Though it may sound like something slow and overweight, the word “lollard”—and its definition among scholars of the Middle Ages—is really quite fluid.
J. Patrick Hornbeck II, D. Phil., assistant professor of theology, traced the history of the 15th century term on Jan. 29 in “What is a Lollard?” the first medieval studies lecture of the spring semester.
Hornbeck, who is also associate director for prestigious fellowships for the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, explained that “lollard” is an epithet commonly attached to the followers of philosopher and theologian John Wyclif, whose ideas roiled the church in England beginning in the late 14th century. It has often been paired with the term Wycliffite.
Speaking in Tognino Hall on the Rose Hill campus, Hornbeck noted that “lollard” has been linked to a whole host of people who could be classified as heretics—both before and after Wyclif.
“It is now clear, however, that heresy proceedings had taken place on at least a dozen occasions in the 150 years before the start of the Wycliffite controversy,” he said.
Wyclif incensed religious authorities by publicly questioning the doctrine of transubstantiation in 1380. He was forced to withdraw from his teaching position at Oxford University. Still, more than 600 individuals were accused of heresy in England from 1381 to 1521.
To show how the term “lollard” has been applied too liberally, Hornbeck cited the story of Thomas Denys, a heretic who was burned at the stake at the behest of the Bishop of Winchester.
“The difficulty with this portrait of Denys and company as model Wycliffites is that Denys was burned in 1512. More than a century separates the activities of John Wyclif and his early Oxford followers from those of Denys and his teacher,” he said.
To explain how the meaning of a term can change over time, Hornbeck drew upon philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance.
“Seeking to justify why languages frequently use single categories, such as ‘game,’ to describe such disparate phenomena as board games, card games, ball games, and the Olympic Games, Wittgenstein argued that though there may be nothing common to all these activities, they nevertheless participate in ‘a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing,’” Hornbeck said.
“He called this network one of ‘family resemblances,’ for the various resemblances between members of a family that overlap and crisscross.”
Although heretics with substantially different ideas—such as Wyclif and Denys—have been grouped under the term “lollard,” Hornbeck argued for a more sophisticated, contextually sensitive deployment of the word, showing that what Denys believed about such theological topics of the eucharist was not far removed from what other heresy suspects of his generation believed.
“In terms of family resemblance, therefore, we can begin to imagine a cluster of dissenters who, however we might imagine their relationship to the academic Wycliffites of the late 14th century, seem to be quite closely bound up with one another,” he said.
In the end, what matters most, he said, is that studies of late medieval English heresy deal with the complexities of beliefs, textual communities, and social structures within which those who have been called lollards lived and moved.
“Doing so,” he said, “requires that if we speak of lollardy at all, we understand that it is a term which has always been, and continues perennially to be, constructed in the minds of its partisans and historians.”