Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer

Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer

After the late fourteenth century, English literature was fundamentally shaped by the heresy of John Wyclif and his followers. This study demonstrates how Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, John Clanvowe, Margery Kempe, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, far from eschewing Wycliffism out of fear of censorship or partisan distaste, viewed Wycliffite ideas as a distinctly new intellectual resource. Andrew Cole offers a complete historical account of the first official condemnation of Wycliffism – the Blackfriars council of 1382 - and the fullest study of 'lollardy' as a social and literary construct. Drawing on literary criticism, history, theology and law, he presents not only a fresh perspective on late medieval literature, but also an invaluable rethinking of the Wycliffite heresy. Literature and Heresy restores Wycliffism to its proper place as the most significant context for late medieval English writing, and thus for the origins of English literary history.


"Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer is a wonderful synthesis of adroit and daring close readings with scrupulous historicizing. … Cole persuades the reader of the importance of Wycliffism to English literary history through well-chosen and deftly analyzed examples. One of the book's greatest strengths is its vigorous, lucid prose - the style of an author who has the courage of his convictions. Literature and Heresy stimulates and provokes. It is a must-read not just for those interested in the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of the age, but for all concerned with the literary history of late medieval England."
Review of English Studies

"The book demonstrates the author's mastery of many subtle discourses of religious and literary culture and experience. … [T]his is an important and provocative book that deserves to be widely read."
History Today

"This volume will repay careful reading not only by literary scholars but also church historians, cultural and political historians, and theologians interested in the Wycliffite controversy and its historical, theological, and literary afterlives. Cole's prose is lucid and accessible, even to the non-specialist, and the conclusions he offers are thought provoking. … Cole has served up a hearty helping of provocative, challenging theses about the religious controversies that dominated the late medieval church in England and shaped the works of the most prominent writers of the age. It would be to our discredit not to engage these ideas in the dialogue they demand."
Journal of Church History

"Much of Cole's powerful argument in this book lies in a crucial aspect of later medieval religious studies: what our terms actually mean. … Too few scholars write like Cole: not only does he convey complex ideas clearly, but he strives for a clarity governed by earnestness. [T]his book will become an important contribution to our understanding of later medieval religion, language, and scholarship."
Journal of English and Germanic Philology

"Andrew Cole’s Literature and Heresy is a bracing and well-written study of the relationship between medieval English literature and Wycliffism. … Literature and Heresy successfully shows that Wycliffism was a constitutive component of English literary history. …Cole's thesis has serious implications for the way we teach and read the medieval literary canon."
Religion and Literature

"For Andrew Cole … the actual impact of Wycliffite ideas, especially as they are expressed in literature, are more complex than scholars heretofore have assumed. His argument is something of a tour de force, reanimating a debate that seemed to have run its course, and offering new ways of thinking about the relation of theology and literature, as well as about the social practices they both reflect and shape, justify and criticize."
Medieval Review

"Andrew Cole provides a fascinating discussion of the intersection between Lollardy and literature. Though numerous scholars have discussed Wyclif in the past, touching upon major authors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, none have taken their literary works as a primary focus. … His readings of Piers Plowman and Margery Kempe will be of great interest, particularly his discussion of literary adoptions of Lollard identities by the primary characters of each of these texts. … Also of lasting value is Cole’s attention to the semantic range and function of the terms "Wycliffism" and "Lollardy", typically used interchangeably by scholars of the period."
English Historical Review

"[F]or Cole, the moment at which Wycliffism appears in England is also the moment at which things change, and after which we cannot expect cultural productions to look the same. That is why, unlike many books discussing Wycliffism or lollardy, Literature and Heresy focuses on canonical literary texts rather than on minor works, major authors rather than unknown writers. Wycliffism and lollardy are powerfully compelling modes of thought that open up new ways of conceiving old ideas, and in so doing, attract the interest of figures like Chaucer, Hoccleve, and Lydgate, all of whom understand themselves to be engaged with the social as well as the aesthetic. Because these poets claim for the vernacular the capacity to represent and negotiate major social, political, and philosophical difficulties, they find in lollardy or Wycliffism an alternative point of reference, a new way of seeing old problems."
Philological Quarterly

"Cole's book does a very good job of detailing the subtleties of Wyclif's own beliefs, those of his followers, and of the "cultural conversation" that those beliefs spawned in writers from Chaucer and Langland through Hoccleve, Lydgate and Margery Kempe. … [T]he chapter on Kempe goes a long way to bringing that remarkable writer back into her philosophical and theological ambit and, in the process, restoring her historical meaning after many years of anachronistic readings."
The Times Literary Supplement

"… Cole's treatment is stimulating …"
The Journal of Ecclesiastical History