“The Workman is Worth His Mede”: Poverty, Labor, and Charity in the Sermon of William Taylor

  • Kate Crassons
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This essay argues that the Wycliffite sermon of William Taylor presents seemingly contradictory arguments about the role of poverty, work, and charity within Christian society. Taylor ultimately rejects poverty as a widespread Christian virtue and instead favors labor as the primary force that sanctifies the larger community in protecting it from material deprivation.


Christian Community Christian Society Church Hierarchy Contemporary Institution Worldly Possession 
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  1. 1.
    Giving an overview of Taylor’s career, Anne Hudson notes that in 1406 Archbishop Arundel initiated a series of attempts to charge Taylor for his heterodox beliefs. He was excommunicated in 1407 for failing to appear before Arundel after delivering the sermon under discussion. Taylor was subsequently investigated for other occasions of heretical preaching by Archbishop Chichele and the prior of Worcester, John de Fordham (acting on behalf of the Bishop of Worcester). After a series of abjurations and additional investigations, Taylor was finally condemned as a relapsed heretic. For a more detailed account of Taylor’s life and his persecution as a Wycliffite, see Hudson’s introduction to Two Wycliffite Texts, EETS o.s. 301 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. xvii–xxv [xi–lxii].Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    As scholars have demonstrated, medieval debates about poverty originated in the mendicancy conflicts of the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. William of St. Amour, for instance, launched an attack against the friars by arguing that they falsely claimed to follow Jesus and the apostles in practicing mendicancy. For an account of William’s understanding of Christ’s poverty and his role in the mendicant controversy at the University of Paris, see James Doyne Dawson, “William of Saint-Amour and the Apostolic Tradition,” Medieval Studies 70 (1978): 223–38; and Penn Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 11–61. In the fourteenth century, Pope John XXII took steps to undermine the notion of poverty espoused by the Franciscan order. Issuing a series of bulls, he renounced papal dominion over the holdings of the Franciscan order and declared the doctrine of Christ’s poverty heretical. See his Ad conditorem canonum (1323), Cum internonnullos (1323), Quia quorundam mentes (1324) and Quia vir reprobus (1329). For an extended discussion of this papal legislation and the conflicts between John XXII and the friars, see Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Middle Ages, 2 vols. (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 1:163–66, 238–55; and Malcolm Lambert, Franciscan Poverty: the Doctrine of the Absolute Poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan Order, 1210–1323 (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1998), chapter 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    Maria Moisa calls the elevation of labor a “shift of values.” See “Fourteenth-Century Preachers’ Views of the Poor,” in Culture, Ideology, Politics, ed. Raphael Samuel and Gareth Jones (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 166 [160–75]. David Aers similarly sees changing attitudes toward poverty and labor as forming a “newer ethos.” See “Piers Plowman: Poverty, Work, and Community,” in Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360–1430 (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 41–49 [20–72]. For additional summaries of this cultural shift, see Miri Rubin, Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 71–74; and Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 251–94.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See in particular the Statute of Labourers (1351), the Vagrancy Petition (1376), and the Cambridge Statute of Labourers (1388). Miri Rubin succinctly explains this fusion of religious and civil concerns about begging: “As hostile attitudes toward labourers, and subsequently toward those deemed to be shirkers—the able-bodied beggars—hardened, the polemic on religious poverty was increasingly couched in terms current in labour legislation. Thus, poverty was divorced from its association with voluntary denunciation of goods…it came to be seen as a form of begging, of living off the hard-won earnings of others” (Charity and Community, p. 72). For further discussions of the relations between antifraternal ideology and English labor legislation, see Aers, “Poverty, Work, and Community”; Anne Middleton, “Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 208–317; Moisa, “Fourteenth-Century Preachers’Views of the Poor,” pp. 168–71; and Wendy Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anti-clericalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 70–75, 144–45.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    In response to charges levied by the friars that he had preached erroneously against them, FitzRalph delivered the Defensio Curatorum before the papal curia at Avignon in 1357. In the sermon, he defended his status as a secular cleric and launched another attack on the legitimacy of the fraternal orders. For a full account of the events surrounding FitzRalph’s appearance at the papal court and his role in the mendicancy conflicts more generally, see Katherine Walsh, Richard FitzRalph in Oxford, Avignon, and Armagh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), esp. pp. 406–45; Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition, pp. 123–51; and James Doyne Dawson, “Richard FitzRalph and Fourteenth-Century Poverty Controversies,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 34 (1983): 315–44. I have chosen to use John Trevisa’s translation of the Defensio Curatorum because Trevisa’s interest in translating religious texts into English suggests a possible correspondence with Taylor’s and the wider Wycliffite insistence on using the vernacular. Since Trevisa was perhaps sympathetic to some of Wyclif’s reformist beliefs, his translation of FitzRalph may share certain parallels with the arguments and objectives of Taylor’s own Wycliffite sermon. For a discussion of Trevisa’s career, his interest in translation, and his possible associations with Wycliffism, see David C. Fowler, The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), esp. pp. 82, 118–234.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    In his De domino divino, Wyclif, for instance, recapitulated much of FitzRalph’s De pauperie salavatoris, which deals with the vexed questions of property, dominion, right of use, and possessions. In the work, FitzRalph presents the theory of dominion by grace and argues that an individual is stripped of a right or privilege if he abuses it or uses it in a state of sin. Following FitzRalph’s logic, Wyclif adopted this theory but took the arguments of the hierarchically minded secular cleric to new extremes that would eventually be deemed heretical. Noting the influence of these arguments on Wyclif, Poole prints the first four books of De pauperie salvatoris as well as a table of contents for the last three books in John Wyclif, De domino divino, ed. R.L. Poole (London: Wyclif Society, 1890), pp. 273–476, 264–72. Wyclif and other Lollard writers also showed their approval of FitzRalph’s teaching by consistently referring to the priest as “sanctus Ricardus,” “sanctus Armachamus”, or “Seint Richart.” For these kinds of references, see, for example, Wyclif’s De Blasphemia, ed. Michael Dziewicki (London: Wyclif Society, 1893), p. 232; “Nicholas of Hereford’s Ascension day sermon,” Medieval Studies 51 (1989): 205–41; and “De Blasphemia Contra Fratres,” in Select English Works of John Wyclif, ed. Thomas Arnold, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), 3:412.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Margaret Aston, “‘Caim’s Castles’: Poverty, Politics, and Disendowment,” in Church, Politics, and Patronage in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Barrie Dobson (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984), p. 61 [46–81].Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    “Defensio Curatorum,” Trevisa’s Dialogus, ed. John Perry, EETS o.s. 167 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1925), p. 71. All subsequent quotations of the Defensio Curatorum are cited parenthetically by page number.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    See, for instance, the “Lollard Disendowment Bill” in Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, ed. Anne Hudson (1978; repr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). For further discussion of disendowment in Wycliffite thought, see Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 337–42; and Aston, “‘Caim’s Castles’.”Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. Benen Fahy (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1964), p. 39.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Langland’s description of Hunger’s “healing” effects on idlers and wasters puts Taylor’s perception of Christ in an interesting perspective. After everyone begins working on the half-acre “for fere of Hunger,” Langland explains that “Blynde and broke-legged [Hunger] botened a thousend/And lame men he lechede with longes of bestes,” Piers Plowman: the C-text, ed. Derek Pearshall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994), VIII, 189–92.Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Kate Crassons

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