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Jan Hus

Renaissance portrait of Jan Hus

Jan Hus (1369 Husinec , Southern BohemiaJuly 6, 1415 Constance) was a religious thinker and reformer. He initiated a religious movement based on the ideas of John Wyclif. His followers became known as Hussites. The Catholic Church did not condone such uprisings, and Hus was excommunicated in 1411, condemned by the Council of Constance, and burned at the stake.

Hus was a precursor to the Protestant movement. His extensive writings earn him a promiment place in Czech literary history. He is also responsible for introducing the use of accents (especially the hacek) into Czech spelling in order to represent each sound by a single symbol. Today, a statue of Jan Hus can be seen at the Prague old town square, the Staroměstské náměstí.


Early life and studies

John Hus, the famous reformer from Bohemia, was born at Husinec (75 km s. s. w. of Prague) July 6, 1369, as commonly given; but the day is an inference from the fact that his followers honored his memory on July 6, the day of his death, and the year is probably too late; he was burned at the stake in Constance, July 6, 1415. John Huss is his common English designation, but the name is more correctly written, according to Czech spelling, Hus. It is an abbreviation from his birthplace made by himself about 1399; in earlier life he was always known as Jan Husinecký, or, in Latin, Johannes de Hussinetz. His parents were Czechs, in narrow circumstances.

Like Martin Luther, he had to earn his living by singing and performing humble services in the Church. He felt inclined toward the clerical profession, not so much by an inner impulse as by the attraction of the tranquil life of the clergy. He studied at Prague, where he must have been as early as the middle of the eighties. He was greatly influenced by Stanislav ze Znojma , who later was long his intimate friend, but finally his bitter enemy. As a student Hus did not distinguish himself. The learned quotations of which he boasted in his writings were mostly taken from Wyclif's works. A hot temper and arrogance were traits of his character, and he was not free from sophistry. In 1393 he became bachelor of arts, in 1394 bachelor of theology , and in 1396 master of arts. In 1400 he was ordained priest, in 1401 he became dean of the philosophical faculty , and in the following year rector of Charles University. In 1402 he was appointed also preacher of the Bethlehem Church in Prague, where he preached in the Czech language.

Influence of Wyclif in Bohemia

Following the marriage of King Wenceslaus' sister, Anne, to Richard II of England in 1382, the philosophical writings of Wyclif became known in Bohemia. As a student, Hus had been greatly attracted by them, particularly by his philosophical realism. His inclination toward ecclesiastical reforms was awakened only by the acquaintance with Wyclif's theological writings. The so-called Hussism in the first decades of the fifteenth century was nothing but Wyclifism transplanted into Bohemian soil. As such, it maintained itself until the death of Hus, then turned into Utraquism, and was followed by Taboritism.

The theological writings of Wyclif spread widely in Bohemia. They had been brought over, as is said, in 1401 or 1402 by Jerome of Prague, and Hus was greatly moved by them. The university arose against the spread of the new doctrines, and in 1403 prohibited a disputation on forty-five theses taken in part from Wyclif. Under Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc (from 1403), Hus initially enjoyed a great reputation. In 1405 he was active as a synodical preacher, but the bishop was compelled to depose him on account of his severe attacks upon the clergy.

The papal schism

The development of conditions at the University of Prague depended to a great extent on the question of the papal schism. King Wenceslaus, who was on the point of assuming the reins of government, but whose plans were in no way furthered by Gregory XII, renounced the latter and ordered his prelates to observe a strict neutrality toward both popes, and he expected the same of the university. The archbishop remained faithful to Gregory, and at the university it was only the Bohemian nation, with Hus as its spokesman, which avowed neutrality. Incensed by this attitude, Wenceslaus, at the instigation of Hus and other Czech leaders, issued in Kutná Hora a decree according to which there should be conceded to the Bohemian nation three votes in all affairs of the university, while the foreign nations, principally the German, should have only one vote. As a consequence many German doctors, masters, and students left the university in 1409, and the University of Leipzig was founded. Thus Prague lost its international importance and became a Czech school; but the emigrants spread the fame of the Bohemian heresies into the most distant countries.

The archbishop was then isolated and Hus at the height of his fame. He became the first rector of the Czech university, and enjoyed the favor of the court. In the meantime, the doctrinal views of Wyclif had spread over the whole country. As long as Zbyněk Zajíc remained obedient to Gregory XII, all opposition to the new spirit was in vain; but as soon as he submitted to Alexander V, conditions changed. The archbishop brought his complaints before the papal see, accusing the Wyclifites as the instigators of all ecclesiastical disturbances in Bohemia. Thereupon the pope issued his bull of December 20, 1409, which empowered the archbishop to proceed against Wyclifism--all books of Wyclif were to be given up, his doctrines revoked, and free preaching discontinued. After the publication of the bull in 1410, Hus appealed to the pope, but in vain. All books and valuable manuscripts of Wyclif were burned, and Hus and his adherents put under the ban. This procedure caused an indescribable commotion among the people down to the lowest classes; in some places turbulent scenes occurred. The government took the part of Hus, and the power of his adherents increased from day to day. He continued to preach in the Bethlehem chapel, and became bolder and bolder in his accusations of the Church. The churches of the city were put under the ban, and the interdict was pronounced against Prague, but without result.


Zbyněk Zajíc died in 1411, and with his death the religious movement in Bohemia entered a new phase--the disputes concerning indulgences arose. In 1411 John XXIII issued his crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of Gregory XII. In Prague also the cross was preached, and preachers of indulgences urged people to crowd the churches and give their offerings. There developed a traffic in indulgences. Hus, following the example of Wyclif, lifted up his voice against it and wrote his famous Crusade. But he could not carry with him the men of the university. In 1412 a disputation took place, on which occasion Hus delivered his Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis. It was taken literally from the last chapter of Wyclif's book, De ecclesia, and his treatise, De absolutione a pena et culpa. No pope or bishop, according to Wyclif and Hus, 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 for money. The doctors of the theological faculty replied, but without success. A few days afterward the people, led by Vok Voksa z Valdštejna , burnt the papal bulls. Hus, they said, should be obeyed rather than the fraudulent mob of adulterers and simonists. Three men from the lower classes who openly contradicted the preachers during their sermons and called indulgences a fraud were beheaded. They were the first martyrs of the Hussite Church. The theological faculty requested Hus to present his speeches and doctrines to the dean for an examination, but he refused.

In the meantime, the faculty had condemned the forty-five articles anew and added several other heretical theses which had originated with Hus. The king forbade the teaching of these articles, but neither Hus nor the university approved of this summary condemnation, requesting that the unscripturalness of the articles should be first proved.

Further dissentions

The tumults 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 bulls, and the king made an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the two parties. In the mean time the clergy of Prague, through Michael de Causis , had brought their complaints before the pope, and he ordered the cardinal of St. Angelo to proceed against Hus without mercy. The cardinal put him under the great church ban. He was to be seized and delivered to the archbishop, and his chapel was to be destroyed. Stricter measures against Hus and his adherents, the counter-measures of the Hussites, and the appeal of Hus from the pope to Jesus Christ as the supreme judge only intensified the excitement among the people and forced Hus to depart from Prague, in compliance with the wish of the king; but his absence had not the expected effect. The excitement continued. The king, being grieved by the disrepute of his country on account of the heresy, made great efforts to harmonize the opposing parties. In 1412 he convoked the heads of his kingdom for a consultation, and at their suggestion ordered a synod to be held at Český Brod on Feb. 2, 1412. It did not take place there, but in the palace of the archbishops at Prague, Hus being thus excluded from participation. Propositions were made for the restitution of the peace of the Church, Hus requiring 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 Wyclif (Sermones, iii. 519, etc.). There followed treatises from both parties, but no harmony was obtained. "Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me," Hus wrote in those days, "I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty." The synod did not produce any results, but the king did not yet give up his hope--he ordered a commission to continue the work of reconciliation. The doctors of the university required from Hus and his adherents an approval of their conception of the Church, according to which the pope is the head, the cardinals the body of the Church, and that all regulations of this Church must be obeyed. Hus protested vigorously against this conception since it made pope and cardinals alone the Church. Nevertheless the Hussite party seems to have approached the standpoint of their opponents as closely as possible. To the article that the Roman Church must be obeyed, they added "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, with two other spokesmen. Of the writings occasioned by these controversies, that of Hus on the Church (De ecclesia) has been most frequently quoted and admired or criticized, and yet it is in the first ten chapters but a meagre epitome of Wyclif's work of the same title, and in the following chapters an abstract of a work by the same author (De potentate pape) on the power of the pope Wyclif 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. It was answered by Stanislav ze Znojma and Štěpán Páleč with treatises of the same title. After the most vehement opponents of Hus had left Prague, his adherents occupied the whole ground. Hus wrote his treatises and preached in the neighborhood of Kozí Hrádek . Bohemian Wyclifism was carried into Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria; but at the same time the papal court was not inactive. In Jan., 1413, there assembled at Rome a general council which condemned the writings of Wyclif and ordered them to be burned.

The 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 Nov. 1, 1414, at Constance. The Emperor Sigismund, 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 which he took along, it is evident that he purposed to convert the assembled fathers to his own (i.e., Wyclif's) principal doctrines. Sigismund promised him safe-conduct (however this means only that the Emperor was willing to look after him 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). Provided with sufficient testimonies concerning his orthodoxy, and after having made his will as if he had divined his death, he started on his journey (Oct. 11, 1414). On Nov. 3 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. In the beginning Hus was at liberty, making his abode 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 thence, on Dec. 8, into the dungeon of the Dominican monastery. Sigismund was greatly angered at the abuse of his letter of safe-conduct and threatened the prelates with dismissal, but when it was hinted that in such a case the council would be dissolved, there was nothing left for him but to accommodate himself to the circumstances. Thus the fate of Hus was sealed.

On Dec. 4 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 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 seventy-three days, separated from his friends, chained day and night, poorly fed, and tortured by disease.

Trial of Hus

On June 5 he was tried for the first time, and for that purpose was transferred to the Franciscan monastery, where he spent the last weeks of his life. He acknowledged the writings on the Church against Palecz and Stanislaus of Znaim as his own, and declared himself willing to recant, if errors should be proven to him. Hus conceded his veneration of Wyclif, and said that he could only wish his soul might some time attain unto that place where Wyclif's was. On the other hand, he denied having defended Wyclif'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, there were read to him thirty-nine sentences, twenty-six of which had been excerpted from his book on the Church, seven from his treatise against Štěpán Páleč , and six from that against Stanislav ze Znojma . Almost all of his articles may be traced back to Wyclif. The danger of some of these doctrines as regards worldly power was explained to the emperor to incite him against Hus. The latter 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

  1. that he had erred in the theses which he had hitherto maintained;
  2. that he renounced them for the future;
  3. that he recanted them; and
  4. that he declared the opposite of these sentences.

He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines which 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 would not be without effect. Hus no longer hoped for life, indeed martyrdom responded to an inner desire of his being.

Condemnation and execution

Jan Hus at the Stake

The condemnation took place on July 6 in the presence of the solemn assembly of the council in the cathedral. After the performance of high mass and liturgy, Hus was led into the church. The bishop of Lodi delivered an oration on the duty of eradicating heresy; then some theses of Hus and Wyclif 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 thine own act and thine own law as heresy, since thou thyself didst lay thy cause before thy Father as the just judge, as an example for us, whenever we are sorely oppressed." 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. Thus 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, 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. Still at the last moment, the imperial marshal, Von Pappenheim, in the presence of the Count Palatine, asked him to save his life by a recantation, but Hus declined with the words "God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached I will die to-day with gladness." Thereupon the fire was kindled. With uplifted voice Hus sang, "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." When he started this for the third time and continued "who art 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.

Hus' character, writings, and teachings

The Czech people, who in his lifetime had loved Hus as their prophet and apostle, now adored him as their saint and martyr. He possessed high virtues, but in his struggles with the University of Prague and his ecclesiastical opponents he can not be freed altogether from the reproach of slander and abuse. His learning was not of a universal range; wherever he goes beyond Wyclif, he falters and becomes dull or verbose. He left only a few reformatory writings in the proper sense of the word, most of his works being polemical treatises against Stanislav ze Znojma and Štěpán Páleč . It is doubtful whether he knew all the works of Wyclif. He translated the Trialogus, and was very familiar with his works on the body of the Lord, on the Church, on the power of the pope, and especially with his sermons. The book on the Church and on the power of the pope contains the essence of the doctrine of Hus. According to it, the Church is not that hierarchy which is generally designated as Church; the Church is the entire body of those who from eternity have been predestined for salvation. Christ, not the pope, is its head. It is no article of faith that one must obey the pope to be saved. Neither external membership in the Church nor churchly offices and dignities are a surety that the persons in question are members of the true Church. What he says in his sermons on the corruption of the Church, clergy, and monks, on the duties of secular powers, etc., he has taken almost literally from Wyclif. His three great sermons, De suffcientia legis Christi, De fidei suae elucidatione, and De pace, with which he thought to carry away the whole council at Constance, are exact reproductions of Wyclif's sermons. He claims not to have shared Wyclif's views regarding the sacraments, but this is not certain. The soil had been well prepared for this very doctrine in Bohemia. There are reasons to suppose that Wyclif's doctrine of the Lords' Supper had spread to Prague as early as 1399. It gained an even wider circulation after it had been prohibited in 1403, and Hus preached and taught it, although it is possible that he simply repeated it without advocating it. But the doctrine was seized eagerly by the radical party, the Taborites, who made it the central point of their system.

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. But even here Hus was the docile pupil of the Englishman. 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 which multiplied his adherents, and thus he became the true apostle of his English master without being himself a theorist in theological questions. In the art of governing and leading masses he was unexcelled. Hus' warm friend and devoted follower, Jerome of Prague, shared his fate, although he did not suffer death till nearly a year later.


  • Schaff-Herzog: Encyclopedia of Religion

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