It is the 19th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1401.
It was the first year of the 15th century. Let's honor the century by first looking at those things either invented or perfected for everyday use in this last century of the Middle Ages.
This was the century when the Scots gave us both golf and whiskey. The spinning wheel, oil painting, wearable spectacles, the clavichord, and stern-mounted rudders were all introduced in the West. I know that the last thing doesn't sound like much, the sternpost rudder, but it is likely the most important innovation to come to Europe as, without that, the New World would remain closed. You can't stay on a charted course with crosswinds or travel as the crow flies without that rudder.
In the church's history, this century is sometimes seen as the calm before the storm of the 16th century. Perhaps the only thing more important than the rudder's introduction was the development of moveable type and the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. The vernacular Bible and reform movements would cause considerable stress for ecclesiastical leaders as the church's model had been a relatively light hand to heterodox movements. The model of "diversity without adversity" in the church was begging to crack.
The Council of Constance met from 1414-1418. And besides the issue of council authority, they also put Jan Huss to death. But that council knew they had missed out on the real source of the new heresies, John Wycliffe. He had died of a possible stroke in 1384. "No problem!" says the council. They have his body exhumed, burned and his remains tossed in a river. This would be a warning to any of his followers (known as Lollards) that the English church would no longer be a haven for dissent. In recent years, Henry IV of England had made a real mess of what had been a decently stable state (comparatively).
Henry IV (referred to as Henry Bolingbroke because there are too many Henrys) is quite an important character for many reasons. But we turn our attention to him because before the Council of Constance, and he was already on the hunt for Lollards. And despite the Council of Constance officially banning Lollardy, it had been under fire for over a decade in England. William Sawtree was an English priest who found liberation in the teaching of Wycliffe. Sawtree believed the Bible in the vernacular was essential, that the worshipping of Saints was a dodgy proposition, and that instead of spending money on pilgrimages, the church could be assisting the poor instead.
Henry and his advisers, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, had recently usurped the throne from Richard II and made a bold decision. The growing problem of Lollardy and dissent needed to be crushed. Contrary to older scholarship, the Lollards were generally rural but not just made up of the peasantry. Rural networks connected to the heretical sect were growing. So, Arundel and Henry decided that it had become enough of a problem that the solution would be to put heretics to death. Death was a common punishment for a witch or a treasonous enemy of the state, but not a garden variety heretic. The argument was made that a heretic could be a threat to the state's unity than someone committing treason. (Note: this is what Queen Mary I used as justification for killing heretics in the 1550s.)
William Sawtree, the parish priest mentioned above, had been arrested many times but had used the old Lollard trick to get out of trouble. That was: confess, say you were wrong, condemn your teachings, and then go right back out and start teaching them again. But that had been Sawtree's only "get out of jail free" card. The second time he was caught, in 1401, Henry had recently decreed that heretics could be put to death. The first ruling of this kind in post-1066 English history. The precise dates of Sawtree's hearing and death are disputed. But the edict from Henry for Sawtree to become England's first martyr came on this, the 19th of February in 1401. The Lollard uprising of the 15th century and the fracturing of the church in England had just begun.
Today's reading comes from Walter Brueggeman, "A Way Other Than Our Own, Devotions for Lent."
"I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious anti-neighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who isn't a fan of Henry IV but is a fan of the Henry's—Longfellow, Winkler, and Rollins. He is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.