The relationship between Lollardy and the theology of William Tyndale crosses a vast array of interpretative and historical purviews. Firstly, the idea of Lollardy in itself is a difficult and problematic one to ascertain: these issues stem from the fact that Lollardy was a term used by the Catholic Church and monarchy to describe heresy in general. It is borrowed from the continental term; in addition, Lollards themselves were characterised by their poor education and their inability (or unwillingness) to interpret scripture in its original language. Finally, Lollards have been defined as followers of the theology of John Wycliffe. The problems surrounding this inception point is cemented further by the incrimination of Lollards, which sent the movement underground. Given this myriad of opposing views on what actually constituted Lollardy, therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain precisely what impact, if any, this movement had on the development of continental Protestantism, as well as on Tyndale’s own derivative of Protestant ideas.
Historians who define Lollardy as more or less synonymous with the ideas of Wycliffe assert that Lollardy did exist as a substantial and coherent religious movement that ran counter to the Orthodox Church, and ultimately developed in an unproblematic fashion into Protestantism and Lutheran ideals and values. However, many of these historical views depend upon the textual evidence of trials of Lollards, which were, after all, advocated by the Orthodox Church. Contrarily, revisionist historians suggest that Lollard thought represented nothing but a widely discrepant series of fragmentary ideas and ideologies that happened to fall against Catholic dogmas and traditions. Thus, the fragments which survive on Lollardy were mere attempts to frame a chaotic tribe of individuals who had nothing in common other than that they were perceived as being enemies of the church and the monarchy. The likelihood is that these two ideas of Lollardy represent two extremes in a debate which raged for centuries. While Lollardy was far from coherent or consistent as a movement, and did not have authoritative texts by way of its own doctrinal assumptions, one can assume that individuals took on the mantle of Lollardy as a response to definitions of it as a heretical movement in and of itself. Thus, Lollardy was both a constructed enemy of orthodox Christianity and an actual movement characterised by its own ideologies and values.
The links between William Tyndale and Lollardy can therefore be thought of in a number of ways: firstly, were there direct links between Lollards and Tyndale? Geographical evidence suggests that Lollard activity did take place in the region where Tyndale was brought up. In addition, Tyndale mentions vernacular translations of the Bible as something which he was interested in as a child – Wycliffe’s vernacular Bible suggests that Tyndale was indeed affected by Lollard thought, although this too is problematic. Firstly, the only evidence we have that this thought took place was when Tyndale was presently preoccupied with Bible translation, and was reminiscing about his past. Secondly, vernacular Bible translation was not necessarily a heretical, “Lollard” act, but was widespread (and accepted) in the Low Countries where Tyndale was situated during his translation and, in addition, was even accepted, providing it was not done falsely, in England. Thus, the argument that Tyndale was affected directly by Lollards during his childhood is characterised by circumstantial and anecdotal evidence only. Some historians suggest that Tyndale actually translated Lollard texts during his time at Oxford. However, this is highly controversial in itself, and, in addition, the translation of Lollard texts do not necessarily exhibit a desire to follow Lollard ideas: to take an extreme example, one who translates Mein Kampf into English does not necessarily have to be a National Socialist in order to do it. Tyndale’s fluency and love of the act of translation and of language itself, as well as the rise of humanist traditions in the Universities where he was placed, suggest that secular or non-dogmatic religious practice was on the rise in these areas. It is highly plausible that Tyndale’s translation of Lollard texts did not mean anything to Tyndale other than historical and linguistic preoccupation.
The second idea of the influence of Lollardy of Tyndale was that Lollardy had an indirect affect on Tyndale, in the form of ideologies and theologies that had managed to persist over the centuries in an underground fashion. This method of enquiry is especially prone to difficulties, especially when we consider how Lollardy was defined over that period. The fact that Lollard ideas were similar in some respects to Protestant ideas is indisputable; however, the fact that there is a direct link between Lollard and Protestant ideas is an entirely different matter, and requires a good deal of interpretation, because of Lollardy’s innately ambiguous status as a religious “movement”, coupled with the lack of a coherent kernel of ideas or of doctrinal approaches. Here, the argument rests firstly upon whether Lollardy existed in itself, or was merely imposed upon a wide array of heretics in order to create a coherent sense of an enemy in English Catholicism. Secondly, was Lollardy important enough, if it did exist, to provide the prototype for a movement that happened largely overseas.
The link between Lollardy and Tyndale can be characterised by the nature to which debate surrounding theology developed in England. Notably, Tyndale expounds his views on what the church should represent in a dialogue with Sir Thomas More, whose ideas were broadly different from his own. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the creation and subsequent “activation” of dissenting Lollard believers framed the nature of these debates, and led to the development of Tyndale’s more unique ideas on issues such as the sacrament, the covenant, the scriptures, and his idea of “feeling faith” over “historical faith”. While doing so indirectly, it could be read that Lollard heresy helped to shape the emergent theological debates between More and Tyndale, and consequently framed the dichotomy between Protestantism and Catholicism in the following centuries.
Lollardy was a religious movement that operated chiefly in the 14th century, and is characterised by a number of ideas that would later prove instrumental in the development of Protestantism and other “heretical” groups that went directly against the views espoused by the papal authority. Firstly, the ideals of Lollardy were egalitarian rather than hierarchical, and placed precedence on the authority of the sacraments and the word of God, rather than through papal decree. For example, a pious layman, who had studied the numerous sacraments issued by the Lollards at the time, could harness as much religious power and authority as the Pope, providing that he studied and followed these documents. As such, Lollards depended upon the authority of scriptures rather than the authority of priests, and pre-empted many of the moves in the forthcoming centuries as Biblical texts began to be translated into common English. An important document, The Twelve Conclusions of The Lollards was presented to Parliament in 1385 and, although the Lollards were non-hierarchical by nature, and therefore difficult to doctrinally pin down, the document resembles something close to an official document for Lollard beliefs and ideas. For example, the first Conclusion rejects the acquisition of temporal wealth by church leaders, as this leads to greed, the fourth Conclusion suggests that the Sacrament of Eucharist is not clearly defined in the Bible and so on. One of the central tenets of the Lollards is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church had been corrupted by temporal matters and was thus not the true church of God. All of these views would be echoed and espoused in the later development of Protestantism and the Lutheran traditions of theology.
Finally, the identification of difference between Tyndale and Luther can be seen as the embodiment of the development of the English tradition in itself. Perhaps, as Trueman suggests, the primacy of these differences were national, and thus linked Tyndale’s thought to a theological debate and schism that had been raging for centuries prior to this: “Tyndale’s theology”, Trueman argues, “is a microcosm of the intellectual theological life in the England of his day”. Therefore, the major differences between Tyndale and Lutheran thought, as outlined in the dialogue between himself and Thomas More, as well as the preface to his New Testament, serve as embodiments of a modernised Lollardy which had, after all, been defined purely in terms of its opposition to the traditional values of the time.
Chapter One: What Is Lollardy?: The Difficulty Of Locating Lollard Ideas
It is important to note that Lollardy itself is extremely difficult to define. While it is characterised by certain tendencies, ideas and beliefs, its innately ambiguous, subjective quality allowed it to alter indefinitely over time. This was compounded by a number of additional factors. Because Lollardy emerged from less literate, less powerful cultures, there is a significant lack of documentation espousing with any degree of precision what Lollards tended to believe in. Because this led to Lollardy becoming an oral and subjective tradition, rather than a movement cemented by authoritative texts and papal decree, Lollards tended to assume very different stances on even the most fundamental aspects of Christianity. A significant number of documents exist in the form of confessionals and questionnaires from the people who supposedly practiced it. These documents link Lollardy with the beliefs of the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe, who features prominently in documentation of the trials against Lollard heretics. This has led historians down two particular paths. Firstly, the assertion of Wycliffe as an ideological point of origin suggests that Lollard theology is synonymous with Wycliffe’s ideas, and thus can be regarded as a stable, coherent series of beliefs. However, this is countered by the fact that prosecuting trials were considerably more likely to be subject to manipulation by the ruling authority. Consequently, the perceived similarities between these documents do not reflect the beliefs of the Lollards themselves, but merely reflect what Scase calls the “projection of the anxieties of the church or of the monarchy.” It is likely, for example, that the ideas espoused in these documents were modified by the prosecuting authorities. Certainly, the similarity in tone of these documents suggest that some degree of manipulation occurred during the creation of these documents, and it is certainly possible to suggest that the existence of these documents reflects more upon the need for the established Church and State to construct a coherent enemy than it serves as a representation of Lollard affiliations with Wycliffe’s thoughts. Doran and Durston suggests that these periodic clampdowns and interrogations of heretics were only sporadic, and do not reflect the wide range of Lollard beliefs that were around at the time. In addition, they do not reflect the ideas of the individuals concerned with any degree of accuracy. The variance between interpretations of this source material differs significantly: according to Doran and Durston, these factors help to explain why “historians have disagreed so radically about the nature and significance of later Lollardy.” For example, Scarisbrick and Haigh suggest that Lollardy had become too diffuse and insignificant for it to have had any impact on the development of the Reformation. Others, such as Davis and Hudson suggest that late Lollardy was coherent insofar as it had a continuous creed, history and legacy. Often, these radically oppositional views depend upon a certain interpretation of the limited, mediated material available on Lollardy at the time. The very etymology of the term “Lollard” does not lead to the establishment of a coherent set of beliefs either: Scase sums this up:
Lollard is a problematic label. A loan from the continent, where it denoted someone of dubious orthodoxy, the word lollardus was used in England from the late fourteenth century to denigrate certain theologians and preachers as heretics.
Thus, a coherent and consistent Lollard theological doctrine cannot be attained with any degree of precision because it is a term that did not develop in tandem with the theology itself – the term Lollard was imposed upon a broad-ranging series of views from the outside point of orthodoxy. Subsequently, Lollardy was what orthodoxy was not, and did not carry an authoritative series of views in and of itself. This has led to a number of interpretations: firstly, Marxist historians suggest that the relationship between the authorities and Lollardy is essentially economic; namely, it is rooted in the class system. Indeed, as Lollard was originally a derogatory nickname for those who followed the teachings of John Wycliffe, but did not have an academic background, the issue of class and privilege seems to have an important part to play. By the mid-15th century, the term Lollard had degenerated into a more generalised term for heretic in general – meaning that it was defined in opposition to another strong faith, rather than as a faith embodying certain characteristics in and of itself. Again, this has important implications for judging the impacts of Lollardy on the development of Reformation attitudes.
On the other hand however, simply because a term begins with derogatory connotations does not mean that it cannot be manipulated and altered by those who have been labelled as such-and-such a thing. As a contemporary example, the term “queer”, which began as a derogatory term for homosexual described by the establishment, and has subsequently been transformed into a more positive and coherent label by those within that designation. Thus, it may be better to see the emergence of Lollard thought as part of a complex struggle between these two oppositional extremes. As Scase goes on to suggest:
One way forward is to see Lollardy as the product of a complex interplay of forces, its shape and definition emerging from a dialectic between the expression and containment of reformist desires. Once the authorities defined certain beliefs as heretical, new possibilities were opened up for self-understanding and definition.
As such, Lollardy came to be defined through its interplay between authority and delinquence and subversion of that belief created by that group of people. Despite the inevitable difficulties that the absence of any, single authoritative primary source for Lollardy proffers in an attempt to determine the extent to which later Protestant reformers, and William Tyndale in particular, was affected by the movement, it becomes nonetheless important to outline a few of the core principles of Lollardy as it had come to be defined. Lollard thought differed from orthodox Christianity in its interpretation of the process of transubstantiation. While traditional thinking was that, once the body of Christ was made present, the bread and wine disappeared and only their taste and shape remained. Wycliffe challenged this assertion by suggesting that, on a scriptural basis, the presence of these “accidents”, could not exist without substance attached. The basis of Lollard beliefs can also be derived from a vernacular text in which Lollards defined their position in relation to the orthodox views. Sancramentarianism differs from the Catholic view insofar as the bread or the host on the altar, consecrated by the priest, is really God’s body, but in nature it is the same bread as before. In addition, the text denounces the need for confession, as the priest himself was not in any position to absolve sinners. The Tractatus de confessione et penitencia suggests that there are no references to confession in the Bible, and as such, there should be no confessions in reality either. Interestingly, by asserting the primacy of the scripture and denouncing the role of the Priesthood, the Lollards actually also denounced the historical, and oral heritage that they were attempting to promote. This would prove influential on Protestantism, and especially in the thought enshrined in the theology of William Tyndale.
Chapter Two: The Direct Influences Of Lollardy On William Tyndale.
Many critics and historians have argued that the influence of Lollardy on Tyndale was direct, and that Tyndale was himself a practising Lollard. Of course, notwithstanding the problems in defining Lollard ideas espoused in the previous chapter, this historical idea depends upon interpreting Tyndale’s texts in certain ways. Firstly, there are the ideas taken from Tyndale’s journal.
The conventional historical approach with Tyndale was to treat him as a Lutheran, and to furthermore assert that the historical basis of his views stem from his time in Germany. However, this idea is problematic, and Tyndale’s links to Luther often derive from the polemical views of Tyndale’s arch-enemy, Sir Thomas More, who referred to him in relation to “hys mayster Marten Luther”. This view is echoed by other theologians. Greenslade suggests that Tyndale’s emergence as a distinctive theologian of merit came directly from his associations with Luther: “We cannot be sure that he had developed any constructed theology to replace the old until he went to Germany and came fully under the influence of Luther, whom he probably knew in person.” The difficulty in interpreting information such as this is that it is, without a doubt, influenced by biases and interpretations that occurred at the time. Sir Thomas More’s comments do not have objective authority because they form one end of a dialectic in which Marten Luther and his affiliates were seen as heretics and as dangers to the establishment, and were thus bandied together in a much more coherent fashion than perhaps they otherwise would. As such, while Tyndale may have been commonly construed as being part of a Lutheran tradition, the reality may have been very different. Of particular interest is the notion that Tyndale’s point of theological distinction emerged from the time he spent in Germany. While it is convenient for Lutheran historians to construct Tyndale as part of a rigid, Protestant hierarchy, it is more likely that Tyndale’s ideas emerged from a protracted period of study and worship beforehand. A number of documents exist, for example, which suggest that his idea to translate the Bible into common English pre-dated his time with Luther. He comments:
except my memory fail me, and that I have forgotten what I read when I was a child, thou shalt find in the English chronicle, how that king Adelstone caused the holy scripture to be translated into the tongue that then was in England, and how the prelates exhorted him thereto.
This suggestion is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it suggests that Tyndale’s affiliation with Lollardy may have been significant and direct. Certainly, the idea of translating the Bible into common English reflects the Lollard idea of bypassing Catholic obscurantism and concentration of power and authority via the use of Latin and allowing every man and woman to read the Bible in their own language. Indeed, the presence of schools that encouraged vernacular reading contributes to the idea that Tyndale believed in the more egalitarian ideals of the Lollard tradition. As Copeland suggests, reading formed an intrinsic part of the Lollard idea, and the geographical proximity of Tyndale to areas where Lollardy is speculated to have flourished before going underground suggests that there is a possibility of a childhood or adolescent connection to these ideas and premises:
Vernacular reading was a central component to Lollard learning, with and also without teachers. The borderline between teachers and missionary preachers was often blurred. […] But there are also examples, among the later Lollards, of ‘reading communities’ without a prominent teacher from outside the group, in which local people carry on and possibly imitate the reading sessions.
While the popularity of these reading classes were undermined by subsequent attempts to outlaw Lollard thought and action as heretical, it is undoubted that many of the themes would have lived on underground, especially since, as well as practicing reading, the Lollards also devoted a great deal of time to memorising scripture, a task done partly for its own sake and partly because a great many members of Lollard groups, especially women, would have been illiterate. As such, while relatively little by way of written material exists on the subject of Lollardy, this does not necessarily mean that the practise died out without a trace; it was simply the result of having to exist underground, so to speak, and of having a great many illiterate members for whom oral tradition was presumably more important. The addition of women in the school also leads to suggestions that Lollardy was practiced in the private sphere of the home, rather than in public forums. Again, there is little evidence to suggest that this was a widespread phenomena, but then it was necessary at the time to ensure one’s survival that little evidence survived.
It is also possible that Tyndale’s passion for literature may have been stoked by an affiliation with these practices. The above information suggests, albeit in a faulty manner, that Tyndale was indeed influenced by the heretical corpus of ideas called Lollardy. However, on the other hand, simply because the document recalling his childhood was written by Tyndale does not testify to its accuracy: indeed, it depends heavily upon his faculty to recall with some precision precisely what he was thinking during his own childhood. Indeed, as Tyndale himself expresses, his memory may, and indeed does, fail him: Trueman points out, for example, that “it was Alfred the Great, not Athelstan, who ordered a vernacular edition of the scriptures.” As such, it may be presupposed that if Tyndale’s historical accuracy failed on one point then it may have also failed on the other, and a degree of post-rationalisation may have played a role in this statement. In addition, while Bible translation, scripture translation and preaching were major themes of the Lollard’s, this does not necessarily suggest that Tyndale was directly influenced by Lollard ideas, as these preoccupations may have been down to a personal preoccupation unaffiliated with any particular religious sentiment or else a more general series of ideas that stemmed from traditions associated with Lutheran or Protestant ideas, rather than a personal affiliation with “Lollardy” as a defined movement characterised by its ideological roots in the works of Wycliffe.
Despite this, there is other evidence that suggests that Tyndale’s connections with Lollardy may have been more than merely generic: Smeeton suggests that William Tyndale may have also been involved in the translation of Lollard tracts. Although this has led to Smeeton concluding the influence of Lollard thought in Tyndale’s overall theological outlook, this conclusion is also somewhat problematic: as with his interest in Bible translation, Tyndale may have had an interest in translating Lollard texts purely as a scholarly exercise. Certainly, Tyndale’s secular interest and affinity for different languages suggests this to be the case. Simply because the translation of Lollard texts occurred, which is in itself a point of question, it does not suggest solely that Tyndale prioritised these texts over others, as he also translated many other texts from other traditions. As Trueman suggests, “it may indicate no more than that he felt these works were of value.” The precise affiliations of William Tyndale are hard to define because little documentation exists surrounding the existence of Lollardy following the variety of measures that were implemented by Church and State to suppress the movement, such as the burning of John Badby. In addition, many of the ideas of Lollardy were absorbed into Protestantism to varying degrees, meaning that drawing differentials between these doctrinal approaches can often lead to difficulties and contradictions. Nonetheless, on a general basis, Tyndale’s opinions seem to echo that of the Lollards, and the popularisation of the Bible based on his translation also echoes themes that scriptural knowledge should be available to all, rather than a select few priests who have been ordained with papal decree to disseminate wisdom from God.
In addition, the translation of the Bible into a common language does not necessarily point to a heretical outlook and an affiliation with the Reformist attitude. Indeed, the mere translation of a bible into common English did not formally characterise a heretical act in the Catholic Church on the whole, but had merely come to be associated with troublesome, heretical acts in England. As such, it is significant that Tyndale’s emergence as a theologian of distinction occurred in Germany, where the translation of texts was not seen as formally related to heresy. It is entirely possible that Tyndale’s affiliation and love of language and translation, coupled with more liberal attitudes on the continent, merely gave Tyndale an opportunity to indulge himself. In addition, it is possible that Tyndale was simply unaware of the political implications and the popularity that his Bible would enjoy in England. Indeed, as Trueman points out, “On the Continent, Bible translation was not that uncommon. For example, the first complete German translation, the Mentel Bible, was printed in 1466, fifty years before the Reformation.” This translation was not affiliated with Lollard ideas, either as a general act of heresy or as an affiliation with Wycliffe. The problem was that, in England at least, translation of the Bible into common English had become inextricably tied to the idea of Lollardy. Vernacular Bibles in England were therefore linked to social upheaval and a disrupting of traditional affiliations of State and Church. In addition, the development of Lutheranism further widened the schism between Catholic doctrine and Lutheran doctrine. It is possible that Tyndale, who was a scholarly man living overseas, did not anticipate the extent to which his Bible would have proven heretical in England. In addition, it is also entirely possible that the act of translation in and of itself was not questioned by the authorities, and cannot therefore be labelled as a heretical act in itself. Moreover, the point in question here was simply that Tyndale’s New Testament reflected many of the beliefs that, in England at least, were seen as unsavoury. More’s comments on Bible translation are in themselves ambiguous, as he suggests on the one hand that all vernacular translations of the Bible are heretical, while on the other suggests that only “faulty” translations should be considered heretical: as McSheffrey suggests:
Thomas More’s attitude toward the English Bible is illuminating. He did not object to Biblical translations per se, but said that one must guard against ‘faulty’ translations.
If we are to suggest that More’s view reflected the more orthodox side of the debate in England, we should therefore suggest that it was not the papal decree itself that was seen to forbid the translation of the Bible at all, but simply that the production of faulty Bibles with heretical content should be guarded against. Tyndale’s ideas were therefore the subject of discussion, rather than the mere act of actually conducting a translation of the Bible. While motivation for translating the Bible can be located in a Lollardian tradition, this argument is weakened by a number of key points: firstly, Lollard ideas of Bible translation were echoed by Protestant reformers, therefore Tyndale could just as well be affiliated with a Protestant tradition as a Lollardian one; secondly, the orthodox view against vernacular Bibles was not as strict as many historians have suggested – this is echoed by Thomas More’s views on Biblical translation:
But my self have sene & can shew you bibles fayre & old wryten in englyshe / which have ben knowen & sene by ye byshop of ye diocese / & left in ley mennys handys & womens to suche as he knew for good & catholyke folke / yt vsed it with deuocyon & sobernesse. But of trouth all suche as are founden in the handys of heretykes / they vse to take away. But they do cause none to be burned as farre as euer I could wytte / but onely suche as be founden fautye.
It would be presumed that if Tyndale had been influenced more personally rather than ideologically by the ideas espoused by the Lollards, then they would have been mentioned more wholeheartedly in the documentation that exists about him. Indeed, regarding his approach to Bible translation in The Obedience of a Christian Man, at one point he directly states that he was not influenced by any theological movement to translate the Bible into common English, although the Lollards did not necessarily work in this manner. As described earlier, Lollardy was less influenced by concrete principles and more by general ideas that disseminated in less hierarchical ways. As such, it is important to suggest the Tyndale, against his better knowledge, was still influenced unconsciously by the general ideas of the Lollards, although any direct affiliation to them has proven scant despite a large amount of personal documents and journals that exist that were written by Tyndale. Indeed, if Tyndale was influenced by Lollardy, the absence of concrete, or even symbolic information about it, even in Tyndale’s private journals, would be unusual. Instead, it is more likely that Tyndale was influenced by specific themes and ideas of Lollardy that had continued to exert an impact despite the attempts of the Church and the State to suppress these ideas.
A number of historians point out that specific translational biases in Tyndale’s Bible suggest the primacy of certain beliefs and, although they do not lead to any specific conclusions regarding his affections for Lollardy over any other doctrinal school, they do nonetheless support the conclusion that Tyndale’s Bible was predominantly against the doctrines of Catholicism in general. In his 1534 New Testament, he did not, for example, include the usual translation of Matt. 16:18: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”), instead translating “church” as “congregation”. Thuesen highlights a number of other translational proclivities that emphasise Tyndale’s affiliations with a Lollard tradition:
levelling his opposition to the shape and hue of late-medieval piety, he translated the Greek eidololatres (I Cor. 5:11) not as ‘idolator’ but as ‘worshipper of images.’ He went on to render the related Greek term eidolothuton (food offered to idols) as ‘it which is offered to images’. […] He thereby transformed I Corinthians 10:19 from a passage about cultic food sacrifice to a denunciation of images and image worship.
The transformation of this idea serves to reflect Tyndale’s anti-catholic views in general; by some estimation of Lollardy as heresy in general, this may serve as an adequate reflection to prove Tyndale’s affiliation with the Lollards, notably in the fact that Lollards themselves did not believe in the worship of images. However, despite this, it does not prove that the Lollards had direct influence on Tyndale, as these views were also expressed in Lutheran traditions. As such, it becomes important to point out the specific differences between Tyndale and Luther in their particular theological viewpoints.
Overall, the direct evidence to suggest that Tyndale had any direct contact with Lollardy in general is scant. There is no mention of the movement in his journals, nor is there any mention of it by anybody else. Nonetheless, this may have been due to the fact that Lollards, by necessity, had to remain quiet because of the fear of persecution by the state. A number of factors may have led to its continuation: firstly, Lollards placed a great deal of focus on practicing an oral tradition, as their schools in the late 13th century and early 14th century suggest a focus on memorization of scriptures written in the vernacular. Also, women, who had especially high rates of illiteracy, were also home more often, suggesting the Lollardy may have continued in the home. Secondly, persecution forced little by way of documentation to emerge. The links between Tyndale and Lollardy in a direct fashion are also purely circumstantial. It is possible, for instance, that Tyndale’s affinity for language and learning had made him interested in the traditions of Lollardy – indeed, it is asserted by some historians that Tyndale did in fact translate a number of Lollard texts. And it is also possible that the high levels of Lollardy in the region where he was born, coupled with his recollection as longing to translate the Bible into English, coupled with his actual translation of Lollard texts, suggests that a direct encounter with the Lollard tradition may have occurred. However, evidence to suggest that this is the case is not particularly forthcoming.
Chapter Three: More, Tyndale and Luther
Tyndale and Luther have many theological points in common, which was often enough to suggest that Tyndale merely modified elements of Luther’s doctrine without imposing substantial enough changes upon it to make his own distinctive brand of Protestantism. Indeed, More’s suggestion of Tyndale’s inherently Lutheran stance is a commonly held one, and indeed, it is important to bear in mind similarities that existed between these two theologians. Both Luther and Tyndale believed, for example, that scripture was the sole authority for Christian belief and practice. As Jenkins and Preston point out, scripture “was the standard by which the truth of doctrine and tradition was to be determined; indeed, it was a ‘sword of the spirit’ with which to fight against claims and demands of popes and prelates who sought to bend its interpretation to its own ends.” In addition, Tyndale echoed Luther in stressing the fundamental distinction between law and gospel. And Tyndale was also, like Luther, populist and based upon a fundamental assertion that complexities in the scripture were plain for all to see, and should not be obscured by academic readings and interpretation. Tyndale, for example, suggests that the application of scholarly interpretation “rend and tear the scriptures with their distinctions, and expound them violently, contrary to the meaning of the text, and to the circumstances that go before or after, and to a thousand clear and evident texts.” Unlike More, Tyndale suggests that the meanings of more obscure scriptures can be found in the readers, rather than from some scriptural authority: “Mark the plain and manifest places of the scriptures, and in doubtful places see thou add no interpretations contrary to them.” Perhaps most importantly, Tyndale places faith in individual interpretation and in the interpretation that the everyman takes, suggesting that, like Lollards, he placed the seat of true faith not at the head of a central authority, but in the scriptures themselves: “all men’s exposition and all men’s doctrine”, he argues, “should be judged by principles of the faith and by plain scriptures and by circumstances of the text.” Of course, while it is easy to see where Tyndale differed from More, it is more important to see where he differed from his tutor Luther, in order to see how, and if, other elements of Christian interpretation are allowed to seep into his work. These arguments, which he developed upon in his Answer to More’s Dialogue, provided the central pivot around which Sir Thomas More would affiliate Luther and Tyndale inseparably with one-another: Jenkins and Preston continue to suggest that this debate was centred upon the notion of “whether the church was before the gospel or the gospel before the church, whether the apostles left anything unwritten that was of necessity for salvation, and whether the church can err, which in turn led to the question of whether the Catholic Church was the true church” (p. 110). Tyndale’s argument against Mores reveals more similarities with Luther than it does differences. Yet, despite their similarities, a number of discrepancies emerge which may draw upon prior knowledge taken from Lollard traditions rather than Lutheran, European heritage.
Firstly, Tyndale differs from Luther in the discrepancy he draws between what he calls ‘historical faith’ and ‘feeling faith’, arguing that the latter has primacy over the former in all cases. More, as well as Luther, differs in the extent to which this historical faith is denounced by Tyndale, and suggests that Tyndale’s thought is more closely linked to the more common associations of Wycliffe Lollardy than Luther’s own view tends to be. The difference between More, and Tyndale lies in the interpretation of truth as either historical or feeling based: As Jenkins and Preston reveal: “Behind the polemic with which both Tyndale and More presented their views of their opponents in stark, oversimplified and sometimes distorted ways, there was in fact a common acceptance that the ultimate source of truth was God. Their difference lay in the way that this truth came to be recognised and accepted. For Tyndale, this was by means of a ‘feeling faith’ based on personal experience mediated by scripture. He denounced what he called ‘historical faith’, suggesting that the church had absolutely no authority to declare “true” meaning, as the personal development of faith between the reader and the scriptures and the Bible are the only people positioned to do so.” This goes further than Luther, as Jenkins and Preston continue to suggest that: “More thus argued that inward conviction was not sufficient to resolve disputes concerning truth, and he further exposed what he saw to be the weakness of Tyndale’s position on this score by pointing out that Tyndale had no way of proving his ‘feeling faith’ or that any others felt the same way he did”. In Confutation, Book 7 (p. 751), More argues that Tyndale even goes further than Luther in this case, and indeed, the extremity to which he asserts this notion of ‘feeling faith’, as well as the distinction itself, does take Christian faith and truth in God on an entirely subjective level of “feeling”, suggesting that no oral tradition exists, and that the scriptures themselves cannot be described via the authority of the church at all. This view seems closer to Lollardy than it does to Lutheran traditions, although there is considerable overlap between these two theological ideas.
In addition, Tyndale differed from Luther in his view and understanding of covenant. Trueman suggests that his view offers a more “practical twist”, and is in-keeping with the theological language and debates which had informed English theological discussion since the accusations of heresy by the Catholic Church emerged: thus, while Tyndale may or may not have been affected directly by his affiliations with actual Lollards, his work, and the manner in which it differed from Luther’s, certainly bore substantial similarities: as Trueman suggests, “This provided a neat dual role in his theology: it provided the layperson with a simple framework for unlocking the message of the Bible; and it allowed the Christian life to be expressed in a manner that explicitly bound together both the divine initiative and the human response as two sides of the soteriological coin”. Indeed, while the continental debates on Lutheran traditions played heavily, these were also informed by more British theological traditions that eventually bore relatively little in relation to Lutheran ideas. On the covenant, Tyndale suggests the following:
The right way, yea, and the only way to understand the scripture unto salvation, is that we earnestly and above all things search for the profession of our baptism, or covenants between us and God. The general covenant, wherein all other are comprehended and included is this: If we meek ourselves to God, to keep all his laws, after the example of Christ, then God hath bound himself unto us, to keep and make good all the mercies promised in Christ throughout the scripture.
The absence of a historical, social or doctrinal aspect to this reading of the covenant represents a substantial break with Luther on the importance of historical tradition. It also frames the discussion in the dialectic in English thought that depended upon the Lollard and orthodox approaches to the covenant in general. However, in addition to this, many debates extrinsic to theological discussions were taking place in England at the time, and added further complexity to the eclectic debate surrounding these matters. Firstly, English debate was structured around the results of continental debates on theology, but, according to Trueman, these debates were framed “within an educational and political context that was shaped by the rising humanism of the English universities and exigencies of the king’s plans to reform church and state”.
While Luther and Tyndale are broadly similar in their outlook, both place emphasis on different aspects of the emerging Protestant tradition. As Trueman suggests, “the positive language with regard to the law and the attention paid to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit both indicate that what we have in Tyndale is not straight Lutheranism but a modification”. In this modification, we are offered a slightly more positive view of life, in which the distinctly Lutheran ideas of guilt and remission are, and with some subtlety, downplayed in favour of ideas surrounding the freedom from and bondage to sin. Celestial sin tends to be downplayed, which is in-keeping with the emerging English tradition.
Chapter Four: Protestantism and Lollardy
The link between the Lollards and the Protestants is a notoriously difficult thing to get concrete evidence about. As Tracy points out, “that Lollards became Protestants is not easy to document, but they prepared the ground for Reformation doctrines by rejecting many Catholic doctrines and by insisting that lay people nurture their faith by reading the New Testament in their own tongue.” This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, Lollardy was primarily an oral tradition, and placed emphasis on its non-hierarchical nature; thus, authoritative texts were all but nonexistent. Secondly, the Lollards were forced underground by antiheresy laws, which served either to substantially deplete their support, or to force Lollards to support other, similar ideas. This makes the presence of documentation difficult to locate. Thirdly, the construction of the idea of Lollardy comes from, and eventually became an evermore vague compendium of ideas used by the Catholic Church to persecute those who disagreed with Catholic dogma.
While the extent and degree to which Lollard ideas bled into ideas surrounding Protestantism on a personal level, it is easy to see how Lollard heresy could be similarly applied to Protestantism. Indeed, if we are to construct Lollards as Orthodox Churches, the similarity between the Catholic idea of Lollardy and their subsequent ideas about Protestantism have led to a number of interesting suppositions; namely that, in English society, the role of organised Protestantism was pre-dated by a disorganised Lollardy, but the roles of the two in shaping and exorcising the ideas astringent to Catholic ideology and doctrine were very similar. As Tracy goes on to suggest, the affiliations between Tyndale and the Lollard tradition enacts itself in the law: “as chancellor of England (1529-1532), More presided over a judicial apparatus that sent Anabaptists to the stake, in keeping with the antiheresy laws once enacted against the Lollards (1418).” The idea, therefore, of Lollards assuming a particular social or secular role in the maintenance of order via the establishment of a common enemy, echoes that of Anabaptists and Protestants in the subsequent heresy laws. And the dialogue between More and Tyndale, especially in the former theologian’s condemnation of the latter, suggests that their role remained similar.
There are many connections between Lollard and Protestant ideas, which have led many historians into suggesting that Lollardy represents a point of origin for Protestant ideas and thus remains a direct antecedent for the Reformation and the seed-bed from which these ideas grew. Dickens suggests that the reason behind the effortlessness of the Protestant reformation was the direct result of it resembling a continuum of ideas that stemmed from the Lollards. Similarly, Davis suggests that the ideas of Lollardy and the non-hierarchical manner in which these ideas were disseminated forced the movement to abandon scriptures and instead embrace a more generalised, less dogmatically arraigned set of principles. In addition, Davis also suggests that Lollardy was a point of origin for the reformation and that, while official suppression led to the development of many divergent forms of Lollardy, the general ideas espoused eventually led to the Protestantism of Luther and, subsequently, of William Tyndale. Higgs also suggests that Lollard thought can be seen as a direct precursor of Protestant ideas, to such a degree that they can be seen in conjunction with one-another. However, perhaps it is more important to consider that Lollardy did not resemble a coherent series of ideas and plans, but instead can be seen as being defined as one side of an ongoing debate which eventually led to the development of a coherent strategy of opposition in protestant ideals and values, that would be inherited by Tyndale with more gusto than Luther. As Scace suggests:
If it was not a movement with a coherent system of belief, but rather the product of a complex interplay of forces, still Lollardy has an important place in cultural and religious history for its significance in bringing Theology into the English language.
Unfortunately, if we suggest that Lollardy forms an intrinsic part of a dialogue between itself and the orthodox traditions of the Catholic Church, it becomes more difficult to realistically assert the existence of a verifiable thread of knowledge that can coherently define Lollardy, and thus renders the crossover between Lollardy and later reformation ideas more difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, it is still important to consider that many of the points of debate and discussion between More and Tyndale on matters of theology were directly informed by debates brought up between the previous dialectic between the heretics of Lollardy and the orthodox catholic tradition. As such, Lollardy is innately tied to, and rendered possible, Tyndale’s theosophical views on a broad variety of subjects; in addition, Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into vernacular English had come to resemble a debate which began in the schism between papal authority and scriptural authority that had continued throughout the centuries between Wycliffe and Tyndale himself: As Tracy points out, the implications of Tyndale’s translation exemplified the schism between the traditional churches and the emerging merchant class in London: “William Tyndale proposed to translate the New Testament directly from Greek into English. Church leaders frowned on this ‘Lollard’ idea. But Tyndale found backing from London merchants while he lived in the Low Countries and saw his English New Testament through the press”. As such, the theological debate that surrounded More and Tyndale’s discrepant views on theology found the language for the debate in earlier dialogues between the Lollard and orthodox ideas.
Despite the similarities between Protestantism and Lollardy, it is nonetheless important to stress some of the major points of difference between these ideas and disrupt the historical chain of events that lead one thing to another. Firstly, Lollardy did not anticipate all of the resultant strands of Protestantism; although the lack of doctrinal consistency was perhaps exacerbated by its being forced underground as a result of systematized Church and State pressure, even during periods of relative acceptance, Lollardy did not consistently preach the same thing. Thus, while many theologians chose to identify themselves as Lollards, they did not ascribe to all of the views espoused in a single Lollard document, because such a document did not exist. In addition, links between Protestantism and Lollardy did not stretch to many of the more salient aspects of the Protestant faith: as Doran and Durston point out, “neither Wyclif nor the later Lollards anticipated Protestantism by developing a systematic soteriology based on justification by faith alone”, although substantial efforts were made to erode the primacy of iconography and church wealth as statements of Godly legitimacy. In addition, the organic manner in which Lollard ideas tended to be disseminated led to many distortions and variants that makes the assignation of particular aspects of the Lollard tradition more difficult to ascertain. This has historical implications, as the threat of placing too much emphasis on the historical linkage between Protestantism and Lollardy may lead to the development of historical and analytical inaccuracy: “we cannot simply assume that heretics who made statements of belief after 1525 similar to those utterly formerly by Lollards necessarily drew their inspiration from that source rather than from the new Protestant heresies.”
In addition to historical instrumentalism, it is also important to stress the major differences between Lollardy and the Lutheran position. In particular, Lollardy was frequently associated with what Trueman calls “crude sacramentarianism.” This was characterised by the general belief that particular sacraments were meaningless in terms of pursuing a spiritual life, and that anything and everything could be used if circumstances warranted it. As Doran and Durston points out, “it is common to find them [, the Lollards,] asserting that a child might as well be baptised in a pond or the river as a font, that it was better to ask forgiveness of a wronged party than a priest, and of more value to give alms to the poor than to go on a pilgrimage.” Of course, this differs substantially from the Protestant ideas that would later develop, and also renders problematic the idea as to whether Tyndale was profoundly affected by Lollard ideas concerning faith in general. Indeed, his ideas of the sacrament were more akin to the ideas of Lutheranism than to Lollard forms of sacrementarianism. As Tyndale himself comments: “Of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, meddle as little as you can, that there appear no division between us.” In this respect, it seems unlikely that Tyndale was directly influenced in matters of doctrine and the use of sacrament.
Tyndale’s similarities with Lollard thought may also be read in terms of other specific doctrinal schools that were prominent in his time. In particular, Tyndale’s thought seems to bear similarities to Zwingian thought: “Like Zwingli, Tyndale rejected eucharistic ‘real presence’ and other holy mysteries in favour of what might be termed today a less superstitious religion.” As such, the presence of Zwinglian thought in the dynamic adds further problems to the idea of Tyndale’s Protestantism, and of the links between Lollardy and Protestantism in general, as the former’s lack of cogent and coherent doctrinal capacity has led to all manner of contrary historical accounts and overviews which, based upon the extremely limited evidence available on the specificities of Lollardian belief structures (probably due to their absence), does not inform the latter. The triviality or importance of Lollardy, and the ability to measure its importance as an underground movement is stymied by the interpretational bias that exists, in which the only cogent opinions we have of Lollardy are those which are vetted by opposition to a more coherent orthodoxy.
Measuring the extent to which Lollard thought had an impact on the theological outlook of William Tyndale is a problematic question that leads to many other questions. First of all, in order to assert the impact of Lollard thought, it is necessary to attempt to define precisely what a Lollard was in the context of its time. This has proven difficult for historians for a number of reasons. Firstly, the theological doctrines of Lollardy are innately anti-hierarchical and subjective by their very nature; the belief in the centrality of scripture and of personal interpretation, as well as the anti-establishment, anti-clerical stance they took led to the development of many discrepant ideas that fell under the auspices of Lollardy. This was doubled by the fact that “Lollard” as a term was etymologically associated with heretic, and heresy does not resemble a single, coherent series of beliefs. Secondly, the threat of Lollardy had forced the movement underground, and few of the remaining documents that testify to its existence are from the trials of heretics; almost undoubtedly, these show trials did not represent the extent of Lollardy, nor do they give us a particularly accurate idea of precisely what Lollardy had come to represent. On the other hand, Lollard thought is characterised by an ideological point of origin in the thought of John Wycliffe, whose heresies were coherently followed in a number of dialectical documents that survive on Lollardy. As such, two opposing views emerge from this idea: firstly, that Lollard theology is synonymous with Wycliffian theology; secondly, that Lollard was merely a substitute term for heretic in England during this period.
A number of snippets of evidence exist that speculatively suggest that Lollard thought had a direct impact on the development of a distinctive theology of Tyndale’s. Some historians suggest contrarily that Tyndale’s distinction came from the period he spent with Luther in Germany, although this is largely a matter of conjecture. He does, however, suggest that the matter of Biblical translation was something that he thought about as a child. While this direct evidence of Lollard influence has been cited by a number of historians, it is somewhat faulty and circumstantial on a number of levels. Firstly, the account in itself may be flawed. Secondly, the desire to translate a Bible in the vernacular did not necessarily suggest that Tyndale harboured heretical views. Indeed, More does suggest that vernacular Bibles represent a threat to the solidity of the church, but mentions that this is mainly due to inaccuracies and falsities in the translation, rather than to the very existence of them. Similarly, in Europe, where he wrote the Bible and was staying during his recollection of this childhood memory, vernacular Bibles were relatively uncontroversial. Other historians in support of direct Lollard influence suggest that geographically, Tyndale’s childhood was spent in an area where Lollard activity was relatively high. However, again the evidence to suggest this is highly circumstantial, and is based upon limited documentation of the trials of supposed Lollards in heretical witch-hunts of the period.
Another point of discussion can be found in the indirect impacts of Lollard thought on William Tyndale. This has led the discussion down a number of interesting avenues. Firstly, there is the suggestion that, while Lollard thought was not stable or coherent, it did nonetheless serve to frame the theological debate in the coming centuries, and the emergence of a merchant class led to the exacerbation of this schism between what would eventually become Catholic and Protestant factions. The idea that Lollard ideas represented the kernel from which Protestant ideas would eventually emerge, however, significantly overplays the extent to which Lollardy was existent during the period of the reformation. Nonetheless, many ideas espoused by Lollards can be seen in theological debates over the centuries, notably in this case, between More and Tyndale, in which Tyndale represents his particular views, and which, on a number of issues, deviates from the Lutheran tradition. Many of Tyndale’s deviances may take their ideas from Lollard tracts, many of which he had been reported to have translated during his time at Oxford University. For example, his views on the covenant, on sacraments, on giving a more optimistic slant to matters of sin, redemption and so on, and, perhaps most importantly, on his ideas about “historical faith” and “feeling faith”, in which he asserts the latter, through a personal relationship between the reader and the text, to be of most value. His total denouncement of the notion of “historical faith” goes beyond Luther in his attack on papal primacy and of any belief in oral traditions kept alive by the true church. Instead, he takes a view more akin to his possible Lollardan roots, placing scripture and Biblical study entirely in the hands of the person interpreting the information. While More suggests that this is impossible to measure, it is perhaps reflective of his Lollardan heritage, and of its development in British heresy in general, that has led to his adoption of such a view.
The difference in opinion between Luther and Tyndale can be seen as a reflection of the complex series of differences between continental and English debate on the subject of the church, in which national issues of church and state became inextricably entwined with a series of broader educational and political developments. In addition, Tyndale’s era was characterised by a broadening of the horizons of the universities, which were increasingly prone to adopting more humanist views and values, thus, allowing more unorthodox views to arise. These characteristics also had a historical basis, and the development of theological debate proved heavily dependent upon issues that first arose when heresy came to be associated with Wycliffe and the Lollards. Whether constructed and externalised by the Orthodox Church, or comprising a coherent theological attitude, Lollardy nonetheless acted to develop a distinctively English theological dichotomy, in which certain terms came to be heavily debated. Perhaps indirectly, Tyndale cannot help but play a part in this historical tradition by advocating broader Protestant ideals.
Overall, determining the extent to which Lollard thought was influential in the theological outlook of William Tyndale is highly problematic, but we can ascertain that, to at least a marginal extent, the development of Lollard theology, which was characterised more by a vague corpus of ideas rather than a coherent, rigid set of principles, Tyndale was influenced by this movement. Directly, there is little evidence to suggest that Tyndale was especially moved by Lollard ideas – they are not mentioned in any of his journals, and speculative evidence used to assert some direct influence have been broadly circumstantial and remain vague possibilities rather than concrete facts. Indirectly, however, Lollard ideas and dialogue had some impact on the development of a dialectic between accepted and heretic thought in Britain during this period. Whether this form of Lollardy represented a mere extenuation of orthodox anxieties, much as the term “Al-Qaeda” today can be taken to represent a series of dangerous, oppositional ideas to the status quo rather than a coherent and organised movement, or whether a coherent Wycliffe-based underground religious movement existed in the 14th century remains to be seen – what is more likely is that the “Lollard” was invented to describe heresy of a particular type, and this led to both a struggle between the self-identified Lollards and those who saw it as heresy, and to increasingly vague and disparate portrayals of what Lollards actually represented. The continuation of this dichotomy would serve to frame much of William Tyndale’s ideology, especially in matters where the break between himself and Lutheran theology was most apparent.