Saturday, 27 August 2011

Lollardy Singing Softly...

Please click on image in order to enlarge

As Thadeus has already mentioned, the other day we spent a splendid hour exploring some of the amazing collection held in the Norfolk Heritage Centre (based in the Norwich Millennium Library). We were able to see and touch the wonderful Wycliffe bible, which once belonged to Anne Boleyn's great uncle.

This fabulously expensive work was transcribed in the fifteenth century from the original translation - from Latin to English - produced in Oxford University by John Wycliffe in the late 1300s. The wealthy Boleyn's could be trusted with such a work, and were, hence, granted the right to own this under licence from the bishop. However, there were 'dissident' copies, or excerpts - much more workaday than this grand tome - which did reach the hands and eyes of some common people. By the early fifteenth century, Wycliffe translations were being read in secret gatherings among the local gentry and artisans of Norfolk and other counties. 

Why the secrecy? Well, once people outside the political elite were able to read the bible in English, this had the potential to undermine the authority of the official catholic church. People started to interpret the Word in ways which proved to offer a direct challenge to the hitherto dominant ecclesiastical institutions. The Lollards (as they became known - probably from the Dutch word 'lollen', meaning to sing softly... as in, in English and out of ear-shot of prying officialdom) offered a critique to the church which argued things like:

  • transubstantiation - the transformation of bread and wine in the mass into the literal body and blood of Christ - was a feigned miracle.
  • prayer over bread, wine, water, altars and so on were akin to magic, and encouraged folk to worship false idols.
  • the truth of the God's Word lies in scripture; the words of the bible, which should be open to all.
  • that the concentration of wealth in the hands of the institution of the church distracted Christians from their duty of faith, hope and charity. 
To give some more flavour, here is an excerpt taken from the indictment made in Norwich Cathedral in 1428 against John Reve, a glover from Beccles (in Suffolk - part of the Norwich diocese):
"That the sacrament of confession oweth to be made to no prest, but only to God... that the sacrament of Confirmacion doon be [done by] a bisshop ys not ... necessarie to mannys [man's] salvacion. Also, he have holde, beleved and affermed that every man may lefully [lawfully] and withoute synne withhold e and withdrawe his tithes and offrynges from churches and curates... Also, that he holde, beleved and affermed that the pope of Rome is Antecrist [Anti-Christ] and hath no poar [power] in holy Churche as Seint Petir hadde..." [Source: "Norwich Heresy Trials, 1428-31", Camden Fourth Series, Royal Historical Society.]

I think you can see in this why - not least in terms of their material interests - this might be something which the authorities would wish to denounce as heresy. 

There is so much more that could be said about this; for instance, with regard to the role of preaching in English in the massive uprising known as the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Or, perhaps, we might investigate the counter-propaganda of the official church in the form of, say, seven sacraments fonts in East Anglia. There are also some interesting potential correlations between the geographical concentrations of Lollardy, and the later centres of Protestantism in England at the Reformation in the 1530s. We might, also, look to the influence of the diaspora connecting Norfolk to the Low Countries (modern day Belgium and the Netherlands) at this time. However, because this is a blog, not a book, I want to finish by putting one myth to bed. 

It is widely known locally that there is a place in Norwich (opposite Bishop's Bridge) known as Lollards Pit. It was, indeed, the place where convicted Lollard heretics were burnt alive. However, I think it is important to note that, brutal though this was, it was very much a last resort. Most convicted heretics were forced to do penance, such as being publicly flogged, and they were generally given chances to repent before being condemned to die in the flames. I say this because, although social norms, perceptual horizons and mental maps change over time, it is too easy to smugly caricature dead generations as inherently brutish. It is also one of the precepts of the Ragged Society of Antiquarian Ramblers that we treat people from our past with respect. We would recognise ourselves in them, even if they would not necessarily recognise themselves in us. 

~ Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq ~


  1. Very interesting, M.T.H. Sometimes the 'past' is altered for the sake of present interests, eh?

  2. It is also one of the precepts of the Ragged Society of Antiquarian Ramblers that we treat people from our past with respect. We would recognise ourselves in them, even if they would not necessarily recognise themselves in us.

    I couldn't agree more Munro. A nice summation and Tom I would suggest that the past is continually being altered for the sake of present interests. We call that alteration 'history', which is of course our interpretation of the past. And interpretation by its very definition will always be subjective....

    +Many Coats+

  3. Dear Tom,

    Yes, the Lollards were - and are - an interesting group. This whole underground 'hedge preaching' movement (epitomised by John Ball and his 'rimes') is a fascinating phenomenon. I may well return to this at some point.

    ~ Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq. ~

  4. Dear Mr. Many Coats,

    Good point! The re-interpretations of Kett's Rebellion over the years offer another excellent example of alteration 'history'. As I recently said to someone, we like a good old righteous riot - especially when there's a distance of several hundred years to tidy it up.


    ~ Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq. ~