II. JOHN HUSS: 1369–1415

Wenceslaus was loved and hated for winking at heresy and scowling at the Germans. A rapid infiltration of Bohemia by German miners, craftsmen, merchants, and students had generated a racial hostility between Teutons and Czechs; Huss would have received less support from people and king had he not symbolized a native resentment of German prominence. Wenceslaus did not forget that the archbishops of Germany had led the movement to depose him from the Imperial throne. His sister Anne had married Richard II of England, and had seen—probably had sympathized with—the attempt of Wyclif to divorce England from the Roman Church. In 1388 Adelbert Ranconis left a sum to enable Bohemian students to go to Paris or Oxford. Some of these in England secured or transcribed works by Wyclif, and took them to Bohemia. Milíč of Kroměříže and Conrad Waldhouser roused Prague with their denunciations of immorality in laity and clergy; Matthias of Janov and Thomas of Stitny continued this preaching; the Emperor, and even Archbishop Ernst, approved; and in 1391 a special church, called the Bethlehem Chapel, was founded in Prague to lead the movement of reform. In 1402 John Huss was appointed to the pulpit of this chapel.

He had begun life in the village of Husinetz, and was known as John of Husinetz, which he later shortened to Hus. Toward 1390 he came as a poor student to Prague, where he earned his way by serving in the churches. He aimed to enter the priesthood; nevertheless, after the custom of the age, he joined in what Paris would later term the gay “Bohemian” ways of university youth. In 1396 he received his degree of master of arts, and began to teach at the university; in 1401 he was chosen dean of the faculty of arts—i.e., of the “humanities.” In that year he was ordained priest, and reformed his life to an almost monastic austerity. As head of the Bethlehem Chapel he became the most famous preacher in Prague. Many figures high in the court were among his listeners, and Queen Sophia made him her chaplain. He preached in Czech, and taught his congregation to take an active part in the service by singing hymns.

His accusers later affirmed that in the very first year of his ministry he had echoed Wyclif’s doubts as to the disappearance of bread and wine from the consecrated elements in the Eucharist. Unquestionably he had read some of Wyclif’s works; he had made copies of them which still exist with his annotations; and at his trial he confessed to having said: “Wyclif, I trust, will be saved; but could I think he would be damned, I would my soul were with his.”3 In 1403 the opinions of Wyclif had won such vogue in the University of Prague that the chapter—the administrative clergy—of the cathedral submitted to the university masters forty-five excerpts from the writings of Wyclif, and asked should these doctrines be barred from the university. Several masters, including Huss, answered No; but the majority ruled that thereafter no member of the university staff should, either publicly or privately, defend or adhere to any of the forty-five articles.

Huss must have ignored this prohibition, for in 1408 the clergy of Prague petitioned Archbishop Zbynek to reprove him. The Archbishop proceeded cautiously, being then in conflict with the King. But when Huss continued to express sympathy for Wyclif’s views Zbynek excommunicated him and several associates (1409); and when they persisted in exercising their priestly functions he placed all Prague under an interdict. He ordered all writings of Wyclif that could be found in Bohemia to be surrendered to him; 200 manuscripts were brought to him; he burned them in the courtyard of his palace. Huss appealed to the newly elected Pope John XXIII. John summoned him to appear before the papal court. He refused to go.

In 1411 the Pope, desiring funds for a crusade against Ladislas, King of Naples, announced a new offering of indulgences. When this was proclaimed in Prague, and the papal agents seemed to the reformers to be selling forgiveness for coin, Huss and his chief supporter, Jerome of Prague, publicly preached against indulgences, questioned the existence of purgatory, and protested against the Church’s collecting money to spill Christian blood. Descending to vituperation, Huss called the Pope a money-grubber, even Antichrist.4 A large section of the public shared Huss’s views, and subjected the papal agents to such ridicule and abuse that the King forbade any further preaching or action against the offering of indulgences. Three youths who violated this edict were hailed before the city council; Huss pleaded for them, and admitted that his preaching had aroused them; they were condemned and beheaded. The Pope now launched his own excommunication against Huss; and when Huss ignored it John laid an interdict upon any city where he should stay (1411). On the advice of the King, Huss left Prague, and remained in rural seclusion for two years.

In those years he wrote his major works, some in Latin, some in Czech, nearly all inspired by Wyclif, some perhaps echoing the heresies and anticlericalism that a remnant of the Waldensians had brought with them into Bohemia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He rejected image worship, auricular confession, and the multiplication of ornate religious rites. He gave his movement a popular and nationalistic character by denouncing the Germans and defending the Slavs. In a tract on Traffic in Holy Things he attacked the simony of the clergy; in De sex erroribus he condemned the taking of fees by priests for baptism, confirmation, Masses, marriages, or burials; he charged some Prague clerics with selling consecrated oil; and he adopted Wyclif’s view that a priest guilty of simony could not validly administer a sacrament.5 His treatise De ecclesia became his apologia and his ruin; from its pages were drawn the heresies for which he was burned. He followed Wyclif into predestinarianism, and agreed with Wyclif, Marsilius, and Ockham that the Church should have no worldly goods. Like Calvin, he defined the Church neither as the clergy nor as the whole body of Christians, but as the totality, in heaven or on earth, of the saved.6 Christ, not the pope, is the head of the Church; the Bible, not the pope, should be the Christian’s guide. The pope is not infallible, even in faith or morals; the pope himself may be a hardened sinner or heretic. Accepting a legend widely credited at the time (even by Gerson), Huss made much of a supposititious Pope John VIII who (said the legend) had revealed her sex by giving unpremeditated birth to a child on the streets of Rome.7 A pope, Huss concluded, is to be obeyed only when his commands conform to the law of Christ. “To rebel against an erring pope is to obey Christ.”8

When a general council met at Constance in 1414 to depose three rival popes and enact a program of ecclesiastical reform, a chance seemed open to reconcile the Hussites with the Church. Emperor Sigismund, heir apparent to the childless Wenceslaus IV, was anxious to restore religious unity and peace in Bohemia. He suggested that Huss should go to Constance and attempt a reconciliation. For this hazardous journey he offered Huss a safe-conduct to Constance, a public hearing before the Council, and a free and safe return to Bohemia in case Huss should reject the judgment of the assembly. Despite the anxious warnings of his associates, Huss set out for Constance (October 1414), escorted by three Czech nobles and several friends. About the same time Stephen of Palecz and other Bohemian opponents of Huss went to Constance to indict him before the Council.

Arrived, he was at first treated courteously, and lived in freedom. But when Palecz laid before the Council a list of Huss’s heresies, they summoned and questioned him. Convinced by his replies that he was a major heretic, they ordered him imprisoned. He fell ill, and was for a time near death; Pope John XXIII sent papal physicians to treat him. Sigismund complained that the action of the Council violated the safe-conduct that he had given Huss; it answered that it was not bound by his action; that his authority did not extend to spiritual concerns; that the Church had the right to overrule the state in trying an enemy of the Church. In April Huss was removed to the fortress of Gottlieben on the Rhine; there he was placed in fetters, and was so poorly fed that he again fell gravely ill. Meanwhile his fellow heretic, Jerome of Prague, had rashly entered Constance, and had nailed to the city gates, to the doors of churches, and upon the houses of cardinals, a request that the Emperor and the Council should give him a safe-conduct and a public hearing. At the urging of Huss’s friends he left the city and began a return to Bohemia; but on the way he stopped to preach against the Council’s treatment of Huss. He was arrested, brought back to Constance, and jailed.

On July 5, after seven months of imprisonment, Huss was led in chains before the Council, and again on the seventh and the eighth. Asked his view of the forty-five articles already condemned in Wyclif’s works, he rejected most of them, approved of some. Confronted with extracts from his book, On the church, he expressed his willingness to recant such as could be refuted from Scripture (precisely the position taken by Luther at Worms). The Council argued that Scripture must be interpreted not by the free judgment of individuals but by the heads of the Church, and it demanded that Huss should retract all the quoted articles without reservation. Both his friends and his accusers pleaded with him to yield. He refused. He lost the good will of the vacillating Emperor by declaring that a secular as well as a spiritual authority ceases to be a lawful ruler the moment he falls into mortal sin.9 Sigismund now informed Huss that if the Council condemned him his safe-conduct would be automatically canceled.

After three days of questioning, and vain efforts by the Emperor and cardinals to persuade him to recant, Huss was returned to his prison cell. The Council allowed him and itself four weeks to weigh the matter. It was even more complex to the Council than to Huss. How could a heretic be allowed to live without thereby branding as inhuman crimes all past executions for heresy? This Council had deposed popes; was it to be defied by a simple Bohemian priest? Was not the Church the spiritual, as the state was the physical, arm of society, responsible for a moral order that needed some indisputable authority as its base? To assail that authority seemed to the Council as clearly treason as to take up arms against the king. Opinion would have to develop through another century before Luther would be able to make a similar defiance and live.

Further efforts were made to secure some semblance of retraction from Huss. The Emperor sent special emissaries to plead with him. He gave always the same reply: he would abandon any of his views that could be disproved from Scripture. On July 6, 1415, in the cathedral of Constance, the Council condemned both Wyclif and Huss, ordered Huss’s writings to be burned, and delivered him to the secular arm. He was at once unfrocked, and was led out of the city to a place where a pyre of faggots had been prepared. A last appeal was made to him to save himself with a word of retraction; he again refused. The fire consumed him as he chanted hymns.

Jerome, in a forgivable moment of terror, recanted before the Council the teachings of his friend (September 10,1415). Remanded to prison, he gradually regained his courage. He asked for a hearing, and after a long delay he was led before the assembly (May 23, 1416); but instead of being allowed to state his case he was required first to answer the several charges laid against him. He protested with a passionate eloquence that moved the skeptical but politic Italian humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, who had come to Constance as secretary to Pope John XXIII.

What iniquity is this, that I, who have been kept in a foul prison for 340 days, without means of preparing my defense, while my adversaries have always had your ears, am now refused an hour to defend myself? Your minds are prejudiced against me as a heretic; you judged me to be wicked before you had any means of knowing what manner of man I was. And yet you are men, not gods; mortals, not eternal; you are liable to error. The more you claim to be held as lights of the world, the more careful you ought to be to prove your justice to all men. I, whose cause you judge, am of no consequence, nor do I speak for myself, for death comes to all; but I would not have so many wise men do an unjust act, which will do more harm by the precedent it gives than by the punishment it inflicts.10

The charges were read to him one by one, and he answered each without retraction. When at last he was allowed to speak freely he almost won over the Council by his fervor and sincerity. He reviewed some of the historic cases in which men had been killed for their beliefs; he recalled how Stephen the Apostle had been condemned to death by priests, and held that there could hardly be a greater sin than that priests should wrongly slay a priest. The Council hoped that he would save himself by asking forgiveness; instead he repudiated his earlier recantation, reaffirmed his faith in the doctrines of Wyclif and Huss, and branded the burning of Huss as a crime certain to be punished by God. The Council gave him four days to reconsider. Unrepentant, he was condemned (May 30), and was led out at once to the same spot where Huss had died. When the executioner went behind him to light the pyre, Jerome bade him, “Come in front, and light it before my face; if I had feared death I should never have come here.” He sang a hymn till he choked with the smoke.

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