Jan Hus – Not Just a Wycliffite

           Jan Hus is often considered a disciple of the English John Wycliffe and imitator of his views. In reality, much of his thought developed independently, along similar lines.

            Born in Husinec, southern Bohemia (approximately in the same area as today’s Czech’s republic), Hus studied at the prestigious University of Prague, founded by Emperor Charles IV, where he was influenced by a strong, native Reformation movement – particularly by leaders such as Konrád Waldhauser, Jan Milíč and Matěj of Janov. While the first two preachers stirred the masses with religious fervor and a strong opposition to the corruption of the church, Matěj used his literary skills to inspire similar feelings around Bohemia, and to raise questions about the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the pope and human traditions, and a return to the simplicity of the gospel both in life and worship.

            Hus was acquainted with Wyclif’s philosophical writings on realism, to which he and most other teachers at Prague adhered, before he read any of his theological works, which were mostly introduced to Bohemia by Jerome of Prague after his studies at Oxford.

A Czech Reformation

            Hus found in Wyclif many similarities with the ongoing Bohemian Reformation, as well as with the protests of other men of his time, such as Marsilius of Padua and John of Paris.

            While these protests were certainly not rare in the 14th century, the church had to stress some limitations. The papacy’s relative tolerance of Wyclif’s attacks on the church’s excesses came to a halt when he opposed the doctrine of eucharistic transubstantiation which had become official Roman Catholic dogma in 1215. Equally concerning was the proliferation of a Wycliffite movement disparagingly called “Lollardy” (either from the Latin lollum, meaning “tares” or from the Dutch lolle, meaning “murmuring”).

            If Wyclif escaped martyrdom thanks to the help of powerful friends and the timing of his natural death, other people were captured and detained throughout Europe. In Bohemia, three men were arrested under suspicion of adherence to these new teachings. Two recanted, and another was imprisoned for life.

            Hus was able to keep preaching at his parish church, Bethlehem Chapel, in Prague, until a controversy with the local archbishop, Zbyněk Zajíc (who had once been his friend), placed him in the limelight.

A Czech Revolution

            The controversy was about papal elections. Since 1378, the Roman Catholic Church had been divided in their allegiance between two popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, each claiming to be the rightful successor of Peter. Since each pope had excommunicated the followers of the other, everyone in Europe was somehow excommunicated. A council of cardinals decided to solve the matter by deposing both popes and electing a new one, Alexander V. Quite predictably, the deposed popes refused to step down, leaving the church divided in allegiance among three popes.

            Each country was affected in different ways. In Bohemia, the archbishop and higher clergy were faithful to Gregory, while Hus and the reform party acknowledged Alexander V, implicitly recognizing the authority of church councils over popes. Since the reformers enjoyed the support of the Bohemian King, Wenceslaus IV, Zbyněk was forced to submit to Alexander.

            Stung by the humiliation, Zbyněk planned with Alexander a ban of any sort of preaching in non-parochial churches. This was a direct attack at Hus, since Bethlehem was a private chapel. What’s more, it was a provocation to elicit his foreseeable disobedience (which would warrant a harsher punishment).

            Zbyněk’s expectations were correct. Hus refused to discontinue preaching, and Zbyněk was able to excommunicate him. This didn’t stop Hus, who was backed by King Wenceslas and his wife Queen Zofie. In fact, Zofie used her royal authority to urge the pope to allow Hus to continue preaching at Bethlehem Chapel, and protested the burning of Wyclif’s books. In the meantime, swarms of protesters took to the streets to pledge obedience to Hus. Some historians have considered this act of rebellion an actual revolution.

Exile and Writings

            Hus continued preaching until 1412, when Prague was placed under interdict as a result of his action. Unwilling to see the city suffer for his sake, he decided to go into voluntary exile and found refuge in the castles of Kozí Hrádek and Krakovec, each about 50 miles from Prague (one south and one north). He stayed there two years, devoting his time to writing about fifteen books. His Czech work On Simony (1413) and his Latin De ecclesia (1413) are probably the most famous.           

            In spite of its frequent references to and paraphrases of Wyclif’s homonymous work, there were several differences between the two reformers. Most evident is the different scope. Wyclif’s writings were technical and academical, contributing to the heated discussions of his day, while Hus wrote as a pastor concerned for his flock. In fact, he started writing while he was in exile as a way to nourish and guide the congregation he had left behind.

            His writing style, directly addressing the common people, often reminds of Luther’s. For example, in On Simony, Hus appeals to the people’s common sense in response to the notion that the pope was innocent of trafficking because he marketed in silence. “Hodek, the baker, or Huda, the vegetable woman, would answer … that when Hodek has bread for sale and when someone comes and in silence lays the money on the counter, either before or after taking the bread, Hodek or Huda concludes that the customer has bought the bread.”[1] In other words, the facts speak for themselves, and the bakers and vegetable women in Hus’s audience can identify with this common wisdom.

            Hus differs from Wyclif also in the range of his accusations, which include everyone, from the pope to the layman (while Wyclif had aimed mostly at the papacy and those in power), with the ultimate goal of bringing his readers to repentance. Theologically speaking, Hus’s views were more moderate, especially about the Lord’s Supper.

Betrayal and Martyrdom

            Hus’s exile ended in the fall of 1414, when he accepted an invitation to appear at the ecclesiastical Council of Constance. It was a dangerous move, but Hus trusted in the promise of safe-conduct given by Sigismund, king of Hungary.

            After spending a few weeks in Constance as a free man waiting for an expected debate, Hus was imprisoned on the claim that he had attempted to flee. He was eventually transferred to the castle of the bishop of Constance, where he remained as a prisoner for 73 days, in poor living conditions, and finally to a Franciscan monastery during his trial.

            The trial consisted mostly in a concerted effort to persuade Hus to recant from his alleged adherence to Wyclif’s heresies. Hus protested that he had never defended Wyclif's doctrine of The Lord's Supper or other doctrines the church had considered heretical. He couldn’t recant something he had never taught. On other issues, however, he had to stand his ground and act according to conscience. Here too we find an echo in Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms.

            Unlike Wyclif and Luther, however, Hus didn’t have powerful friends to defend him. Wenceslaus had turned his back for political reasons, and Sigismund was persuaded that a promise made to an heretic could be broken. Standing alone, Hus was quickly condemned, stripped of his priestly ornaments, marked as heretic, and led to the stake, where he was burned. His ashes were later thrown into the Rhine River.

Legacy

            Hus’s execution backfired, as the people of Bohemia organized into a military revolt against the church of Rome, defeating four consecutive crusades incited against them by the papacy between 1419 and 1434. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church allowed the people of Bohemia to practice their own version of Christianity, known as Hussitism, which included the people’s participation of both elements in the Lord’s Supper, and the priests’ renunciation of worldly properties.

            Hus had his widest influence in the 16th-century Reformation, where he was hailed as one of its forerunners. Outside of England, his influence was even greater than that of Wyclif, whose works were largely unknown until the 19th century.

            Luther compared himself to Hus and encouraged the publication of his main works. According to popular accounts, Hus had prophesied about Luther at his trial, when he said, “You may burn a goose, but in a hundred years will come a swan you will not be able to burn.” Since the name Hus meant “goose” in Czech, and Luther had sometimes referred to himself as a swan singing the gospel message, it was easy to make a connection. Because of this, the swan remained an important Lutheran symbol for centuries.

 



[1] “Hus on Simony,” in Matthew Spinka, ed., Advocates of Reform from Wyclif to Erasmus, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1953, p. 219.

 

Simonetta Carr

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