Inventing the Lollard Past : The Afterlife of a Medieval Sermon in Early Modern England

St.Pauls CrossInventing the Lollard Past : The Afterlife of a Medieval Sermon in Early Modern England

Alexandra Walsham

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 58, No. 4 (2007)


This essay explores the evolving significance of a famous fourteenth-century Paul’s Cross sermon by Thomas Wimbledon in late medieval and early modern England and its transmission from manuscript to print. It highlights the ideological ambiguity of the text against the backdrop of the academic Wycliffite challenge and shows how it illuminates the permeability of the boundary between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in the fifteenth century. It then examines how the sermon was revived and published in the mid-Tudor period as a Lollard tract as part of an effort to supply the new Protestant religion with an historical pedigree and how it subsequently entered into the popular stock of commercial publishers. The afterlife of Wimbledon’s celebrated sermon sheds fresh light on the ongoing process of inventing and re-inventing the pre-Reformation past.

The subject of this essay is a celebrated sermon delivered by a certain Thomas Wimbledon at the famous outdoor pulpit, Paul’s Cross, on Quinquagesima Sunday, in the year 1387 or 1388. Adopting as its text Luke xvi.2, ‘Redde rationem villicationis tue’, rendered in the vernacular as ‘zilde rekenynge of Þy bailie[wick]’, this was a searching critique of the abuses of the traditional three estates of society, clergy, knights and labourers; an earnest exhortation to people to repent and prepare for vengeance ; and a solemn warning of the imminence of the day of judgement and the end of the world. Preserved in whole or part in at least eighteen fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts, the sermon was evidently widely transcribed in the late medieval period.

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