John Wycliffe, or Wyclif, (1330?-84) was an English religious reformer. He criticized the wealth and power of the Church and upheld the Bible as the sole guide for doctrine. Wycliffe instituted the first English translation of the complete Bible. His teachings, regarded as precursors of the Reformation, were disseminated by itinerant preachers, contemptibly called Lollards. The Lollards believed that the Church should help people to live a life of evangelical poverty and imitate Christ. Their ideas influenced the thought of John Huss, who in turn influenced Martin Luther.
The name Lollard is derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd meaning mumbler, mutterer, from the verb lollen, to mumble, mutter. (The Dutch suffix -aerd and the English suffix -ard are depreciatory.) For a similar formation, read mum’s the word.
The Dutch name was originally applied, about 1300, to the members of the Cellite, or Alexian, fraternity (also called lolle-broeders, mumbling brothers), who devoted themselves especially to the care of the sick and the providing of funeral rites for the poor.
In the course of the 14th century, the name was often used of other semi-monastic orders, and sometimes, by opponents, of the Franciscans.
Usually, it was taken to connote great pretensions to piety and humility, combined with views more or less heretical.
The English word is first recorded about 1386 in the form loller in The shipman’s Prologue by Geoffrey Chaucer (lines 11-15):
‘I smelle a loller in the wind,’ quod he.
‘How! good men,’ quod our hoste, ‘herkneth me;
Abydeth, for goddes digne passioun,
For we shal han a predicacioun;
This loller heer wil prechen us som-what.’
‘I smell a Lollard in the wind,’ quoth he.
‘Ho, good men!’ said our host, ‘now hearken me;
Wait but a bit, for God’s high passion do,
For we shall have a sermon ere we’re through;
This Lollard here will preach to us somewhat.’
The form loller of Lollard is interesting, because in this passage – and in the time of Wycliffe – two words of different origin were purposely confounded.
The other word loller, from the verb to loll, meant a lounger, an idle vagabond, as is clear from the following passage in Piers the Plowman*:
Now kyndeliche, by crist beþ suche callyd ‘lolleres’,
As by englisch of oure eldres of olde menne techynge.
He þat lolleþ is lame oþer his leg out of ioynte.
Such men are truly called ‘lollers’ (= idlers), since they loll about like lame people.
* The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, together with Vita de Dowel, Dobet, et Dobest, secundum Wit et Resoun (about 1362-1393), by William Langland (1330?-1400?)
But this is not all: by a bad pun, the Latin lolium, meaning tares (= injurious weed resembling corn when young), was connected with Lollard.
This obviously led to allusions to the Parable of the Tares*. And this fully accounts for the punning allusion to cockle (= weed growing in cornfields) in the very next lines (16-21) of The Shipman’s Prologue:
‘Nay, by my fader soule! that shal be nat,’
Seyde the Shipman; ‘heer he shal nat preche,
He shal no gospel glosen heer ne teche.
We leve alle in the grete god,’ quod he,
‘He wolde sowen som difficultee,
Or springen cokkel in our clene corn’.
‘Nay, by my father’s soul, that shall he not!’
Replied the sailor; ‘Here he shall not preach,
Nor comment on the gospels here, nor teach.
We all believe in the great God,’ said he,
‘But he would sow among us difficulty,
Or scatter cockles in our good clean corn’.
Similarly, John Gower, in Confessio Amantis (1390), spoke of “this new sect of lollardie”
Which nou is come forto duelle,
To sowe cokkel with the corn.
Which now is come for to dwell,
To sow cockle with the corn.
* Parable of the Tares
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
Matthew, 13:24-30 - King James Version
It seems curious at first sight that, in the Latin Bible (Vulgate), the word used to mean tares is not lolium but zizania, a word that appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. But this is because zizania is borrowed, via Greek, from Syriac zīzon, and that this Gospel was first written in Syriac.
Because of its use in this parable, zizania took in Latin the figurative sense of ill-feeling, discord.
This is why French, Spanish and Italian, respectively, have the expressions semer la zizanie, sembrar cizaña, seminare zizzania, meaning literally to sow tares and figuratively to stir up ill-feeling.
This parable is also the source of the French saying séparer le bon grain de l’ivraie, which is separate (or sort) the wheat from the chaff in English, meaning distinguish valuable people or things from worthless ones.