Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University





Criticism of clergy of all types and all levels was voiced, often harshly to the point of ferocity by both lay and clerical authors and expressed in literature and sermons.  The blanket charges against all clerics was undoubtedly unfair,  as there were many who performed their duties and followed their order’s tenets, but they are hard to find in the literature; Chaucer’s Parson is a rarity, even within The Canterbury Tales.  Clergy were accused of failings and sins such as pride, greed, simony, lechery, and gluttony among others.

There are two main areas of complaint, one spiritual and one economic, though they often intermingle.  On the spiritual side, moralists feared for souls subjected to faulty interpretation of the gospels by uneducated clergy, misguidance by immoral clerics, and neglected ministration due to absentee or greedy priests or their assistants.  The overlap with economics enters with the refusal to perform services, such as burial, without a fee1 and competition over these fees.

The church’s income came from endowments, benefactions, fees, and in some cases, begging.  Apostolic poverty was expected of all clergy, despite variances of the requirement between the different orders.  However, the church amassed wealth and enjoyed comfortable (at least) lifestyles.  Though this was not true of many religious houses or parishes, some of which were poor, the common impression was that the church garnered wealth that should have gone to the poor.

A brief primer of the various types of religious communities during the period under study will be helpful in understanding the literature.2  The secular church was a vast network headed by the pope, and included archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, rectors, priests and others who served in cathedrals, dioceses, and parishes.  There was immense wealth, but also meager resources, especially at the parish level.  The parson, or rector, was responsible for the ministration to the inhabitants of parishes, and received income.  These positions, known as benefices, were subject to corruption in a number of ways: they were sometimes given to priests through the influence of a wealthy patron rather than on merit; the rector could have more than one benefice (pluralism) which hampered his ability to serve all his parishes properly; he could leave his benefice (absenteeism) for more lucrative income in administration or for a wealthy patron; and an unscrupulous rector could spend the income intended for the poor on himself.

There was a strain between the papacy and monarchy over the provision of benefices to the prelates, those in high position such as bishop, since each had their own candidates for receipt of the revenue.  There was also conflict over taxation: by the papacy of the state and clergy, and by the monarchy of the clergy.  The power struggles between church and state over these and other matters were shifting in favor of the latter by the end of the fourteenth century.

In addition to the secular church, there were monastic and mendicant orders and degrees in between; almost all originated on the Continent and spread to England.  The two main monastic (regular) orders were the Benedictines (Black Monks) and Cistercians (White Monks).  The former was strictly regimented with its rule based on obedience and humility, and served ministerial and educational needs.  They were well-funded through endowments and benefactions, and held great estates that hosted royalty and aristocracy.

The Cistercians intended to restore the simplicity of monastic life.  Well organized, independent communities in rural areas, they accumulated land and participated in the market economy but shunned the opulence of other monastic houses.  The Augustinian (Austin) Canons (Regular Canons, Black Canons) took a modest road, following the rule of Augustine with its poverty and celibacy.  Some chose cloistered life and others worked in communities, often in remote areas, supplying hospitals, schools, poor relief and religious ministrations.  They were supported by benefactors of lesser means and avoided extreme wealth.

The mendicant orders rose in the thirteenth century and were soon numerous, serving urban areas.  The four main orders were the Franciscans (Friars Minor, Grey Friars), Dominicans (Friars Preachers, Black Friars), Carmelites (White Friars) and Austin (Augustinian) Friars; the first two were the largest and most influential.  Each order had its own rule and aims, but they contributed greatly to education.

Mendicancy is associated with poverty and rejection of material possessions, and support came from fees, benefactions and begging.  As time went by, however, the mendicants circumvented the prohibition on wealth and many led sumptuous lifestyles.  They were among the most criticized religious groups, seen as forsaking their tenets, shirking their duties, and leading immoral lives.  The other source of disapprobation was competition with the secular clergy over fees for ministerial services.  One of the most vocal of their opponents, Richard FitzRalph, archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, brought a case in 1357 against them in papal court, claiming that the parish priest was more qualified and reliable for ministering to parishioners.  He also challenged the validity of the friars’ privileges, particularly the Franciscans’, including hearing confession, and their position on property ownership and begging.  The case was never concluded, as FitzRalph died in 1360 and became the center of a cult.  Canonization was considered but dropped, in part due to his reputation as a major source of ideas for Wyclif and the Lollards.

The Lollard movement developed from the teachings of John Wyclif, an Oxford theologian.  Though not all original, Wyclif’s ideas were radical, challenging ecclesiastical authority and power from the priesthood to the pope, and doctrinal tenets, particularly transubstantiation.  His criticisms and propositions were motivated by the belief that there should be a close relationship between man and religion, including access to the Bible.  He was initially influential at and beyond the universities and supported by royalty such as John of Gaunt, and disseminated his views through sermons and writings.  His ideas eventually came under attack, particularly by the mendicants, and he was viewed as heretical, hastened by John Ball’s espousal of Lollardy during the Rising.  Support by Oxford colleagues was soon quashed and royal patronage of Wycliffite ideas lost.  In 1382, on the heels of the Rising and thus during a reactionary time, a council was held at Blackfriars, the Dominican convent in London,3 and ten conclusions extrapolated from his writings were declared as heresies and fourteen as errors.  Never formally tried, Wyclif lost his privilege to preach or teach at Oxford and retired to his benefice at Lutterworth but continued to express his opinions until he died in 1384.

His doctrines were kept alive by followers called Lollards.  The first known use of the term applied to Wyclif’s followers was in 1387.  It is probably originally derived from Dutch lollen, “to mumble,” and was used for vagabonds or religious eccentrics.  The vacuum left by university scholars was first filled with literate nonacademics supported by gentry, and some parliamentary knights.  As action against proponents of Wycliffite doctrine continued, the next continuators were semi-literate unbeneficed clerks and unlicensed preachers who spread Lollardy, despite its status as heretical.  Wyclif’s views also spread to the Continent, particularly Prague, and through followers like John Hus, who was condemned and burned at the stake in 1415, fed the Reformation, as did Lollardy in England.

The Lollards were anticlerical in their criticism of the clergy and church, and conversely the subjects of anticlericalism for their beliefs.  They were feared and hated on doctrinal grounds as well as practical, since their belief that the laity could, and should, have access to the Bible and be protected from distorted teachings would cause a separation from the clergy and their ministrations (and associated fees).  They believed that virtuous laymen could teach scripture as well or better than clerics, which would further displace the clergy.

The Lollards’ beliefs included religious and political issues and doctrinal and practical matters such as the denial of transubstantiation of the Eucharist; the condemnation of the church due to its corruption, the desire to remove its power through disendowment of its properties, and subjection of its dominion to the king; a return to the simplicity and poverty of Christ; and, following Wyclif, the Bible as primary authority.  Although the Lollards wished to disband the church and purify the priesthood and sacraments, they did not propose to set up an alternative church.  Rather, the stress was on individual right action. 

Perhaps the Lollards’ greatest contribution is the translation of the Latin Vulgate into vernacular English, which brought the scriptures to the laity.  Completed around 1396, the translation coincided with, and reflected, the rise of English as the primary language.  In 1402, Henry V prohibited translating or owning a Bible in English and authorized burning heretics at the stake.


1  See Sir Amadace in the romance collection of this Special Edition.

2  For a fuller discussion, see the Historical Overview.

3  The meeting is also referred to as the “Earthquake Council” due to the earthquake that interrupted the deliberations, which McKisack notes was “variously interpreted as indicative of the divine reaction to its proceedings” (514).  See The Insurrection and Earthquake.