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Lollardry

Lollardry (lŏlˈyŏrdrē) [key] or Lollardy, medieval English movement for ecclesiastical reform, led by John Wyclif, whose "poor priests" spread his ideas about the countryside in the late 14th cent. The church in England was ridden with abuses, especially in the ownership and management of great ecclesiastical properties, and its apparent wealth stood in stark contrast to the miserable poverty of most of the common people. Wyclif's central doctrine of evangelical poverty was close to the actual conditions of the people and gave form to widespread discontent with the church. The Great Schism (1378) had also served to deepen the general disillusionment and to foster the belief, taught by Wyclif, that the church had surrendered its divine calling. The Bible, which a man could interpret for himself, was set up as the only reliable rule of faith and standard of holiness. Wyclif supplied his bands of preachers with portions of his translation of the Bible.

The most complete statement of the Lollard creed is in the document commonly known as the Conclusions, presented to Parliament in 1395. It denied transubstantiation; it condemned the use of sacramentals, images, prayers for the dead, and auricular confession; it spoke out against all war; and it attacked clerical celibacy and the chastity vows of nuns as unnatural. At its peak just before the turn of the century, Lollardry appealed to members of the middle and upper classes as well as to those of the lower; Oxford became an intellectual center of Lollardry.

Severe repressive measures began with the accession (1399) of Henry IV. The statute De haeretico comburendo [on the burning of the heretic] was passed by Parliament in 1401, but burnings at the stake were actually rare. Under persecution the Lollards tended to fanaticism, and a petty rebellion broke out among followers of Sir John Oldcastle. The rebellion was easily put down (1414), and Oldcastle was executed (1417). There was another uprising, again easily suppressed, in 1431, but stricter suppression drove the movement underground, where it survived until the 16th cent. The alarm of the clergy in England over the Lutheran doctrines was partly caused by a fear that Lollardry would be revived.

It is difficult to state how much Lollardry actually encouraged the English Reformation. Undoubtedly it weakened the hold of the church on the people, and the popular use of the Bible helped to stimulate the later movement. Finally, although Lollardry knew nothing of Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by faith, it did in effect proclaim the direct responsibility of the individual soul to God—the essential idea of the Reformation.

See J. Gairdner, Lollardy and the Reformation in England (4 vol., 1908–13; repr. 1968); J. A. F. Thomson, The Later Lollards, 1414–1520 (1965).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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