Publication Spotlight: John Wyclif on War and Peace

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.

Publication Spotlight: The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages

Regular features of the School of History blog are the two ‘Spotlight’ series, which focus on members of staff or postgraduate students. In these posts the research and teaching interests, as well as pursuits beyond academia, of both groups are discussed. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring a number of posts which will shine a spotlight on the varied and fascinating monographs and edited volumes recently published by members of the School of History. To kick this off, Dr James Palmer discusses the process of writing The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages.

I wrote The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages for a good reason: it was a book I wanted to read, and yet it did not exist.

My interest in the apocalyptic began when I was still teaching at the University of Leicester back in 2006. I had the fanciful idea of writing a cultural history of time in the early Middle Ages, examining the intersections of historiography, theology and ‘computus’ (the science behind Easter calculations). That unwritten study lurks in the background of The Apocalypse and a number of accompanying essays. It meant that my interest in the apocalyptic was not grounded in the fascination with messianic movements and irrationality which defines many other apocalypse scholars.

The ‘apocalypse’ I see in the early Middle Ages is really a discourse about change and reform. The Bible is pretty clear that the end will come, and the timing is left deliberately vague. What do you do about that? Late twentieth-century secularist fashions would encourage us to imagine that no one thought about it because it was ‘irrational’ to believe the world might end. Modern debate about the apocalyptic has often been surprisingly tetchy and defined by scholars arguing either that it was very important everywhere or not important ever. You of course have to take a position somewhere in the middle. Some people thought it was important; some people didn’t. Lots of people thought it was important some of the time but had a lot going on in their lives. What is inescapable is that the apocalyptic frames language and discourse in a significant number of sources, and it is mostly to do with stimulating and directing change urgently. The end might be coming: we’d better put the world right.

This does not lead us to looking at crazy people in the Dark Ages. What we find are strategies for understanding a complex and unsettled world – strategies which often seem familiar to us. The book starts with the example of an earthquake which affected Constantinople in 557. Many people did not know what had happened (the author of our principal source sneered, being a clever lawyer type). Self-proclaimed experts announced that the end was coming. Some people were scared. Some people gave money to the church, while others vowed to live purer lives and even began to do so. Then the crisis passed and everything went back to normal. How familiar does that sound?

Part of the fun was, unsurprisingly, the quest for new material. A good critical synthesis of existing scholarship could happily have filled the gap the book was intended to fill. Yet even a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions of key texts – with time spent in manuscript reading rooms in London, Paris and Berlin – showed that allegedly ‘unorthodox’ material circulated more widely than many people had thought. That needed explaining. There were also gems to uncover, such as an Irish treatise on time and apocalypse, buried unstudied in two manuscripts in Florence. Quickly, the book became both research monograph and a guide to the subject more generally.

Few projects are ever really completed, and I hope that the publication of The Apocalypse stimulates wider debate about the role of the apocalyptic – and belief more generally – in early medieval society. On-going collaborations are important here, particularly with Matt Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who is visiting the department in March 2015. Together we have co-ordinated a number of sessions on ‘Apocalypse, Prophecy and Reform’ for this year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds, working with Felicitas Schmieder from the FernUni in Germany. Further projects will follow. In many ways, the book stands at the middle of a process, rather than at the end.