The England of John Wycliffe is vividly portrayed as a crucible of revolution in this new historical novel
The Revolt: a Novel in Wycliffe’s England by Douglas Bond. P&R, 2016, 267 pages
Reading Level: Teen, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 12-up
At the battle of Crecy, August 26, 1345, two young men cross paths. One is Hugh West’all, a young scholar pressed into service as a “battle scribe” to record the events and heroic deeds of Edward, Black Prince of Wales who is pressing his claim to the crown of France. The other is Willard of Headington, near Oxford, who enrolled as an archer in the ranks of the Black Prince. Both survive and return to Oxford and the surrounding countryside, Hugh bewildered and Willard embittered. The behavior of the clergy has contributed to their states of mind, for by now the church as a whole has become overfed and overbearing, with even common priests and friars battening themselves on the fears of the peasants. In Willard this provokes a slow-simmering rage, in Hugh a deep discomfort that finds a kindred spirit in his fellow Oxford scholar: a tall young man named John, of Wycliffe Manor in Yorkshire. Hugh is drawn to this new schoolmate, whose deep faith seems like something alive. That faith will be tested by events like the Black Plague, and later when John comes to challenge the rapacious ways of the Church. For John has some revolutionary ideas about privilege and poverty. He believes the common people have an equal right to right to justice under the law. He believes they should have a say in how they are governed. He even believes that the holy scripture should be available in a language that the lowest of the low can read and understand.
This is not a fictionalized biography, but “a Novel in Wycliffe’s England” depicting the momentous events and thought currents of the time. The author chooses to see Wycliffe through two perspectives (Hugh’s in first-person, Willard’s in third) that represent the man’s influence on the church and on politics, respectively. We’ve lost sight of the latter since Wycliffe is chiefly remembered today as the first English translator of the Bible, but that translation had a direct influence on politics and was a major stepping-stone (perhaps the major stone) leading to the undermining of divine right and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in England. Which led directly to the establishment of a constitutional republic in the United States. But even more important than constitutions was enabling illiterate men and women to hear the word of God speaking directly to them. While the translation project is going on, Wycliffe invites rough-handed farmers and goodwives into the halls of Oxford to hear the Bible read. Seeing the word “break through” to them was a high point of the novel for me, inspiring a greater appreciation for the many translations I own. By God’s grace the “Morningstar of the Reformation” brought the word near (Rom. 10:8), and so it remains.
Check back tomorrow for our interview with author Douglas Bond!
Cautions: Sensuality (attempted rape, not graphic), Dark (non-graphic depiction of plague deaths and filthy living conditions of the time)
Overall rating: 4.5 (out of 5)