Author SD Sykes tells Historia how researching a 14th-century dispute over church doctrine started her on the path that led to her latest Oswald de Lacy novel, The Bone Fire.
When my son started his senior education in 2008 at a Catholic school, we dutifully attended the first family mass as part of our introduction to his new school community. As a non-Catholic, non-anything-really family, it was an experience that set me off on a long journey, leading eventually to the writing of my fourth novel The Bone Fire, ten years later. And what caused this? It was Transubstantiation. But let me explain more.
On that particular Sunday, when Father Christopher invited the congregation to approach the altar for Communion, we were kindly asked to form two, distinct lines. One for Catholics, and the other for Christians of any other denomination. Father Christopher accompanied this instruction with the cryptic and slightly mumbled explanation that there were differences between our communions that could not be reconciled. These might appear small and yet they were fundamental.
I turned to my husband and asked him if he knew what this was, and he shrugged in response. But I was intrigued. Of course, I was aware of the differences, nay, antipathy, between the two strands of the church. Anybody with even the slightest knowledge of European history in the last 500 years couldn’t fail to know them – but Father Christopher seemed to be talking about something very specific. I went home, did some research, and for the first time in my life anyway, I came across the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
For those who don’t know what this is – the Catholic church believes that the bread and wine at Communion become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Protestant/Reformed church believes that they are merely a representation. It seems, to a secular 21st-century mind, a rather small thing to argue about, and yet Father Christopher was right when he described it as a fundamental difference that could not be reconciled. In fact, it’s one of the major fault lines along which the Christian faith has separated in Western Europe. Many people have died because of Transubstantiation. Either because they believed in it, or because they refused to.
I was educated at both Catholic and Church of England schools myself, and I’d never heard the word, and yet Transubstantiation has such a vivid and controversial history. The term seems to have been coined early in the 13th century, when Pope Innocent III set up a council to establish uniformity of faith following the insurrection of the Cathars (who were annihilated) and the growing popularity of the Franciscans (who were assimilated). The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch tells us, in his book A History of Christianity, that Innocent III was hoping to impose ‘regulated holiness’ onto the church.
But not everybody was so keen on their holiness being regulated. Particularly those who could read the bible in its Latin form and struggled to find evidence for many of the established doctrines and dogmas. We are probably familiar with the objections levelled at the Catholic church by the 16th-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, and yet, I wonder how many of us know that there was earlier opposition, namely from a 14th-century English priest called John Wycliffe?
Today Wycliffe is best remembered as being the first translator of the bible into English – but at the time, his main ‘crime’ against the church seems to have been his opposition to the doctrine of Transubstantiation. I’ve read a lot about the man in researching for The Bone Fire, and he fascinates me. Although The Bone Fire is essentially a murder mystery, the backdrop to the novel is the return of the Plague and the effects that this disease was having, not only on the size of the population, but also on the national psyche, leading people to desperately search about for some meaning to the devastation.
Wycliffe was at the forefront of this searching – coming to the conclusion that the Black Death was God’s punishment on humanity, not least for the many corruptions of the church. Wycliffe had a whole list of complaints. Indulgences, pilgrimages, invocation of the saints, not to mention Purgatory. However, Wycliffe reserved his main bile for the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Indeed he felt so strongly about this, that in the Spring of 1381, while still master at Balliol College, he went so far as to nail a document with his 12 most controversial objections to a prominent door. The first was this. ‘The consecrated host which we see upon the altar is neither Christ, nor any part of Christ, but an efficacious sign of him.’
Needless to say, this statement caused outrage and accusations of heresy, but the church was not able to move against their troublesome critic immediately. Wycliffe not only had some rich and powerful friends such as John of Gaunt, but he also had a following among the ordinary people of England. It was only when Wycliffe was blamed, in part, for inciting the Peasants’ Revolt in the summer of 1382, that his powerful friends drifted away and he was subject to a trial. At the heart of this trial was neither Wycliffe’s support of the uprising, nor even his ideas about a bible in English. Instead the indictment centred on his beliefs surrounding Transubstantiation. Beliefs that Wycliffe refused to renounce.
Even so, the church stopped short of excommunicating Wycliffe at this point. He was allowed to return home, where he died, quietly, in 1384. He might have been forgotten, except that he had spawned a group of ardent reformers, known as the Lollards, who continued to spread his ‘heretical’ ideas until they were brutally persecuted in the early 15th century. Such was Wycliffe’s residual influence, that thirty years after he died, he was finally excommunicated. His grave was opened. His bones were burnt and his ashes were tossed into a nearby river. There could have been no greater warning to any other agitators, in an age when most people believed that a Christian must be buried facing east, in order to rise again on the Day of Judgment. In their eyes, Wycliffe would have been damned for eternity.
Wycliffe’s works might have been banned, and his followers driven underground, but ultimately the church failed to suppress his ideas. It was this early criticism, and specifically Wycliffe’s opposition to Transubstantiation, that inspired much of The Bone Fire. I was particularly fascinated to discover that the Reformation had roots going right back to the time of the Black Death.
Of course, nobody can say, for sure, whether Wycliffe’s ideas wafted over to northern Europe and eventually inspired Luther, Calvin and Zwingli – or whether these men came to their own separate but similar conclusions about Roman Catholicism. But I think it’s important to recognise that Wycliffe and his 14th-century followers set down the first stepping stones of dissent, and thus paved the way for the historic break with Rome, 150 years later.
And, whilst we might not know about, (or even care that much about) Transubstantiation, there was a time when it mattered to people. A great deal.
SD (Sarah) Sykes writes historical crime fiction. The Oswald de Lacy series is set in the tumultuous middle decades of the 14th century, in the aftermath of the Black Death. The Bone Fire is the fourth book in the series.
Were medieval pilgrimages the first package holidays? SD Sykes investigates for Historia.
The Last Supper, St Mark’s Basilica, Venice: via Wikimedia
John Wycliffe by Thomas Kirkby: via Wikimedia
The burning of Sir John Cobham, Lord Oldcastle, a Lollard and follower of John Wycliffe, in London in 1418: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)