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Books-for-Laymen: The Demise of a Commonplace

  • Ann Eljenholm Nichols (a1)


The exact relationship between Lollardy and the sixteenth-century Reformation long has eluded students of English history. Recent detailed studies of Lollard texts have underlined a continuity of belief and polemic.1 One significant difference, however, is the way in which reformers in the two periods used the commonplace saying that images are “laymen's books.” The Lollards, even those who were the most outspoken critics of images, used Gregory the Great's metaphor to support their positions. In the I 530s the English reformers used the commonplace in similar ways, but by the 1540s they had rejected it altogether. The English reformers, however, did more than merely reject Gregory as an authority. Instead of dismissing the old justification of images as a false sophism, as the continental reformers had done in the 1520s, they appropriated the laymen's-book metaphor for their own polemic, turning it against the iconophiles. Furthermore, they developed the metaphor in a new way that provided a positive alternative for the illiterate, arguing that the simple and unlearned read not from the book of art but rather from the natural world around them.



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1. Aston, Margaret, Lollards and Reformers, (London, 1984), in particular chaps. 5 and 7; and Jones, William R., “Art and Christian Piety: Iconoclasm in Medieval Europe,” in The Image and the Word, ed. Gutmann, Joseph (Missoula, Mont., 1977), pp. 88105. Jones describes the image polemic of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as “one of the most extensive reexaminations of the rationale of Christian iconography since the Carolingian period” (p. 92). Aston points out that the sixteenth-century reformers searched for and published Lollard sources in an effort to legitimize an authentic English tradition of reform.

2. The proposition was also used in the Eastern church. For example, John of Damascus argued that “An image… is to the illiterate what a book is to the literate, and what the word is to hearing, the image is to sight.” And Emperor Michael II, in a letter to Louis the Pious in 842, noted that although images low enough to be honored had been removed from the churches, those that were high on the walls had been left “ut ipsa pictura pro scriptura haberetur” (so that these pictures might serve as writing); Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 3.2.2, p. 479. For a useful collection of iconoclast and iconodule arguments used in the eastern controversies, see Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1972); and Bryer, Anthony and Herrin, Judith, eds., Iconoclasm (Birmingham, Ala., 1977), pp. 180186. For similar pagan justification, see Baynes, Norman H., Byzantine and Other Essays (London, 1955), pp. 116143. Throughout this article in reference to the commonplace I shall retain for historical accuracy the fifteenth and sixteenth-century usage of “layman” rather than the more modern “layperson.”

3. This is the text of Gregory's letter that Stephen Gardiner quoted when he replied to Ridley's verbal attack on images in 1547; Letters of Stephen Gardiner, ed. James Arthur Muller (Cambridge, 1933), pp. 256257. The text of Gregory's letter printed in Migne, Patrologia Latina (PL) 77.1128, varies as follows: minor spelling and grammatical variations and one additional sentence after the dic, frater question: “Si non alius, vel illud te non debuit revocare, ut, despectis aliis fratribus, solum te sanctum et esse crederes sapientem?”

4. Nolken, Christina Von, The Middle English Translation of the Rosarium Theologie (Heidelberg, 1979), p. 101. I have regularized the spelling.

5. PL 77.1027.

6. Bonus tractatus de decem mandatis, in British Library MS Harley 2398 (hereafter cited as BL MS Harl.), quoted in Owst, G. R., Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Oxford, 1966), p. 142. I have corrected the punctuation of Owst's text. The last sentence is not in Gregory's letter. I am unsure of its origin, but the author of Dives makes the same point. Owst identifies the text as orthodox, but Aston convincingly demonstrates its Lollard connections, in Lollards and Reformers, pp. 153–156. According to Aston, this tract contains the most detailed discussion of images that she has found in decalogue commentaries. Recent studies increasingly have shown how difficult it is to draw a simple dividing line between “orthodox” and “Lollard” texts. In this article I have confined myself to texts generally agreed to be Lollard. The books-for-laymen commonplace also was used widely by straightforwardly orthodox writers. For the use of the commonplace by Hilton and Rypon, see Owst, , Literature and Pulpit, pp. 137140. For other orthodox use, see Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 114119.

7. Wycliffe, John, Tractatus De Mandatis Divinis, ed. Loserth, Johann and Matthew, F. D. (London, 1922), pp. 155156. Images were never a central issue for Wycliffe; see Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 137143.

8. Todd, James H., ed., An Apology for Lollard Doctrines (Camden Society, 1842; reprint ed., New York, 1968), p. 85.

9. Compston, H. F. B., “The Thirty-Seven Conclusions of the Lollards,” English Historical Review 26 (1911): 743. The Twelve Lollard Conclusions presented to Parliament in 1395 also refer to the “liber erroris populo laicali,” Shirely, Walter W., ed., Fasciculi Zizaniorum (London, 1858), p. 364. Lollards regularly use lewd men to translate phrases like populo laicali; the opposition between lay (illiterate/lewd) and cleric (literate) was assumed. For a detailed discussion of the Lollard attitudes to images, see Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 135192, and Jones, William R., “Lollards and Images,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973): 33.

10. Swinburn, Lilian M., ed., Lantern of Light, Early English Text Society, Original Series (EETS, OS) 151 (London, 1917), p. 85.

11. BL MS Harl. 211, f. 48r, quoted in Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, p. 152. For this same orthodox position based on Gregory, see the sermon (BL MN Harl. 2398, fols. 81–2b) quoted by Owst, , Literature and Pulpit, pp. 141143.

12. Pollard, A. W., ed., Fifteenth Century Prose and Verse (London, 1903; reprint ed., New York, 1964), p. 135. Thorpe's opposition to images is clear. By citing Gregory's proposition, he seems to be using a legal loophole to escape the judgment of heresy.

13. Fifteenth Century Prose, pp. 133–134, 136. Other Lollards also tried to use the example of Serenus to justify iconoclasm, but we only know this fact indirectly through Devereux's citation of positions taken by his opponents (Aston, , LollardsandReformers, pp. 180181, n. 160). It is interesting that when Reginald Pecock in the mid-fifteenth century refutes Lollard objections to images, he does not refer to Gregory, even though he does deal with men (and women and children) who do not read. In this work he argues conversely that books avail only the lettered, whereas images avail “Cristen men (whether thei ben lettrid or not lettrid)”; Repressor, ed. Churchill Babington, 2 vols. (London, 1860), 1:212. For a summary of Pecock's rebuttals, see Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 181187. It is unfortunate that Pecock's “Book of Worshipping” is lost, for it is hard to believe that he would not have dealt with Gregory's text there. It would also be useful to know how widely Pecock's work was known in the 1530s and 1540s.

14. Fifteenth Century Prose, p. 128.

15. Quoted by Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, p. 164.

16. Foxe, John, Acts and Monuments, ed. Townsend, George, 8 vols. (London, 1849), 4: 620626.

17. Sermons and Remains of Hugh Latimer, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge, 1845), p. 233.

18. “Das ist ein menschein tant. Gregorius sagt soliches aber got nit—ja got sagt wil ein anders”; Ein urteil gottes unsers eegemahels wie man sich mit allen gotzen und Bildnussen halte soll uss der heiligen gschrifft gezoge durch Ludwig Hatzer (Zurich, 1523). I am grateful to the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College for providing me with a photocopy of the first edition in their collection. For a translation, see Garside, Charles, Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, 1966), pp. 111115. The relationship between the continental and English rebuttal of the thesis is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is interesting to note how Calvin deals with the “papist” justification: “Si les papistes ont quelque goutte d'honnestete, qu'ils n'usent plus doresnavant de ces subterfuges, que les images sont les livre des idiots” (If the papists have any shred of honesty, then they would no longer use such subterfuges, that images are books for the unlearned). He also adds a paragraph in the 1551 edition dealing explicitly with the commonplace, “un commun proverbe.” He rebuts the thesis in the same language used by Hätzer: “S. Gregoire l'a auusi dit, mais l'Esprit de Dieu en a bien prononcé autrement” (Saint Gregory said that, but the Spirit of God had spoken otherwise); Institution chrétienne, ed. J. P. Benoit, 2 vols. (Paris, 19571961), 1: 126127, 1.40.5, 7).

19. Hooper, John, Early Writings, ed. Carr, Samuel (Cambridge, 1843), p. 43; Philip Nichols, quoted in Whiting, R., “Abominable Idols: Images and Image-Breaking under Henry VIII,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 33 (1982): 36.

20. More, Thomas, Complete Works, vol. 6, A dyaloge of syr Thomas More (New Haven, 1981), 6.1. 355359 (quote at p. 359).

21. More, , Complete Works, 6.1.40, 46.

22. More, , Complete Works, Appendix A, The Ymage of Loue, 6.2.735.

23. I am grateful to Margaret Aston for giving me a copy of her discussion of More's Defence of Images from her forthcoming English Iconoclasts, to be published by Oxford University Press; see chap. 5, “Images in Controversy 1525–1535.”

24. Aston, English Iconoclasts, chap. 5, n. 75.

25. Dives and Pauper (London, 1536), Short Title Catalogue (STC) 19214. In the quotations from the British library copy I have regularized the spellings of u and v and expanded abbreviations. Its popularity in the fifteenth century is attested by the large number of manuscripts that survive and by its publication by Pynson in 1493 and Wynkyn de Worde in 1496. For a critical edition of the manuscripts, see Priscilla Heath Barnum (EETS, OS 275). In the 1430 proceedings against Robert Bert, he was accused of owning a copy of Dives allegedly containing heretical errors. It is difficult to know what in so orthodox a text caused suspicion. Aston notes that until this date the text had circulated in “unimpeachable circles.” If anything, the treatment of images is a point by point rebuttal of Lollard positions. Aston suggests a number of possible reasons for the suspicion: the use of English to deal with theological topics; the treatment of the kind of honor due the cross; or perhaps the mere openness of the debate between Dives, who presented the Lollard position, and Pauper, who attempted to make distinctions between images and what they represented. Alternately, the problem may have been not with the work but with the text, Bert's copy containing Lollard interpolations. Bert, who cleared himself, maintained that he was unaware that the work contained heretical passages; Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 96, 208211. Anne Hudson also notes that although Dives uses the same general arguments found in Lollard works, “the vocabulary in general is markedly different”; “A Lollard sect vocabulary,” in So Meny People Longages and Tongues (Edinburgh, 1981), p. 30. Compared to the radical position of Bucer's treatise, Dives is in tune with the moderate Erasmian attitudes to images.

26. Bucer, Martin, A treatise declarying & shewing dyvers causes that pyctures & other ymages ar in no wise to be suffred in churches, trans. Marshall, William (London, 1535), STC 24238. I have quoted the second edition (1537?), which is on microfilm (STC 24239). The title page attributes the work to the “the open preachers of Argentyne,” but it is generally ascribed to Bucer.

27. Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, p. 191.

28. McConica, James Kelsey, English Humanists and Reformation Politics (Oxford, 1965), p. 167.

29. In his discussion of the sixth article, Phillips cites a reference to laymen's-books, which does not occur in STC 10033 or in the edition by Lloyd, C. (misprinted Floyd), Formularies of Faith (Oxford, 1825).Phillips, John, The Reformation of Images (Berkeley, 1973), p. 54.

30. Articles Devised by the Kynges Highnes Maiestie, to stablyshe christen quietnes and unitie amonge us, and to avoyde contentious opinions, which articles be also approved by the consent and determination of the hole clergie of this realme (1546), STC 10033.

31. The English translation was made from a Latin translation of the German, “rudi etiamnum populo.” The phrase “book of the rood/crucifix” also may have been commonplace by the 1530s. John Fisher, for example, used the phrase as a unifying refrain in a Good Friday sermon: “Looke thou therfore vpon this booke, and thou shalt here fynde great cause and matter for sorrow”; “Thou mayest then fynde heere in this booke great matter of loue”; “have often before thyne eyes thys wonderfull booke which as I faynde is wrytten within and without.” The English Works of John Fisher, Early English Text Society, Extra Series, 27 (London, 1876), pp. 405, 409, 427.

32. The formal title of this work is Institution of a Christian Man; printed in Formularies of Faith, pp. 135–136.

33. Burnet, Gilbert, The History of the Reformation, ed. Pocock, Nicholas (Oxford, 1846), p. 127.

34. Gee, Henry and Hardy, William, eds., Documents Illustrative of English Church History (London, 1896), pp. 277278.

35. The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of a Christian Man, in Formularies of Faith, p. 300.

36. Cranmer, Thomas, Miscellaneous Writings and Letters, ed. Cox, John Edmund (Cambridge, 1846), p. 127.

37. Gardiner, , Letters, pp. 255264. The “Treatise on Images” ascribed to Ridley by Foxe and printed by the Parker Society is clearly not the sermon preached before Edward IV. There are also reasons to doubt that Ridley is the author; some scholars assign the work to the 1560s. Therefore, I have not dealt with the treatise in this paper.

38. Cranmer, , Miscellaneous Writings, p. 179.

39. Hooper, , Early Writings, p. 41.

40. In Foxe, , Acts and Monuments, 6: 29. According to Muller, the letter may have been written by Cranmer, ; Letters of Stephen Gardiner, p. 248. However, we know that Somerset countered the Imperial Ambassador's objection to the removal of crosses that same year by saying they had deluded simple folk and led to superstition; Jordan, W. K., Edward VI the Young King (Cambridge, 1968), p. 126. Whoever the author was, the wit with which the metaphor is handled is characteristically English.

41. Latimer, , Sermons and Remains, p. 233. (This justification of his sermon was first printed by Foxe, , Acts and Monuments, 1563.) Literary histories generally credit the Elizabethan period with the development of witty word play. The evidence gathered in this paper suggests that such rhetorical skill was characteristic of English writing much earlier in the Tudor period than is usually credited.

42. It is interesting that the reformers do not turn to the obvious alternative, the book-of-nature metaphor. According to Curtius, this metaphor was a commonplace in late medieval preaching, where scientia creaturarum was used synonymously for liber naturae; Curtius, Ernst, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York, 1953), pp. 319347. Commonplaces like fashions are retired and periodically renewed, but this one was still current in the 1530s. The 1531 English translation of the Imitation of Christ, formerly ascribed to Richard Whitford, reads as follows: “And if thy heart be straight with God, then every creature shall be to thee a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine, for there is no creature so little nor so vile but that it showeth and representeth the goodness of God” (2.4).The school metaphor was a natural companion to the books-for-laymen commonplace. Continental supporters of images used it, as had Pecock in answering the Lollard objection that images would not be necessary if people had the gospel preached to them. He argued that laymen, like children, must be taught to feed themselves, and so a priest should teach them to “leerne bi him silf… ellis he shal make hem to be evere truantis in the scole of God”; Repressor, p. 219.

43. Becon, Thomas, The Catechism with Other Pieces, ed. Ayre, John (Cambridge, 1844), p. 62. Although this work was published in 1560, it probably was written during the reign of Edward VI.

44. Hooper, , Early Writings, p. 322. The opposition of live/dead images was also a commonplace of Lollard rhetoric and occurs repeatedly in continental literature. Hubmaier, for example, used the argument in his radical thesis drawn up in Waldshut, 1524: “Images are good for nothing; wherefor such expense should be no longer wasted on images of wood and stone, but bestowed upon the living, needy images of God.” quoted in Garside, , Zwingli and the Arts, p. 144. For Lollard use of the commonplace, see Aston, , Lollards and Reformers, pp. 158160 and 152, n. 62, where she notes that “Lollards were not the first to speak of ‘dead images.’;” Also see below, note 50. In a treatise on miracle plays, one Lollard author connects the live-image commonplace with books-for-laymen. Having granted that simple portrayal is like “nakyd lettris to a clerk,” he goes on to reject miracle playing because it is “made more to deliten men bodily than to be bokis to lewid men.” Even though such plays “ben quike bookis,” they lead men to wickedness rather than to goodness; Hudson, Anne, ed., Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 103104. Such a passage gives us a glimpse of both sides of the polemic surrounding the miracle plays and the use of the books-for-laymen thesis to support them.

45. Hooper, , Early Writings, p. 41. Wycliffe, when dealing with the first commandment, had used the phrase “liber vel sculptile diaboli,” but in a context that included misuse of a wide range of material goods, not just images; De Mandatis Divinis, p. 166.

46. Cranmer, Thomas, A Short Introduction into Christian Religion Being a Catechism Set Forth by Archbishop Cranmer in 1548, ed. Burton, Edward (Oxford, 1829), p. 21. The catechism is a translation of Justus Jonas's Latin translation from German, but the section against idolatry is new and generally credited to Cranmer.

47. Becon, , Catechism, p. 62.

48. Fifteenth Century Prose, pp. 133134.

49. Thorpe, , A Short Instruction, p. 41.

50. The recommendation that charitable works replace offerings to statues also occurred in the King's Injunctions to religious houses (1535); “Also that they shall not show any relics or feigned miracles for increase of lucre but that they shall exhort pilgrims and strangers to give that to the poor that they thought to offer to their images or relics”; Youings, Joyce, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (London, 1971), p. 151. The same admonition occurs in the Injunctions of 1536. Christians are admonished that “it shall profit their soul's health, if they do bestow that on the poor and needy, which they would have bestowed upon the said images and relics”; Documents Illustrative of English Church History, p. 271. This injunction is repeated in 1547 when parishes are required to provide poor boxes. I have seen in a Norfolk church an Elizabethan poor box carved as a standing figure of a man.

51. Hooper, , Early Writings, p. 45.

52. Ibid., p. 46 (italics mine).

53. Gardiner, , Letters, p. 485.Although Gardiner does not refer to books-for-laymen, he alludes to Gregory's argument. The verb cerno (to distinguish), which Gregory uses as part of his chiastic ornament, was frequently used of the senses, in particular the eyes. The odd phrase “they cannot away with” is problematic because of the pronoun. There may be a textual problem, although Muller does not comment on the passage. Perhaps “they” should read “we,” meaning that the practice of taking holy bread from church is no longer permitted. This passage occurs in Gardiner's tract written in response to William Turner's The huntyng and fyndyng out of the romyshe foxe. Although Gardiner's tract is lost, Turner in his reply prints long passages from Gardiner's work. Muller extracted these passages and reprints them, commenting that they make a reasonably complete whole, affording an excellent and not too lengthy example “of Gardiner's popular style”; Letters of Stephen Cardiner, p. 478. Such replication of documents was common in sixteenth-century polemic. Thomas More, for example, in his Confutation, so accurately quoted from Tyndale's Answer that the preface to that work could be reconstituted verbatim from More's citations; Complete Works, 8.3.1260.

54. Hooper, , Early Writings, pp. 4047. Tudor prose has yet to receive the attention it deserves. How, for example, did writers organize long passages? White spaces and paragraph symbols are printing devices, and unless we know that an author took great care over such matters, it is unwise to rely too heavily on such editorial signs. Hooper's rhetorical framing device in this passage is a common characteristic of Tudor prose, and it is probably a better indication of an author's organization than mere editorial devices.

55. Quoted in Garside, , Zwingli and the Arts, pp. 172173. Bucer's argument is a variation of Zwingli's position.

56. Hooper, , Early Writings, pp. 40, 47.

57. The Lollard priest William White does refer specifically to the natural world, but in a quite different way than Hooper does. White notes that trees growing in the forest are better similitudes of God than images made of stone or dead wood. The reference occurs in the context of the live/dead image opposition and is used to point up the absurdity of the cult of images. The passage concludes that it thus would be preferable to honor the trees with prayers, genuflections, oblations, pilgrimages, and lights than the idol in church: “Nam arbores, crescentes in silva sunt majoris virtutis, et vigoris. et expressiorem gerunt similitudinem Dei et imaginem [.] quam lapis vel lignum mortuum ad similitidinem hominis scuiptum; et ideo hujusmodi arbores crescentes magis sunt adorandae orationibus, genuflectionibus, oblationibus, peregrinationibus et luminibus, quam aliquod idolum in ecclesia mortuum (For trees growing in the forest are of greater strength and vigor and provide a more expressive likeness and image of God than stone or dead wood sculpted into a likeness of a man; therefore in this sense growing trees are better adored with prayers, genuflections, oblations, pilgrimages, and lights than any dead idol in church); Fasciculi Zizaniorum, p. 430. Aston notes the nearly verbatim phrase in the trial proceedings of Cavell, Robert; Lollards and Reformers, p. 90. However, she argues that the tree reference is idiosyncratic to White, the verbal echo indicating Cavell's indebtedness to him. It is tempting to wonder whether Hooper might have seen a copy of the Fasciculi while he was on the continent and thus read White's nature passage. In any case, White's reference does not occur in connection with the books-for-laymen metaphor.One other tantalizing conjecture about continental influence involves Paracelsus, who not only espoused the study of the codex naturae, but also in 1527 burned Avicenna's Canon to demonstrate the uselessness of books in the study of medicine. Although he called for the study of the book-of-nature, his focus was primarily on the human body; as with Bucer and Cranmer the interest is humanity, not the world of nature. For a discussion of the antinomy in scientific writings, particularly in the early seventeenth century, see Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978), 2: 471503, 657658.

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