Lori Anne Ferrell, who currently holds a joint appointment in early modern history and English at Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California, came to the study of the texts of Tudor and Stuart England as a second career. Before entering academia in the late 1980s, Dr. Ferrell worked as a registered nurse at Yale University, where she later completed her Ph.D., and whose press is publishing her book on the English Bible. She talked to SECRETS OF THE DEAD about the social and political context of the events discussed in BATTLE FOR THE BIBLE, and about the "foreign country" that is our past.
Lori Anne Ferrell, Professor of early modern history and English at Claremont Graduate University
Q. To contemporary viewers, it may seem strange to hear about just how politically important the interpretation of Scripture was in 14th-century Europe. Is it possible to explain just how intertwined what we now consider the separate spheres of politics and religion were during the period -- from the 14th to the 16th century -- that this film focuses on?
A. The simplest answer here is that, in the medieval West, these two spheres were not at all separate. They made up a mostly seamless whole, which means that, in a way, medieval people were less obviously pious at certain times but were entirely so on a daily basis.
But, then again, whenever politics and religion are fused, the spiritual trumps the secular, just about every time. The pope's headship of spiritual causes (which extended to his secular powers in the papal states) was a universal leadership (the boundaries of which comprised what we'd call "Western Christendom"), whereas kings and emperors -- who often claimed that they held their worldly power through divine right -- were heads of smaller locales within that "Western Christendom."
Q. Can you illuminate the circumstances surrounding Wycliffe's turn to endorsing direct access to the Bible? Wycliffe had been an establishment figure and an ecclesiastical politician of some prominence, so it's somewhat surprising that he would become a figure so disliked by that establishment that his body would eventually be exhumed and burned. How did his ideas develop?
A. Wycliffe was an establishment clergyman -- and establishment clergymen in this period often came into conflict with their bosses in the Church (often the issue with the overly educated, I'd say). Thing is, Wycliffe based his sense of ultimate Christian authority on the words of the Bible rather than the authority of not only the pope but also the entire succession of popes and Church councils that had adjudicated Christian orthodoxy through generations of human decision making and authoritative doctrinal pronouncements since the early centuries of the Christian era.
To advocate a sacred text (a collection of words, really, as set down in orthodox and material form since the 4th century in a book called "the Bible") as the source of authority rather than the pope and Church tradition was Wycliffe's remarkable contribution to the pre-Reformation era. He was no proto-Protestant (I happen to disagree with the many scholars who believe he was, as I think it's impossible to be "proto" anything before the fact in historical reckoning) but instead a radical medieval. As that alone, he did plenty.
The reason I resist this characterization is that the claim has this way of advocating Protestant "orthodoxy," as in: if Protestants have a past that can be traced through ideas that are passed from generation to generation, then they have a past distinct from the Roman Church, a kind of continuity that came from always resisting what the church of Western Christendom represented. And that's simply not true. In so many ways, especially in issues of church authority, what became Protestantism was of the same opinion as the Catholic Church on more issues than not. They simply differed on what defined that authoritative church -- Protestants claimed "the Bible only" (although they really couldn't live that out; it's an impossible claim -- they needed institutional structure and history as well as a text) whereas the Roman Catholic Church claimed its long-standing historical tradition (a powerful claim indeed) plus the Bible.
Q. To a layperson, looking at salvation as coming via the text rather than the church seems the essence of Protestantism. Wycliffe does seem, if not to be a proto-Protestant, at least to anticipate the Reformation in important ways.
A. I think that makes sense, as long as we remember that "anticipate" is something we discern from this side of the historical divide, not their side.
Historically and theologically speaking, even 16th-century Protestants thought salvation was a process that was a compatible, in fact desirable and necessary, part of Church membership -- mainstream Protestants persecuted radical and underground sects like the Anabaptists, often with stunning (to us) ferocity and cruelty. English Protestants, for example, would not, indeed could not, envision a world where people weren't required to go to a state church, one into which people were baptized at birth (the defining marker of required membership in that age; no one had a "choice").
Wycliffe's followers might have wanted a Bible in English, but they could not possibly have foreseen the Protestant Reformation -- their minds would not have conceived it. Thus they are medievals with a radical idea, not prophets of a coming age.
Q. I can see that Wycliffe would have had a very different notion of what he was up to, but exactly how did he see himself as standing in relationship to Christianity in general and the Church in particular?
A. My sense is that he was an educated contrarian -- the Church was full of those in every age before (and, I'd guess, after) the Reformation. And the pre-Reformation Church was actually pretty good at listening and responding to new ideas at the time -- for example, mendicant monasticism (like the newly instituted Franciscans or Dominicans), sacramental-practice proposals, proposals for instituting holy days like Corpus Christi. What made folks like Wycliffe (or Luther) renegades was the Church's rejection of them and their ideas -- not theirs of the Church and its ideas. They wanted change, and in such a rapidly changing time as the late medieval era, you could argue they had no reason to think their ideas wouldn't get a fair hearing ... until they didn't.
Q. Wycliffe's translation was not a lone effort. Can you tell us more about the men who were involved in translating the "Wycliffe" Bibles? And is there any estimate of how many were produced?
A. We're pretty sure Wycliffe didn't translate a thing -- that's why we now call the Bibles "Wycliffite Bibles" rather than "Wycliffe Bibles." My sense has always been that Wycliffe was more interested in "the Bible" than "the English Bible" and thought out his religious ideas in Latin to the very end.
We don't know how many men and women were involved, how many owned the Bibles, nor how many actually read them. The actual number may be dismayingly small. What we do have is about 250 extant copies of these illicit texts -- either in whole or in part (mostly in part). That might seem small, but, given each manuscript is an original, handmade, unreproduceable product in this age before the printing press, it's actually huge. This abundance of extant material evidence also means that Wycliffite Bibles are by far the largest example of medieval literature in English that we have -- which may well mean that historians overestimate the range and power and influence of the Wycliffite (or "Lollard") movement, simply because of this preponderance of material evidence.
Q. How did Wycliffe's ideas spread despite the ban on his work? Who were the disseminators of Lollard beliefs? Were these ideas passed on through families? Were there Lollard congregations? And how widespread was literacy in medieval England?
A. I think historians tend not to think of the powerful materiality of books as objects, which carry both a symbolic and an actual weight that extends beyond content. And so I would say that Wycliffe's best idea (most of his other ones were inaccessible to most ordinary people, the vast majority of whom were illiterate in either Latin or English in this age) was disseminated by lived experience: through seeing (or hearing read) Bibles in the English language. These objects remained behind after Wycliffe and Lollardy died out, powerful reminders of vernacular Christianity.
"Lollardy" has become the name for a scattered and piecemeal phenomenon, different between localities and often just individual -- I would not claim (although some historians do) that something called "Lollardy" could ever have been considered an organized movement. Any group of people meeting together for the purpose of producing or reading an illegal English Bible would have been prosecuted if found out, which makes it hard for us to measure the extent of local Lollard practices. Just like Wycliffe was no proto-Protestant, then, Lollards were not (in my estimation) proto-Protestants either. We can't draw the transmission with any accuracy.
You know, it has been a common practice for historians of Protestantism to find its origins before the Reformation. This is probably because Christianity itself is rooted in a historical moment in the first century of the Common Era, and so anything emerging after the apostolic age is suspect as heretical. So we need to remember that even Protestants in the 16th century did not claim they were "Protestants" (they had no idea what they'd end up being called, of course, as they were in the middle of something rather than recording it as historians) but only better Christians.
So as for me, I think they were very brave and often very singular, or regionally isolated, although they were not all poor or powerless -- the Bible in English was probably the most electrifying thing about their practice; otherwise their derring-do centered on conducting the same sorts of sacramental rituals, except without permission (thrilling enough, from a legal point of view, but not radically different).
Q. If the power and influence of the Lollards is overstated, how did the interest in a direct connection with the Bible (I hesitate to call it proto-Reformation or proto-Protestantism) persist in England in the years between Wycliffe and Tyndale? (It seems that by Tyndale's time there was the advantage of an active printing industry and obviously a very active Protestant movement in continental Europe.) Is there just no way to study this?
A. Probably simpler to say there's no way of stating it responsibly. One just ends up making sweeping generalizations -- which I love to do. Here's mine: the English are, and have always been, word-besotted, as in English-word-besotted, which is why their Renaissance was made out of neither paint nor music, but out of the glorious stuff of drama and poetry. A Bible in everyday language appealed to this precociously literate kingdom (the literacy rate was not high by our standards, but it was enormous by European ones from the same period) and the idea of this essential text in the vernacular was a congenial one in a country where the vernacular had been a literary language much longer than had the vernaculars of other cultures.
Q. Though he was a key participant in Henry VIII's turn to a rather pragmatic Protestantism, Thomas Cranmer somehow became a legitimate leader of the English Reformation. Can you tell us more about his background, and about what might have inspired his turn from belief in an episcopal church to a dedication to direct experience of the Bible?
A. I'd argue that Cranmer's overall contribution was not pragmatic, but literary and inspirational (through the lasting beauties of the English Book of Common Prayer). Like all earlier 16th-century "Protestants" (remember my warning earlier), Cranmer was trained in the Catholic priesthood. Luther's ideas, among others, would have had a powerful impact -- as would those of reforming Catholic humanists like Desiderius Erasmus.
Under Henry VIII, Cranmer practiced a canny sort of realpolitik (the only way to survive, to tell the truth) but it's pretty clear the new ideas from the Continent were a great influence on him.
Of course, again this issue of historical retrofit comes in to mess up our take on this. What was emerging in the early 16th century was called "evangelicalism" by its proponents, and could easily have been seen as a reforming movement the Catholic Church would contain. In fact, many of the reforms proposed by early 16th-century "evangelicals" were taken up at the Council of Trent and subsequently espoused by the Roman papacy. It does seem clear, however, that Cranmer needed the liberating religious atmosphere established in the reign of Edward VI to allow his ideas freer expression. So he spans the two generations of thought.
Q. Would it be wrong to use the word "fundamentalism" in describing the Puritan movement? The Puritans are often seen as advocates for religious freedom, which was apparently far from the case. ...
A. Yes, I think it would be wrong, as it is such an anachronism. No one in the 16th century would have advocated religious freedom; going to church was not optional and only the most radical (and thus hounded and discredited) Christians would have argued that people could have a choice about how to worship God. In terms of biblical "inerrancy" (another problematically anachronistic term, or at least one that is way too loaded in this day and age), everyone in the 16th century was a fundamentalist; in terms of the rejection of Roman Catholicism for a religion based upon the Bible, Puritans were pretty much like all Protestants in England -- just more impatient for further reforms (they wanted all traces of Catholicism erased from the English church, including its episcopal structures and material appearances) and increasingly vocal about it.
As for me, I tend not to draw strong connections between a disparate historical phenomenon like Puritanism (of which there are many forms in the period I study) and current events. The past, even "our" past, is pretty much a foreign country, in my opinion; we invade and domesticate it at our peril, and historians do best to be a bit humble and respectful in its presence. That this country was founded (at least in the Northeast) by fierce advocates of the freedom to make people worship in ways the English government would not approve is a fact that always gives me pause, however.