Publication Spotlight: John Wyclif on War and Peace
February 20, 2015 Leave a comment
The cover image of Dr Rory Cox’s ‘John Wyclif on War and Peace‘ is initially surprising. The image is taken from a fifteenth-century French bestiary (The Hague, Museum Meermanno, 10 B 25, fo. 32r) and does not depict a warlike creature, but instead a pelican, who feeds her chicks using blood from her own breast. According to the tale behind the image, the chicks of the pelican attacked their mother, who killed them in retaliation. In order to revivify her young, the mother pecked her own breast and fed her chicks the blood which flowed forth. Pelicans were often represented in this way throughout the Middle Ages as this image was used as an allegory for God’s forgiveness and the resurrection.
Rory’s thesis, that John Wyclif was an “out and out pacifist”, is equally surprising. Wyclif, who died in 1384, was unique among his fourteenth-century contemporaries, and stood in stark contrast to the philosophical and theological traditions he inherited. He was the first to promote pacifism since early Christian thinkers, such as Tertullian and Origen. For much of the Middle Ages, ‘just war’ theory was dominant. This was based on the idea that war could be justified if it was based on three pillars: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Wyclif completely dismantled this theory throughout his writing, and advocated a theory of pacifism based on a blanket condemnation of all violence, including self-defence. Thus, reflecting the pelican on the cover of the book, a good Christian ought to sacrifice oneself and suffer, in imitation of Christ, for the sake of others.
Wyclif’s political ideas, which Rory terms “Christian anarchy”, were every bit as radical. Based on the New Testament, these ideas focused on the essential sinfulness of human government, law and society. Instead, an evangelical state, in which all private property would be held in common, was viewed by Wyclif to be the ideal. Here, traditional secular government would be unnecessary: there would be no sin, so no need to punish crimes; no property, so no need for laws protecting property; and because everything would be communally owned, there would be no need for territorial defences.
The presence of this ideology in Wyclif’s writing has, until now, remained unrecognised. There are a number of reasons for this. Wyclif’s views on the Eucharist, papal authority, the translation of scripture and religious reform have received significantly more attention. In addition, previous scholars have focused primarily on a set of English sermons which, thanks to the work of Prof. Anne Hudson, can no longer be confidently attributed to Wyclif. Rory focuses his research on Wyclif’s lengthier, more complex, and indeed more marginalised Latin writings: his theological, philosophical, political tracts and, importantly, his sermons.
It was in these works, in his MA thesis, that Rory began to notice Wyclif’s unusual views on war. The thesis focused on criticisms of war during the Hundred Years War, and looked at the works of a number of writers, including John Gower and Chaucer. Rory’s supervisor, Prof. David D’Avray, suggested that he look at Wyclif, and quickly Rory saw there was more work to do. It was during his D.Phil that the full extent of Wyclif’s pacifism was explored. Originally the doctorate, completed at Oxford, was to focus on Wyclif’s angelology and the war in heaven, but soon it became apparent that Wyclif’s criticisms of war were both more far reaching and radical than Rory had initially realised. Thus, this topic soon became the focus of the doctoral thesis and, ultimately, the monograph, John Wyclif on War and Peace.
So where does this lead? Rory highlights a numberof remarkable similarities between Wyclif’s ideas and those circulating in Bohemia in Hussite writings of the fifteenth century, and sees this as a fruitful direction for further research. One branch of the Hussite movement – the Taborites – did not oppose violence, and indeed made use of it enthusiastically. However, other Hussite theologians, such as Petr Chelčický, remained peaceful and employed pacifist ideals which were strikingly similar to those put forth by Wyclif. Whilst Wyclif may have stood alone in fourteenth-century England, it is possible that further research will reveal other medieval and early modern pacifists, and see his ideas making an impact beyond the spheres of lollardy and Hussism.