Repository logo

The Invisibility of the Soul and the Rhetoric of Dissent: Conscience and the Wycliffite Heresy

Published version

Repository DOI

Change log


Plimmer, Liam Michael  ORCID logo


jats:titleAbstract</jats:title>jats:pThis essay argues that the use of conscience as a justification for dissent has an even longer history than has often been assumed by intellectual historians of the Reformation. Through a close examination of the jats:italicEnglish Wycliffite Sermons</jats:italic> (jats:italicc.</jats:italic>1380s–1390s) and the jats:italicTestimony</jats:italic> of William Thorpe (1407), it offers the first extended consideration of the use of the word “conscience” in Wycliffite texts, using this as the point of departure for an assessment of Lollard characterisations of human interiority more generally. Wycliffite writers repeatedly emphasise the opacity of the inner life and its consequent authority, a rhetorical tendency inherited and adapted from Wyclif’s own writings and other Latinate discourses. This not only provides Lollards with a helpful strategy in their attempts to avoid prosecution for heresy, but also provides the somewhat shaky ground upon which a number of their doctrinal convictions rest—especially those pertaining to oral confession and membership of the Church. Conscience also provides an obvious connection between religious dissent and political rebellion, which is why it must be central to any future account of Lollardy’s relationship to class struggle or sedition more generally conceived. When writers like Thorpe refer to the soul as invisible, or to God as their only judge, they invoke a fundamental, if unstable, aspect of Wycliffite belief: an incipient but dynamic account of the relationship between individual conscience, interiority, and authority that was to find even greater expression in figures such as Martin Luther, Jan Huss, and Henry VIII.</jats:p>


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Kantik Ghosh for his invaluable comments on various versions of this essay; Jack Colley for his kind help with Wyclif’s Latin; Sophie Parker, Kimberley Jones, and Rachel Hughes for their careful proofreading; Tom Zago for his encouraging comments on the final draft; the Clarendon Fund and Jesus College, Oxford for their financial support during the initial research process and the first stages of writing; and St. John’s College, Cambridge for their ongoing support.

Funder: Clarendon Fund; doi:

Funder: Saint John's College, University of Cambridge


47 Language, Communication and Culture, 4705 Literary Studies, 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Journal Title


Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



Springer Science and Business Media LLC