The Wycliffite De Ecclesia et Membris Ejus: English Prose and Tyndalian Concerns

by Donald J. Millus, Coastal Carolina University
A paper given at the Fourth Oxford Tyndale Conference, Hertford College, Oxford September 2005

At the end of this past spring term, I came across the dissertation I had written for my senior honors course at Fordham College in New York City. My Chaucer Professor, Dr Gabriel Leigey, suggested I do a commentary and edition, of sorts, on a late 14th century manuscript in English bearing the Latin title De Ecclesia et Membris Ejus. This manuscript was not known to Thomas Arnold when his Select English Works of John Wyclif was published in 1871.1 In 1927 Hope Emily Allen noted its existence in her work on the writings of Richard Rolle, where it is described as ‘a treatise on the Church and its members’ included with English sermons on the Sunday Gospels and Epistles in the Leicester Public Library,2 definitely an artifact from Wyclif country.

In my undergraduate paper I dated the treatise to just after 1383 on the basis of a reference to ‘this last iourne that Englisshemen made into Flaundris,’ (63/11)3 a disastrous “crusade” undertaken by Bishop Henry Spencer of Norwich, at the request of Pope Urban VI, against the supporters of the Avignon pope, Clement. Wyclif blamed the friars for preaching this “crusade” which was a military disaster and cost the belligerent bishop his temporalities.4 I concluded, erroneously, that Wyclif ’s death in December of 1384 precluded a later date. Of course, back in 1961 I did not have the benefit of Anne Hudson and others making a convincing case against our having any English writings by Wyclif.

What I found, however, was a Wycliffite work that had ur-Tyndale written all over it. (I should confess that as a college undergraduate the name of William Tyndale was unknown to me, an ignorance no longer shared by students who have taken my American Literature or Shakespeare classes in South Carolina.) The English De Ecclesia, as I shall call it, was not a translation of one of Wyclif ’s Latin works, but it criticized popes and friars, while questioning traditional teachings on the Eucharist and Confession. It was filled with Wyclif ’s concerns, which I would later find to be Tyndale’s concerns. Most importantly it was written in simple English, clever and forceful.

The De Ecclesia begins simply:

‘Cristis Chirche is his spouse, that hath thre partis. The first part is in blis with Crist, hed of the Chirche, & conteyneth aungelis & blessed men that now ben in heuene. The secunde part of this Chirche ben seyntis in purgatorie; & thes synnen not of the newe, but purgen ther olde synnes. & many errours fallen in preying for thes seyntis; & sith thei alle ben deed in body, Cristis wordis may be taken of hem: ‘sue (i.e. follow) we Crist in oure lif, & late the dede berye [the] deed.’ The thridde part of the Chirche ben trewe men that here lyuen, that shullen [aftir be] sauyd in heuene, and lyuen Cristes lif. The first part is clepid (i.e. called) ouere-commynge; the myddil is clepid slepinge; the thridde is clepid fightynge; & alle these maken o Chirche’ (46/1-13).

A very efficient introduction! We are reminded that Christ is head of the Church, with a forthcoming critique of the popes in the writer’s mind. Purgatorie is next, with the caution that many errors occur ‘in preying for thes seyntis’. Don’t worry about these souls, the author tells us. The third part of the Church, the traditional “Church militant”, all have two marks: they shall be saved and they live Christ’s life. Neatly done! Tyndale would have been especially happy with the Wycliffite home-grown terminology, if he had happened upon a manuscript of the De Ecclesia. “Ouere-commynge”, “slepinge”, and “fightynge” are all good English words, the kind of English that a cleric educated in Latin but wishing to translate the Bible into English might prefer in a controversial work aimed not just at clerics but also at laymen more at ease in the vernacular.

It is not unlikely that the author of the De Ecclesia was one of the translators of the Wycliffite Bible. Surely that project involved more than a few Oxford educated clerics as articulate in Latin as in English. (I must disagree with the view that in principle one man could not have translated all of the Wycliffite Bible. William Tyndale would have finished his translation before he was fifty if he had been allowed to. A warm place to write, a Hebrew dictionary, and freedom from persecution would have done the trick nicely in the 16th century.)

The De Ecclesia is most probably not a translation, but it shares with 14th and 16th century translations of the Bible a basic purpose, bringing the word of God to the people of God. Since both David Daniell and Anne Hudson are among the many who quote Henry Knighton—or his fellow chronicler—in a late 14th century complaint about translating the gospel into English, I find myself in good company in repeating this introduction to a discussion of the Lollard-Wycliffite reform movement, inserted for the year 1382.

‘This master John Wyclif translated the gospel, which Christ had entrusted to clerks and to the doctors of this church so that they might minister it conveniently to the laity and to meaner people according to the needs of the time and the requirement of the listeners in their hunger of mind; he translated it from Latin into the English, not the angelic idiom [in Anglicam linguam non angelicam],’

— this reminds me of that take-off on medieval history, 1066 and All That, where Celtic children are brought before the pope and he responds ‘not angels but Anglicans.’ — and thus

‘… that which was formerly familiar to learned clerks and to those of good understanding has become common and open to the laity, and even to those women who know how to read. As a result the pearls of the gospel are scattered and spread before swine, and that which had been precious to religious and to lay persons has become a matter of sport to ordinary people of both.”5

The De Ecclesia has many pearls. Despite its title, the main focus is an attack on the virtue and authority of the popes. The second line of the work, which we quoted above, emphasized that Christ is the “hed of the Chirche” (46/2) and some dozen folio pages follow, all critical of the pope. The author then focuses his attack on the friars and new orders, but the pope, like any commanding officer, is held responsible for the misdeeds of his troops. Abuse of power, particularly via the sin of covetousness, a mention of the choosing of cardinals - remember Tyndale’s mockery of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he called “Wolfsee” to emphasize Henry VIII’s chancellor’s covetousness?—a side order of private confession criticism and a confutation of the friars’ explanation of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist are some of the topics throughout, but our author returns, very forcefully, to the pope’s actions and the proper response to them by members of the true Church.

Who was the audience for this work? From the frequent use of “we” and “thou” it would seem to be those who were already sympathetic to the Lollard- Wycliffite cause. Even though only three manuscripts of the De Ecclesia survive, the work, like the far more abundant Wycliffite Bibles, was probably intended not for individual reading but for reading to an audience, a sympathetic one at that. The arguments and examples could then be used against the critics of these 14th and 15th century dissenters, somewhat like an army field manual.

Could the De Ecclesia have been cut, trimmed, and streamlined? Possibly, but at some eleven folio pages a slow, clear reading would take not much more than half an hour of a devout gathering, perhaps long by our standards for a sermon, but just right for more committed Christians.

As with studies of the works of William Tyndale, it is not just his beliefs that interest us. After all, theologians are, or at least used to be, a dime a dozen. Put quite simply, what attracts us to William Tyndale is not only his determination but also his ability to put the Word into English. The author of De Ecclesia had a foretaste of this gift—Anne Hudson’s just right phrase “vernacular eloquence” might well be applied repeatedly to this work.6

Wyclif and the author of the De Ecclesia, like Tyndale, did not like story telling or illustrations by way of allegories and fables. Of course, the use of exempla was a staple of the friars’ sermons.7 ‘Whether it was,’ I wrote over four decades ago, ‘that the use of exempla was just a characteristic of the preaching of the friars whom Wyclif opposed, or whether his fundamental approach to religion and scriptures had to rebel against what appeared to be a falsification of Christ’s teachings, Wyclif [and, I now add, the author of the De Ecclesia] avoids the use of such illustrative tales.’8 He criticizes elaborations of the basic scriptures:

‘But whanne dremes comen aftir[,] thei maken a fals feyned tale. Thei seyen, whanne Criste went to heuene, his manhed wente in pilgrimage, made Petre, with alle thes popes, his stiwardis, to reule his hous & gaf hem ful pouer herto byfore alle othere prestis alyue. Heere this drem takun amys turnyth upsedon the Chirche.’(54/8-14)

Don’t be so sure of yourself, the pope is warned:

‘For no pope that now lyueth wot wher he be of the Chirche, or wher he be a fendis lyme to be dampnyd with Lucifer’(47/11-13).

In fact, our Wycliffite insists’ ‘no man that lyueth here woot where he shal be sauyd in heuene’ (47/16-17). Like Tyndale, our author likes history, citing the chronicles:

‘the fend had enuye herto; & be Siluestur, prest of Rome, he brought in a new gile, and moved the emperour of Rome to dowe this Chirch in this prest’ (49/10-12).

We are also reminded that the pope is just the ‘bischop of Rome’ (73/13) a change demanded in Tyndale’s time by the authority of the king’s council in 1533 and affecting Tyndale’s works in their first editions published in his native land.

The author of the De Ecclesia, like Tyndale, shows a delightful sense of humour, no doubt useful both in university debates and parish preaching. In discussing the failings of StI Peter he notes that Peter ‘swore false for a woman’s voice’ (57/12), a reference to Peter’s denying the accusation of Pilate’s servant, and a continuing problem of men throughout the ages. In noting, as Wyclif had, the problems that the friars encountered in formulating a philosophical explanation of the Eucharist, the author of the De Ecclesia deflects the friars’ attacks on Wyclif ’s orthodoxy:

‘& thus thei shulden telle at the byggynyng what thing thei trowen [believe] that it is, wher it/ be Goddis body or not. & here thei may not be excused; for mynistrel & jogelour, tumbler & harlot, wolen not take of the puple byfore they had shewid ther crafte’ (69/19-21).

In other words, a preview or free sample of sorts would attract customers!

Later, the De Ecclesia, replete with many folksy exclamations of “Lord!”- -sort of a “can you believe it?”--finds the pope ungenerous for not simply forgiving all men their sins and the punishment thereof:

‘For certis the lewderst man in the world myghte shame of siche a resound’ (75/14-15). ‘For lawe of charite wolde [teche] that, gif he hadde siche pouer, he shold assoyle alle his sugetis fro payne and fro trespass; for thane he broughte alle men to heuene, & sufferide no man go to helle’ (75/17-20).

Our author argues that if the pope can’t cure people of a little bodily pain,

‘as myghten Petre & othere seyntis …[how] shulde he assoyle soulis of the peyne of purgatorie? Prowe he his power by this leese, and suspende assoylying of money (76/18-20).

This is exactly what Tyndale criticized and what his king found very convenient for keeping money spent on Masses for the suffering souls in Purgatory out of the hands of the church.

Our author was also obviously not convinced by the arguments used in the morality play Everyman, for he criticizes Church law obliging all to go to confession once a year and receive communion at Easter: ‘By thes two unfamous lawis may men wite whiche ben othere, for ther is no lawe but Goddis, or lawe growndid in Goddis lawe’ (78/6-8). That final clause is as strong and simple as English can be.

We are also reminded of Chaucer’s parson in the Canterbury Tales by the complaint near the end of De Ecclesia ‘that where Cristen men shulden be fre, now thei been nedid to hire a prist & thus be suget to the fend’ (79/21-80/2). The bottom line of the De Ecclesia is simple, clear prose: ‘Oure ground is commune byleue that Crist is bothe God & man; & so, he is the beeste man, the wiserst man, & moost virtuous that euer was or euere shal be.’(80/21-81/3) Like Tyndale, our author demands that he be proven wrong: “gif ony man wole shewe vs that we speken agens Gooddis lawe or agen good resound, we wolen mekely leue of, & holde Goddis part by oure might’ (81/10-12).

Speaking of the members of the Church, our author sounds quite modern: ‘& so it is greet diuersite to be in this Chirche and of this Chirche.’(54/6-7) The friars are not yet ‘Straining the gnat’ but they ‘sigen (i.e. strain) the gnatte & swolowen the camele’ (66/11-12). They are more concerned with their order’s rules,

‘but kepyng of Godis maundementis thei chargen not half so myche. As he shulde be holde apostata that left his habite for a day, but for leeuyng of dedis of charite shulde he nothing be blamyd…& so agenus Cristis sentence they sewen an old clout in a newe clothe’ (66/14-20).

Previously, another use of parallelism and contrast worked well: ‘But as spiritual thing is better than bodily thing that we may se, so spiritual harm is more than bodyly harm that they don’ (64/7-9). If William Tyndale had read this he might have been tempted to draw in the manuscript, one of those hands with finger pointing to a pertinent text.

Greed in the papacy is a prime target: ‘But cause hereof ben benefices that this prest geueth to men; for Simon Magus trauayled neuer more in symonye than this prestus don’ (50/7-9). There is progression in our author’s rhetoric as well as in the subjects of his criticism:

‘& Peter suffered meekly that Poule snybbide (an oft repeated word) hym whanne he erride, we may se opynly how thes popis fallen fro Petre; and myche more fallen fro Crist, that might not erre in ony thing’(52/16-20).

The threats of the popes are of no concern to our author:

‘As anentis sus pending & entirdytyng, that ben feyned, we trowen that thei don myche good, & noon harm but to folis. For gif they wolden suspende hemsilf fro alle thingis but Goddis lawe, it were a gracious suspending, for hem and for other men. For thane Goddis lawe myghte freely renne by the lymytis that Crist hath oredeyned’(87/2- 7).

Notice the balance, ‘Myche good, & noon harme’ with the exception of fools who take these strictures seriously. The logic and balance are perfect.

Two pages later we find a neat description of the last judgement:

‘But in o bileue may men resten, that day shal comme of the laste iugement, whence the fendis side shal lurke, & treuthe shal shyne withowte letting’ (89/14-16).

The lurking of the fiends will be in the dark, and truth, with those who espouse it, will be in the light, light without end.

The mixing of good and evil which the De Ecclesia sees in new “sects,” i.e. religious orders, is compared to the preaching of Mohammed, even though

‘the fend coloure it and meddel good with the yuel. For thus dide Machamete in his lawe, & the fend doith thus communely; and confermynge of men is nought, but gif God conferme before’ (90/3-7).9

The apparent confusion of good and bad in Islamic teaching and its interpretation remains, tragically, a problem for Western man. The contrast in that last clause, between the approval of men and the approval of God, is most forceful.

Near the conclusion of the De Ecclesia we encounter a sharp indictment of philosophy, perhaps a result of Wyclif ’s writing on the Eucharist: ‘& thus auctours of accidentis hyen hem aboue Crist, as gif thei wolden make a newe world & change goodnesse of thingis’(91/13-15). Finally, strongly, we are told ‘& thus the crafte of loue of thingis is most needful of alle other’ (91/18-19). This is essential to the De Ecclesia’s conclusion, one that the best of our poets and the most inspiring of our spiritual writers could readily endorse. Besides, it is good English prose such as will mark Tyndale’s biblical translations.

After a brief reminder of the defects of ‘thes newe orderis’ (92/2), the author of the De Ecclesia closes with a clear, simple, balanced statement of his belief: ‘& ech man is holden to loue liche aftir that Crist loueth, & to hate that he hatith & thane is his hieriste vertu stablid’ (92/5-8).

Thus barely a hundred and twenty years before William Tyndale set out to translate the scriptures into the language of the ordinary Englishman, an admirer or associate of John Wyclif was demonstrating that Englishmen could write prose that would be a credit to their developing language. The fact that his concerns would be shared by another reformer born some five generations later is not coincidence, but a reminder that zeal for their vision of the truth has always inspired English writers, from the time of Wyclif to the time of William Tyndale and beyond.


  1. Thomas Arnold, ed. Select Works of John Wyclif (Oxford, 1871), III. 338 ff.
  2. Hope Emily Allen, Writings Ascribed to Richad Rolle, (Oxford, 1827), 143, n. 1.
  3. Donald J. Millus, The “De Ecclesia Et Membris Ejus,”Attributed to John Wyclyf, Edited from Leicester Manuscript 10 D 34 with a Commentary, (New York, Fordham University, unpublished dissertation, 1961.) All quotations from the English De Ecclesia, as I shall call it, are from this edition. The Leicester text is substantially the same as Arnold’s, but contains some careless omissions by the copyist. Square brackets in quotations from this work indicate readings from Arnold’s edition. The letters “yogh” and “thorn” are silently emended.
  4. Herbert Workman, John Wyclif: A Study of the English Medieval Church, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1926). I. Appendix C.
  5. Anne Hudson, “Wyclif and the English Language,” in “Wyclif In His Times,” ed. Anthony Kenny, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.
  6. Anne Hudson, “Wyclif and the English Language,” in “Wyclif In His Times,” ed. Anthony Kenny, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986), 89.
  7. John E. Wells, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1400 (New Haven, 1926), 469 ff.
  8. De Ecclesia, 36.
  9. Wyclif ’s (?) philosophical treatise De Universalibus argues that “Deus simpliciter necessario scit omne ens est bonum,” “God must know that everything that is is good” (my translation). Miscellanea Philosophica, ed. Michael Dziewicki (London, The Wyclif Society, 1905), 25.

The author wishes to thank the chairman, Prof. David Daniell and Trustees of the Tyndale Society for their invitation to speak at the Oxford Tyndale Conference. He gratefully acknowledges a grant from Coastal Carolina University to enable him to attend.

Prof. Donald J. Millus is a lecturer on English and American literature at Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina, USA. His critical edition of ‘The Exposition of the Fyrste Epistle of Seynte Ihon by William Tyndale’ is to be published shortly in The Complete Controversial Works of William Tyndale (The Catholic University of America Press).