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A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 3 of 5)

February 15, 2013

Medieval Spirituality

For the study of medieval spirituality, David Lyle Jeffrey’s The Law of Love: English Spirituality in the Age of Wyclif is a valuable tool. A noted medieval scholar, Jeffrey currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Jeffrey’s book is an anthology that “contains some of the best spiritual writings from an age of great devotional literature.” And as the sub-title shows, this age is that of Wyclif (fourteenth century) which for Jeffrey “is an astonishingly rich period in the history of English spirituality.”[1] Jeffrey also observes that love, or “the ‘law of love,’ is central to the whole of English spirituality in this period.”[2] Hence, Jeffrey’s book is titled The Law of Love.

Jeffrey’s thesis or observation partially emerges from his analysis of two notable fourteenth century medieval figures: Richard Rolle (c. 1300-1349), an English spiritual writer, translator, and hermit and John Wyclif (c. 1324-1384), an English Christian philosopher, theologian, translator, and spiritual reformist. Jeffery characterizes the spirituality of Rolle and Wyclif as follows: “For Rolle, love fixed upon Christ is the power which transforms all of life… For Wyclif, the better we understand Scripture, ‘Goddes lawe’ (lex Cristi or lex Dei), the better we will be able to love God, and the more fully we will experience his love in our own hearts.”[3] This concept of love does not only operate vertically, but horizontally as well. That is, socially it is the love which flows from God that binds medieval Christians together as a community.

Perhaps the best part of the book is its fifty-three page introduction, written for popular readers. In this introduction Jeffery sets out “the three major streams of the medieval English spiritual tradition.”[4]

1. The Mystical Tradition: Richard Rolle and Spiritual Individualism

“In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, monastic life had been the fountainhead of English spirituality,” write Jeffery.[5] In the course of time, however, especially by the dawn of the fourteenth century, monks became less spiritual and more secular. The spiritual warmth that was once there in monasteries disappeared. The news of this spiritual decline reached the attention of Rolle who, unhappy with what was going on in monastic communities, began a solitary life “to adopt a more profound life of devotion than he observed in the religious houses he knew.”[6] This “independent streak in Rolle’s spirituality,” states Jeffery, “is one of its most important features for his influence on the fourteenth century.”[7] During this period, such an individualistic stress on communion with God was basically characteristic of the spirituality of the mystics. Rolle himself was a mystic. Nevertheless, what is important to note here is Rolle’s shift from spiritual collectivism (monastic spirituality) to spiritual individualism (hermitic spirituality).

2. The Monastic Tradition: Walter Hilton and the Claims of Community

Exactly opposite to Rolle’s case, Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) started his spiritual journey as a hermit and later chose a monastic life with the Augustinian canons at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire. Hilton, through his writings, helped revive the fervor of the earlier traditional monastic spirituality, a spirituality marked by love and humility. Hilton’s works are popular and practically devotional, dealing with different areas of spiritual life. His most well known work, The Ladder of Perfection, became a standard devotional book in the fifteenth century. In this ascetical work, “Hilton, as an Augustinian canon, can be viewed both as a voice for the continuity of monastic spirituality and as a reformer of Christian spirituality in general.”[8]

Relatively speaking, Hilton was less mystical in theology compared to other mystics of his days such as Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303-1373), Dame Julian (1342-c. 1420), and Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440). Also, as already hinted at, unlike Rolle, Hilton exercised a contemplative life among the people in his community. Thus, in emphasis, Hilton’s type of spirituality was different from Rolle’s. The former was characterized by communality (monastic spirituality), while the latter by individuality (hermitic spirituality).

3. The “Mixed” Tradition: John Wyclif and Reform Spirituality

Wyclif is best remembered today for his English translation of the Bible. For Wyclif, this sacred Book, which was devalued by the majority of his contemporaries, was not only the source for doctrine but also for practice. Therefore, it is evident that Wyclif’s spirituality was anchored in the Holy Scriptures. During the medieval period, there were two basic attitudes concerning the Bible in relation to spirituality. Some believed that the Bible alone should be the fountainhead for spiritual living. Wyclif of course held this view, as seen in his De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (On the Truth of Sacred Scripture). Other people taught that the Holy Book is as authoritative as ecclesiastical traditions, which primarily include papal orders as well as patristic writings. These people even moved further, claiming “that in cases of dispute, ecclesiastical tradition, expressing itself in the voice of papal decree, would have the final authority.”[9] The exaltation of ecclesiastical tradition was prevalent among schoolmen and their departure from God’s Word explains why their spirituality was stamped broadly by unbiblical mysticism. Later, Wyclif would reform the kind of spirituality that sprung from the unbiblical emphasis on papal authority.

According to Jeffrey, Wyclif “undertook his academic prelature in much [of] the [same] spirit advocated by Walter Hilton, who, in his discussion of the ‘mixed life,’ gives full spiritual value to a consecration of active duties in the workaday world.”[10] And with Wyclif’s “argument that everyone, whether a cleric or a layperson, ought to examine the Bible for himself…, he opened a new focus for the emerging of individualism already so marked in the fourteenth-century English spirituality.”[11] As a result, by combining the two medieval spiritual emphases (one of Rolle and the other of Hilton), Wyclif, in the light of the Bible, produced a mixed breed of spirituality. Such spirituality teaches that a Christian should be in the world, and yet not of the world.

The fifty-three page introduction in Jeffrey’s book is indeed crucial in understanding medieval spirituality. Jeffrey also provides a historical background for the extracts found in the volume which represent various aspects of spirituality, from prayer, worship, hymns, and meditation, to preaching, pastoring, gospel and culture. Jeffrey should be thanked for translating, editing, and introducing these passages, which can be used as primary sources by students of medieval spirituality. When these texts, says Jeffery, are read “slowly and meditatively,” the work “can function in the manner of a medieval ‘book of hours’ or devotional anthology.”[12]


[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, ed. and trans., The Law of Love: English Spirituality in the Age of Wyclif (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), ix.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid., 32.

[10] Ibid., 33.

[11] Ibid., 37-38.

[12] Ibid., ix.

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