Book Review: What is a Lollard? Dissent and Belief in Late Medieval England (Patrick Hornbeck)—By Susan Royal

Patrick Hornbeck. What is a Lollard? Dissent and Belief in Late Medieval England. Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 288 pages (HB). $125.00. ISBN: 9780199589043.

Stemming from his doctoral thesis, J. Patrick Hornbeck’s first book seeks to explore, rather than answer, its titular question, what is a Lollard?  The response to this question has been obscured by  contemporaneous repressive efforts on the part of ecclesiastical and secular authorities as well as the biases of historians medieval and modern.  Anne Hudson’s foundational contribution to this field, The Premature Reformation (1988), argued that Lollardy could be seen as a relatively cohesive movement.  She did this by tracing the parallels between the somewhat crude beliefs of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century heresy defendants and the far more philosophically sophisticated ideas of John Wyclif.  Hudson’s work was largely responsible for launching a new disciplinary sub-field of Lollard Studies which, as Hornbeck points out, has been mainly filled with literary analyses; building on studies of Lollard texts, communities, and social practices, Hornbeck’s book examines Lollard theology.

The author’s goal is to use case studies “to discuss the ways in which the beliefs of dissenters in late medieval England varied and shifted over time, and then to consider the complicated, intricate, and interdependent relationships between beliefs, texts, and social circumstances that produced a host of different varieties of dissent” (xi).  Hornbeck uses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of “family resemblances” to argue that scholars can link discrete groups of dissenters based on shared characteristics, not essentialist doctrines.   Instead of reducing Lollardy to a set of theological propositions, Hornbeck claims that this theory will help to place individuals “within a more complex matrix of social, textual, and theological interactions” (14) that allow for far more gradation.

Hornbeck employs Wittgenstein’s theory in his examination of Lollard beliefs concerning salvation; the Eucharist; lay marriage and clerical celibacy; the priesthood; and the papacy.  His analysis spans from 1381, the year Wyclif was expelled from Oxford for holding heterodox Eucharistic beliefs, to 1521, when Martin Luther’s books were burned in England under Henry VIII.  Hornbeck’s selections, each given a chapter, are well-chosen: he avoids retreading ground that has been amply studied elsewhere (for instance, Lollard perspectives on images), but revisits topics where his work might fill a lacuna (such as Wycliffite attitudes to marriage and sexuality). The chapters, organized chronologically, each adhere to a similar structure. After briefly discussing the orthodox position on each topic, Hornbeck explains Wyclif’s theological belief.  From there, he moves on to the writings of Wyclif’s early followers and those of his opponents, and examines views of dissenters found in trial records.  Hornbeck acknowledges that these sources are highly problematic and defends their use ably in the book’s preface by acknowledging objections to their use (such as officials’ oversimplification of lollard views) and  demonstrating the detail that would be lost if historians were to disregard them.  His use of these records is sensitive and critical.

Beginning with the topic of salvation, Hornbeck shows that Wyclif believed free will and predestination to be compatible, despite the soteriological fatalism ascribed to him by many, including his opponents at the Council of Constance in 1415.  Hornbeck illustrates, though, that Wyclif’s notion of grace-oriented salvation was at odds with the works-based culture of the late medieval church (articulated in sermons, poems, plays, and other texts), and as a result, even the writings of his early followers hinted that merit might count toward salvation.  The defendants in heresy trials similarly reveal a mix of soteriological beliefs, and these sources support one of Hornbeck’s wider claims. The idea that Wyclif’s theological beliefs became debased and crude as the Lollard “movement” shifted from the university to underground pockets does not hold up against Hornbeck’s close reading of the sources.

The successive chapters follow this line of argument, revealing that the beliefs of late medieval dissenters were shaped to a large degree by their social circumstances, geography, and the texts available to them.  With regard to the Eucharist, Hornbeck shows that Wyclif’s belief in consubstantiation (that Christ existed spiritually in the consecrated bread and wine) was already joined by a figurative theology of the Eucharist by the early fifteenth century; figurative theologies also crop up in later heresy trials in areas where texts espousing this view were circulating.

Following this analysis of Eucharist belief is a chapter on Wycliffite views of lay marriage and clerical celibacy.  Hornbeck demonstrates that although Wyclif resisted the idea of a married clergy, his followers rejected this and in fact virulently campaigned for the opposite.  In contrast, Wyclif’s view that a marriage is created not with a priest’s approval but with mutual consent between partners parallels heresy defendants’ contention that marriage need not be solemnized in a church; Hornbeck proves, then, that there is no clean linear progression from one set of ideas to another.

The next two chapters deal with two sides of the same coin: the priesthood and the papacy.  The former is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book.  Explaining Lollard perspectives of the clergy, Hornbeck discards the moribund nomenclature “anticlericalism” for a more accurate and helpful term, “hyperclericalism,” which gets closer to what most Lollards believed: rather than desiring an abolition of the priestly class (which Hornbeck terms “antisacerdotalism”), the majority of Lollards sought a return to ideal moral behavior by priests, part of a traditional theology of the priesthood.  The chapter deals with many issues related to the clergy that could have received separate treatment, including tithes and the sacrament of orders.  While this makes for a rather messy chapter in terms of organization, the fresh perspective Hornbeck offers on late medieval critiques of the clergy will be of use to those interested not only in Lollardy but in late medieval and Reformation religious culture more generally. As for the papacy, Hornbeck articulates largely the same line: that Wyclif, early Wycliffite writers, and later dissenters regarded the papacy with a “surprising degree of moderation” (193).  Although they impugned the abuses they saw in particular contemporary popes, they did not disavow the papacy; in fact, they argued for its restitution.  In both of these chapters, Hornbeck found a high degree of doctrinal agreement, from Wyclif to later heresy defendants.

The author does an excellent job of recognizing and relating the theological nuances of Wyclif, Wycliffite writers and their polemical opponents, and defendants in heresy trials.  His contention that doctrine is shaped by social networks, physical location, and textual communities is compelling, although this could have been further supported by more frequent reference to the “family resemblances” model.

Refreshingly, this book does more than explain or nuance Lollard views against the Church: it goes some way toward reconstructing some positive Lollard beliefs.  Known mostly for their rejection of many aspects of traditional medieval religion, the Lollards can often be seen as having little to offer theologically.  The author demonstrates that some Lollards had alternative ideas of how to fund the Church (essentially through voluntary alms); the proper hierarchy of priestly duties (emphasizing preaching over administering sacraments); and the ideal papacy (where the pope would be one of many “captains” of the church, selected by lot and liable to deposition for immoral behavior).  The end of the book, which provides a list of characteristics that might identify a member of the Lollard “family”, unfortunately does not include any of these, something Hornbeck admits but for which he offers no explanation.

Despite this minor problem, overall, the content of this book, especially its thesis, is excellent.  Hornbeck’s writing is highly readable and will serve as an erudite and helpful introduction to undergraduates and more advanced researchers.  This is a strong contribution to Lollard Studies.

Susan Royal is the Mary Ward Research Fellow at the Centre for Catholic Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in England. She is submitting her PhD thesis at Durham, titled “John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and the Lollard Legacy in the Long English Reformation.”  With Dr James Kelly, she is co-editing Early Modern English Catholicism: Identity, Memory, and Counter-Reformation, c.1580-1800.  


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