HOW THE BIBLE CAME TO THE PEOPLE
 IN all the land there is perhaps no book so common as the Bible.
In homes where there are no other books we find at least a Bible,
and the Bible stories are almost the first that we learn to know.
But in the fourteenth century there were no English Bibles. The
priests and clergy and a few great people perhaps had Latin
Bibles. And although Caedmon's songs had long been forgotten, at
different times some parts of the Bible had been translated into
English, so that the common people sometimes heard a Bible story.
But an English Bible as a whole did not exist; and if to-day it
is the commonest and cheapest book in all the land, it is to John
Wyclif in the first place that we owe it.
John Wyclif was born, it is thought, about 1324 in a little
Yorkshire village. Not much is known of his early days except
that he went to school and to Oxford University. In time he
became one of the most learned men of his day, and was made Head,
or Master, of Balliol College.
This is the first time in this book that we have heard of a
university. The monasteries had, until now, been the centers of
learning. But now the two great universities of Oxford and
Cambridge were taking their place. Men no longer went to the
monasteries to learn, but to the universities; and this was one
reason, perhaps, why the land had become filled with so many idle
 profession of teaching had been taken from them,
and they had found nothing else with which to fill their time.
But at first the universities were very like monasteries. The
clerks, as the students were called, often took some kind of
vow,—they wore a gown and shaved their heads in some fashion or
other. The colleges, too, were built very much after the style
of monasteries, as may be seen in some of the old college
buildings of Oxford or Cambridge to this day. The life in every
way was like the life in a monastery. It was only by slow
degrees that the life and the teaching grew away from the old
While Wyclif grew to be a man, England had fallen on troublous
times. Edward III, worn out by his French wars, had become old
and feeble, and the power was in the hands of his son, John of
Gaunt. The French wars and the Black Death had slain many of the
people, and those who remained were miserably poor. Yet poor
though they were, much money was gathered from them every year
and sent to the Pope, who at that time still ruled the Church in
England as elsewhere.
But now the people of England became very unwilling to pay so
much money to the Pope, especially as at this time he was a
Frenchman ruling, not from Rome, but from Avignon. It was folly,
Englishmen said, to pay money into the hands of a Frenchman, the
enemy of their country, who would use it against their country.
And while many people were feeling like this, the Pope claimed
still more. He now claimed a tribute which King John had
promised long before, but which had not for more than thirty
years been paid.
John of Gaunt made up his mind to resist this claim, and John
Wyclif, who had already begun to preach against the power of the
Pope, helped him. They were strange companions, and while John
of Gaunt fought only for
 more power, Wyclif fought for freedom
both in religion and in life. God alone was lord of all the
world, he said, and to God alone each man must answer for his
soul, and to no man beside. The money belonging to the Church of
England belonged to God and to the people of England, and ought
to be used for the good of the people, and not be sent abroad to
the Pope. In those days it needed a bold man to use such words,
and Wyclif was soon called upon to answer for his boldness before
the Archbishop of Canterbury and all his bishops.
The council was held in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Wyclif
was fearless, and he obeyed the Archbishop's command. But as he
walked up the long aisle to the chapel where the bishops were
gathered, John of Gaunt marched by his side, and Lord Percy, Earl
Marshal of England, cleared a way for him through the throng of
people that filled the church. The press was great, and Earl
Percy drove a way through the crowd with so much haughtiness and
violence that the Bishop of London cried out at him in wrath.
"Had I known what masteries you would use in my church," he said,
"I had kept you from coming there."
"At which words the Duke, disdaining not a little, answered the
Bishop and said that he would keep such mastery there though he
said 'Nay.' " Thus, after much struggling, Wyclif and his
companions arrived at the chapel. There Wyclif stood humbly
enough before his Bishop. But Earl Percy bade him be seated, for
as he had much to answer he had need of a soft seat.
Thereat the Bishop of London was angry again, and cried out
saying that it was not the custom for those who had come to
answer for their misdeeds to sit.
"Upon these words a fire began to heat and kindle between them;
insomuch that they began to rate and
 revile one the other, that
the whole multitude therewith disquieted began to be set on a
The Duke, too, joined in, threatening at last to drag the Bishop
out of the church by the hair of his head. But the Londoners,
when they heard that, were very wrathful, for they hated the
Duke. They cried out they would not suffer their Bishop to be
ill-used, and the uproar became so great that the council broke
up without there being any trial at all.
But soon after this no fewer than five Bulls, or letters from the
Pope, were sent against Wyclif. In one the University of Oxford
was ordered to imprison him; in others Wyclif was ordered to
appear before the Pope; in still another the English bishops were
ordered to arrest him and try him themselves. But little was
done, for the English would not imprison an English subject at
the bidding of a French Pope, lest they should seem to give him
royal power in England.
At length, however, Wyclif was once more brought before a court
of bishops in London. By this time Edward III had died, and
Richard, the young son of the Black Prince, had come to the
throne. His mother, the Princess of Wales, was Wyclif's friend,
and she now sent a message to the bishops bidding them let him
alone. This time, too, the people of London were on his side;
they had learned to understand that he was their friend. So they
burst into the council-room eager to defend the man whose only
crime was that of trying to protect England from being robbed.
And thus the second trial came to an end as the first had done.
Wyclif now began to preach more boldly than before. He preached
many things that were very different from the teaching of the
Church of Rome, and as he was one of the most learned men of his
time, people crowded to
 Oxford to hear him. John of Gaunt, now
no longer his friend, ordered him to be silent. But Wyclif still
spoke. The University was ordered to crush the heretic. But the
University stood by him until the King added his orders to those
of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then Wyclif was expelled from
the University, but still not silenced, for he went into the
country and there wrote and taught.
Expelled from the university, Wyclif went into the country and there wrote and taught.
Soon his followers grew in numbers. They were called Poor
Priests, and clad in long brown robes they wandered on foot
through the towns and villages teaching and preaching. Wyclif
trusted that they would do all the good that the old friars had
done, and that they would be kept from falling into the evil ways
of the later friars. But Churchmen were angry, and called his
followers Lollards or idle babblers.
Wyclif, however, cared no longer for the great, he trusted no
more in them. It was to the people now that he appealed. He
wrote many books, and at first he wrote in Latin. But by degrees
he saw that if he wanted to reach the hearts of the people, he
must preach and teach in English. And so he began to write
English books. But above all the things that he wrote we
remember him chiefly for his translation of the Bible. He
himself translated the New Testament, and others helped him with
the Old Testament, and so for the first time the people of
England had the whole Bible in their own tongue. They had it,
too, in fine scholarly language, and this was a great service to
our literature. For naturally the Bible was a book which every
one wished to know, and the people of England, through it, became
accustomed to use fine stately language.
To his life's end Wyclif went on teaching and writing, although
many attempts were made to silence him. At last in 1384 the Pope
summoned him to Rome. Wyclif did not obey, for he answered
another call. One day, as
 he heard mass in his own church, he
fell forward speechless. He never spoke again, but died three
After Wyclif's death his followers were gradually crushed out,
and the Lollards disappear from our history. But his teaching
never quite died, for by giving the English people the Bible
Wyclif left a lasting mark on England; and although the
Reformation did not come until two hundred years later, he may be
looked upon as its forerunner.
It is hard to explain all that William Langland and John Wyclif
stand for in English literature and in English history. It was
the evil that they saw around them that made them write and speak
as they did, and it was their speaking and writing, perhaps, that
gave the people courage to rise against oppression. Thus their
teaching and writing mark the beginning of new life to the great
mass of the people of England. For in June, 1381, while John
Wyclif still lived and wrote, Wat Tyler led his men to Blackheath
in a rebellion which proved to be the beginning of freedom for
the workers of England. And although at first sight there seems
to be no connection between the two, it was the same spirit
working in John Wyclif and Wat Tyler that made the one speak and
the other fight as he did.