The Orthodox Heresies: ‘Lollardy’ and Medieval Culture

The Orthodox Heresies: ‘Lollardy’ and Medieval Culture

By Quinn Ramsay

Pacific University, Distinguished Senior Theses, 2012

John Wycliffe's bones being burnt in 1428. From John Foxe's book (1563)

Introduction: The church of All Hallows is packed. The Abbot of Leicester is there with his clerks, as is the mayor of the town. Many priests and friars are there as well, some well-known and others not. Laypeople cram the church so thickly that some stand on stools to see out over the crowd. The object of their fascination is a woman, Margery Kempe, who kneels in front of the altar, praying for the grace and wit to acquit herself well.

This is not Margery Kempe’s first run-in with the law. Already, she has been accused multiple times of heresy, of wantonness, and of being a general pest. A deeply mystical woman who claims to speak directly with Jesus Christ, Kempe knows passages from the Bible at a time when this knowledge is barred to all outside of the clergy, much less to a woman. At a time when white is a symbol for virginity, Kempe, who has born her husband fourteen children, travels frequently in all white garb. She is known to sob constantly, in loud, chronic fits of religious zeal that irritate all those around her.

Her fame had, thus, preceded her to Leicester. She had been taken on the orders of the mayor not long after entering the city, and he accused her of being a “false strumpet, a false Lollard.” She was arrested, along with two of her friends in that city, and interrogated. At one point, she feared that her interrogator would rape her.

Against the backdrop of the staring crowd, Margery is brought before the abbot and told, under oath, to recite the Articles of Faith. She begins with the Eucharist. “Sirs,” she says:

I believe in the sacrament of the altar in this manner, that whatever man has taken the order of priesthood…if he says duly those words over the bread that our Lord Jesus Christ said when he made his Last Supper among the disciples…I believe it is his very flesh and his blood and no material bread nor ever may be unsaid be it once said.

When she finishes reciting the Articles, the clerics present seem to be satisfied. She had now sworn against the heretical views of the Lollards, after all. But the mayor, who is determined to see her punished, is not. He castigates her violently, criticizing her morals just as he had earlier. Margery again defends herself and her tone, telling the mayor that she has never in her life been unfaithful to her husband, “whom I am bound to by the law of matrimony, and by whom I have born fourteen children. For I want you to know, sir, that there is no man in this world that I love so much as God, for I love him above all thing, and, sir, I tell you truly I love all men in God and for God.”

Click here to read this thesis from Pacific University

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