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Wycliffe, pronounced WIHK lihf, John (1328?-1384), was a leading English philosopher in religion and politics during the late Middle Ages. His challenges to religious and political practices remained influential long after Wycliffe's death.
Wycliffe was educated at Oxford University and became a master (professor) there at Balliol College in 1360. At one time, he served as a parish priest, but he was best known as a professor of philosophy.
Wycliffe felt driven to become a reformer because of conditions in Europe during his time. An epidemic of plague called the Black Death killed about a fourth of Europe's population from 1347 to 1352. The Hundred Years' War between England and France began in 1337. Throughout the 1300's, violent struggles for power occurred between the popes and clergy on one side, and the kings and their nobles on the other. Both sides seemed corrupt and dominated by self-interest, and apparently neither cared about the common people.
The conditions in Europe raised many questions in people's minds. Was the pope lord over kings? Could a civil government punish a wicked bishop or priest? Could a civil government tax the church, or could the church demand that the government support it? Could church rulers or civil rulers make laws merely because they wished to, or did their laws have to be fair? Wycliffe dealt with these issues in his lectures and books. His chief political idea was summarized in the statement, "Dominion is founded in grace." He meant that unjust rulers could not claim that people must obey them because obedience was God's will. After Wycliffe applied this idea to the popes and bishops, he was tried several times in church courts. Each time, the English royal family saved him from condemnation.
By about 1371, Wycliffe had become a writer for the royal family and its supporters against the bishops and their followers. He evidently felt that there was more hope of reform from the royal family. Wycliffe tried to show that the claim to authority by popes and bishops was founded on false ideas of the superiority of priests over lay people. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, which he regarded as the basis of the clergy's claim to superiority. According to this doctrine, priests changed bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass. In Wycliffe's later writings, he declared that the Bible, not the church, was the authority for Christian beliefs.
Wycliffe's followers, with his help and inspiration, translated the Bible into English about 1382. They completed an improved version about 1388, after his death. Wycliffe's followers, called Lollards, were severely persecuted in England (see LOLLARDS). The upper classes felt that Wycliffe's ideas encouraged the poor to demand better lives.
Wycliffe's writings influenced a number of reformers, including John Hus of Bohemia. Many early English Protestants regarded the teachings of Wycliffe as forerunners of those of the Reformation. They considered him the first great English reformer.