Jan Hus, also known as John Huss (c. 1369 – 1415) was a Czech (living in the area then known as Bohemia) religious thinker, philosopher, and reformer, master at Charles University in Prague. His followers became known as Hussites. The Roman Catholic Church considered his teachings heretical. Hus was excommunicated in 1411, condemned by the Council of Constance, and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, in Konstanz (Constance), Germany.
Hus was a precursor to the Protestant movement and many of his ideas anticipated those of Martin Luther. He was, though, an even more radical critic than most subsequent reformers of the relationship between the Christian church and use of military force, condemning the churches blessing of crusades, which even Francis of Assisi did not do so unequivocally. His extensive writings earn him a prominent place in Czech literary history.
Early life and studies
John Hus was born at Husinec (Prague-East District) (75 kilometers southwest of Prague) in or around the year of 1369. His father was a wealthy farmer. He attended the university and gained his master’s degree in 1396. He started to teach in 1398, and was ordained as a priest in 1400. He became familiar with the ideas of John Wycliffe following the marriage of England’s Richard II with Anne of Bohemia. In 1401 Hus became dean of the faculty of philosophy, then rector of the university in 1402-3. He also became curate (capellarius) of the university’s Bethlehem Chapel, where he preached in the Czech language. This was itself enough to earn controversy. In 1405, he wrote De Omni Sanguine Christi Glorificato, in which urged Christians to desist from looking for miracles as signs of Christ’s presence, but rather to seek him in his word. Huss had just taken part in an official investigation into the authenticity of alleged miracles at Wilsnack, near Wittenberg, which was attracting a lot of pilgrims from Bohemia. He declared the miracles to be a hoax, and pilgrimage from Bohemia was subsequently banned. Huss was now a popular preacher in the churches, so much so that he was on several occasions invited, with his friend Stanislaus of Znaim, to preach at the synod (hierarchical gatherings to discuss church affairs).
He was also responsible for introducing the use of diacritics (especially the inverted hat, háček) into Czech spelling in order to represent each sound by a single symbol, and is credited with fostering a sense of Czech identity.
The University of Prague, founded in 1348, served the whole Holy Roman Empire, was being torn apart by the ongoing papal schism, in which Pope Gregory XII in Rome and Pope Benedict XIII based in Avignon, France both laid claim to the papacy.
King Wenceslaus of Bohemia felt Pope Gregory XII might interfere with his own plans to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor; thus, he renounced Gregory and ordered his prelates to observe strict neutrality toward both popes. He also said that he expected the same of the university. Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc remained faithful to Gregory, however, and at the university it was only the “Bohemian nation” (one of four voting blocs), with Hus as its leader and spokesman, which avowed neutrality. The other nations were those of the Saxons, Czechs and Poles.
In response, Wenceslaus, at the instigation of Hus and other Bohemian leaders, issued a decree dated January 18, 1409, that the Bohemian nation should now have three votes (instead of one) in all affairs of the university, while the foreign nations, principally Germany, should have only one vote. As a consequence somewhere between five and twenty thousand German doctors, masters, and students left the university in 1409, going on to found the University of Leipzig, among others. Prague then lost its international importance, becoming a Czech school. Hus was elected first rector of the new university.
The archbishop was now isolated, while Hus was at the height of his fame.
Alexander V becomes Pope
In 1409 in an attempt to end the papal schism, the Council of Pisa, met to elect a new pope, Alexander V, who would usurp the other two. This did not succeed, since many people remained loyal to one of the other two popes, so effectively the council merely added a third contender. Pope Alexander V is himself now considered an antipope. Hus and his followers, as well King Wenceslaus, did choose to transfer their allegiance to Alexander V. Under pressure from Wenceslaus, archbishop Zbyněk eventually did the same but he did not change his attitude towards Hus, whose Wyclifite sympathies he considered dangerous. He now took his complaints to Alexander V, accusing the Wyclifites of causing dissension and strife within the church.
Excommunication of Hus
Alexander V issued his papal bull of December 20, 1409, which empowered the archbishop to proceed against Wyclifism—Wycliffe’s books were surrendered, his doctrines (usually referred to as the 45 articles) revoked, and free preaching was to be discontinued. After the publication of the bull in 1410, Hus appealed to Alexander V, but in vain; all books and valuable manuscripts of Wycliffe were burned. In protest, riots broke out in parts of Bohemia. Hus was included in the terms of the bull, as a known Wyclifite.
The government supported Hus, whose influence and popularity was rapidly increasing. He continued to preach in the Bethlehem Chapel, and became bolder and bolder in his accusations against the church. The pope responded by banning worship in all of the city’s churches and by forbidding burial on consecrated land. Few people took any notice, and it certainly did not silence Hus. The magistrates and other city leaders who supported Hus were also excommunicated.
Crusade Against Naples
In 1411 John XXIII, who had succeeded Alexander V, issued a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, Gregory XII’s protector. Crusade was the official term used for a holy war to root out and destroy heresy, or the enemies of Christendom. Preachers urged people to crowd the churches and give generously, and also to purchase indulgences to fund the crusade, and traffic in indulgences quickly developed.
Condemnation of Indulgences and Crusade
Hus, Wycliffe’s example, immediately condemned indulgences, as later would Martin Luther. Hus also denounced the crusade. In 1412, he delivered his Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis, which was taken literally from the last chapter of Wycliffe’s book, De ecclesia, and his treatise, De absolutione a pena et culpa. The pamphlet stated that no pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the church; he should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him; man obtains forgiveness of sins by real repentance, not through money.
The doctors of the theological faculty replied, but without success. A few days afterward some of Hus’s followers, led by Vok Voksa z Valdštejna, burned the papal bulls; Hus, they said, should be obeyed rather than the church, which they considered a fraudulent mob of adulterers and Simonists.
That year, three young Hussites who openly contradicted the preachers during their sermons and called indulgences a fraud, were beheaded. Later, there were considered the first martyrs of the Hussite Church.
In the meantime, the faculty had renewed their condemnation of the forty-five articles and added several other heretical ideas associated with Hus. The king forbade the teaching of these articles, but neither Hus nor the university complied with the ruling, requesting that the un-scriptural nature of the articles should be first proven. Hus himself never said that he agreed with the forty-five articles, only that they should be discussed before being condemned.
The situation at Prague had stirred up a sensation, unpleasant for the Roman party; papal legates and Archbishop Albik tried to persuade Hus to give up his opposition to the papal bulls, and the king made an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the two parties.
Call for arrest of Hus
The clergy of Prague now took their complaints to the pope, who ordered the Cardinal of St. Angelo to proceed against Hus without mercy. The cardinal placed him under a ban, which meant that he was to be seized and delivered to the archbishop, and his chapel was to be destroyed. This was followed by stricter measures against Hus and his followers, and in turn by counter-measures of the Hussites, including an appeal by Hus that Jesus Christ—and not the pope—was the supreme judge. This intensified popular excitement. Anyone found sheltering Hus was now liable to be executed. Even his closest supporters on the faculty, Stanislav ze Znojma and Štěpán Páleč, distanced themselves from him at this time. The interdict against him was renewed in June 1412. Consequently, Hus agreed to leave Prague for Kozihradek, where he engaged in open-air preaching and in copious correspondence, some of which survives.
The king, aware that further strife would be damaging, tried once again to harmonize the opposing parties. In 1412 he summoned the lay and religious leaders for a consultation, and at their suggestion ordered a synod to be held at Český Brod on February 2, 1412, supposedly to reconcile the Hussites and the church. It did not take place there. Instead, in a deliberate attempt to exclude Hus, despite the declared aim of reconciliation it met in the palace of the archbishops at Prague.
Propositions were made for the restitution of the peace of the church, Hus demanding especially that Bohemia should have the same freedom in regard to ecclesiastical affairs as other countries and that approbation and condemnation should therefore be announced only with the permission of the state power. This is wholly the doctrine of Wycliffe (Sermones, iii. 519, etc.). There followed treatises from both parties, but no agreement was reached. “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me,” Hus wrote at the time, “I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty.” The synod did not produce any results, but the king ordered a commission to continue the work of reconciliation.
The doctors of the university required that Hus and his followers approve their conception of the church, according to which the pope is the head, the cardinals are the body of the church, and that all regulations of this church must be obeyed.
Hus protested vigorously against this definition of church, since it made pope and cardinals alone the church, excluding the people. Nevertheless the Hussite party seems to have made a great effort toward reconciliation. To the article that the Roman Church must be obeyed, they added only, “so far as every pious Christian is bound.” Stanislav ze Znojma and Štěpán Páleč protested against this addition and left the convention. The king exiled them, along with two other spokesmen.
Writings of Hus and Wycliffe
Hus’ work on the church (De ecclesia) has been most frequently quoted and admired or criticized. The first ten chapters draw heavily on Wycliffe’s work of the same title, while subsequent chapters are basically an abstract of Wycliffe’s De potentate pape on the power of the pope. Wycliffe had written his book to oppose the common view that the church consisted only of the clergy, and Hus now found himself in a similar condition. He wrote his work at the castle of one of his protectors in Kozí Hrádek (near Austria), and sent it to Prague, where it was publicly read in the Bethlehem Chapel. Stanislav ze Znojma and Páleč replied with treatises of the same title.
In January of 1413, a general council assembled in Rome which condemned the writings of Wycliffe and ordered them to be burned.
Huss wanted to make Christianity more accessible to ordinary people. He wanted people to live lives guided by the Bible, which they should read for themselves. Ordinary people, too, had a right to interpret the scriptures, which was not the preserve of the clergy. He despised the wealth and power of the institutionalized church. He believed in a much simpler life-style than that lived by many clergy. He advocated frequent, even daily communion—and in both kinds. At the time, only priests ate the bread; it was popularly held that lay-people could not be trusted to handle Jesus’ body with sufficient reverence. Against the notion that a sacrament was valid even if the priest who performed it was immoral, he believed that “the efficacy of sacraments depended on the worthiness of ministers” (Christie-Murray, 117). He thought that veneration of monks, saints and of the ritual of the church itself, was a distraction from direct fellowship with God. He criticized the clergy for their wealth and worldliness. Many lived lives of ease and accumulated enormous wealth. Hussite priests would not be allowed “worldy possessions.” Even popes, he taught, need not be obeyed if they placed themselves between the people and their God. God, not priests, absolves us of sin, he said. Thus, the pope had no right to issue or to sell indulgences. What was probably most damning in the eyes of the official church was his contention that “Christ, not Peter (and, by implication, his successors) was the rock upon which the church was built.” Above all, Hus wanted people to access God directly, bypassing the church’s claim to be mediator. He believed in the power of the Holy Spirit and was a profoundly spiritual man.
Council of Constance
To put an end to the papal schism and to take up the long desired reform of the church, a general council was convened for November 1, 1414, at Constance (Konstanz, Germany). The Emperor Sigismund of Luxemburg, brother of Wenceslaus, and heir to the Bohemian crown, was anxious to clear the country from the blemish of heresy. Hus likewise was willing to make an end of all dissensions, and gladly followed the request of Sigismund to go to Constance.
From the sermons that he took along, it is evident that he intended to convert the assembled fathers to his own (i.e., Wycliffe’s) principal doctrines. Sigismund promised him safe-conduct, guaranteeing his safety for the duration of his journey; as a secular ruler he would not have been able to make any guarantees for the safety of Hus in a papal court, a fact that Hus would have been aware of. However, Hus was probably reckoning that a guarantee of safe conduct was also a sign of patronage by the king and that therefore he could rely on royal support during the proceedings.
Imprisonment and preparations for trial
It is unknown whether Hus knew what his fate would be. Black (1911) suggests that he had some premonition that he was going to his death. He ordered all his affairs with a “…presentiment, which he did not conceal, that in all probability he was going to his death.” He assembled testimonies to prove to the council that he held orthodox beliefs. He started on his journey on October 11, 1414; on November 3, 1414, he arrived at Constance, and on the following day the bulletins on the church doors announced that Michal z Německého Brodu would be the opponent of Hus, “the heretic.” On route he had been kindly and enthusiastically received “at almost all the halting places” .
In the beginning Hus was at liberty, living at the house of a widow, but after a few weeks his opponents succeeded in imprisoning him, on the strength of a rumor that he intended to flee. He was first brought into the residence of a canon, and then, on December 8, 1414, into the dungeon of the Dominican monastery. Sigismund was greatly angered, having previously guaranteed safe-conduct, and threatened the prelates with dismissal, but when it was hinted that in such a case the council would be dissolved, he yielded.
On December 4, 1414, the Pope had entrusted a committee of three bishops with a preliminary investigation against him. The witnesses for the prosecution were heard, but Hus was refused an advocate for his defense. His situation became worse after the catastrophe of Antipope John XXIII, who had left Constance to evade the necessity of abdicating. So far Hus had been the captive of the pope and in constant intercourse with his friends, but now he was delivered to the archbishop of Constance and brought to his castle, Gottlieben on the Rhine. Here he remained for seventy-three days, separated from his friends, chained day and night, poorly fed, and tortured by disease.
On June 5, 1415, he was tried for the first time, and for that purpose was transferred to a Franciscan monastery, where he spent the last weeks of his life.
He acknowledged the writings on the church against Znojma, Páleč, as well as Stanislaus of Znaim as his own, and declared himself willing to recant if his errors should be proven to him.
Hus conceded his veneration of Wycliffe, and said that he could only wish his soul might some time attain unto that place where Wycliffe’s was. On the other hand, he denied having defended Wycliffe’s doctrine of The Lord’s Supper or the forty-five articles; he had only opposed their summary condemnation.
The king admonished him to deliver himself up to the mercy of the council, as he did not desire to protect a heretic. At the last trial, on June 8, 1415, thirty-nine sentences were read to him, twenty-six of which had been excerpted from his book on the church, seven from his treatise against Páleč, and six from that against Stanislav ze Znojma. The danger of some of these doctrines as regards worldly power was explained to the emperor to incite him against Hus.
Hus again declared himself willing to submit if he could be convinced of errors. He desired only a fairer trial and more time to explain the reasons for his views. If his reasons and Bible texts did not suffice, he would be glad to be instructed. This declaration was considered an unconditional surrender, and he was asked to confess:
- that he had erred in the theses which he had hitherto maintained;
- that he renounced them for the future;
- that he recanted them; and
- that he declared the opposite of these sentences.
He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines that he had never taught; others, which the assembly considered erroneous, he was willing to revoke; to act differently would be against his conscience. These words found no favorable reception. After the trial on June 8, several other attempts were made to induce him to recant, but he resisted all of them.
The attitude of Sigismund was due to political considerations—he looked upon the return of Hus to his country as dangerous, and thought the terror of execution might improve the situation. Hus no longer hoped to live, and he may in some way have looked forward to becoming a martyr.
Condemnation and execution
The condemnation took place on July 6, 1415, in the presence of the solemn assembly of the council in the cathedral. Each voting member stood up and delivered his own, moving speech that ended with a vote as to whether Hus should live or die. A sizable minority voted to save Hus’s life, but the majority ruled.
If the beginning of the day could be called solemn, the scene after the voting was one of scuffles and chairs being thrown.
After the performance of High Mass and Liturgy, Hus was led into the church. The Bishop of Lodi, Italy, delivered an oration on the duty of eradicating heresy; then some theses of Hus and Wycliffe and a report of his trial were read. He protested loudly several times, and when his appeal to Christ was rejected as a condemnable heresy, he exclaimed, “O God and Lord, now the council condemns even Your own act and Your own law as heresy, since You Yourself did lay Your cause before Your Father as the just judge, as an example for us, whenever we are sorely oppressed.”
Refusals to recant
An Italian prelate pronounced the sentence of condemnation upon Hus and his writings. Again he protested loudly, saying that even at this hour he did not wish anything but to be convinced from Holy Scripture. He fell upon his knees and asked God with a low voice to forgive all his enemies.
Then followed his degradation—he was enrobed in priestly vestments and again asked to recant; again he refused. With curses his ornaments were taken from him, his priestly tonsure was destroyed, and the sentence was pronounced that the church had deprived him of all rights and delivered him to the secular powers. Then a high paper hat was put upon his head, with the inscription “Haeresiarcha” (meaning the leader of a heretical movement). Hus was led away to the stake under a strong guard of armed men.
At the place of execution he knelt down, spread out his hands, and prayed aloud. Some of the people asked that a confessor should be given him, but one priest exclaimed that a heretic should neither be heard nor given a confessor. The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and his neck with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered him to the neck.
At the last moment, the imperial marshal, Von Pappenheim, in the presence of the Count Palatine, asked him to recant and thus save his life, but Hus declined with the words, “God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have by false witnesses been accused. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, I will die today with gladness.”
Burning at the stake
As the fire was kindled, Hus sang, “Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me.” When he started this for a third time and continued “…who is born of Mary the Virgin,” the wind blew the flame into his face; he still moved lips and head, and then died of suffocation. His clothes were thrown into the fire, his ashes gathered and cast into the nearby Rhine. Some sources report him as saying “O sancta simplicitas!” (“Oh holy simplicity!”) when he stood upon the stake and saw a woman adding more wood to it.
On December 18, 1999, Pope John Paul II apologized for the execution of Jan Hus.
Source of his influence
The great success of Hus in his native country was due mainly to his unsurpassed pastoral activity, which far excelled that of the famous old preachers of Bohemia. Hus himself put the highest value on the sermon and knew how to awaken the enthusiasm of the masses. His sermons were often inflammatory as regards their content; he introduces his quarrels with his spiritual superiors, criticizes contemporaneous events, or appeals to his congregation as witness or judge. It was this bearing that multiplied his adherents, and thus he became the true apostle of his English master without being himself a theorist in theological questions.
Other historians would attribute his success to his and his listeners’ deep belief in the holy word and the corruption of the Catholic Church. During Hus’s trial, he never made claims to originality, but instead advocated a return to the word of the Bible. He continued to repeat that if it could be shown in the Bible that he had erred, that he would gladly recant and be corrected. His single-minded pursuit of the truth was liberating to Europe and was perhaps his greatest legacy.
Hus’ friend and devoted follower, Jerome of Prague, shared his fate, although he did not suffer death till nearly a year later, in 1416.
The Hussites continued to practice his teachings. They administered communion regularly, preached and read the Bible in the vernacular, denied priests’ any worldly possessions and increasingly disliked images, observance of festivals and tended towards a ‘memorial’ understanding of communion, similar to Ulrich Zwingli’s (Christie-Murray, 120). They held that the Bible contains all Christian teaching, thus the councils and the creeds are not binding. After the seventeenth century, many Hussites joined other Protestant churches such as the Lutheran and Moravian churches. The movement had two branches, the Ultraquists and the Unitas Fratrum (or Bohemian Brethren).
The first group reached a compromise with the Catholic Church, allowing them to practice differently from other Catholics but under the church’s authority. This followed their popular uprising against King Sigismund (1368-1437) and a series of military confrontations in which they proved themselves difficult to defeat by military means. Count Lutzow (1911) suggests that the democratic character of the Hussite movement was itself feared by their princely opponents, “who were afraid that such views might extend to their own countries,” so instead they sued for peace. A formal compact was signed on July 5, 1436, allowing the Hussites to give the sacrament freely in both kinds, to preach freely, and affirming that their priests would “claim no ownership of worldly possessions”. When Sigismund regained power he tried to rescind this but was not able to do so. A crusade had been proclaimed against the Hussites in 1420. In 1430 Joan of Arc wrote a letter to the Hussites, threatening to wage war on them unless they returned to the Catholic Church.
The second group can be regarded as the spiritual heir of the Hussites, originating in Bohemia as the Unitas Fratrum (or the Bohemian Brethren), a group that on the one hand maintained the historic episcopacy while on the other hand following Huss’ teaching. They especially stressed pacifism as a Christian virtue. Under the reign of the Hissites gained legal status, alongside Catholics. Their basic beliefs were set out in the Four Article of Prague (1420):
1. Freedom to preach the Word of God.
2. Celebration of the Lord’s Supper in both kinds (bread and wine to priests and laity alike).
3. No profane power for the clergy.
4. The same law for laity and priests (see Christie-Murray, 119).
In 1620, after the Thirty Years’ War, members were forced to accept Roman Catholic authority or to flee from all parts of the Holy Roman Empire, including Bohemia. Some settled in Protestant parts of Germany, where the movement was reorganized as the Moravian Church by Count Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf (1700-1760). The Moravians stress personal, inner piety, Christian unity, overseas missions and self-reliance (all missionaries support themselves with a trade). Moravians are in full communion with Lutherans and many regard the “church” to be an “order” within the Lutheran fellowship, which is how John Wesley, who was influenced by the Moravians, originally saw his Methodists. See on the Moravians.
Some critics say that Hus’ work was mainly borrowed from Wycliffe but Black (1911) comments that his Super IV Sententiarum proves that he was a “…man of profound learning.” However, concludes Black, Hus’ “principal glory will always be founded on his spirituality [whose] honour of having been one of the bravest of the martyrs [that died for the] cause of honesty and freedom…[and he] handed on from Wycliffe to Luther the torch which kindled the reformation”.
Hus is honored in the Czech Republic on July 6, known as Jan Hus Day (Den upálení mistra Jana Husa) the anniversary of his execution.