BECK index

Magna Carta to Wyclif

Langton and the Great Charter
Roger Bacon and Moral Philosophy
Chaucer's "Tale of Melibeus"
Gower's Poetry
Wyclif and the English Bible

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No freeman shall be taken, nor imprisoned, nor disseized,
nor outlawed, nor exiled, nor destroyed in any manner;
nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him,
but by the lawful judgment of his peers,
or by the law of the land.
We will sell to none,
we will deny nor delay to none right and justice.
Magna Carta 39-40

For Solomon says that
when the condition of a man
is pleasant and to God's liking,
He changes the hearts of that man's enemies
and constrains them to seek peace of him, and grace.
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales "Tale of Melibeus"

Outwardly, the greedy lords deal in the blessings of peace,
but inwardly, wars will stand first with them.
As long as it can store up more loot
through war than through peace,
avarice does not know how
to love the good things of peace.
And envy does not permit you
to conduct yourself peaceably toward me,
for my tears are laughter in your ear.
It is nothing to you
if the downtrodden people bewail their sufferings,
provided that the general misfortune
brings in money to you.
Gower, Vox clamantis 7:31-40

The Bible is for the government of the people,
by the people, and for the people.
Wyclif, Preface to his translation of The Bible

Langton and the Great Charter

From 1199 to 1216 King John caused tremendous turmoil in his attempts to rule England. One of the results of his ineptness was the signing of the Great Charter (Magna Carta). The prime mover behind this great breakthrough in human rights was a man named Stephen Langton. By oppressing the provinces of Anjou, Touraine, Maine, and Normandy, John lost the support of their barons, and after some battles these provinces were taken over by King Philip II of France. Although Pope Innocent III had assisted John against Philip, John's refusal to grant the payments due from Richard's will led to a quarrel with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. The younger monks of Canterbury had selected and installed Reginald, immediately sending him off to Rome to be confirmed by the Pope. John, who frequently acted out of anger and resentment, demanded that the bishop of Norwich, John de Grey, be elected instead, and the King sent off a deputation to the Pope with a gift of 12,000 marks.

Pope Innocent III responded by choosing his own man, Stephen Langton. Stephen was from Lincolnshire, England and had become the leading teacher of theology at the university in Paris. He agreed with Becket's view that the lordship of God was higher than the power of kings. In Paris, Stephen had taught Lothario, who at the age of 37 became Pope Innocent III. The new Pope called his friend to Rome, where Stephen became the most popular preacher. Stephen was a biblical scholar and helped future generations by dividing the scriptures into chapters, and he placed the books in the sequence they still have. He also wrote histories of England's kings Henry II and Richard and composed the hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, which is sung in England as Come, Thou Holy Spirit, Come. The Pope released John's representatives from their promise to him, and eleven of the twelve canons were won over to Innocent's choice of the capable Stephen.

John, however, refused to allow Stephen Langton to enter England, and the Pope retaliated by pronouncing an interdict on John's domain. This closed the churches and canceled all religious services and rituals. John started confiscating Church property, and Innocent excommunicated him. As a diversion John fought battles in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but the lack of religious rituals to which they were so accustomed must have deeply affected the people. Meanwhile Stephen resided for six years at the Cistercian monastery at Pontigny, where Becket had resided in similar exile. Langton studied the situation and wrote letters to the important people in England; it was made a criminal offense to read these letters. York archbishop Geoffrey opposed the John's tax of a thirteenth on Church rents and movables and excommunicated the collectors and tax payers before he fled England. Exchequer records indicate that state revenues from the churches went from 400 pounds in 1209 to 3,700 the next year and to 24,000 pounds in 1211, and there were other revenues from churches in addition. These funds helped pay for John's military campaigns to subdue Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

King John invited Cardinal Langton to meet him at Dover; but Stephen refused because he had been addressed as cardinal instead of archbishop. He asked John to pay for everything the Church had lost. In 1212 the Pope freed all subjects of John from their oaths of allegiance to him and declared that anyone who served King John was excommunicated. The Pope then deposed John and granted his crown to Philip. The French prepared to invade England, but the English, concerned about their own safety, rallied their defenses. Although the English were winning a naval battle at the time, John was afraid and made an agreement with the papal legate Pandulf to return ecclesiastical property, submit his crown to the Pope in feudal vassalage, and pay an annual tribute for the withdrawal of the decrees of interdict, excommunication, and deposition. John thus ruled England as a papal fief, and churchmen were reinstated. Langton was received by a prostrated John, but the Archbishop could not give him the kiss of peace because the ban of excommunication was still in effect. In Winchester Cathedral, Stephen did absolve John of his sins and performed the holy Eucharist, although Innocent resented this infringement of his prerogative. Innocent had to call off Philip, who was prepared for war, and the French king was so frustrated that he attacked Flanders.

Finally after another year the interdict was lifted. John attacked France to try to win back the lost provinces; but he had little support from the English aristocracy, who felt that they had been sold out to Rome. While John was away, Stephen Langton preached at St. Paul's in London and held a meeting with the barons in which he produced an old document signed by Henry I which granted specific English liberties. When John returned defeated from France, he tried to take out his animosity by demanding scutage or payment from all who had not supported military service. The barons, stimulated by Stephen's research and ideas, demanded a return to these laws certified by Henry I. They gathered their forces, which outnumbered the King's, and met John at Runnymede. Archbishop Langton arranged a truce between the king and the barons while the Great Charter was developed. King John granted London a charter confirming their privileges and giving them the right to elect their mayor annually; but when the barons refused John's suggested arbitration, he ordered sheriffs to confiscate their lands and chattels. Stephen Langton with the help of Saire de Quincey spent four days drafting a document that everyone could accept.

This Great Charter, which was signed there on June 15, 1215, has been considered perhaps the most important document in English history. They agreed upon liberties and principles of law which could protect people from the tyrannical actions of men in power. The rights of habeas corpus, due process of law, and trial by jury were formulated. The liberties of the Church with its free elections were guaranteed. Feudal abuses were to be reformed. Wards of an inheritance could take no more than was reasonable. A widow's property rights were protected, and no widow was to be forced to marry. No scutage or payment for an emergency was to be imposed unless by common counsel of the kingdom. A lord might take reasonable aid only to ransom his own person, make his eldest son a knight, or to marry his eldest daughter. The liberties and free customs of all cities, boroughs, towns, and ports were confirmed. A fixed court was to hear lawsuits, and inquests were to be held in each county. Penalties called "amercements" were to be proportionate to the offense and must be decided by a jury of peers. No sheriff, constable, or other bailiff could try serious crimes. No constable or bailiff could take anyone's grain or chattels without paying for them. Standards for weights and measures were established to protect consumers.

No one could be put on trial without reliable witnesses. No freeman could be arrested or punished except by lawful judgment of his peers and the laws of the land. Rights and justice could not be sold, refused, nor delayed. Merchants and others except criminals were granted the right to come and go free of evil tolls except during war. Those from countries at war would be kept in custody without injury until the chief justiciar knew how merchants were treated in their country. Some restraint was put on forest officers to limit their oppression, and inquiries were to investigate and end abuses. A council of 25 barons was established to settle previous disputes and to make sure that the reforms were enforced.

John immediately tried to renounce the agreement by appealing to the Pope. The ailing Innocent annulled the Charter and excommunicated the barons. However, Stephen Langton refused to publish the edict and left for Rome, while Church authorities suspended the Archbishop for two years and helped John raise an army of mercenaries. At Rome, Langton was castigated by the Pope and was not allowed to speak at the Fourth Lateran Council when he was denounced and the barons were condemned as disobedient vassals. This same Council, which determined to fight a crusade against the Cathars and Waldenses (which were the most peace-loving sects in medieval Christianity), confirmed the suspension of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen thought of becoming a Carthusian monk and stood by helplessly as the Church forced England into a civil war. King John's mercenaries defeated the barons, who asked for the help of France's prince Louis. Louis was excommunicated for invading England; his French forces and the barons could only hold London against John. However, both John and Innocent III died, and the English nobles were reconciled with Henry III and his regent so that Louis had to return to France. After all this folly the Charter remained and was revised several times during the reign of Henry III as Parliament was developed.

Stephen Langton continued to mediate between the Church and state for peace and justice until his death in 1228. He revised the canon laws of England that were promulgated at Osney in 1222 and came to be called the Constitutions of Langton.

Roger Bacon and Moral Philosophy

Roger Bacon was born into a wealthy English family in 1214 and was well educated. After studying under Robert Grosseteste and the Franciscan Adam Marsh at Oxford, Bacon lectured on Aristotle's recently unbanned works at the University of Paris, where he criticized the excessive devotion paid to the theology of Alexander of Hales and Albertus Magnus. Bacon had directions for making gunpowder as early as 1242 before anyone else in Europe, but he did not pursue it further. From 1247 Bacon became very interested in experimental science and new branches of learning such as languages, optics, and alchemy (chemistry) along with mathematics and astronomy.

Roger Bacon became a Franciscan about 1250 and taught at Oxford until 1257. By then he had spent 2,000 pounds of his own money on books and research, exhausting his resources. That year he was forced to stop teaching because he had angered superiors. Bacon was allowed to write but not to publish. He wrote to Pope Clement IV about his idea for a scientific encyclopedia in 1266; but the Pope died while he was writing his Opus majus, Opus minus, and Opus tertium. In 1277 his Speculum astronomiae defended astrology against the condemnation by Stephen Tempier. Franciscan minister general Jerome of Ascoli (later Pope Nicholas IV) summoned Bacon to Paris for teaching novelties and had him imprisoned the next year. For fourteen years he was kept in a dark cell and not allowed to study or work. Bacon died soon after he was released from captivity in 1292.

In the first part of his Great Work (Opus majus) Roger Bacon described four causes why human ignorance fails to attain truth as following unworthy authorities, customs and habits, popular prejudices, and displaying the appearance of wisdom to cover up one's ignorance. He explained that the Fathers did not pursue science because their circumstances were different. The second part treats of theology and states that the purpose of philosophy is to lead people to the knowledge and service of God, and it culminates in moral philosophy. In the third part Bacon emphasized the practical importance of studying languages scientifically, especially Hebrew and Greek for the scriptures. Bacon also wrote grammars of Hebrew and Greek.

In the fourth part of the Opus majus Bacon discussed mathematics as the key to the sciences. He noted that mathematical astronomy indicates the smallness of the Earth. He argued that the suspicion of astrology being deterministic is unjust because it does not eliminate free will. He observed that the movements of the heavenly bodies can influence humans, and gaining such knowledge can be used for good purposes. Optics is the study of the fifth part. He developed Grosseteste's theory that light is transmitted in pulses like sound waves, and he prepared the way for the telescope and microscope by noting that refraction can cause objects to appear larger. In the sixth part Bacon discussed experimental science. Reasoning can guide the mind to conclusions, but only confirmation by experience removes doubt. Experience comes from observation by the senses, which can be aided by instruments and trustworthy witnesses, and it also comes from spiritual intuition, which is perceived by the mind from divine illumination. Bacon elucidated seven stages of internal knowledge as discoveries from the sciences, virtues that keep the mind like a clear mirror as al-Ghazali wrote, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated by Isaiah, the beatitudes of Jesus, spiritual senses, fruits like the peace of God, and the raptures of mystical states.

Roger Bacon believed that the seventh and last part of his Opus majus on moral philosophy was the most important. This science teaches us the laws and obligations of life, that these are to be believed and approved, and that people should live according to them. These duties, as scripture taught, are to God and the angels, to one's neighbor, and to oneself. Bacon defined seventeen metaphysical premises that underlay moral philosophy. These may be summarized as follows:

1. God's existence is proved by metaphysics.
2. God's existence is naturally known by every person.
3. God is of infinite power, goodness, substance, and wisdom.
4. God is one in essence.
5. God is also triune, which is explained by metaphysics.
6. God created all things and rules nature.
7. God also created spiritual substances known as intelligences and angels.
8. God also created rational human souls.
9. God made souls immortal.
10. Felicity of the other life is the highest good.
11. Humans are capable of this felicity.
12. God morally directs the human race and all nature.
13. God promises future felicity to those who live correctly in accordance with God's direction.
14. Worship is due to God with all reverence and devotion.
15. As human conduct toward God is regulated by reverence, human conduct toward neighbors is regulated by justice and peace, and one's duty to oneself is regulated by integrity of life.
16. A human needs more than one's own effort to please God with worship and as to how one should conduct oneself towards one's neighbor and oneself.
17. Revelation is made to one mediator of God and humanity who should be believed when it is proved certainly that that one is the lawgiver and high priest.

Bacon gave Avicenna credit for this joining of metaphysics to moral philosophy. He referred to Socrates and Plato for the idea that every person has an angel guarding against all evils who guides one toward what is good. When the soul is separated from the body, the angel is a witness before God as to all the soul did in the body. This angel witnesses not only one's acts but one's thoughts as well. Bacon eloquently summarized Plato's concept.

Your angel carefully perceives all things,
sees all things and understands them,
this guardian, individual overseer, household observer,
personal defender, intimate advocate, constant watcher,
personal judge, inseparable witness, condemner of what is evil,
approver of what is good, provider in your uncertainties,
forewarner in your doubts, defender in your perils,
aid in your needs, who is able in dreams, and in signs,
and in person when necessity requires, to curtail your ills,
prosper your good, control your prosperity, ease adversity.1

Bacon described the four hindrances to happiness in the next life as sin, preoccupation with the body, obstacles of the physical world, and lack of revelation. He cited Avicenna's view that sin, the body, and the outer world distract us from the revelation of the soul. Bacon followed Avicenna's outline that the laws needed are to regulate human relations such as marriage and government. The state should have administrators, servants, and skilled lawyers. The legislator teaches people to make laws on patrimonies, inheritances, and wills. Ordinances can help individuals to aid and defend each other by uniting against enemies of law to subdue them. Choosing the successor to the legislator should be done in mutual relationship between the subjects, prelates, and princes. Teachers may be appointed to instruct the young.

In regard to personal conduct everyone should keep one's life pure and free from vices for the sake of future happiness. Love is the greatest good, and peace and justice are its companions; for humanity is a social animal. Bacon also cited the twelve virtuous means delineated by Aristotle as courage, chastity, liberality, generosity, magnanimity, high-mindedness, gentleness, friendliness, honesty, cheerfulness, modesty, and justice. Intellectual virtues include intuition, knowledge, art, prudence, and wisdom. Bacon noted that Seneca considered virtue the whole good and the only good in this life. Sin blinds, defiles, and weakens the rational soul and can even reduce one to the level of brutes. Bacon listed the seven mortal sins as avarice, pride, luxury, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth. Six of these are nourished by prosperity, but anger comes out of adversity. The first step in handling anger is to understand its horrible consequences. Bacon quoted and paraphrased extensively from the writings of Seneca on anger and other moral questions.

In the last section of the part on moral philosophy Bacon turned to the salvation of the human race and what guides people to the felicity of the other life. In an early effort at comparative religion Bacon discussed the Saracens, Tartars, pagans, idolaters (Buddhists), Jews, and Christians. He criticized the Tartars for their wars, identifying them with Mars, and the Muslims with the sensuality associated with Venus. He was also critical of the Jews, whom he related to Saturn, and he praised Christianity as the best religion, identifying it with Mercury. He did suggest that the Christians should accept the histories of the Jews and Saracens lest they with equal right reject the histories of the Christians. He argued that Moses and Muhammad lacked other witnesses and that since John the Baptist and the disciple Peter testified to Jesus, the Christ is the perfect lawgiver.

Roger Bacon argued that crusades actually hindered conversion, and he recommended the peaceful methods of persuasion, urging missionaries to learn the language of the converts. War is especially ineffective, because the Christians are often defeated, especially overseas. Rather people and their children are made enemies and embittered against Christianity because of its violence. This faith did not enter the world by arms, and many knowing little language and with poor interpreters have made many converts by teaching.

Most people no longer believed that one could gain spiritual merit by crusading, and troubadours mocked the notion that God favored the crusades. After Louis IX had been killed in the disastrous crusade to Tunis in 1270, the troubadour Austore de Segret wondered whether they had been led by God or the devil, for Christians were destroyed and lost their faith while the Saracens found support. The troubadour Guillem Daspols composed a tenzone that also asked why God honored the Saracens, and he challenged God to show the Saracens their errors rather than waste blood in crusades.

Chaucer's "Tale of Melibeus"

The poet Geoffrey Chaucer served occasionally as a diplomat. When he was about twenty, he was taken prisoner in France and ransomed by King Edward III. Chaucer then acted as a diplomatic courier in the negotiations that brought about the Peace of Calais in 1360. He married a lady of the English court and for ten years went on many diplomatic missions to France and the Low Countries "on the King's secret affairs." Chaucer was a close friend of John of Gaunt and was aided by him in court life. In 1372 he traveled to Florence and probably heard Boccaccio's lectures on Dante, and in 1378 he went to Milan, where Petrarch had spent his last twenty years. In 1385 Chaucer became justice of the peace for Kent, and the next year he was elected to parliament. He was given appointments by Richard II and was also favored by Henry IV before he died in 1400.

Chaucer is justly famous for his great work The Canterbury Tales. These stories told by various characters while on their pilgrimage to Thomas Becket's tomb illustrate many points of view on life from ribald accounts of lust to high moral fables. Each tale reveals the personality of the storyteller. In the parson's tale Chaucer warned that anger can lose an old friend; but when it leads to war, every kind of wrong is committed. Significantly, after he is cut off in his tale of a knight named Sir Thopas, the story that Chaucer puts into his own mouth is an enlightened account of peacemaking and diplomatic counseling called "The Tale of Melibeus."

Melibeus is a powerful and rich young man who has a wife named Prudence and a daughter Sophie. One day when Melibeus is out playing in the fields, three of his old enemies break into his house, beat his wife, and wound his daughter in five places. Melibeus becomes greatly upset and weeps profusely as Prudence attempts to console him. Melibeus decides to call in all the people he knows in order to get advice about what to do. Melibeus sadly describes his trouble and angrily speaks of vengeance and his eagerness for war. First the physicians help the wounded and declare their policy of never doing harm to anyone; however, they add that as diseases are cured by their opposite, so war might be cured by vengeance. Many flatterers praise the wealth and might of Melibeus and his friends while disparaging the strength of his enemies. The older and wiser recommend that he guard his person and his house, but that he wait before deciding on war. Then the young people rise up and begin to cry, "War, war!" An old man advises caution, but the young heckle him until he sits down.

Melibeus is ready to go along with war when his wife Prudence asks him to listen to her counsel. Melibeus says he would be a fool to give over his sovereignty to a woman, women being evil and unable to keep secrets. Prudence declares that he ought to change if previous counsel has been foolish, that listening to advice is not giving up one's power to decide, and that all women are not necessarily bad and untrustworthy. So Melibeus agrees to listen to Prudence.

First, she says, one ought to begin by praying to God for guidance. Then one must remove the three impediments to good counsel from the heart-anger, covetousness, and hastiness. After having taken counsel within oneself it is best to keep it secret so as to receive unprejudiced and objective counsel from the advisors. Melibeus had betrayed his desire, and all the flatterers had agreed with his passion. Prudence suggests that it is best to ask advice from friends that are old, faithful, discreet, and wise; he must beware of former enemies and those who are afraid of him.

Prudence teaches Melibeus that in counsel he ought to be truthful about the situation and examine the probable results of the advice and the various causes. Then Prudence takes up the specific issues. She points out that vengeance is not the opposite of wickedness as the physicians thought; but it is wrong for wrong. Peace is the opposite of war. As to guarding his person and garrisoning his house, Prudence declares that friends are the best defense. War would be foolish because his enemies have more relatives than he and surely would revenge his acts of vengeance. Only a judge with the proper jurisdiction should punish. The consequences of war would be injuries, deaths, and the waste of wealth. Spiritually the ultimate cause of everything is God. Therefore if God has allowed this to happen to his family, it must be chastisement for previous sins. Allegorically the three enemies of mankind are the world, the flesh, and the devil, and the five wounds symbolize the five senses through which the sins have entered the heart. He should leave vengeance to the sovereign Judge, for "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord." Besides Melibeus does not have the power to avenge himself. Chaucer and Prudence discourage fighting under any circumstances.

It is madness in a man to strive with one
who is stronger than himself;
and to strive with a man of even strength is dangerous;
but to strive with a weaker man is foolish.
And for this reason a man should avoid all strife,
in so far as he may.2

Melibeus figures that he can count upon his wealth; but Prudence warns that no amount of wealth is sufficient to maintain war, and a great man is as easily killed in a war as a poor one. Prudence counsels Melibeus to make peace with God and become reconciled to His grace, and God will change the hearts of his enemies so that they also will seek peace. Prudence then tells the adversaries privately that they ought to repent for the injury and wrong they had done to Melibeus, herself, and her daughter. They are surprised by her gracious words and acknowledge the wrong they have done. She convinces them to trust themselves to Melibeus and her for a reconciliation. She then gathers their true friends, and they being correctly informed give counsel for peace. When the adversaries submit, Melibeus still wants to punish them by confiscating all their property and banishing them; but Prudence warns him against gaining a reputation for covetousness and then advises mercy. Finally Melibeus forgives them for all the offenses, injuries, and wrongs done against his family so that God will forgive him the sins he has done in the world. Thus through Prudence Chaucer showed us how to alleviate the mood for war and bring reconciliation.

Gower's Poetry

Another English poet, William Langland (c. 1332-c. 1400), in Piers the Plowman described the suffering from the long war and criticized the Pope for sending men to kill those he should be saving. The poet blamed Edward III for the ruinous campaign in France that followed his failing to keep the peace treaty of Brétigny. In the first version of his poem Langland had hope that the Black Prince would become a good king; but after Richard II became king, his vision changed to hoping for the reign of Christ in which all weapons would be transformed into farm tools; the penalty for trying to make a weapon would be death.

The poet John Gower (c. 1330-1408) was a friend of Chaucer. Although Gower supported Edward III's claims in France, in 1369 he joined a group of prelates in opposing more taxes because a truce with France had been broken. In his early French poem, The Mirror of Man, Gower reminded knights that God looks into your heart, and that even in a just cause one must do no wrong. Love, pity, and charity keep war far away. In his English poem Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Shrift) and in his Latin poem Vox Clamantis (Voice of Crying) Gower condemned bloodshed. The latter was stimulated by the Jack Straw Rebellion of 1381. Gower criticized the warrior clerics who practice war when they should restore peace, and he castigated the lords who gain loot from war and laugh at those who suffer or complain. Disillusioned by the Norwich Crusade of 1383, Gower compared the peaceful preaching of Peter to the current Pope's fighting and killing with armies for riches. Gower believed that knights should serve the common good, defend orphans and widows, and protect the church; but he lamented that avarice often leads them astray.

Gower came to believe that Edward's claims in France were not justified, and thus the war was wrong. Gower agreed with the criticisms that accused Richard II of eight violations of his duty to keep the peace toward the clergy and his people. Thus Gower supported Henry IV in his taking of the throne in 1399, and in a poem addressed to him he urged the new king to make peace with France. Yet he warned Henry IV that some appeal to peace for their own ends. The test of peace is if one's motive is love.

In the book on wrath in his English poem Gower asks the Confessor if it is lawful to kill a man. At first the Confessor indicates that exceptions can be made by a judge for robbery, murder, and treason according to the laws, and one may defend oneself in war. However, when Gower asks about deadly war for a worldly cause, the Confessor says,

If charity be held in awe,
Then deadly wars offend its law:
Such wars make war on Nature too;
Peace is the end her laws pursue ­
Peace, the chief gem in Adam's wealth;
Peace which is all his life and health.
But in the gangs of war there go
Poverty, pestilence, and woe,
And famine, and all other pain
Whereof we mortal men complain,
Whom war shall trample down until
Our only succor is God's will.
For it is war that brings us naught,
On Earth, all good that God has wrought:
The church is burnt, the priest is slain;
Virgin and wife, vile rapes constrain;
Law pines away, God is not served:
Now tell me, what has he deserved,
The man who brings such warfare in?
First, if he stirred up war to win
Advantage, count his heavy cost,
With all the people who are lost:
By any worldly reckoning,
The man has not won anything.
Then, if he acts in hope of grace
From heaven, it is not my place
To speak of such rewards; but still,
Both love and peace were Our Lord's will;
And he who works their opposite
Must reap an ill reward from it.
Since in their nature, as we find,
Battles and wars of every kind
Are so displeasing to Our Lord,
And since their temporal reward
Is woe, it mystifies the mind
To guess at what can ail mankind
That they agree no armistice:
Sin, I think, is what makes us miss;
And sin is paid with death. I know
Not how such matters truly go;
But as for us, who are of one
Belief, in my opinion
Peace were a better thing to choose
Than ways by which we doubly lose.3

The Confessor finds the real cause of war in coveting. He tells a story of a pirate who justifies himself to the great Alexander by arguing he only does on a small scale what Alexander does with his empire. Yet even Alexander met a tragic end. The Confessor concludes that only in a just cause is slaughter justified. Gower then asks if it is lawful for men to go across the sea to slay Saracens, but the Confessor says this is contrary to the examples of the Christ and those he sent out to preach to the world. If they had killed, the faith would be uncertain. Thus all killing is evil, because murder makes men worse than beasts.

Wyclif and the English Bible

John Wyclif was born about 1328 and was educated at Oxford, gaining his master of arts at Balliol about 1358. He became vicar of Fillingham in 1363 and of Ludgershall in 1368, but he got permission to be absent while he studied at Oxford for several more years. Wyclif earned his doctor of divinity in 1372. The previous year papal nuncio Arnold Garnier had arrived in England to recover all property bequeathed for the deliverance of the holy land. However, in February 1372 Garnier was forced by King Edward III to swear before Chancellor Thorpe and others that he would not act contrary to the interests of the realm nor take any treasure out of England for the pope or cardinals. Wyclif may have been present; but even if he was not, he was impressed by this. In 1374 Edward III sent Wyclif on a commission to Bruges to negotiate peace with France and resolve differences over appointments in England with papal agents.

Wyclif wrote treatises on civil and divine dominion, suggesting that a church in sin should give up its possessions. Three principles he emphasized were that the clergy and especially the pope should be humble and ready to serve, that they must remove themselves from secular affairs according to the apostolic example, and that thus the Church should be relieved of its excessive endowments. Under the influence of John of Gaunt, Wyclif preached in favor of moderate disendowment. Wyclif agreed with the Franciscan Spirituals that possessions not only by monks and friars but also by the Church itself were evil, because poverty was the way of the true Church. Thus he repudiated all costly churches, especially those of friars. In his sermons Wyclif urged that the goods of the friars be seized and given to the poor. In 1377 Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against Wyclif and called for his arrest. Before these documents arrived, Wyclif urged the first Parliament under Richard II to detain money from the Pope. His treatise on the truth of sacred scripture was published the next year, and in this he argued that all lying is sinful; a good intention does not justify falsehood, even for the pope. After Gaunt's men killed a squire taking refuge in Westminster Abbey, Wyclif argued that royal servants had the right to bring criminals to justice even from sanctuaries.

Wyclif studied the original teachings of Jesus and objected to church rituals; he could not agree with the doctrine of the Eucharist transubstantiation that the spiritual presence of the Christ also made the physical bread his body. He argued that Jesus conferred spiritual powers on Peter, not metal keys, and that all saints that come to heaven have these spiritual keys. He bitterly criticized and satirized the pope's practice of getting money by tribute and taxation, comparing such priests to those who clip coins and cut purses. Wyclif lamented that Bible study was excluded from the religious life and that officials were reluctant to spread this knowledge among the people. He called the scriptures "God's Law," and he believed that every person should know and obey the law of God directly. In 1380 he began translating the Bible so that an order of Poor Preachers could take its message to the people. Wyclif believed it was a fundamental sin to withhold the scriptures from the laity, and he held that the first duty of a priest is to make them known in the mother-tongue of the people.

The next year Wyclif sympathized with the Peasants' Revolt that arose after a flat tax of half a mark was laid on the head of all clergy; poor vicars had to pay as much as rich prelates; deacons, acolytes, and other inferiors had to pay one shilling. People were upset by government corruption, rampaging soldiers, and because Parliament had forced all adults to work for their present lord at the same pay as was current before the Black Death even though Edward III had depreciated the silver coinage in 1351. During the uprising the propertied and clergy such as Spenser of Norwich helped the state by hanging hundreds of peasants. Shortly after the revolt Wyclif in his de Blasphemia urged patience and clemency to avoid hatred and division in the realm, and he blamed the people's excesses for the murder of Canterbury archbishop Simon of Sudbury; yet he did assert that Sudbury died in sin because he also held the office of chancellor. His successor, William Courtenay, condemned the works of Wyclif in 1382, and Oxford banned his writings. A synod at Blackfriars arrested many of his followers but left Wyclif himself alone, perhaps because he suffered a stroke that year.

Wyclif was also disgusted by the crusade Norwich bishop Henry de Spenser was preparing for Urban VI against the Avignon Pope Clement VII in 1383 and wrote tracts condemning the clerics, curates, prelates, priests, and monks who are enemies of peace and maintainers of war in order to perpetuate their possessions and rob poor tenants. If they loved peace, they would give up their lordships in charity; but they maintain armed men to kill Christians in the thousands. Using biblical scholarship Wyclif challenged the Church's authority to sanctify war. In his Trialogus Wyclif elucidated the principles that if the Bible and the Church do not agree, one should follow the Bible, and when conscience and human authority conflict, one should obey conscience. Wyclif was summoned to Rome by Pope Urban VI, but he refused to go and sent him a letter explaining his views. Wyclif noted that Jesus had refused to let the people make him king, and he urged the Pope also to renounce all worldly lordship. Wyclif died on the last day of 1384.

Before Wyclif's death, probably in 1382, his followers, called the Lollards, were the first to publish a complete English translation of the entire Bible. The treatise On the Seven Deadly Sins has been attributed to Wyclif; but it was written in a western dialect he did not use, and it was published by his follower Nicholas Hereford about 1384. It noted that anger is the opposite of fellowship and charity and can lead to war; but Christ taught that men should not fight. Those called Lollards referred to themselves as "true men" or "Christian men" and went even further than Wyclif in denouncing war and promoting English translations of the scriptures. Nicholas Hereford said that Jesus Christ taught them the law of patience and not to fight bodily.

In a sermon in 1382 Hereford urged King Richard II to lessen the tax burden on the laity by reforming the clergy. William Swynderby was charged by the bishops of Hereford and Lincoln in 1390 and went into hiding. Swynderby sent a letter to the bishop of Hereford, pointing out that Jesus taught loving our enemies, but the pope's law permits hating and killing them for money. Two Cambridge professors replied that a just war against infidels was holy; but Walter Brut supported Swynderby's view and criticized the Roman pontiff for promoting wars not only against infidels but against Christians too for earthly goods. In 1395 the Lollards presented Twelve Conclusions to Parliament, and the tenth point was that war and killing are contrary to the teaching of Christ. The bishops responded with sixteen charges against the heretics, condemning the belief that it is not lawful to kill any person.

In 1401 Parliament passed England's first act for burning heretics, and the statute specifically cited the Lollards for having wrong thoughts about the sacraments and for usurping the office of preaching. The law forbade people to preach, teach in schools, and publish books. Most of the Lollards abjured, but a few were burned. That year William Sawtré was burned for denying the material presence of Christ's body in the bread, for condemning adoration of the cross, and for teaching that preaching is the priest's most important duty. When Lollards were charged with heresy in courts in the 15th century, they were often also accused of opposing killing or fighting.


1. Opus Majus by Roger Bacon, tr. Robert Belle Burke, Volume 2, p. 647.
2. Canterbury Tales "Tale of Melibeus" 44 by Chaucer, tr. J. U. Nicolson.
3. Confessio Amantis 2261-2304 by John Gower, tr. Terence Tiller.

Copyright © 2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Prophets of Israel
Chinese Sages
Upanishads and Yoga
Mahavira and Buddha
Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes
Stoic Philosophers
Jesus and the Early Christians
Zarathushtra, Mani, and the Cathars
Sufis, Philosophers, and Nanak
Francesco and Bonaventure
Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch
Magna Carta to Wyclif
Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites
International Law Pioneers
Quakers: Fox and Penn's Holy Experiment
Peace Plans of Rousseau, Bentham, and Kant
Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on World Peace
Tolstoy on the Law of Love
Suffragettes and Women's Rights


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index