Jan Hus was burned at the stake
It was in this environment of failed political leadership, a growing religious reform movement, nationalistic animosities and Czech nationalism, and the arrival of the writings of John Wyclif that the great Czech reformer, Jan Hus, emerged. Hus was born of peasant stock in 1372 or 1373, or perhaps earlier (1369) – the date is uncertain – in the small village of Husinec on the River Blanice in southern Bohemia; little is known of his early life or family. He seems to have had a brother who predeceased him, as Hus asked a friend to look after his nephews shortly before his own death. All that is known of Hus’s father is his name, Michael, and he seems to have had little influence on the direction of his son’s life. Although the father may have receded from Jan’s memory, his mother seems to have had lasting influence on him, as he revealed in one of his treatises. It was she, he recalled, who taught him to say: ‘Amen, may God grant it.’ It seems that she was behind his decision to become a priest, concerned as she was for her son to find a respectable profession, which would provide the financial security she apparently did not enjoy. There is also a story from the late fifteenth century confi rming the important role of Hus’s mother in his life. According to this account, Hus was accompanied by her when he entered the grammar school in the nearby town of Prachatice in 1385. His mother brought a loaf of bread as a gift for the schoolmaster and, during the trip to the school, she knelt seven times to pray for her son. Although the story may be apocryphal, it demonstrates the central role Hus’s mother played in his first steps along the path to a clerical career. Beyond her lasting impact, though, little can be said of Hus’s early life.
Events in the life of Jan Hus come into sharper focus once he began his education and entered the priesthood. His first step, of course, was taken when he entered the school at Prachatice, where he learned Latin, an essential skill for those wishing to become priests. During his years at Prachatice, Hus supported himself by singing in church choirs and participated in a blasphemous Christmas ritual, the ‘Feast of the Ass’, in which a choir boy dressed as a bishop, rode a donkey, and led the other boys of the choir into a mock mass. He also was introduced to the basic elements of medieval education: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic. He would study these subjects more fully at university, along with the other four liberal arts: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music. In 1390, or perhaps as early as 1386, at the age of 18, Hus entered the University of Prague, enrolling under the name Jan of Husinec, which later on was shortened to Hus (the Czech word for ‘goose’). He was most likely introduced to the city and university by a friend from his village, Christian of Prachatice.
Hus’s university years were successful and enjoyable. He continued to support himself as a singer and developed a reputation for good humour, eloquence and wit. He seems to have been intent upon pursuing a clerical career, hoping to ascend into the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. As he wrote later: ‘When I was a young student, I confess to have entertained an evil desire, for I thought to become a priest quickly in order to secure a good livelihood and dress well and to be held in esteem of man.’ A university education was the best way for a poor young man like Hus to accomplish this end, and he undertook his studies most diligently. At the University of Prague he was introduced to Aristotle, who was known as ‘the Philosopher’ in the Middle Ages and whose system laid the foundation for all the higher disciplines, including philosophy and theology. He continued his study of Latin and he learned German, which he may have started at Prachatice; he worked toward becoming a bachelor of arts. Following the traditional three-year course of study, Hus was awarded his bachelor’s degree in 1393, the first time that his name appears in an official document.
After receiving his degree, Hus immediately registered for study toward the master’s degree, which would open numerous doors for him as a teacher and scholar. He spent the next three years studying at the university under its Czech, and not German, masters. His situation was eased somewhat by his appointment to a position in one of the colleges as servant; he was responsible for keeping the masters’ rooms in order and for helping out in the kitchen, and he was given room and board for his labours. With less concern about financial matters, Hus was able to dedicate himself fully to his studies. Although it is uncertain whom he took as his primary master, Hus benefited from the possibility of studying at the university and living at its centre. During his time there he was probably introduced to the works of Thomas Aquinas, whom he held in high regard, as well as to the philosophical and theological trends current at the time. He was exposed to Nominalism and came to know the works of St Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and others. It was also at this time that Hus was first introduced to the ideas of John Wyclif, which had become popular with Czech scholars at just about the time when Hus had arrived at the university.
His first contact was with Wyclif ’s philosophical works, which Hus found to be of great worth. Later on he came to know Wyclif ’s theological works and even copied four of his treatises for his own use.
Completing his course of study in 1396, Hus was awarded the master of arts degree and began his teaching career. From 1396 to 1398, he devoted his lectures to the works of Aristotle, offered tutorials and presided over student disputations, and after 1398 he lectured on the works of John Wyclif. He seems to have been a popular and successful teacher, attracting many students to his lectures, where his natural eloquence enabled him to give consistently interesting and informative lessons. His talents as a professor were recognised by his colleagues in the faculty of the university and by his former masters, who helped advance Hus’s career. In 1398 he was given responsibility for the promotion of students to the rank of bachelor, and later he was granted the duty of promoting students to the level of master. His speeches at the promotion ceremonies reveal him as a man of good humour and kindliness and as a teacher able to establish close and warm relationships with his students. In 1401, he was named dean of the Faculty of Arts and served in that position until the following year, when he became rector and preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, having been ordained a priest in June 1400. At that time, Hus also enrolled in the university’s Faculty of Theology in pursuit of a doctorate in that field, which he never completed; yet he advanced toward his doctorate by earning lower degrees.
His ordination and interest in a theology degree signal a profound change in Hus’s personal and professional life. It was at some point prior to ordination that he seems to have undergone a religious conversion which led to his committing fully to the religious life and turning away from the life of the careerist ecclesiastic, who sought ecclesiastical benefices and other privileges. Up to that point, as Hus himself freely admitted, he indulged in ‘youthful follies’, playing chess and taking pride in his academic position and dress. He often wore elaborate university gowns, decorated with white fur. He willingly participated in the banquets of the university masters and generally enjoyed his life as a student and teacher, while ambitiously seeking advancement. All that ended sometime before 1400, but Hus provides no clear answer concerning the precise moment when this happened or the reason for such sudden and profound change. Near the end of his life, however, he noted that, when he was young, he had belonged to a ‘foolish sect’, but God had shown him the way through the scriptures and thereafter he abandoned the life of frivolity. As with his predecessors in the Czech reformation movement, Hus seems to have come to personal reform and to the religious life through the serious study of the Bible.
For twelve years following his appointment on 14 March 1402, Hus continued to hold his position as rector and as preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, which had been founded in 1391 by a wealthy Prague merchant. Thus he combined both popular and university reform traditions and made that Chapel the centre of the Czech reformation movement. During his tenure as rector, he delivered some three thousand sermons; many of them were originally composed or preserved in Latin.16 His sermons attracted to the Chapel large and enthusiastic crowds, including many noble women and even the Queen. Unlike earlier rectors, Hus preached only in Czech and not in Czech and German, demonstrating his own Czech nationalism and proclaiming the important role of Bohemia in God’s plan. He also identified himself more fully with the Czech reformation and its ideals, and his preaching was an essential stimulus to the growth and expansion of that movement. The goals of the movement moved beyond the academic and ecclesiastical circle and were adopted by Czech artisans and the Czech middle class. Indeed, as one historian has noted, through his sermons at the Bethlehem Chapel, Hus created the concerns of the reformers and the ecumenical agenda, transforming himself into a ‘national religious leader’.
The sermons Hus delivered at Bethlehem Chapel covered a wide range of topics concerned with the moral and institutional reform of the Church. In some of his early sermons, he exhorted his listeners to take up a life of repentance and holiness and to follow Christ. He challenged the laity, including nobles and kings, as well as his fellow clerics, to renounce corruption and immorality and to live a virtuous life without avarice, pride or other sins, and he taught that the highest goal of the religious life was to love God. In sermons delivered between 1405 and 1407, however, he moved beyond moral exhortation – of laity, clergy, and university masters and students – to address the problems facing the clergy and the Church. From this period on, his sermons became more aggressive and critical. He ferociously attacked the failings of the clergy, denouncing the corruption of the priestly office and demanding reform. In his sermons he proclaimed that corrupt and immoral priests were really the devil’s own, and he attacked priests who had concubines or committed adultery. Also of concern to Hus was simony, which, in his treatise on this topic, he defined in traditional terms, as ‘an evil consent to an exchange of spiritual goods for nonspiritual’. It is a ‘trafficking in holy things’, and ‘both he who buys and he who sell [sic] is a merchant, a simoniac is both he who buys and he who sells holy things’. He criticised the clergy for accepting money or gifts in exchange for performing the sacraments and he virulently attacked both the priests and the monks for various financial exactions. In these sermons Hus addressed the hierarchy of the Church as well, and criticised excessive claims to papal power and authority, raising questions, in particular, over indulgences and matters of excommunication. The Church itself was defined as the body of the elect, all those who had been predestined to salvation. Although both the predestined and the foreknown existed together in the Church militant, only the predestined were part of the true Church.
During his tenure as rector at Bethlehem Chapel, Hus continued his scholarly career and worked toward his doctorate in theology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in divinity in 1404, and from 1404 to 1406 he gave lectures on the Bible. In 1407 he earned the degree that would allow him to lecture on Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences, which he did from 1407 to 1409. He also engaged in academic disputations with other scholars as he prepared for the doctoral degree, and he wrote a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, even though other duties prevented him from taking the doctoral degree. It was at this time that Hus also became better acquainted with Wyclif ’s views, some of which he accepted, others not. Wyclif ’s teachings would seem to have influenced Hus even though the Czech scholar was never a thoroughgoing disciple of the Oxford theologian. He would, however, defend Wyclif ’s teachings against the increasingly hostile and irrational attacks on them by the German masters at Prague.
Hus’s career at Bethlehem Chapel and at the University of Prague overlapped with broader changes in Czech society and culture, which included increasing tensions between the German and Czech populations. These changes were manifest in the reaction against Wyclif ’s teachings, led by the Dominican John Hübner and by the German masters at the University of Prague, which broke out in 1403. Hübner petitioned Rome about some forty-five of Wyclif ’s propositions as well as on the matter of the realism currently taught by the Czech masters of the university. Some twenty-four of the propositions listed by Hübner had previously been condemned at the Blackfriars’ Council in England in 1382, and the remaining twenty-one were compiled by Hübner himself. The Wyclifite teachings included positions on the papacy, on the Pope as Antichrist and on the monastic orders, among other things. Hübner argued that, since some of these propositions had already been condemned, they should be condemned in Bohemia as well. The repudiation of Wyclif ’s teachings was also sent to the Archbishop of Prague, who, in turn, asked the university for an opinion. When the university masters took up the debate, the underlying tensions between the German and Czech masters exploded into the open, since the German scholars had rejected Wyclif ’s ideas and the Czechs had adopted them as central to their reform programme. The Czechs strongly opposed Hübner’s condemnation and accused the Dominican of misquoting or taking passages out of context. They asserted that Wyclif ’s teachings were not in error and declared that they would continue to support these teachings. Despite the vehemence of their opposition to Hübner, the Czech masters lost the university debate when the vote was tallied. The three German nations at the university voted in favour of Hübner’s condemnation, whereas the Czech nation voted against it. It should perhaps be added that a ‘nation’ was a basic organisational structure of the medieval university, made up of students from the same country or religion.
The dispute, however, did not put an end to the general interest in Wyclif ’s ideas. The university did not forbid the study of Wyclif ’s books but only of the specific articles listed in the condemnation. The Archbishop, a well-respected former soldier and noble, Zbynevk, was ill-equipped to render a decision but sympathetic to reform, and he hesitated to make a pronouncement on the matter. The Czech masters, especially Hus, pursued their study of Wyclif more eagerly than before, and some of them went so far as to declare publicly their endorsement of the most controversial of Wyclif ’s ideas. Although Hus was not among them, he would defend Wyclif and approved of many of the Oxford theologian’s positions. In debate with Hübner in 1404, Hus rejected the Dominican’s denunciations of Wyclif and accused Hübner of distorting Wyclif ’s positions. Moreover, Hus ardently maintained that the forty-five articles had been taken out of context and that Wyclif himself was not a heretic. Despite this show of support by Hus and others, the acceptance of Wyclif ’s teachings faced serious setbacks. In 1407, two of the most active Czech supporters of Wyclif ’s ideas, Stanislav of Znojmo and Jan Pálecv, were called before the Pope and forced to recant their teachings. Under papal pressure, they rejected their former advocacy, and when they returned to Prague they were among the staunchest critics of Wyclif. And in 1408, the Archbishop prohibited the teaching of the forty-five articles condemned by Hübner, while the Czech masters agreed not to defend the articles ‘in their heretical, erroneous, and objectionable sense ’ – a most ambiguous acquiescence.
Another development of major significance in the life of Jan Hus was Wenceslas’s change of allegiance during the papal schism, which enhanced Hus’s standing but also contributed to the estrangement between him and Archbishop Zbynevk. Wenceslas and the university and clergy had supported the popes in Rome, most recently Gregory XII (1406–15), as the legitimate popes against those in Avignon. In an effort to end the schism, however, a number of cardinals withdrew their allegiance to their respective popes and, with the support of the French King and of the University of Paris, agreed to hold a general council to depose the reigning popes and to elect a new one. Meeting at the poorly attended Council of Pisa in 1409, the cardinals elected Peter of Candia, who took the name of Alexander V. Wenceslas, who received promise of support from the French if he backed the Council and the new Pope, saw his opportunity to undermine the authority of his brother, Emperor Rupert, and to gain greater power in the Empire. In order to switch his allegiance, the King needed the support of the University of Prague, but he faced the difficult proposition of persuading the German nations, which remained united in their support of Rome. To resolve that dilemma, Wenceslas issued the decree of Kutná Hora on 18 January 1409, which reorganised the nations at the university. The German nations had been divided into three voting blocks, but the decree merged them into one, and the Bohemian block was divided into three blocks from one. The Czech reformers, who made up the majority of the Bohemian nation, hoped to find backing from the conciliar Pope, and so they were supportive of the King’s move to endorse the Council and the Pope it chose, and voted in approval of the conciliar movement. The German nations abandoned the university, returning to new or established universities in other parts of the Empire, where they continued their opposition to Wyclif and to the Czechs at University of Prague.
Changes of papal affiliation affected Hus and the Czech reformation movement directly, in ways they had surely not anticipated. Rather than support the King and the new conciliar Pope, Archbishop Zbynevk refused, as any good soldier would, to break his oath to the Roman Pope, Gregory. This enraged Wenceslas, who took steps against the Archbishop. Zbynevk was forced to renounce his allegiance to Gregory and declared Alexander to be the legitimate Pope; he was also ordered to proclaim that Prague and its university were free from heresy. These humiliations drove Zbynevk away from the reform camp and led to his request that Alexander should issue a bull condemning Wyclif ’s teachings and prohibiting any preaching outside the cathedral church or monasteries. Issued on 20 December 1409, this bull clearly drove a wedge between the Archbishop and Hus, who was obviously the target – if not in the bull, at least as far as Zbynevk was concerned. Hus continued preaching and gained popular support against the Archbishop, whose high-handedness alienated not only the people of Prague but also the King. Zbynevk was not going to back down, and on 16 July 1410 he gathered together copies of Wyclif ’s books and had them burned. Although surrendering his own volumes, Hus protested Zbynevk’s actions as unwarranted and arbitrary, especially since Wyclif had not yet been declared a heretic. The Archbishop excommunicated Hus and reported the case to the papal curia, which then examined the matter to Hus’s disadvantage. Refusing to report to Rome to answer questions concerning his case, Hus was excommunicated in 1411 by the cardinal in charge of his case and by Zbynevk for a second time. The Archbishop also placed the city of Prague under an interdict, but the King declared it should not be obeyed. Efforts to resolve the crisis were made by all parties and nearly reached a successful conclusion. Zbynevk was charged with lifting both the interdict and the excommunication of Hus in exchange for concessions from the King, and Hus was to make a full confession of faith, declaring his adherence to orthodox teaching, which he sent to the Pope. The Archbishop, however, decided to flee Prague for territories of Wenceslas’s brother Sigismund, King of Hungary, before fulfilling his end of the agreement and died on the way there, in September 1411.
Hus assumed such a pivotal role in the dispute with Zbynevk in large measure because he, a charismatic preacher, had emerged as the leader of the Czech reformation movement by 1407. Earlier leaders, including some of his own teachers, had begun to pass away, while others, closer in age to Hus, notably Stanislav of Znojmo and Jan Pálecv, had defected from the reform camp and indeed had turned into harsh critics of the reform and of Wyclif. Preaching from the pulpit at Bethlehem Chapel attracted a large following for Hus from outside the university, but, more importantly still, it allowed him to give voice to his own criticisms of the Church, which coincided with broader reform goals. He was also guardedly sympathetic of Wycliffi te teachings and open to Czech nationalist ideas. Hus, therefore, seemed to be the natural leader of the movement, even though he was not the most radical theologian of his day. His stature was most clearly recognised when the masters at the university chose him as rector on 17 October 1409, an office he held throughout the rest of that year and the next. The election was one of the results of the Kutná Hora decree, which put control of university policy into the hands of the Czech nation.