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  • Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse
  • Ian Christopher Levy (bio)

At first glance one might be tempted to count the Wycliffites among the bitterest opponents of the Franciscans, and thus part of the storied late medieval tradition of anti-fraternalism.1 There is much to support this conception, of course, given the bitter invective directed at the mendicants by John Wyclif himself and the Wycliffites who followed in his wake. Although the Wycliffites were certainly not the first to reckon the mendicant orders accomplices of antichrist, they leveled such charges throughout numerous works. Yet this is only part of the story; it is the epilogue, the result of a gradual estrangement that had set in among likeminded friends. And even this later parting of the ways might not have been entirely complete; sparks of love could still be found among the ashes. For it seems clear that Wyclif, as well as later Wycliffites,2 long admired Franciscan theologians, utilized their work, and supported Franciscan reform efforts. These ties to the Franciscans have received the attention of a few notable scholars (whose work will be addressed below). The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to emphasize some aspects that will help to further clarify the situation. First of all, we will look at the ways in which Wyclif pointedly defended Franciscan poverty as the highest form of evangelical life most closely conformed to Christ. We will also examine how Wyclif and later Wycliffites made the case for those friars who were suffering for their strict adherence to the Rule, as well as the response on [End Page 295] behalf of Franciscan leadership offered by William Woodford. It should be said that John Wyclif was never unreservedly anti-mendicant; even in his last years he recognized a faithful remnant among the mass of false friars who had forsaken the foundations of their Order, chief among them the commitment to evangelical poverty. For Wyclif, above all else, it was the attack upon evangelical poverty orchestrated at the highest levels of the Church—reaching even to the papacy itself—that clearly marked the beginning of the reign of antichrist.

That Wyclif’s poverty-centered apocalypse has the ring of Spiritual Franciscanism is no mere coincidence. The church historian Michael Wilks wrote some important essays on the subject where he noted Wyclif’s division of the ages of world history, his familiarity with medieval prophetic works including those of Joachim of Fiore as well as Hildegard of Bingen, and his increasing preoccupation with persecution. Wilks located further similarities to Joachism in Wyclif’s later vision of himself as a prophet creating an order of his own staffed by poor men who would usher in a new age.3 More recently, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton has examined the role that Spiritual Franciscanism played in the evolution of Wyclif’s thought and has argued that his opponents were keen to allege any such connections as a means to discredit him.4 And Lawrence Clopper has presented the case for a vigorous Franciscan presence—if not Spiritualist, strictly speaking, certainly rigorist—within Wycliffism as well as in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Thus Clopper has argued that some of the texts which scholars have traditionally assigned to Wycliffite “pore prestis” are actually the work of dissident Franciscans who had left the order but remained committed to both the Rule and the Testament of Saint Francis.5

If the precise relationship between Wycliffites and Franciscans may be debated, that Wycliffism was marked by a persistent apocalyptic strain seems incontestable. By way of defining ‘apocalypticism’ as a theological-literary genre, I will follow Bernard McGinn: it is characterized by [End Page 296] present trial, imminent judgment, and future salvation. The apocalyptic narrative offers consolation to those who are enduring persecution, but also presents them with a warning and thus a call to decision in the midst of crisis. And even when an apocalyptic narrative may envision some positive outcome, like the arrival of an angelic pope, it thereby carries with it an implicit criticism of the present system.6 In his full-scale study of Wycliffite Apocalypticism Curtis Bostick located a divide between the thinking of John Wyclif himself and later...


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