John Wycliffe, as seen by Geoffrey Chaucer

In 1367, when John Wycliffe taught at Canterbury Hall, Oxford, one of his students was Geoffrey Chaucer.  These two men had a great influence on the development of the English language.   In later years, John Wycliffe produced the first translation of the Bible into the English language, and Chaucer produced the first literary work in English, the Canterbury Tales. The following verses are the portion of the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer speaks of his mentor. This is very old English, and you might need to pause a moment here and there to get the meaning.

A good man was there of religioun,
And was a poure Persounn of a toun,             (poor parson)
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk                 (cleric)
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benyne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity ful pacient,
And such he was ypreved ofte sithes. . .

Wyde was his parisshe, and houses fer asunder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In sicknesse nor in meschiefe, to visite
The ferreste in his parish, much and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
The noble ensample to his sheep he yaf. . .

He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie,
And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to sinful men nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But hin is techying discreet and benygne.
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, was his bisynesse. . .

A bettere prest I trowe that nowthere noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes loore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, and first he folwed it  hymselve.

5 thoughts on “John Wycliffe, as seen by Geoffrey Chaucer

  1. A fascinating linkage, especially when you realize that Wycliffe was the father of what we consider modern English. Wycliffe, more than Shakespeare. So much of his translation seeped into the Authorized Version, or King James, a century-and-a-half later it goes unrecognized, yet the phrases and concepts still permeate our language.

  2. Amazing! I read your post and it immediately did a search on Old English because I started with the King James and the example here is much harder to comprehend. Yet the examples I found were virtually impossible to read! We really do owe Wycliffe and the Bible, Christ and Christianity so much more than we realize!
    Thanks for a great read and a big thank you to your previous commenter.

  3. I am absolutely amazed of how God works in mysterious ways in history. I am taking an English literature class and right now I’m studying Canterbury Tales. Some of the interpretations I read just didn’t seem right and I felt that Chaucer’s message was distorted in many ways by our secular scholars. So I started doing some research of my own, and sure enough, I found the connection I needed to confirm my understanding of the strong Christian influences in Chaucer’s work, since he a Christian himself, and was Wycliffe’s student. Now it makes perfect sense.

  4. In 1367 Chaucer was recently married and had his first son (Thomas). He also started to travel abroad on the king’s business. I therefore find it surprising that he had time to study theology at Oxford, too. You present Chaucer’s Description of the Parson in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales as a description of Wycliffe. From what we know of Wycliffe’s life the Description of the Parson does not fit well, though I agree that the Parson might well be a Wycliffite. What is your source for your assertion that Wycliffe taught Chaucer in 1367, please?
    I would love you to be right as I have a sneaking suspicion that The Canterbury Tales is a defence of “our doctrine” (i.e. Lollardism). There are many reasons to suppose that Wycliffe and Chaucer were in contact through their mutual friend, John of Gaunt. However, if you have concrete (rather than circumstantial) evidence of their interaction I would love to know what it is.

  5. This is very belated, but I had misplaced the source of the information in this post. It is found in the Quarterly Record of the Trinitarian Bible Society for April, May, June 2015 and is part of the transcript of a lecture by Dr. David Allen at the Annual General Meeting of the Society.

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