John Wycliffe and the English Language

By Erin Russell,

Copyright 2005


The date of his birth unknown, John Wycliffe was born at Wycliffe in Yorkshire, educated and worked at Oxford, and died while at Mass on December 31, 1384.  He is known as one of the first English reformers, a heresiarch of the Wycliffite (or Lollard) movement, and as one of the first translators of the Vulgate Bible into English, although his actual involvement in this latter project has been questioned (cf. Hudson).  His work in the endeavors of “vernacular theology” (i.e.: the translation of Scripture and dissemination of theology in the English vernacular) served to raise the English language to a footing more on par with Latin and French within the sphere of religion.  Margot Lawrence has claimed that Wycliffe’s most profound influence on the history of language is the fact that he “[h]e did for Middle English prose what Chaucer did for poetry, making English a competitor with French and Latin; his sermons were written when London usage was coming together with the East Midlands dialect, to form a standard language accessible to all…” (O.C.E.L, 1135). While the grandiosity of such statements has been questioned, it has also been argued that current scholarship must acknowledge more completely the debt which present day English owes Wycliffe (Aston,”Wycliffe,” 283.)                


It was at Oxford that Wycliffe first raised his contentions, criticizing not only the Church’s stance on the vernacular, but other theological issues such as a rejection of clerical abuses, ecclesiastical authority, and transubstantiation. It is interesting to note that “while Wyclif wrote [such criticism] in Latin he was left in peace by the ecclesiastical and political authorities, but as soon as he started to appeal in English to a different audience the opposition to him became more determined and repressive” (C.H.E.L., 19). 


This persecution can be understood in light of the fact that Wycliffe and his followers emerged during a period of intense debate over the issue of vernacular theology.  The issue initially rose to the fore at Oxford at least as far back as the 1370s when several academics defiantly delivered a handful of sermons in English. The ensuing discussions “no doubt formed a backdrop to all the defenses of translation in texts like the prologue to the Wycliffite Bible, [etc.].” The arguments culminated in the three sets of “determinationes” of the Oxford Translation Debate (1401 to around 1407). The central issue of contention was Scriptural translation, but the delivery of sermons and writing of theological treatises in the vernacular was also at stake (Watson, 840-41).


The main objection to the use of the vernacular lay in a belief that Christian dogma was more perfectly expressed in Latin. As one critic, the Domincan Thomas Palmer wrote (in Latin), "Not only is the English language lacking in letter, but also in expressions since there are no English words and expressions corresponding to the most well-known and common expressions in Latin." (qtd in Aston 303) Palmer further argued that the pearls of the holy mysteries ought not to be cast before the swine of the common folk: “Many things are to be hidden and not shown to the people, lest being known and familiar they should be cheapened.”  Defenders of vernacular theology contended, however, that the gospel was too important to be "claspud vp, ne closid in no cloyster" and should thus be made universally available. (Watson, 839). 


In addition to his contribution to an appreciation of the English vernacular, Wycliffe’s influence on the English language has been traced in the observed uniqueness of Lollard writings.  Anne Hudson has set forth the preliminaries for an analysis of a possible separate Lollard vocabulary or idiom.  She takes her cue from Henry Knighton, a contemporary hostile to Lollardy, who was recorded as noting a distinctive “loquelae” in Wycliffites.  Hudson notes that in Wycliffite writings many instances are found where the semantic force of a word “appears to be, if not peculiar to Lollard texts, at least characteristic of them” (Hudson., 170).   It seems that a sort of Lollard shorthand vocabulary may be traced.  An example may be seen in the opening phrases of many Lollard sermons where it is stated, “many men think/say/feel…”  Here the verbs are actually meant to denote “believe,” and would be followed by a statement deemed heretical by ecclesiastical authority.  The use of these alternate words in the standard sermon-cycle thus functioned to conceal meaning from expurgations (Ibid., 171). As a further example, the word ground in Wycliffite writings does not carry the meanings found in the M.E.D., but rather specifically denotes “Scripture.” The logic behind this narrowing of the word’s meaning was that the Bible was the basis (or “ground”) for their beliefs (Ibid., 171-2).


Further to a discussion of a unique Lollard sect vocabulary, the project of vernacular theology required the invention or re-appropriation of words in order to carry on theological discussion in English. As a case in point, Hudson states “it could be argued that the beliefs of the Lollards made essential the translation of the Latin accidentes sine subiecto or accidentes sine substancio to the ME words accidents, subject, and substaunce  (Ibid., 173). Thus the Lollards both introduced or reinforced new theological terminology in the vernacular and endowed certain other words with altered semantic force.  Because Lollard “communities were tightly knit and inward looking enclaves in a hostile world,” this sect vocabulary was easily and thoroughly disseminated (cf Aston, “Lollardy” qtd in Hudson).  A systematic examination of this question of a separate Lollard “loquelae” has not yet been undertaken and more rigorous inquiry is being called for.


Ultimately, the writings disseminated by Wycliffe and his followers were one of the factors which helped establish a uniform English dialect, based on the prevalent London/East Midlands combination and the Central Midlands dialect of many of the Lollard centers of writing (cf, O.C.E.L, 1135 and Samuels, 64). Wycliffe’s style of writing, moreover, influenced Reformation and later nonconformist works, such as those of John Milton (O.C.E.L., 1135.). Thus, although less known than his theological postulates, Wycliffe’s linguistic and stylistic contributions to the English language form an essential part of his legacy.



Works Cited


Aston, Margaret. “Lollardy and Literacy.” History 62 (1977) :  347-71.


Aston, Margaret. “Wycliffe and the Vernacular,” From Ockham to Wycliffe: Studies in Church History. ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks. Oxford: The Ecclesiastical History Society, 1987. 281-330.


Hudson, Anne. Lollards and Their Books. London: The Hambledon Press,  1985.


Samuels, M.L., “Some Applications of Middle English Dialectology.” Middle English Dialectology. ed. Margaret Laing. Aberdeen: The UP, 1989. 64-80.


Watson, Nicholas. “Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel's Constitutions

of 1409.”  Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 70: 4 (1995) : 822-864.


 “Wycliffe, John.” Cambridge History of the English Language. 1992 ed.


“Wycliffe, John.” Concise Encyclopedia of Language and Religion. 2001 ed.


“Wycliffe, John.” Oxford Companion to the English Language. 1992 ed.



For Further Reading


Aston, Margaret. “Wycliffe and the Vernacular,” From Ockham to Wycliffe: Studies in Church History. ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks. Oxford: The Ecclesiastical History Society, 1987. 281-330.


Forshall, Josiah and Frederick Madden. The Holy Bible…Made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and His Followers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1850.


Fristedt, Sven L. The Wycliffe Bible. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell. 1953-1973.


Hargreaves, Henry. “Popularising Biblical Scholarship: The Role of the Wycliffite Glossed Gospels.” The Bible and Medieval Culture. ed. W. Lourdaux and D.

Verhelst.  Louvain: University Press, 1979.  171-189.


Hudson, Anne. Lollards and Their Books. London: The Hambledon Press, 1985.


Wyclif in His Times. ed. A. Kenny. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.


Lindberg, Conrad. The Middle English Bible: Prefaroty Epistles of St. Jerome. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978.


Hudson The Premature Reformation Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.


Knapp, Peggy Ann. The Style of John Wyclif’s English Sermons Paris: Mouton, 1977.