Thomas Arundel's Constitutions and the Condemnation of Wycliffe's Vernacular Translations (1382-1415)

By Christopher J. Kshyk
2015, Vol. 7 No. 05 | pg. 2/2 |

That Henry IV felt the need to issue the law at all is interesting in that it attests to the growing influence of the Lollards, the proliferation of both editions of the Wycliffe bible and other heretical texts, and the inability of ecclesiastical condemnations to halt their influence. Of even greater significance, at least for the purposes of this study, is that the law does not explicitly condemn the act of vernacular translations per se, though it does identify the act of translation in general as a typical activity of heretics.33

Instead, De Haeretico Comburendo focused on condemning heresies in the Lollard philosophy which were deemed contrary to orthodox dogma and clerical prerogatives, issues which are mirrored in Arundel’s Constitutions and other condemnations listed in this study. As such, by associating the medium of writing with heresy, Henry IVs De Haeretico Comburendo though draconian in its own right, was in fact merely the latest in a long tradition of medieval legislation which viewed books as the most public, dangerous, and effective means of spreading heretical ideas.34

It is important to view these two documents together, as it is evidence of the degree of cooperation between royal and ecclesiastical authority during this period. That Henry IV emphatically condemned the Lollards in the De Haeretico Comburendo is a testament not only to the king’s religious orthodoxy but also to his desire to cooperate as closely as possible with Arundel to stop the publication and preaching of Lollard texts. Both the Constitutions and the De Hoeretico Comburendo condemn the Lollard belief that any man, endowed with the knowledge of God’s law, should be able to preach to the laity. The Constitutions deal with this issue at length (articles I-IV), stating bluntly that “no secular or regular, unless authorized by the written law, or by special privilege, take to himself the office of preaching the word of God.”35

The defense of clerical prerogatives is in my opinion the final reason why Arundel chose to condemn vernacular translations so strongly. The spread of more accessible vernacular texts such as the Lollard Bible, unregulated and without official sanction, posed a threat to the church’s monopoly on salvation through the control of clerical prerogatives such as the preaching of sermons. As oral sermons were the primary means to instruct the faithful in a largely illiterate society, the threat to the church’s monopoly over the instruction of dogma posed a theological challenge to the church. For Arundel to prevent such an occurrence, it was necessary not only to condemn the message of the Lollard bible, but also its medium and to try, if possible, with royal legislative support to regulate the production of such vernacular texts.

Arundel’s condemnation of vernacular translations in his Constitutions of 1407/09 can therefore be said to be rooted in entrenched theological conceptions of translations in general, and more specifically be seen as a reaction against the social and political upheaval that characterized Lancastrian England in the late 14th and early 15th century. Arundel objected not to the act of translation itself, provided they were supervised and approved by ecclesiastical authorities.

Rather, his condemnations were aimed at protecting clerical prerogatives, specifically with regards to the clergy’s monopoly of the preaching of sermons to the laity. Arundel’s condemnations against Wycliffe’s 1382 and Purvey’s 1395 translation must therefore be seen as a response to the perceived heretical content of both texts. In addition, the circulation of such texts to a wider audience threatened to spread such heresy rapidly and at the same time to undermine the clerical monopoly on the transmission of knowledge in English society.

In addition, it is likely that Arundel felt compelled to address the subject directly given the social and economic unrest in England at the end of the 14th, early 15th century. The Peasants’ War and the subsequent uprisings and conspiracies against the rule of Henry IV, were attributed by ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike to the writings of Wycliffe and the Lollard movement which sought radical reform of the Catholic Church. As such, Wycliffe’s vernacular bible was viewed by Arundel as the subversive medium by which this heresy was spreading through England.

In this, he found common cause with Henry IV, whose De Hoeretico Comburendo complemented Arundel’s own condemnations in the Constitutions. Though addressing the Lollard heresy specifically, both statutes were meant to control a wider degree of subversive vernacular literature. It was therefore the imperative to suppress a pervasive social and religious reform movement in England, coupled with the traditional hostility of western-medieval Christianity towards vernacular translations in general, which prompted Arundel to condemn the act of translations alone out of a multitude of anti-Wycliffe statutes and councils.


References

Primary Sources

Sicut Ecclesiarum praelatis(1199) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Sicut_Ecclesiarum_praelatis

Cum ex injuncto(1199) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Cum_ex_injuncto

The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/lollards/lollconc.htm

Council of Constance, session 8, 4 May 1415. http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM16.HTM#4

Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions (1407/09) http://www.bible-researcher.com/arundel.html

Peters, Edward. 1980. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Secondary Sources

Aston, M. E. 1960. "Lollardy and Sedition 1381-1431". Past and Present. (17): 1-44.

Biller, Peter, and Anne Hudson. 1994. Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, Andrew. 2008. Literature and heresy in the age of Chaucer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deanesly, Margaret. "Arguments against the Use of Vernacular Bibles, Put Forward in the Controversy over their Lawfulness, 1400-1408," The Church Quarterly Review CLXXXI (October 1920) http://www.bible-researcher.com/wyclif5.html

------- “The Significance of the Lollard Bible,” The Ethel M. Wood Lecture, Unversity of London. London: The Athlone Press, 1951. http://www.bible-researcher.com/wyclif6.html

Horner, Patrick J. 2009. "'The King Taught Us the Lesson': Benedictine Support for Henry V's Suppression of the Lollards". Mediaeval Studies. 52 (1): 190-220.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. 1999. "Trial Procedures against Wyclif and Wycliffites in England and at the Council of Constance". The Huntington Library Quarterly. 61 (1).

McSheffrey, Shannon. 2005. "Heresy, Orthodoxy and English Vernacular Religion 1480-1525". Past and Present. 186 (1): 47-80.

Walker, Simon. 2000. "Rumour, Sedition and Popular Protest in the Reign of Henry IV". Past & Present. 166 (1): 31-65.

Watson, Nicholas. 1995. "Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel's Constitutions of 1409". Speculum. 70 (4): 822-864.


Endnotes

1.) Seventh Condemnation, Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions (1407/09) http://www.bible-researcher.com/arundel.html

2.) Arundel’s Constitutions was first drafted at Oxford in 1407 and issued in 1409. (Nicholas Watson, 1995. "Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel's Constitutions of 1409". Speculum. 70 (4): 825)

3.) Henry Ansgar Kelly, 1999. "Trial Procedures against Wyclif and Wycliffites in England and at the Council of Constance". The Huntington Library Quarterly. 61 (1): 20.

4.) Council of Constance, session 8, 4 May 1415. http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM16.HTM#4

5.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 4.

6.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 6-7.

7.) The Significance of the Lolland Bible; Shannon McSheffrey, 2005. "Heresy, Orthodoxy and English Vernacular Religion 1480-1525". Past and Present. 186 (1): 59.

8.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 13.

9.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 20.

10.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 19.

11.) Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 18.

12.) This is a strange argument, given that the Bible was first translated into Greek (with the New Testament itself written into Greek) from Hebrew (Septuagint) before being translated into Latin by St Jerome. Deanesly, The Significance of the Lollard Bible, 4-5, 18.

13.) William Butler (d. 1410?), a writer present at the Oxford Translation debate in 1401, condemned the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue in his Determinatio. William Dunn Macray, The Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, vol. 8. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Butler,_William_(d.1410%3F)_(DNB00)

14.) Margaret Deansely, 1920 "Arguments against the Use of Vernacular Bibles, Put Forward in the Controversy over their Lawfulness, 1400-1408," The Church Quarterly Review CLXXXI. http://www.bible-researcher.com/wyclif5.html

15.) Deansely, “Arguments against the Use of the Vernacular Bible.”

16.) Deansely, “Arguments against the Use of the Vernacular Bible.”

17.) Deansely, “Arguments against the Use of the Vernacular Bible.”

18.) The Council of Toulouse, 1229. Peters, 195.

19.) Cum ex injuncto(1199) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Cum_ex_injuncto

20.) Sicut Ecclesiarum praelatis(1199)http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Sicut_Ecclesiarum_praelatis

21.) Constitutions, Seventh Condemnation. http://www.bible-researcher.com/arundel.html

22.) Andrew Cole, 2008. Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83

23.) Watson, 826.

24.) McSheffrey, 63.

25.) Peter Biller and Anne Hudson, 1994. Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 234.

26.) Biller and Hudson, 234-35.

27.) M. E. Aston, 1960. "Lollardy and Sedition 1381-1431". Past and Present. (17): 5

28.) Aston, 5.

29.) Patrick J. Horner, 2009. "'The King Taught Us the Lesson': Benedictine Support for Henry V's Suppression of the Lollards". Mediaeval Studies. 52 (1): 196-97.

30.) Simon Walker, 2000. "Rumour, Sedition and Popular Protest in the Reign of Henry IV". Past & Present. 166 (1): 59.

31.) Walker, 44.

32.) De Hoeretico Comburend, 1401, Edward Peters, 1980. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 212.

33.) Biller and Hudson, 232

34.) Biller and Hudson, 233.

35.) Constitutions, First Condemnation. http://www.bible-researcher.com/arundel.html

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