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  • Deferential Heresy: Reginald Pecock, William Thorpe, John Oldcastle, and the Danger of Deferring to Episcopal Authority in Late Medieval England
  • Erin K. Wagner

Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

Philip Repingdon, faced with excommunication by the Blackfriars Council in 1382, abjured the Wycliffite heresies with which he was condemned in notoriously quick fashion, despite his initial avid support of Wycliff.1 Aware, no doubt, of the canon laws that would allow him, after abjuration, to advance in his career despite his former heretical inclinations, Repingdon had weighed his options and decided in favor of remaining within the Church, as represented by the Council and its prelates.2 His abjuration, as found in the 1570 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, is fairly formulaic and is presented in part below:

I Philip Repyngton chanon of the house of Leicester, acknowledging one catholique and apostolique fayth do curse and also abiure all heresie, namely these heresies and errours vnder written, condemned and reproued by the decrees canonicall, & by you moste reuerand father, touching which hetherto I have been diffamed . . . but doe and will stand and adhere in all things, to the determination of þe holy catholike church, and to yours, in thys behalfe.3

In his abjuration, Repingdon publicly acknowledged that the “catholike church” and the beliefs he had formerly held were in direct opposition to each other. This was a paradigm that the prelates of the Council were eager to promote, having given the words to Repingdon themselves. After all, as Ian Forrest has outlined, the process of abjuration was a moment for the church to display what they deemed the danger and vileness of the abjured opinions.4 The reality of how beliefs we have come to define as heresies in modern academia—until recently a word used unquestioningly, co-opted as it was from medieval eccelsiastical narratives—were [End Page 85] held or accepted by the mass of believers outside of those aforementioned councils is a more complicated inquiry. The word heresy is, first and foremost, an unstable signifier, used by both sides in a religious conflict between an authority with the power to dispense legal and religious punishment and a defendant accused of subverting church doctrine. The Testimony of William Thorpe (1407) provides an example of this multivalent usage of the word heresy. William Thorpe, under trial for “opynynouns whiche þe sect of Lollers holdiþ,” refers to Philip Repingdon as an example of what he does not wish to become—an abjured and reformed bishop who now hunts down heretics himself.5 Archbishop Arundel, his interrogator, reproves him for foolishness, and, in the process, defines Thorpe and his friends as heretics: “þese men of whom þou spekist now weren folis and eretikis whanne þat þei weren gesside wise men of þee and of sich oþir losels. But now þei ben wise men þouȝ þou and sich oþer demen hem vnwise.”6 In a later printed version of his examination, dated 1530, Thorpe talks directly to his audience in an appended testimony and calls the Archbishop a heretic in turn:

[A]ll the popys yt haue ben syns I hadde ony knowledge or discretion with all the college of Cardinallis Archebishopis & bisshopis Monkys chanons & friers with all the contagious flocke of the comunaltie of priesthode whych haue all my lyfe tyme a[n]d mekell lenger reigned & yet reigne a[n]d encrease dampnably fro synne into synne haue bene a[n]d yet be proude obstinate heretikes7

Whether this testimony is actually written by William Thorpe himself or whether it exhibits the more Reformed attitude of a later writer stands of secondary importance in this instance to the evidence it provides of the easy appropriation of the word heresy to denote one’s enemies, no matter their religious beliefs. It was not uncommon, for example, for Lollards to accuse ecclesiastical officials of heresy. In a polemical passage denigrating pilgrimages and the worship of images, included in Anne Hudson’s Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, the Lollard...


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