Rory Cox, John Wyclif on War and Peace (Smith)

Rory Cox

John Wyclif on War and Peace

(Royal Historical Society, 2014) 214pp.  £50 / $90

Wyclif on War and Peace

Medieval writers’ attitudes towards war are relatively understudied. This is especially troubling considering that much of our understanding of the conduct of medieval war is based on narratives and treatises. What did writers think of the widespread devastation of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453)? How did they deal with the seeming contradictions of pervasive violence and the tenets of Christianity? How might such attitudes affect the writing of war? These problems are mostly sidestepped when sources are drawn upon to recreate tactics and strategy. Cox’s study of the prominent English intellectual John Wyclif (d. 1384) is therefore a refreshing change. Wyclif wrote and moralised on many subjects, but his concerns with war are manifest in much of his writing.

Cox argues that Wyclif rejected the reasoning of just war despite dominant political theory and should therefore be considered the first pacifist. He begins by showing how much scholarship on Wyclif’s attitudes to war has been generated within the dichotomy of just war versus pacifism. He argues that previous scholars hold unfair definitions of pacifism and fail to investigate all Wyclif’s writings. These scholars accordingly reject Wyclif’s pacifism. Cox reassesses the boundaries of ‘pacifism’ and ‘pacificism’, largely through modern pacifistic treatises, to better support his argument.

In Chapter One Cox outlines the development of just war theory from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. He provides a concise and coherent survey of the salient issues that are normally treated at book-length or in dense specialist articles. He focuses on ius ad bellum (the conditions under which an authority might go to war) and sidesteps the difficult problems of ius in bello (the conduct permissible within a just war). He does this because he claims Wyclif was concerned only with ius ad bellum. On the surface this seems sensible: had Wyclif rejected war as a concept, then he would have little reason to discuss the nuances of its conduct. Cox accordingly omits any but the briefest discussion of military conduct. This makes it difficult for non-specialists to understand the wider contexts of Cox’s arguments, however.

Chapter Two pieces together Wyclif’s response to dominant just war theories. Cox shows how Wyclif dismissed defensive violence, right of conquest, double effect, punitive measures, and material justifications, all of which were permitted through just war. His examination of Wyclif’s preference for the more pacifist attitudes of the New Testament over the bellicose stories of the Old Testament is particularly interesting. However, the most important section in this chapter is when Cox re-examines contradictions within Wyclif’s philosophy of war which other scholars interpret as acceptance of war under certain conditions. Instead, Cox argues that these are intentional paradoxes which Wyclif meant to create conditions that would never allow a war to be undertaken justly.

Chapter Three investigates the problems of divine and human authority. Cox continues to focus on the paradoxes discussed in the previous chapter to argue that Wyclif rejected human authority to wage war and inflict violence. He shows that only divine authority could allow such acts. The paradox lies in Wyclif’s claim that it could not be determined with certainty whether a person was destined for grace or sin (76–77). Even if this could be known, war was inherently against grace and the divine order, and so would never be sanctioned by divine authority (80, 83–84). Although Wyclif might occasionally seem to accept some aspects of war, these were all inherently rejected in his discussion on uncertainty and authority. Cox briefly examines Wyclif’s insistence on the moral responsibility of soldiers in spite of their orders, something that certainly deserves more study (but curiously he quotes from Shakespeare’s Henry V to clarify his point here) (78–79). Cox then diverges from his main subject to argue that Wyclif also applied this uncertainty of authority to civil punishment and thereby condemned it.

Chapter Four examines motivations and intentions of combatants and leaders going to war. This chapter is a bit confusing, as Cox does not actually describe the conduct, strategy, or tactics of war in the later Middle Ages. It was common English practice to spread armies out to loot and destroy as much as possible in the countryside. They were possibly intended to cause political instability, confusion, and/or force the enemy to decisive battle in situations advantageous to English battle tactics. These campaigns were on a larger scale and conducted for longer than those in earlier wars, so much so that they are often called ‘chevauchées’ to set them apart.[1] Cox’s lack of engagement with the conduct of war is significant because some argue that the seeming efficacy of devastation explains why medieval writers might have thought these acts pragmatic and not condemned them.[2] Instead, Cox focuses on what he (or Wyclif? it is not always made clear) believes to be the sole motivation for war: profit. Wyclif was clearly sceptical of the motivations and intentions behind war because he dismissed wars fought for profit or land (90). Cox defends this position by citing a few sources on the supposed historical reality of devastation, but omits many of the key texts in a large body of scholarship in favour of those which support Wyclif’s perspective (91–92). He claims that ‘stark contrasts existed between the principles of just war as explained by medieval lawyers and theologians and the actual motivations of medieval soldiers’ (91–92). Did these contradictions inspire Wyclif’s condemnation of war? Or did Wyclif have a limited and over-simplified view of reality? Surely this would merit an examination of the conduct of war and the writings of combatants, but none is proposed or given.

In discussing late-medieval condemnation of war in Chapter Four, Cox mentions several English writers (e.g. Brinton, Gower, Langland, and the anonymous author of the Alliterative Morte Arthur) who seem to share Wyclif’s disillusion, but does so exclusively through secondary work (94–97). It would have been helpful for Cox to show how certain passages, language, or rhetorical techniques might signify a critique of war, rather than simply accepting and summarising other scholarship. This is especially important, considering that much of the scholarship he relies on here has been greatly contested if not refuted outright.[3] Indeed, Cox does not mention scholarship that challenges these works at all here, thereby giving the impression that there is general understanding that these texts are critical of war. Why, after all, would English writers only gain a conscience in the last couple decades of the fourteenth century? Cox offers only tentative answers, such as, possibly, the increasing influence of Richard II’s desire for peace at court.[4] Cox is on firmer ground when he shows Wyclif’s condemnation of crusades in the context of the disastrous English crusade to Flanders in 1382–83 (105–08).

Chapter Five continues the earlier discussion of authority but in a more general discussion of government. This chapter seems only tenuously connected to Cox’s previous discussion of war for profit and feels out of place. Wyclif’s professed ideals here seem radical and almost like what would constitute a proto-communist state. Cox claims that Wyclif rejected the possibility that government might be intrinsically good, but that he notes their use as a temporary force to bring about the ideal state. Wyclif wanted a state ruled by lex caritatis (‘the law of charity’) because it would need no ‘coercive positive law because that society would resemble the state of innocence’, wherein there would be no violence and no greed (130).

Chapter Six brings together all the threads to argue that Wyclif was an absolute pacifist. Cox shows how Wyclif recommended that potential victims patiently endure assault rather than resisting with violence, as the risks were too great. This course of action was further encouraged by Wyclif’s portrayal of victims of violence as akin to martyrs (138–42). Cox argues that Wyclif did not envision a firm distinction between clergy and laity, whereby the former would have been prohibited from employing violence and the latter shouldered the burden themselves. Instead, according to Cox, Wyclif saw everybody as part of the same Christian community: the only distinctions were between the elect and the damned. But because these distinctions were unknown every Christian should abstain from violence (151–52). This is a very interesting vision of the world that conflicts with the traditional tripartite division of society (those who pray, those who fight, and those who work). He claims that Wyclif thought of himself as something of a public figure by planting his subversive ideas in his sermons. This is perhaps overstated, as he corroborates this only by citing a supposedly healthy manuscript tradition (without discussing how many manuscripts these texts survive in) and tenuous connections to later pacifists (159–62).

Cox’s study is not without problems, however. In nearly every quotation not by Wyclif, he provides only the translation and no original text.[5] For example, he cites the translation of Charny’s text rather than the edition with the original text facing the same exact translation by Elspeth Kennedy. This can only serve to hamper any attempts to compare meaning. This is troubling since Cox’s study is founded upon a precise understanding of language.

Other problems are more fundamental and undermine Cox’s overall argument. The most striking of these is his compilation of Wyclif’s attitudes towards war from several different texts. Cox acknowledges the potential problems in this approach when he states ‘I do not wish to imply that Wyclif’s anti-warism is always coherent or free of contradictions, nor is it particularly systematic; nevertheless, Wyclif’s writings on war are numerous enough, and their content is consistent enough, to see broad themes and conclusions clearly emerging, being repeated, and becoming increasingly radical over time’ (10). However, Cox does not cover this development in his study. I think that this issue demands greater qualification. Cox uses these differences to build up his notion of Wyclif’s intentional paradox on war. In doing so, he ignores often fragmentary and conflicting attitudes towards war across Wyclif’s different texts. Surely these are the result of writing for different reasons, genres, and audiences? Indeed, can anybody really hope to find an overarching, cohesive, and coherent argument across so many texts in a 15–20 year period of the Middle Ages? If anything, we should expect this sort of disunity in attitudes towards such a complex thing as war. It is a bit of a leap to take something that is just as (if not more likely) lacking in thorough preconception by Wyclif as intentional. This is especially so considering Cox does not cite any other thinkers with similar paradoxical rhetoric.

Knights, chivalry, and war are treated unfairly in Cox’s study. Firstly he presents war as if it were conducted only for violence and theft. His presentation of (especially English) combatants as entirely selfish is simplistic and prejudiced. To support his views, Cox cites the Livre de chevalerie, written by the famous French knight Geoffroi de Charny, as evidence of combatants’ widespread acceptance of profit as motivation for war. This and other mentions of selfish knights suggest that knights were immoral and only sought to maintain their façade of chivalry (154–55). This position was once fashionable but has since been thoroughly discounted in works ignored by Cox.[6] Knights were not silent on the matter and we have many examples of them sincerely wrestling with ethical issues. For example, a significant portion of Charny’s text clearly engages with the problems faced by a Christian knight practicing violence. Richard W. Kaeuper deals with this problem thoroughly and shows how conscientious knights rationalised their conduct.[7]

While Cox ignores the attitudes of combatants, he also sidesteps the official reasons England fought against Scotland and France in the fourteenth century. This is especially troubling since he suggests that these wars were entirely unjust and merely for profit. We should not simply assume everybody paid only lip service to these justifications. This leads Cox to make the extraordinary claim that ‘not even the most jingoistic fourteenth-century English commentators attempted to claim that the soldiers who fought in France were motivated by a zeal for justice or a charitable disposition’ (167). This is untrue and ignores a vast and complicated tradition of historical writing in England throughout the Hundred Years War.[8] If anything, it would strengthen the uniqueness of Wyclif’s engagement with war if Cox discussed the common acceptance of war in political (and other) writings at the time.

Overall, Cox’s book is interesting, informative, and will surely serve as the starting point for engaging with Wyclif’s attitudes towards war in the years to come. It fills an important gap in late-medieval attitudes towards war, a topic all too understudied. This study is a model of how to unpackage and understand challenging philosophical attitudes across several texts, despite its problems. But the lack of proper contextualisation harms our understanding of Wyclif’s attitudes. Indeed, the reader will have trouble understanding the significance of these arguments without having first read widely on the conduct of war, attitudes of combatants, and writing on war in the period. Cox’s interpretation of contradictions as an intentional paradox is perhaps most troubling. One cannot help but wonder if such terms as ‘just war’ and ‘pacifism’ are more distracting and limiting than helpful in studies of medieval war. Despite all this, Cox’s book provides a useful starting point for investigating English attitudes during the Hundred Years War.

Trevor Russell Smith
University of Leeds


[1] See for example H. J. Hewitt, The Organization of War under Edward III: 1338–62 (New York: Manchester University Press, 1966), pp. 93–110; Nicholas Wright, Knights and Peasants: The Hundred Years War in the French Countryside (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998), pp. 26–79; Clifford J. Rogers, ‘By Fire and Sword: Bellum Hostile and “Civilians” in the Hundred Years’ War’, in Civilians in the Path of War, ed. by Mark Grimsley and Clifford J. Rogers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), pp. 33–78; Craig Taylor, Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France during the Hundred Years War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 212–17.

[2] As argued by, for example, Strickland, Matthew, War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066–1217 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 291–329.

[3] Most notably by Elizabeth Porter, ‘Chaucer’s Knight, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and the Medieval Laws of War: A Reconsideration’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 27 (1983), 56–78; Derek Brewer, ‘Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and the Problem of Cultural Translatability’, in Corresponding Powers: Studies in Honour of Professor Hisaaki Yamanouchi, ed. by George Hughes (Cambridge: Brewer, 1997), pp. 103–12; Maurice Keen, ‘Chaucer and Chivalry Revisited’, in Armies, Chivalry and Warfare in Medieval Britain and France: Proceedings of the 1995 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. by Matthew Strickland (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1998), pp. 1–12.

[4] This would not make sense for texts written in the north of England, such as the Alliterative Morte Arthur, because they often demonstrate independence from southern writers’ attitudes.

[5] This might be a restriction of the publisher, however.

[6] Maurice Keen, ‘Huizinga, Kilgour and the Decline of Chivalry’, Medievalia et Humanistica, 8 (1977), 1–20.

[7] Richard Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). See also Prestwich, Michael, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 83–113, 147–57

[8] For example Geoffrey le Baker’s mid-fourteenth century chronicle repeatedly stresses that English soldiers and leaders were motivated by their desire for justice: Chronicon Galfridi le Baker de Swynebroke, ed. by E. M. Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889); The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook, trans. by David Preest, introduction and notes by Richard Barber (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012).


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