those who called themselves ministers of Christ, was to enslave the minds and to plunder the property of the people committed to their charge; they kept from them the truths of the gospel, and sought to be reverenced as beings superior to their fellow-men, while they indulged every debasing appetite. The corrupt and depraved state of the popedom at that period is admitted by every historian ; it is described as literally“ a hell upon earth.”. To the papal power every ecclesiastic in Europe was compelled to look for authority and direction to exercise the duties of his charge, and we may easily imagine what was the
* One proof of the licentiousness of those days will suffice. In 1380, an expedition was fitted out to aid in the wars of Bretagne. The English troops lay for some time near Portsmouth, wind-bound and waiting for provisions. They ill treated the country round, forcibly carrying off men's wives and daughters. Among other outrages, sir John Arundell, the commander, went to a nunnery, and desired that his troops might be allowed to visit there! This being refused, they entered by violence, and on their departure compelled the nuns to go with them. A storm came on, when these unhappy females were thrown into the sea by the very persons who had forced them to embark! The greater part of the fleet was lost on the coast of Ireland; the leader with a thousand of his men perished.See Walsingham. In Hollinshed will be found several other instances of the military licentiousness then prevalent. Froissart relates that the French troops, prepared for the invasion of England, were equally profligate in their conduct, and pillaged their own countrymen without mercy. Each “gentleman” was followed by a servant called “un pillard," a plunderer.
The state of the lower orders in England may be supposed from a record in the annals of Dunstable abbey, A. D. 1283, where the sale of William Pike, “our slave by birth, and all his family," is mentioned as a matter of course. The price was a mark, or thirteen shillings and fuurpence! The prices of food varied much, owing to frequent famines. In one year, 1317, according to Stow, the price of wheat varied from 80s. to 68. 8d, the quarter. In 1359, wheat was 11. 6s. 8d. ; in 1361, at 2s.; and in 1363, at 158.-See Fleetwood's Chron. Preciosum. The lower classes must have suffered very much from those sudden variations, and at the high prices they would be quite unable to purchase the necessaries of life. When the difference in the value of money and commodities is taken into calculation, a shilling in Wickliff's time was equal to a pound at the present day.
general character of those to whom the popes and their counsellors delegated the exercise of that paramount authority they had assumed. Ignorance as to scriptural truth was of course considered by such priests as the best safeguard of their authority; but though the church of Rome has maintained that ignorance is the mother of devotion, we know that such a source will yield only blind superstitious feelings, strongly opposed to true religion. The instruction given to the lower classes at that period tended to harden them in ignorance and vice : they committed their spiritual concerns entirely to the priesthood, or if the conscience refused to be silenced in this manner, it was diverted to the practice of austerities and will-worship, equally destructive to the soul. The few virtues of that age were not christian virtues ; they were founded on the romantic notions of chivalry-faint gliinmerings of light which only served to make the surrounding darkness more visible ; at best they were deceptive, leading the pilgrim from the way to real peace.* Only a small number of persons had been preserved from the corruptions of the papacy, but they, even in the darkest times, had exercised some influence upon Europe, though subjected to the most bitter persecution, A few individuals also, who were distinguished for mental powers, as Grosseteste and Bradwardine, had borne testimony in England against the usurpations and crimes of the papacy, while others had begun to perceive that the conduct of the priesthood, when examined by the rule of scripture, was altogether antichristian.
The circumstances already noticed should be kept in mind kwhen we enter upon the history of Wickliff
. The demoralized state of the land made it ripe for sufferings. In Israel of old, when luxury and wickedness abounded, prophets were sent to warn the people of approaching judgments, and to point out the way of salvation; so in England, Wickliff and others were raised up to bear faithful testimony to the truth, and to denounce what must be the end of the practices which then prevailed.of When
* Froissart's Chronicles show this. The mixture of generosity and courtesy with licentiousness and cruelty, depictured by the chivalrous historian, will strike the reader very forcibly.
+ The monkish annalists, who were the English historians of those times, fully justify the sketch here given of the state of England during the fourteenth century. The English reader who may not have access to those sources of information, will find many particulars in the histories of Henry, Andrews, and Turner.
The height to which the luxury and excess of the times had arrived in the days of Richard II., is thus described by Hollinshed :- -" There resorted daily to his court above ten thousand persons, who had meat and drink there allowed them. In his kitchen were three hundred servitors, and every other office was furnished after the like rate. Of ladies, chamberers, and landerers, there were above three hundred at the least. And in gorgeous and costly apparel they exceeded all measure ; not one of them kept within the bounds of his degree. Yeomen and we recollect the state of England, and the crying evils which called for exposure and reproof, we shall be satisfied that Wickliff was not an ambitious, or a revolutionary spirit, as some have described him, but rather a prophet, as Jeremiah, “weeping day and night for the slain of the daughter of his people," hearing the voice of the Lord, “ Shall I not visit for these things ? Shali grooms were clothed in silks, with cloth of grain and scarlet, over sumptuous, ye may be sure, for their estates. And this vanity was not only used in the court in those days, but also other people abroad in the towns and countries, had their garments cut far otherwise than had been accustomed before his days, with embroideries, rich furs, and goldsmiths' work, and every day there was devisings of new fashions, to the great hinderance and decay of the commonwealth. Moreover, such were preferred to bishoprics and other ecclesiastical livings, as neither could teach nor preach, nor knew any thing of the scripture of God, but only to call for their tithes and dues; so that they were most unworthy the name of bishops, being lewd and most vain persons disguised in bishop's apparel. Furthermore, there reigned abundantly the filthy sin of lechery and fornication, with abominable adultery, especially in the king, but most chiefly in the prelacy, whereby the whole realm, by such their evil example, was so infected, that the wrath of God was daily provoked to vengeance for the sins of the prince and his people.” The receipts in the work, entitled “ The Forme of Cury," prove the luxury of the table in which the court then indulged.
The depraved state of the popedom is described by almost every writer, civil as well as ecclesiastical. One extract may be given from the epistles of Petrarch, who cannot be objected to as an authority on this subject. At that time there was a schism in the papacy, which it might be supposed would oblige the pretenders to the popedom to more than usual care, that they might not disgust their adherents. But the state of the papal court at Avignon, about A. D. 1350, is thus described by Petrarch, and Rome was, if possible, more depraved. He says, the former city had become “ á terrestrial hell, a residence of fiends and devils, a receptacle of all that is most wicked and abominable. There is no piety, no reverence or fear of God, no faith or charity, nothing that is holy, just, equitable, or humane." He adds,“ Why should I speak of truth, where not only the houses, palaces, courts, churches, and the thrones of popes and cardinals, but the very earth and air, appear to teem with lies? A future state, heaven, hell, and judgment, are openly turned into ridicule as childish fables. Good men have of late been treated with so much contempt and scorn, that there is not one left among them to be an object of derision." This delineation Petrarch confirms by several facts. In another place he says, “ Whatever perfidy and treachery, whatever barbarity and pride, whatever immodesty and unbridled lust you have ever heard or read of ;—in a word, whatever impiety and immorality either now is, or ever was scattered over all the world, you may find here, amassed in one heap.” The language of Baronius, the Romish annalist, is scarcely less strong. The depraved state of ecclesiastics in England, particularly the emissaries of Rome and the monastic orders, is delineated by Chaucer in his Canterbury tales in appalling colours. It is also described by the author of the Vision of Piers Plowman, and others; but the various decrees issued by the higher ecclesiastical authorities