John Wycliffe and Jan Hus

The tendencies of the later part of the medieval period were reflected in the doctrines of John Wycliffe  (1320-1384) in England and Jan Hus (1369-1415) in Bohemia, and in the national, anti-papal, and democratic movements for which their teachings were held responsible.

While both Wycliffe and Hus devoted themselves mainly to theological questions, they were undoubtedly influenced by the popular sovereignty ideas of Marsilius and Ockam. Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford, became a popular religious reformer.

His political pamphlets were written to refute the arguments of a monk, probably William Wadford, who argued that the pope possessed feudal suzerainty over England, and that the English king had forfeited his title to the throne because he had ceased to pay the papal tribute.

Wycliffe chief contribution to political theory was his doctrine of lordship, (dominium) an ideal scheme of polity modeled closely on the organization of feudalism. Lordship and service were held to be the two ends of the chain that links man to God. The lordship of God is the highest, and is exercised directly upon men, not through a series of subordinate vassals. This doctrine attacked the distinction between priest and layman, and gave every man an equal place in the eyes of God.

Civil lordship is of human origin, and was necessary because of sin. The righteous man is lord of all things; sinners can possess nothing. Hence only the faithful can exercise lordship and possess property. In Wycliffe view every Christian man ideally possesses everything.

He probably had no intention of making practical application of this scholastic conception. His peasant followers, however, enthusiastically accepted the idea; and communistic ideals, partly religious, partly economic, appeared in various parts of Europe down to the sixteenth century.

Wycliffe associated governing authority with property rights in true medieval fashion, and illustrated the relation of divine to civil lordship by that of feudal lord to vassal. Each authority, however, was held to be paramount in its own field, neither having the competence to interfere with the other.

Wycliffe veneration for the spiritual dignity of the church led him to feel that it should not take part in the business of the external world. He held that when the church became involved in transactions about territorial jurisdiction and money, the state should interfere and assume control over its own affairs. The practical effect of this doctrine, as applied in England and elsewhere, aided the kings in their contest with the papacy.

Wycliffe scholastic theories of divine and civil lordship led him to question the doctrine of papal supremacy. He held that the state as well as the church was directly authorized by God, and that the pope and the clergy had no right to exercise political power. He also foreshadowed the later Protestants in making the Bible the sole standard of religious belief and practice, and in attacking the doctrines of the medieval church for which no Scriptural sanction could be found.

The theory of Wycliffe was, in general, decidedly nationalistic. It represented the English dislike of a pope controlled by the French king. It proposed a national state with a national church subordinate to it, such as Henry VIII later established. In its exaltation of the state, it foreshadowed the doctrines of Bodin and Hobbes.

In discussing forms of government, Wycliffe held that an aristocracy, which he conceived as a combination of the rule of Plato’s philosophers and the Old Testament judges, is best in theory, since it is least connected with civil ordinances. Rule by priests he considered the worst form.

Because of the sinful nature of man, monarchy is on the whole the most beneficial form, since it is the strongest and best able to restrain the excesses of evil doers. Wycliffe gave arguments for and against the principles of heredity and election without definitely reaching a conclusion. Because of his pessimistic view of sinful man, he had a low opinion of the value of the popular vote.

The problem of private property and public poverty was of great interest during the transition from the old agriculture to the new grazing, and from the democratic craft guilds to the aristocratic merchant guilds. In England Wycliffe met this problem by demanding the unification of society.

He held that the best organization was a secular monarchy with large powers. This unification of authority he based upon a unification of interests among the people, to be secured by the abolition of clerical ownership of property and by a direct relation of the individual to God. John Ball and Jack Cade tried to put these ideas into practice, but failed.

The doctrines of Wycliffe were adopted by John Hus, rector of the University of Prague. Though Hus added nothing of importance, he Was a preacher of much popular influence, and he carried forward the reaction against the claims of the papacy and the clergy.

He emphasized the idea that the property of the church was not necessary to its existence, and that secular rulers had the right to deprive the church of its possessions in case of abuse. Like Wycliffe, he held that the whole body of believers composed the real church and that the pope and the clerical hierarchy were not essential or divinely ordained.

The religions teachings of both John Wycliffe and Jan Hus were followed by agitations for reform in the church. Their economic and political ideas led to popular uprisings. The movement died out in England; and Wycliffe followers, the Lollards, were apparently exterminated. On the continent, partly for political reasons, a compromise was effected, the church giving way on some points to the Hussites.

In the attempt of Wycliffe and fuss to return to primitive Christianity, to view the Scriptures as the sole source of authority and to permit every individual to study the Bible and reach his-own conclusions, they gave evidence of the attitude of mind which led to the Protestant Reformation. Their political ideas, though scholastic in form, were modern in spirit.

They asserted the divine right of the king to dis-endow the church they opposed the political claims of the clergy and they recognized the dignity of the individual as a member of the community. Their doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the equality of man led logically to democracy; and this doctrine, combined with the economic tendencies of the period, had ultimate results unforeseen in the fifteenth century.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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