- John Wyclif: Myth and Reality
An ambitiously titled volume, this account of the life and achievements of the fourteenth-century English polymath and "heretic," John Wyclif, attempts simultaneously to be an account of the late medieval university and church. Details of Wyclif's controversial and resonant political, academic, and religious career are therefore intermingled with (often rather potted) accounts of intellectual and institutional history. The result can be frustrating at times: intriguing postulates such as Wyclif's disinclination "to waste work"and to make publications out of his lectures—on which subject one would have liked to hear more, so idiosyncratic can be the heresiarch's written style and expository method in the context of medieval scholastic productions—can get lost in between thumbnail sketches of "the disputation" and details of medieval scribal practice (pp. 83–85). The rationale for such an approach eventually emerges: the volume is informed by a largely speculative attempt (there are numerous "it seems"s and "it is possible"s scattered throughout the text) at integrating the known biographical details of Wyclif's life and of his polemical and philosophical career into a psychologically coherent portrait of an ambitious, frustrated, and eventually embittered man whose forays into public life failed to win him the rewards he expected. The conclusion suggests that the "real Wyclif was an able academic, not untypical of his times in the subjects which interested him and the lines he took in his teaching and writing," and an ineffective politician who became "the bête noire of others more ruthless and politically astute than he" (pp. 255–56). This Wyclif is to be distinguished, Evans suggests, from the Wyclif of legend constructed by his sixteenth-century admirers, the morning star of the Reformation.
While such an argument is not without its merits in asking us to disembarrass Wyclif of later accretions (though it may be argued that much contemporary scholarship has done so already), it does not adequately address many outstanding questions, some of which the author herself broaches: why indeed did Wyclif become a focus of later mythmakers, and why was the "durability of the trouble" surrounding him so "exceptional" (p. 249)? Equally, whatever may have been his specific personal contribution to "the English heresy," it is clear that his often formidably complex ideas found their way into an unprecedented body of vernacular writing (a phenomenon noted with much consternation by contemporaries, as Margaret Aston and others have amply documented). As for the ideas themselves, recent work by continental medievalists such as Alessandro Conti, Maarten Hoenen, and others is bringing about a fundamental change in our assessment of Wyclif's logical and metaphysical contributions to late-medieval philosophy and their contemporary reception. Evans's book is a stimulating read but its main narrative makes claims that may at times be plausible but cannot in the end be regarded as adequately substantiated. The career of Wyclif, in its complex intimacies with contemporary politics and ecclesiology as well as with the philosophy of language and epistemology, [End Page 344] in its opaque involvement with the cause of the English language, in its methodological idiosyncrasy (important here is Jacques Verger's, Rita Copeland's, and Daniel Hobbins's work on the "public intellectual") demands readings more nuanced and less polemical. [End Page 345]