Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trewe Cristen Men and Lollards

In my first extensively historiographical course in college, every time someone made a point about "scientists" or "feminists" or "social radicals," the professor would stop the conversation and ask, "but is that what they would have called themselves? How would they have defined their activities?" I was struck again by the importance of this question of self definition while reading Conner's blog post, in which he discusses experimenting with a pagan identity, and how attending the solstice helped to shape this identity through an experience of community.

In class, we encountered this issue repeatedly over the past week, while struggling with questions like "what is a heretic?" and "what is a Lollard?" "Lollard" itself is a term loaded with problematic associations: outside of its particular historical context, it means very little, but in the middle ages it was often an indistinct pejorative, as we saw in The Book of Margery Kempe. In the primary source documents we've read, none of the "Lollard" writers identify themselves as such; rather, they put the title in the mouths of ecclesiastical authorities: "... men which [bischoppis] clepen Lollardis (Bishop, 19)." Nor, as these documents further reveal, were their belief systems always identical.

Rather than opting to call themselves Lollards or heretics or even Wycliffites, the authors we've been reading self-identify as "pore men" and "trewe cristen men." Their identity is loosely grounded in a conviction in the importance of strict adherence to scripture and the commandments. They order their business, govern their household, and select their associates accordingly.

Unfortunately, the surviving records-- mainly either polemics or heresy trials-- make it easy to misread the movement as entirely grounded in opposition to the church, rather than a belief system with positivist claims. This has furthered a teleological view of these texts and their authors as a movement leading towards inevitable Protestant reformation-- indeed, as a premature reformation. Certainly the "trewe cristen men" were interested in personal reform-- in the care of their souls and the careful ordering of their households and social networks-- but we have yet to encounter, in the texts we've read, any investment in over-arching church overhaul. The "trewe men" place themselves outside of the church, but they don't take a hammer to its statuary or throw rocks through its windows.

In order to work with these texts as they are, and not through the lens of later agendas, we must begin by interrogating the claims that the authors make about themselves in their own historical moment. Now, as then, "Lollard" is a term that must be handled with care.

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