Ascribing motivations—I’ve heard it said before that this is one of the main differences between historical novelists and historians. The historian aims to tell what historical characters did. The historical novelist aims to tell why they did it. The historian gives us the facts. The historical novelist embroiders the facts with what was going on in the actors’ heads and hearts. The historian gives us an impartial account of what happened. The historical novelist biases the account by giving us a hero and a villain and manipulating events to create a story arc.
While it is certainly true that good historical novelists try to get inside the heads of their characters, it’s also true that historians do the very same thing. Historians are telling a story, just as historical novelists are, and instead of assuming that everything we read in a history book is plain, unadulterated fact, we should instead learn to look at it as a piece of literature that must be evaluated. Who is the historian casting as the hero? Who is the historian casting as the villain? What events is the historian including in order to shape the story into the arc he wants? What events is he leaving out?
The story of John Wycliffe is a prime example of a man who has been dealt with in many different ways by historians. John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century intellectual who tried to reform the corruption in the church. He was an opponent of papal authority in England, which, as I discussed in an earlier post, had gradually increased over the centuries until the Roman pope claimed complete authority over all matters spiritual and secular. He believed that the Bible should be the sole authority for Christians and urged it to be made available in the vernacular so that every man could read it. He condemned pilgrimages, veneration of the saints, and transubstantiation.
Wycliffe’s followers became known as the Lollards. They agitated against the established church with their anti-clerical views and were eventually suppressed by the civil rulers. Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned posthumously at the Council of Constance in 1415, and since he was no longer alive to face the punishment for his heresy, the church exhumed his bones and burned them. Historians would later refer to Wycliffe as “The Morning Star of the Reformation” since so many of his ideas were seminal to the ideas of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin.
|Burning Wycliffe's Bones - Illustration from Foxe's Book of Martyrs|
Thomas Walsingham, a fourteenth century monk of St. Albans, was quite clear what role Wycliffe played in the storybook of history:
There arose in the university of Oxford a northerner called John Wycliffe, a doctor in theology, who maintained publicly in the schools and elsewhere, erroneous, absurd and heretical conclusions against the teachings of the whole Church, resounding poisonously against monks and other religious possessioners…. The lords and magnates of the realm and many of the people favoured John Wycliffe and his followers in their preachings of such errors, especially since by their assertions they gave great power to the laity to take away the temporal possessions of the clergy and the religious.To Thomas Walsingham, Wycliffe is a villain, with “poisonous” teachings. His followers flocked to him only because it was to their own material advantage. They hoped to take the wealth belonging to the clergy.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a work written two centuries later during the English Reformation, has a much different part assigned to Wycliffe. Foxe wrote:
This Wickliff, perceiving the true doctrine of Christ’s Gospel to be adulterated and defiled with so many filthy inventions and dark errors of bishops and monks…determined with himself to help and to remedy such things…. This holy man took great pains, protesting, as they said, openly in the schools, that it was his principal purpose to call back the Church from her idolatry, especially in the matter of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. But this boil or sore could not be touched without the great grief and pain of the whole world: for, first of all, the whole glut of monks and begging friars was set in a rage and madness, who, even as hornets with their sharp stings, did assail this good man on every side; fighting, as is said, for their altars, paunches, and bellies…. Notwithstanding, the said Wickliff, being somewhat friended and supported by the king, bore out the malice of the friars and of the archbishop; John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the king’s son, and Lord Henry Percy, being his special maintainers.To Foxe, Wycliffe’s words are not poisonous; rather, it is the “filthy inventions and dark errors” of the established clergy which come under censure. The accusation of greed, which Walsingham said motivated Wycliffe’s followers, is now leveled against Wycliffe’s opponents who rejected Wycliffe’s teachings for the sake of “their altars, paunches, and bellies.”
In a later passage, Foxe goes out of his way to show that John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was a true believer in Wycliffe’s teaching, not just an opportunist. He quotes a sermon given by Philip Reppyngdon, a colleague of Wycliffe’s, in which he said “that the Duke of Lancaster was very earnestly affected and minded in this manner, and would that all such [those who held Wycliffe’s views] should be received under his protection.”
The bias shown by each of these medieval historians is easy to spot. Their work is weighed down with adjectives containing moral judgments: holy, filthy, poisonous, dark, erroneous, absurd, heretical, good. Modern historians take more pains to hide their judgments, but the judgments are there all the same.
Jackson Spielvogel, in his monumental tome Western Civilization, tells the story in a way of which Foxe would probably approve:
Wyclif has sometimes been viewed as a forerunner of the Reformation of the sixteenth century because his arguments attacked the foundations of the medieval Catholic church’s organization and practices. His attacks on church property were especially popular, and he attracted a number of followers who came to be known as Lollards. Persecution by royal and church authorities who feared the socioeconomic consequences of Wyclif’s ideas forced the Lollards to go underground after 1400.Spielvogel steers clear of the word “greedy”, but notice that it is Wycliffe’s opponents who “fear the socioeconomic consequences of Wyclif’s ideas.”
Brian Tierney, in Western Europe in the Middle Ages: 300-1475, describes things with a bit more skeptical tone:
John Wyclif (ca. 1330-1384), a theologian of Oxford University, first became prominent around 1375 for attacking the wealth and luxury of the church and for maintaining that all church property was held only at the discretion of the secular authorities. At this time, a group of English nobles headed by John of Ghent, duke of Lancaster, were looking with greedy eyes on the possessions of the church and were delighted to find an ecclesiastical supporter. Wyclif was lucky in having the protection of the powerful duke of Lancaster for the rest of his life.Tierney does not go so far as to impugn Wycliffe’s motives, but John of Gaunt is certainly only in it for the money—just like the monk from St. Albans asserted.
Elizabeth Hallam, in one of the essays included in Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry, shows even more skepticism than Tierney:
Desperate for money to prosecute the faltering war with France, Gaunt looked to the English clergy, already hard-pressed by papal taxation. He needed to stem papal demands and also to coerce the clergy into paying even higher taxes to the state. To do this he harnessed prevailing anti-clerical and anti-papal prejudices and used Wycliffe as his propagandist. The don relished the task, developing the doctrine that it was laity’s right and duty to reform the erring Church.With the loaded words “prejudices” and “propagandist”, Hallam manages to imply that Wycliffe was a tool in the hands of the money-grubbing John of Gaunt and that he might not even have truly believed in the doctrines he was drawing up.
In all of the examples I have given, the historians—both medieval and modern—ascribed motivations to John Wycliffe’s followers, John Wycliffe’s opponents, or John Wycliffe himself. The differing treatment from the pens of different historians is an eye-opening example of how moral judgments permeate history books. Like it or not, we must admit that historians take sides in the same way that historical novelists do.
But at the same time, we must also realize that bias, per se, is not a failing for a historian. Bias is an inevitability. The historian puts John Wycliffe in the role of hero or villain because stories—even real stories—have good guys and bad guys. The historian makes a moral judgment about John Wycliffe’s teachings because there really are some right views and some wrong views in the world. And the historian—the modern historian—makes a concerted effort to hide his bias as best he can, because everyone knows that history books don’t take sides. That’s what historical novelists do.
Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.
You can visit Rosanne at her Facebook Page or her Official Author Website where she blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.
Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. USA: Whitaker House, 1981.
Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London: Greenwich Editions, 2002.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. Third Edition. Minneapolis: West Publishing Company, 1997.
Tierney, Brian. Western Europe in the Middle Ages: 300-1475. Sixth Edition. USA: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.