War with France was constant news during the 14th century. In 1346 the French suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the English at the Battle of Crecy, when King Edward III led his army against the more powerful enemy forces. This battle was part of the ongoing Hundred Years War that had begun in 1337, and the hostility between France and England was due to Edward’s claim to be heir to the French throne. Everyone knew that the excessive taxes demanded by the Church were being used to finance the French war against England itself, in fact this later would fuel the already mounting anger of the people against the Papacy. The Government, down to the common man, realised the injustice of such a situation, but for now no one seemed to have the courage to do anything about it.
The climate in the England of the 14th century was of an evolving nationalistic spirit amongst its people. Politicians were eager to cast off Rome’s dominion, but they were not achieving anything very substantial. There were basically two groups that had plans in this area; first there was an attack against the temporal and political authority of the Church hierarchy, the second was against the false doctrines, mythology and superstitions of the Church. Dissatisfaction with the Church was evident, especially in that it was becoming too great a burden for the State to handle; therefore the corruption and injustice had to be stemmed.
The Roman Catholic Church was the only religion known to the people, therefore, in the medieval mind, to oppose the Church was to oppose God. Fear of excommunication held everyone bound, for if the pope so decreed, a man could be doomed to the fires of Hell! Since the true gospel of Christ was not being preached the people knew no different. England, always a green and pleasant land, was not a delightful place to live in during this dark period of history.
When Wycliffe arrived in Oxford he would have seen things that no village boy had ever experienced before. Not only were there the travelling friars with their portable altars selling indulgences, jugglers and thieves, but also beggars (some carrying body parts that had been cut off as punishment for their thievery), magicians and performing dogs. The first description that we have of John Wycliffe is of a timid young man entering the hallowed halls of Oxford University. At the time of his arrival he would have been given his first tonsure (the practice of shaving the crown of a monk’s head). It is said that he was of a slight build, and that his mind was fixed upon achieving high honours, and thus making his family back in Yorkshire proud of him . Like everyone beginning university life he would have immediately taken the Arts course, which included grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, logic, philosophy (both natural and metaphysical), medicine, law, and theology. Added to this he studied the Law of Optics, the Genesis of Sleep, and National Economics. All instruction would be given in Latin, the language of the Church and, since it controlled education, that of the learned. At this time scientists believed the world to be flat, but Wycliffe, because of his love of astronomy, realised that the earth was in fact a sphere, thus he was convinced that if it were midday in England then it must be midnight on the other side of the world. This idea would have been the subject of much debate amongst both scholars and lecturers. The University expected its students to be masters of disputation and debate. It is therefore to be expected that John Wycliffe would excel in this area in later years.
He was a very simple character, the sort that would never flout the rules and regulations of the faculty, but soon he became a dominant and powerful figure in the university. He was in fact acknowledged as one of the most renowned students (and later, masters) of the Arts Faculty. John Wycliffe became known as ‘The Flower of Oxford’ since as an academic he shone in all areas of study. Everyone who met him was impressed with his educated but human approach to all matters. Though a dominant figure it is said that he was an extremely approachable man who was interested in people.
The University, by the time Wycliffe arrived in Oxford was already a hundred and fifty years old, and thus an established and famous centre of European learning. The colleges were the homes of the privileged few among the scholars, for most of the 1,200 students lived in private halls, or in cheap and overcrowded inns and lodging houses. The accommodation for students in such places would not have been very private or pleasant. Rooms may be inhabited by three or four persons, each sharing the same bed and other facilities, and having to endure the lice, rats, poor food and stinking latrines.
Theology in Oxford University was not based upon the holy Scriptures as we would expect but instead students of divinity would be found studying the works of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Later Wycliffe would reject the influence and much of the teaching of these men as being too mystical and out of touch with sense and reason. It is said that students could be found debating how many angels could dance on a head of a pin, amongst other nonsensical issues. He himself was a Realist and so objected to illusionary and mythical thought and teachings, instead he advocated the need to find the absolute – and for him that could only be found in God. This was the spiritual atmosphere that Wycliffe was met with as he took his place in Queen’s College. Here he would spend the next eighteen years training and studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood. By 1356 he would have gained his Bachelor of Arts. He would finally finish his education at the age of forty.
During his early years at Oxford Wycliffe wrote two theses on Logic. The first was entitled Logic in which he expounded the logic of Aristotle, adding a Scriptural flavour to it. The second work Continuation of Logic is actually an argument against Aristotle’s position. Aristotle thought that matter was infinitely divisible, but Wycliffe argued the opposite assumption, that is, the universe was composed of indivisible atoms. Other works about this time include, Acts of the Soul, which is an essay on astronomy and optics.
In the autumn of 1348, being about John Wycliffe’s ninth year in university, the first phase of what is commonly called ‘The Black Death’ struck England’s shores (there were five such outbreaks of this disease in the 14th century, i.e. 1348, 1360, 1367, 1375, 1390). This plague (probably either Bubonic or Pneumonic) originated in the Far East and was thought to have spread via rats and fleas from onboard cargo ships. At first the blame for the plague was laid on the Jews, for many believed that they had poisoned the drinking water, especially since (due to their strict dietary and sanitary laws) they were largely unaffected by the Black Death. The general population was convinced that the world was coming to an end.
Wycliffe considered the plague to be a terrible act of God’s judgement upon an evil and ungodly world. He cried out for personal salvation as he spent days and nights in his room pleading with God in desperate prayer. He desired to know the truth that would set him free from the torment of his soul and fear of going to Hell. The plague filled every heart with fear throughout Europe, and there did not appear to be any remedy for the sickness, pain, and death that it brought. Archbishop FitzRalph, chancellor of Oxford University during this period, said that there were 30,000 students attending university in 1347, but by 1357 the numbers had dropped to about only 10,000, these being the survivors of the plague. News soon reached Wycliffe that two thirds of his home village had perished. Rough estimates of the population of England before the outbreak of the Black Death is about four million, after the plague it had fallen to two and a half million. People were so distressed that they were turning to witchcraft and spiritism, for the Church was giving them no reason or answer for what was happening.
We can get a picture in our mind’s eye of how desperate Wycliffe must have been as he was daily witnessing the death of so many people. His mind and spirit must have been affected so much that he fled to the Word of God to find the answers that he needed. He came to the conclusion that since the plague was the judgement of God, then the world could not continue after 1400. Though he was obviously mistaken regarding this, it is a miracle that he survived the plague that had killed millions of people around him. The Black Death could not thwart God’s plan for Wycliffe and the whole of Europe. The Dark Ages and the Black Death would not be able to hinder the coming of the Light of His Word into the hearts and souls of men and woman.
We will see in the next chapter how God was preparing John Wycliffe to be His torchbearer for the reformation.