- John Wyclif on War and Peace by Rory Cox
In recent years, studies of the philosophical, theological, and political ideas of the English thinker John Wyclif have proliferated. To this literature we may now add this new volume by Rory Cox, which compellingly defends a striking thesis: “that Wyclif should be regarded as the first medieval pacifist” (p. 159). According to Cox, Wyclif not only rejected conventional Christian ideas about just warfare; he also advocated for nonviolence and nonresistance in the face of aggression by others. Wyclif’s reasoning, which Cox reconstructs in detail, may well have laid the groundwork for the pacifist arguments of lollard and Hussite reformers in the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Cox’s introduction makes it clear that war and peace have not been prominent themes in academic writing about Wyclif, who scattered his comments about warfare, violence, and nonaggression across many of his works. Following a brief history of pacifism and a lengthier account of the development of Christian just-war doctrine, the heart of Cox’s book comprises three closely argued chapters concerning Wyclif’s opposition to the pillars on which medieval conceptions of the just war stood: just cause, proper authority, and correct intention. In his fifth chapter, “Wyclif on Politics,” Cox examines Wyclif’s ideas about a range of issues connected to law and government, such as just dominium, the right of secular governments to engage in legal coercion, and the relationship between divine and human law. Bringing all these findings together, the final chapter and brief conclusion seek to [End Page 632] demonstrate that Wyclif’s pacifism went beyond merely the rejection of just-war theory and instead encompassed a thoroughgoing “moral rejection of war” (p. 135).
Those familiar with Wyclif’s meandering, polemical, yet often original writings will especially appreciate the extent of Cox’s labor in this book. The analysis here synthesizes passages from across Wyclif’s extensive corpus, utilizing both printed and manuscript sources and showing for the first time how his ideas about politics and warfare sometimes remained consistent and at other times changed over the last decade or so of his life. Specialists may regret the lack of easy access to Wyclif’s own Latin words; no doubt for reasons of space, this volume provides primary texts only in translation. More substantive quibbles may be had with Cox’s presentation of Wyclif’s doctrine of predestination. Recent studies, such as those of Ian Christopher Levy, have increasingly made it clear that Wyclif, like other medieval thinkers and unlike later Protestants, saw the predestined elect not as the lucky winners of a mysterious divine lottery but as those whose morally good actions God foreknows and rewards. Cox’s neglect of these trends in scholarship leads him to make inferences about the relationships between Wyclif’s conception of the elect and Wyclif’s views on nonviolence that may not be supported by the sources, and his quotation of later lollard writings as if they were Wyclif’s own undermines the credibility of his otherwise persuasive arguments.
These limitations aside, Rory Cox has done an important service in producing the first book-length study of Wyclif’s views on perennial themes: violence, war, and the prospect of peace. His generally limpid writing opens up Wyclif’s dense and scattered arguments to a broad audience of readers, and his case for Wyclif as the first medieval pacifist is credible and well argued. We can only hope that further studies will join Cox, Levy, and others in plumbing the intellectual depths of one of the Middle Ages’ most reviled—yet creative—thinkers.