John Wycliffe And Academic Freedom

I’m an academic; quite understandably, one of my concerns is often academic freedom. Mine, and that of my colleagues. My employer, the City University of New York, has had a mixed relationship with academic freedom over the years (this ambivalent attitude was perhaps best on display during the Tony Kushner flap last year). But my intention in writing this post is not to dig through CUNY’s record on academic freedom. It is, rather, to note a historical instance of a university standing by an academic’s right to pursue inquiry into whichever direction it took him.

The university: Oxford. The academic: John Wycliffe. In 1372, he had become a doctor of theology at Oxford (he had been Master at Balliol in 1361). He was aged fifty then, and still orthodox. His move to heresy was prompted, wisely, by his disgust at Churchmen who grew richer and more prosperous while the poor continued to sink into abject poverty. His attacks on the papal structure of power was thus, primarily political and moral. But his doctrinal objections soon took center stage. By 1376, he had started preaching/teaching (amongst other things) that the clergy ought not to have property as a) property was the result of sin and b) Christ and the Apostles had no property. He was soon in hot water with Gregory XI, who condemned eighteen theses in his lectures. Wycliffe was duly ordered to appear to be tried by a tribunal of bishops, but Oxford refused to admit the Pope had any jurisdiction over its teachers.

Oxford’s defense of Wycliffe continued as he advanced even more controversial theses in the following years: the King is God’s vicar; bishops are subject to him; (after the Papal Schism) the Pope is Antichrist and acceptance of the Donation of Constantine made all subsequent popes apostates; and lastly, that transubstantiation was a deceit. He also refused to condemn the Wat Tyler-led Peasants Revolt of 1381. Most famously, Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English.

Given this record, it is almost beyond belief that Wycliffe did not suffer a messier end to his life, which came in 1384. (His remains did suffer though: the Council of Constance ordered them dug up and burnt in 1415; the orders were carried out in 1428.) Part of the reason is that the University of Oxford defended him for as long and as vigorously as was possible; Wycliffe also enjoyed some popular support from the masses and from the King’s mother. This support was mixed of course: Oxford’s vice-chancellor followed some papal direction in subjecting Wycliffe to a form of house arrest (a modern version might involve a denial of internet access, I suppose) but he himself was soon subjected to the same treatment for doing so. And in 1381, Oxford’s Chancellor declared some of Wycliffe’s pronouncements heretical. But the University’s provision of a forum for him to lecture and promulgate his doctrines through the storm that engulfed him was always a significant factor in his visibility and his ability to reach those that most needed him.

It is worth keeping that in mind every time we see a pusillanimous university administrator back down from defending its faculty’s right to research and teach as freely as possible.

Source: Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin: London, 1988 Reprint.

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