Yet another guest post by occasional ComingAnarchy.com contributor Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace.
Institutions constantly battle for power. These battles can also bring out the worst in the people involved, and led the institutions to compromise their most core values in the struggle to hold and maintain power. The medieval Christian Church was no exception.
Consider the case of Archbishop Thomas Arundel (1353-1414), a boy wonder of pre-Tudor England who was first appointed bishop at the tender age of 20, later serving as Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor, and then as Archbishop of Canterbury from age 46 under King Richard II and Henry IV. Although in many ways he was a forgiving person — when he was ousted from his position before Henry IV took power, he ensured that his interim usurper became Bishop of London — he is nonetheless infamous today for a wretched legacy of violence who prosecuted heritics with the cruel punishment of burning at the stake.
As background, we need to look at the legacy of John Wycliffe (1324-1384), a man famous today for authoring the very first known English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. As the translation predated the invention of printing, copies of the translation were rare, and the work was mainly carried by word of mouth by travelling laymen who were pejoratively nicknamed Lollards by the clerical hierarchy. As mundane as this sounds, it was a revolutionary idea to make the plain text of the Bible accessible to the common people without the supervision of the Church. What’s more, Wycliffe and his Lollards came to the conclusion, through reading and translating the Bible themselves, that the Church should return to its humble roots, and should not be wealthy and no more powerful than secular institutions such as the English monarchy. And by distributing the straight word of the translation, the Lollards undermined the role of the church in Christian worship and challenged its wealth and power.
During Wycliffe’s lifetime, the church was unable to successfully prosecute him because of his powerful backers, which included members of the English royal family — as Wycliffe’s reasoning led him to believe that the church should be no more powerful than the crown, he was understandably a popular figure with some key royal family members. This is one key lesson that shows that, if you wish to challenge a powerful institution, make sure you have another powerful institution on your side! Wycliffe died peacefully after attending Mass on Holy Innocents Day, 1384–the year before Thomas Arundel was to serve as Lord Chancellor for the first time.
Even after Wycliffe’s death, the Church sought stern measures to suppress his ideas, and Thomas Arundel was the chief promulgator of De Heretico Comburendo. This law forbad the ownership of Bibles in English, and empowered the bishops to arrest, imprison, and “examine” offenders, with the condemned to be burnt “in an high place” before the people as an example to all. Arundel dedicated much of his career to suppressing this heresy, which threatened not Christian belief in God, but the power of the church.
Although this type of punishment may seem typical of medieval Europe, the burning of heretics generally only took place during extreme reactionary anti-Protestant periods of English history — times when the institution of the Catholic church felt most challenged. How could Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury and a forgiving person in many other aspects of his life, reconcile his Christian values with the burning of heretics? This case shows the desire of institutions, and the individuals inside those institutions, to use all force necessary to preserve their power. And those who challenge entrenched institutions should be prepared to face an onslaught that could violate all the values of that institution in the struggle to hold power.