While the Reformation is seen as beginning formally with Martin Luther, there were other men who paved the way for reform. John Wycliffe is known as the "morning star" of the Reformation, but two others of note could perhaps share that honour, John Huss and Jerome Savonarola.
Wycliffe was from England, and is said to have been born sometime in the 1320's. He was an excellent scholar and ended up at Oxford, called the "jewel" of Oxford because of his intellectual ability. Wycliffe, as he studied, became convinced that authority came from Scripture, not the Church. He attacked the right of the Pope to collect money from the King and divert that money to Rome. Thus, he found favour with the monarchy for a time. The King may have liked him, but the monks did not. Wycliffe criticized their indolence and their habit of begging. He further denounced the worship of idols and relics and masses for the dead. He denounced the pope as an anti-Christ. Clearly, this did not win him any prizes and it alarmed the bishops of England. No doubt, they feared how the pope could possibly retaliate against the English church if Wycliffe kept up his criticism.
It was a time of corruption. During Wycliffe's time, there were two popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome, both claiming to be Christ's representative on earth. This simply divided the loyalty of the Church, as people gave allegiance to the pope of their choice. It was no wonder that Wycliffe criticized the Church. Eventually, when he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, he aroused even more anger. If a priest was able to turn bread into the literal body and blood of Christ, then he had great power. To criticize that doctrine was to divest that priest of power. The common people liked him, however, and authorities were afraid to harm him.
His greatest contribution was, of course, the translation of the bible into English. Because he saw the reality that Scripture, not the Church, held authority, he knew the common people needed to have that Scripture in their own language. While he did not know the languages of the Bible, he was a Latin scholar and he translated from the Vulgate. He was never captured and seized as other men were, but when he was asked to go before the Pope, and he refused, he retired to Lutterworth, where he spend the remainder of his life. The Church however, did dig up his bones after condemning his teaching at the Council of Constance in 1415. The bones were denied re-burial.
John Huss was a follower of Wycliffe. He came from Bohemia. At this time, King Richard II of England was married to Anne of Bohemia, so there was a lot of travel and communication between these two countries. Huss heard of Wycliffe's teachings through students returning to Prague, where he lived. Huss became the Rector of Prague University, but his study of the Word of God directed his future. Eventually, he found himself preaching at Bethlehem Chapel. There, he preached the Bible to the people in their own language instead of Latin. He had embraced Wycliffe's teaching, but not because it was Wycliffe's, but because they were from Christ. The Archbishop denounced Wycliffe's teachings and when Huss refused to abandon those teachings, he was excommunicated. Huss was later invited to the Council of Constance, and was promised safe passage, but this was a ruse, and upon arrival he was put on trial and condemned to death. He was stripped of his priesthood, and the Archbishops committed his soul to the devil. However, Huss cried out, "And I commit it to the Lord Jesus Christ."
Jerome Savonarola came from Italy, born in 1452, after both Huss and Wycliffe were dead. While he did not attack the corrupt doctrine of the Church, he did speak out against the immorality which was prevalent among the clergy of the time. Savonarola lived in Florence during the time of the Medici family, and for a while, enjoyed their favour. However, as he continued to speak out against vice and corruption, his popularity faded. Pope Alexander Borgia, a notoriously evil pope, took the lead in dealing with Savonarola. Alexander tried to bribe Savonarola by offering to make him a Cardinal, something which was soundly refused. Savonarola was reputed as saying, "I desire no other crown than the crown of a martyr." Eventually, he was excommunicated and put to death in May 1498, burned at the stake.
While Wycliffe and Huss attacked the Church along the lines of authority, Savonarola spoke out against its corruption. However, the two are clearly related. The lack of proper authority resulted in corrupt behaviour. Without the proper adherence to Scripture, there was bound to be immoral behaviour. That is one of the many lessons we can learn from the events of the Reformation. Corruption is not simply a matter of bad behaviour; it is an issue of recognizing the authority of Scripture and allowing it to direct our lives. This is something that continues to haunt the church even if it doesn't produce earth-shattering results such as it did in the 13th and 14th centuries.