21 November 2004

Jan Hus: Spelling Reformer, Religious Heretic

The quiet and scholarly Prague canon Matej criticized the cult of saints and their relics, and anticipated the Hussites in his advocacy of communion in both kinds (sub utraque specie; i.e., with both bread and wine) for laity as well as priests. Tomas Stitny was a southern Bohemian squire who sought to popularize Milic's ideas. His metier was not theology but books of practical moral education, and he was no rebel. But he was a layman writing about religious affairs, and he wrote, moreover, in Czech. Both, from the point of view of the Church, were threatening transgressions. Around the same time, in the 1370s to 1380s, the Bible was first translated into the Czech vernacular.

Jan Hus himself was born around 1370 in Husinec in southern Bohemia. He studied at Prague university, becoming a master of arts in 1396 and lecturing there from 1398, the same year he was ordained a priest. From 1402 he began to preach in Prague's Bethlehem Chapel, a church in the Old Town [Stare mesto] founded in 1391 expressly for the delivery of sermons in Czech. Hus rapidly gained a large popular audience for his attacks on the vices and abuses of the Church. A follower of the English reformer John Wyclif, he enunciated many tenets of what was to become the Protestant Reformation a century before Luther. Wyclifism was a bone of contention in the university from the 1380s, and the theological conflict soon turned into a national one, dividing Germans and Czechs on the faculty. In 1403, under a German rector, the university banned all Wyclif's books as heretical, a stance reiterated by Archbishop Zbynek z Hazmburka in 1408. The following year Vaclav IV's Kutna Hora decree gave the Czechs a majority in the university's government, and Hus himself became its rector. Many German professors and students left Prague in protest, to found new universities at Leipzig and Erfurt. In 1410 the archbishop publicly burned Wyclif's works and pronounced an anathema on Hus, who continued preaching at Bethlehem regardless and organized a public defense of Wyclif at the university. The Papal Curia itself now excommunicated Hus as a heretic. Undeterred, he began to preach in 1412 against the sale of papal indulgences. When the Bethlehem Chapel was threatened by Prague Germans in the autumn of that year, Hus fled the city for southern Bohemia. Here he continued to preach and write, evidently to good effect, since the region subsequently became a bastion of the Hussite movement. Beside penning religious tracts, he found the time to reform Czech spelling; it was he who introduced diacritical marks into the written language.

In 1414 Hus was summoned to answer charges of heresy before the Council of Konstanz. Trusting to the safe conduct issued him by Vaclav's brother Emperor Zikmund (Sigismund), king of Hungary, he complied. On his arrival in Konstanz he was swiftly imprisoned. When he refused to recant before the council, he was burned at the stake on 6 July 1415. His ashes were scraped from the ground and thrown into the Rhine, so that nothing of him should get back to Bohemia. It was a superfluous gesture. The Czech nobility had already condemned Hus's arrest; now they assembled in Prague and sent a blistering protest to Konstanz. They defended Hus as "a good, just and Christian man," who "faithfully preached God's law of the Old and New Testaments." As significantly, they portrayed Hus's immolation as a national insult. There were 452 seals attached to the letter, including those of the highest officials in Bohemia and Moravia. The council is accused, repeatedly, of "bringing into disgrace and humiliation our kingdom and margravate." The Czechs remind the prelates that "in times when almost every kingdom of the world often wavered and supported schism in the Church and papal pretenders, our most Christian Czech Kingdom and Moravian Margravate always stood solid as a rock and never ceased to adhere to the Holy Roman Church, giving her unblemished and sincere obedience ever since we first accepted the Christian faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), pp. 36-37

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