Franciscans as Wycliffe’s Beloved Sons: A Complementary Response to Miles Foltermann

Ad Fontes recently published an excellent essay by Miles Foltermann entitled “Wycliffe vs. the Begging Friars.” Focusing on Wycliffe’s anti-mendicant treatises, Foltermann correctly argued that Wycliffe had a low view of his contemporary friars. In Wycliffe’s eyes, the friars had abandoned their rules of life, instead giving themselves to laziness and gluttony. As Foltermann concluded, Wycliffe’s disputations against the friars helped him articulate his proto-Protestant belief that Scripture should be the highest and final authority for Christian doctrine and practice and thus needed to be translated into the common language. The friars lived at odds with the Scriptures and therefore needed to repent and reform their Orders.

Foltermann’s essay is entirely agreeable; however, there is more to the story of Wycliffe and the Oxford friars. It is not my goal to critique Foltermann’s work (I don’t think there is anything to critique!). Instead, I want to offer a complimentary response: While it is true that Wycliffe’s relationship with the Oxford friars was largely negative, it was not so entirely. In fact, recent scholarship[1] on Wycliffe recognizes that this “Morning Star of the Reformation” self-consciously associated himself with Franciscanism.[2] While we should remember with Foltermann how Wycliffe opposed the decadent friars in his days, we should also bear in mind that he appreciated the ideals of Franciscanism and certain parts of the movement.

Wycliffe’s Early Experience with the Friars

Wycliffe’s interactions with the Oxford friars were amiable at first. Though remaining a secular (i.e. a non-monastic and non-mendicant) rather than joining a mendicant Order, Wycliffe found the Franciscans at Oxford welcoming, even accepting their invitation to use their campus library.[3] It was in the Franciscan library that Wycliffe first interacted with the works of great Franciscan theologians such as Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) and William of Ockham (1285-1347). Though better known for his disagreements with Franciscan thinkers,[4] Wycliffe approvingly cited the works of these men throughout his academic career. G. R. Evans notes that Nicholas of Lyra’s commentaries served as Wycliffe’s chief source as he interpreted Scripture in both his lectures and writings.[5] Wycliffe likewise employed Ockham’s “consent theory” as he argued that the mendicants had the responsibility to reform their Orders.[6]

Of chief note here is the fact that Wycliffe continued citing Franciscan authorities even during his disputations with the friars. At the precise moment in his life when it would have been most convenient to critique Franciscanism wholesale, we find Wycliffe consciously returning to the Franciscan divines he studied during his early days at Oxford. At times, Wycliffe did this polemically, citing Franciscan authorities against contemporary Franciscan teachings. More frequently, though, Wycliffe cited the Franciscan tradition freely out of respect for its great thinkers.[7]

The theologian who perhaps exercised the greatest influence over Wycliffe was also Franciscan-adjacent. Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) never officially joined the Franciscan Order, but he did serve as a lecturer for the friars during his stint at Oxford. Grosseteste felt a cognitive dissonance: as he studied the Franciscan tradition, he gained the highest respect for the moral teachings of the Order’s Rule and founder, but, as he lived among the friars, he noticed that these standards had been all but rejected.[8] Grosseteste recognized that when Francis of Assisi compiled the rules for his new way of life, he did so having been inspired by the Scriptures,[9] not the traditions of the Church.[10] Motivated by this, Grosseteste began to give expository lectures through the Scriptures to the Franciscans, confident that if they heard God’s Word as their founder had, their lives would likewise be reformed.[11]

Wycliffe, having read Grosseteste’s lectures and works, held the same conviction. As Foltermann writes, “Wycliffe contended that these friars would never be morally reformed unless they were first spiritually transformed to accept the clear religion of Jesus Christ found in the Scriptures.” What is most striking is that Wycliffe does not seem to have come to this conclusion on his own. Wycliffe’s doctrine of Scripture largely resembled Grosseteste’s. Wycliffe was not an innovator so much as an inheritor. And, surprisingly, he seems to have largely inherited his doctrine of Scripture from the very tradition that he used it to critique! As Grosseteste reflected on the story of Francis, he realized that Scripture alone had the power to bring about spiritual reform, and, as Wycliffe read Grosseteste, he came to the same conclusion. Fiona Somerset concludes that Wycliffe constantly looked back to thirteenth-century reform efforts, such as Grosseteste’s, as “models for the kind of reform he wants to promote.”[12]

Wycliffe’s Break with the Franciscans

By the late 1370s, Wycliffe’s relationship with the Oxford friars had soured considerably. The chronology of Wycliffe’s life is difficult to pin down,[13] so it is hard to know exactly when or why sentiments changed. Undoubtedly, though, Wycliffe felt frustrated by the immorality which he noticed among the Oxford Franciscans: “The friars had let Wyclif [sic.] down; the men he so admired had been revealed to have feet of clay.”[14] However, even as Wycliffe’s relationship with the friars worsened, we still do not find a wholesale rejection of Franciscanism in his writings.

In his tracts and treatises, Wycliffe referred to his contemporary friars as “pseudo-friars.”[15] They had sworn to uphold the ethics found in the Gospels and summarized in their Rule, yet they had rejected these standards. Even when reforming voices had called them to repentance, they had pushed even further into hypocrisy and sin. In a stunning transition, they had effectively renounced their vows and were now, according to Wycliffe, agents of the Antichrist (the pope) who spread blasphemy and immorality throughout the world.[16]

Ironically, Wycliffe’s labeling of the pope as Antichrist and the Franciscans as his agents also had roots in the Franciscan tradition. In the late 1200s, the Franciscan Order experienced a schism over the issue of evangelical poverty. On one side, the Conventuals sought to modify standards of poverty to allow friars greater access to communally owned goods (a position known as abdicatio dominii), while, on the other side, the Spirituals feared this newfound freedom would be misused and abused. They urged restriction of community properties (usus pauper). The Spirituals were right about the dangers of abdicatio dominii, but the Conventuals won the favor of the Roman curia.[17]

Some Spirituals vocalized their disapproval of Rome’s decision. John Peter Olivi (1248-1298) complained that the Roman church in his own day was “infected… from head to toe and almost made into a new Babylon.”[18] In fact, Olivi went so far as to predict, based on the experiences of Franciscan Spirituals, that the Antichrist would likely be a papal figure.[19] Olivi believed that Francis and his true followers (the Spirituals) had been sent by Christ to renew the church, but the “carnal church” (those who opposed the Spirituals and were thus agents of Antichrist) warred against them.[20]

Olivi’s chief disciple, Ubertino of Casale (1259-c.1329), was even more radical. Ubertino preached against popes who had, in his mind, persecuted Franciscans. Gregory IX (r. 1227-1241) and Nicholas III (r. 1277-1280)[21] had interpreted Francis’ Rule too leniently, allowing laxness to creep into the Order.[22] Ubertino’s teachings brought him trouble. In 1312/3, he was summoned to stand before Pope Clement V (r.1305-1314), and he was banished to Mount Alverna in Tuscany. There, Ubertino claimed to have mystical visions of former Franciscan leaders as he wrote The Tree of the Crucified Life of Jesus.[23] In this work, which Ubertino believed had been approved by the dead Franciscans who had appeared to him, he claimed that Pope Boniface VIII (r.1294-1303) and Benedict XI (r. 1303-1304) were the two beasts of Revelation 13.[24] The Reformers were not the first to call the pope the antichrist–the Spiritual Franciscans had done it centuries earlier. Even as Wycliffe criticized the Franciscans, he did so by employing language and ideas that had already been used to critique the Order from within.

One of Wycliffe’s chief criticisms of the Franciscans was their abandonment of evangelical poverty. Wycliffe, like the Spirituals, believed evangelical poverty was the highest expression of Christian spirituality, even admitting that he speculated whether “we possessioners [sic.] sin in our abundance” as he compared his mode of life to the Franciscan ideal.[25] Even as he fought most ferociously against the Franciscans, Wycliffe acknowledged that they had originally held to the purest of ethics. Denying this would have been convenient, yet the great proto-Reformer continued to respect the ethical standards outlined in the Franciscan Rule, standards now long rejected by the Order.[26] These “pseudo-friars” were no longer friars at all. They were hypocrites, slanderers, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Wycliffe’s Beloved Sons

While Wycliffe’s anti-mendicant works largely spoke negatively of the Franciscans, the term “pseudo-friar” did imply the existence of true friars. Wycliffe recognized that there was still a minority of Franciscans who mourned the decadence that had befallen their Order. These wanted to return to the Gospel standards outlined by Francis in his Rule. Wycliffe called on these men to speak out against the corruption in their Order, often employing William of Ockham’s theory of consent to do so.[27]

Wycliffe also advocated for these righteous friars. He argued that “the Franciscan life was declared most perfect inasmuch as it most closely resembles the life of Christ, who had himself recovered man’s pre-lapsarian state of life apart from civil dominion.”[28] In other words, Wycliffe believed the Franciscan mode of life was (1) the most Christlike and (2) came the closest to recovering the status of man before his fall into sin.

He called these true friars his own “beloved sons” and complained that ecclesiastical powers had forced some Oxford friars to renounce their teachings on apostolic poverty and instead promote abdicatio dominii against their own consciences.[29] Wycliffe, like the Spirituals, championed usus pauper. The true friars had been wrongly maligned and persecuted by the Roman church when they tried to reform their Order. These righteous friars had the responsibility to continue fighting for reform within their Order.[30] Wycliffe was clear that if they faithfully fought the good fight, they would always find him to be an ally and defender.[31]

Wycliffe Accused

Wycliffe’s writings and doctrines invited controversy. One accusation is of particular interest here: As early as 1378, Wycliffe was accused of being a Joachite (which was basically synonymous with being a Spiritual Franciscan)[32] and an admirer of Peter John Olivi.[33] Wycliffe’s opponents recognized his indebtedness to the Spiritual Franciscans and quickly classified him as adjacent to the movement. As much as Wycliffe was an opponent of the friars, we must also recognize that the question, “Who influenced Wycliffe?”, should immediately bring Franciscan names to mind. Moreover, his indebtedness to Franciscanism was by no means accidental. As shown above, he had great respect for the tradition’s thinkers and ethics. Wycliffe purposefully and self-consciously associated himself with the Spiritual Franciscan tradition, and we do well to appreciate those he appreciated.

Jackson Gravitt (MA Theological Studies, Erskine Theological Seminary) teaches Bible, theology, and church history at Rhea County Academy in Dayton, TN.

  1. This essay relies on secondary literature more than the typical Ad Fontes article, but this is somewhat intentional. I want to highlight that Wycliffe/Wycliffite scholars who are currently revisiting primary sources are being impressed by the positive role Franciscanism played in Wycliffe’s thinking.

  2. Foltermann mentions that Wycliffe opposed both Franciscans and Dominicans. My research has focused mainly on Wycliffe’s relationship with Franciscans, so that will be my focus here.

  3. See G. R. Evans, John Wyclif (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2005), 79-83.

  4. E.g., Gordon Leff, “Ockham and Wyclif on the Eucharist,” Reading Medieval Studies, vol. 2 (1976), 1-13.

  5. Evans, John Wyclif, 114-115.

  6. Ockham’s consent theory was derived from the teachings of Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). In sum, Ockham argued that to see an injustice and remain silent was to sin by giving one’s consent, either actively or passively, to the evil being committed. Ockham, an advocate for reform in the Order, refused to be silent even when the Roman curia opposed his reform efforts. He was excommunicated, though he got off easier than four contemporary reform-minded Franciscans who were burned at the stake. Wycliffe did not regularly name-drop Ockham, but at times quoted him nearly verbatim. For more, see Fiona Somerset, “Before and After Wyclif: Consent to Another’s Sin in Medieval Europe,” Europe After Wyclif, ed. J Patrick Hornbeck II and Michael van Dussen (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016), 135-172.

  7. See Philip Krey, “Many Readers But Few Followers: The Fate of Nicholas of Lyra’s ‘Apocalypse Commentary’ in the Hands of His Late Medieval Admirers,” Church History 64.2 (1995), 185-201.

  8. Francis of Assisi, The Later Rule, Francis of Assisi Early Documents, vol. 1,ed.Armstrong, Hellman, Short (New York, NY: New City Press, 1999), 99-106.

  9. Francis came up with the lifestyle of friars by hearing the Gospels read on two occasions. He first heard Matthew 10:9-10, Mark 6:12, and Luke 9:2 read in church. He and his early followers sought to follow these texts in their most literal sense. On a second occasion, Francis and his early friars entered a church desiring to receive divine confirmation that their way of life had God’s approval. They opened the Scriptures randomly three times, landing on Matthew 19:21, Luke 9:3, and Matthew 16:24.

  10. While seeking papal approval for his new Order, church leaders offered to let Francis and his early followers join an existing monastic Order. Francis declined, wanting to follow the precepts of Scripture in a new and literal way. While showing respect for monastic Orders, Francis rejected their rules of life in favor of what he found in Scripture.

  11. William Mallard, “John Wyclif and the Tradition of Biblical Authority,” Church History 30.1 (1961), 52-56. See also See James R. Ginther’s “The Concept of Sola Scriptura in Medieval Theology” (2001). Accessed here:

  12. Somerset, “Before and After Wyclif,” 141.

  13. Evans, John Wyclif, 9-11.

  14. Ian Christopher Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” Franciscan Studies, vol. 73 (2015), 307.

  15. Somerset, “Before and After Wyclif,” 145.

  16. Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 306-308.

  17. See Kevin Madigan, Olivi and the Interpretation of Matthew in the High Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 64-66.

  18. Quoted in Madigan, Olivi and the Interpretation of Matthew in the High Middle Ages, 51.

  19. Olivi escaped immediate censure by claiming this “papal Antichrist” would be an anti-pope; however, he remained purposefully ambiguous as to whether most churchmen would be able to recognize that he was illegitimate (Madigan, Olivi, 54).

  20. Madigan, Olivi, 52-53.

  21. Ubertino was also openly critical of Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

  22. For an overview of this controversy, see David Saville Muzzey, “Were the Spiritual Franciscans Montanist Heretics?” in The American Journal of Theology 12.4 (1908), 588-608.

  23. F. C. Burkitt, “Ubertino da Casale and a Variant Reading,” The Journal of Theological Studies 23.90 (1922), 186-188.

  24. Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 164.

  25. Wycliffe, On Civil Dominion, 3.1. Quoted in Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 302.

  26. We should acknowledge that Wycliffe’s later polemical treatises sometimes employed fiery language even against Francis himself. In Trialogus 4.25, Wycliffe claimed Francis “founded his order in a blind spirit of devotion, utterly devoid of prudence.” A bit earlier, Wycliffe called Francis an “idiot trafficker” as he criticized mendicant begging (Trialogus 4.20). Yet Wycliffe tempered himself: Francis “taught much meekness, poverty, and penance: and Minors now use the contrary” (Against the Friars 11); he “began to do some things good in [his] nature” (Trialogus 4.25); and, had the Minors kept his Rule as he had commanded, the Order’s moral problems would have been avoided (A Complaint of John Wycliffe, Article 1). We must read polemical literature with a grain of salt. Wycliffe’s negative language here does not tell the entire story of his relationship with the Franciscans. Ad fontes is a call to return to all the relevant source material to get a holistic picture of the past.

  27. See note 6 above.

  28. Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 309. This is not a direct quote from Wycliffe; it is Levy’s pararphrase of Wycliffe’s position in his treatise De potestate papae.

  29. Wycliffe, De apostasia, 1. Quoted in Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 310.

  30. Quoted in Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 309-310.

  31. Quoted in Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 295.

  32. Joachim of Fiore (c.1135-1202) was a medieval monk who popularized a unique apocalyptic hermeneutic. His teachings were largely condemned by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), but Spiritual Franciscans largely embraced Joachianism because it helped them make sense of the negative trends in their Order and the Roman church at large.

  33. Levy, “Wycliffites, Franciscan Poverty, and the Apocalypse,” 310-312.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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