1902 Encyclopedia > John Huss (Jan Hus)

John Huss
(Jan Hus)
Bohemian religious reformer
c. 1369 - 1415)

JOHN HUSS (1369-1415), the Bohemian reformer and martyr, was born at Hussinecz, a market village at the foot of the Bohmerwald, and not far from the Bavarian frontier, most probably in 1369, and, according to some accounts, on July 6. His parents appear to have been well-to-do Czechs of the peasant class. Of his early life nothing is recorded except that, notwithstanding the early loss of his father, he obtained a good elementary education, first at Hussinecz, and afterwards at the neighbouring town of Prachaticz. At, or only a very little beyond, the usual age he entered the recently (1348) founded university of Prague, where he became bachelor of arts in 1393, bachelor of theology in 1394, and master of arts in 1396. In 1398 he was chosen L>y the Bohemian " nation" of the university to an examinership for the bachelor's degree; in the same year he began to lecture also, and there is reason to believe that the philosophical writings of Wickliffe, with which he had been for some years acquainted, were his text-books. In October 1401 he was made dean of the philosophical faculty, and for the half-yearly period from October 1402 to April 1403 he held the office of rector of the university. In 1402 also he was made rector or curate (capellarius) of the Bethlehem Chapel, which had in 1391 been erected and endowed by some zealous citizens of Prague for the purpose of providing good popular preaching in the Bohemian tongue. This appointment, which, so far as the aims of the pious founders were concerned, proved a singularly successful one, had a deep influence on the already vigorous religious life of Huss himself; and one of the effects of the earnest and independent study of Scripture into which it soon led him was a profound conviction of the great value not only of the philosophical but also of the theological writings of Wickliffe.

This newly-formed sympathy with the English reformer did not, however, in the first instance at least, involve Huss in any conscious opposition to the established doctrines of Catholicism, or in any direct conflict with the authorities of the church; and for several years he continued to act _in full accord with his archbishop (Sbynjek, or Sbynko, of Hasenburg). Thus in 1405 he, along with other two masters, was commissioned to examine into certain reputed miracles at Wilsnack, near Wittenberg, which had caused that church to be made a resort of pilgrims from all parts of Europe. The result of their report was that all pilgrimage thither from the province of Bohemia was prohibited by the archbishop on pain of excommunication, while Huss, with the full sanction of his superior, gave to the world his first published writing, entitled Be Omni Sanguine Ckristi Glorificato, in which he declaimed in no measured terms against forged miracles and ecclesiastical greed, urging Christians at the same time to desist from looking for sensible signs of Christ's presence, but rather to seek Him in His enduring word. More than once also Huss, along with his friend Stanislaus of Znaim, was appointed to be synod preacher, and in this capacity he delivered at the provincial councils of Bohemia many faithful admonitions. As early as May 28, 1403, it is true, there had been held a university disputation about the new doctrines of Wickliffe, which had resulted in the condemnation of certain propositions presumed to be his ; five years later (May 20, 1408) this decision had been refined into a declaration that these, forty-five in number, were not to be taught in any heretical, erroneous, or offensive sense. But it was only slowly that the growing sympathy of Huss with Wickliffe unfavourably affected his relations with his colleagues in the priesthood. In 1408, however, the clergy of the city and archiépiscopal diocese of Prague laid before the archbishop a formal complaint against Huss, arising out of strong expressions with regard to clerical abuses of which he had made use in his public discourses ; and the result was that, having first been deprived of his appointment as synodal preacher, he was, after a vain attempt to defend himself in writing, publicly forbidden the exercise of any priestly function throughout the diocese. Simultaneously with these proceedings in Bohemia, international negotiations had been going on which had for their object the removal of the long-contiuued papal schism, and it had in the interval become apparent that a satisfactory solution of the difficulties involved could only be secured if, as seemed not impossible, the supporters of the rival popes, Benedict XIII. and Gregory XII., could be induced, in view of the approaching council of Pisa, to pledge themselves to a strict neutrality. With this end King Wenceslaus of Bohemia had requested the co-operation of the archbishop and his clergy, and also the support of the university, in both instances unsuccessfully, although in the case of the latter the Bohemian " nation," with Huss at its head, had only been overborne by the votes of the Bavarians, Saxons, and Poles. There followed an expression of nationalist and particularistic as opposed to ultramontane and also to German feeling, which undoubtedly was of supreme inv portance for the whole of the subsequent career of Huss. In compliance with this feeling a royal edict (January 18, 1409) was issued, by which, in alleged conformity with Paris usage, and with the original charter of the university, the Bohemian "nation" received three votes, while only one was allotted to the other three " nations " combined ; whereupon all the foreigners, to the number of several thousands, almost immediately withdrew from Prague, an occurrence which led to the formation shortly afterwards of the university of Leipsic.

It was a dangerous triumph for Huss; for his popularity at court and in the general community had been secured only at the price of clerical antipathy everywhere and of much German ill-will. Among the first results of the changed order of things were on the one hand the election of Huss (October 1409) to be again rector of the university, but on the other hand the appointment by the archbishop of an inquisitor to inquire into charges of heretical teaching and inflammatory preaching which had been brought against him. He had spoken disrespectfully of the church, it was said, had even hinted that Antichrist might be found to be in Rome, had fomented in his preaching the quarrel between Bohemians and Germans, and had, notwithstanding all that had passed, continued to speak of Wickliffe as both a pious man and an orthodox teacher. The direct result of this investigation is not known, but it is impossible to disconnect from it the promulgation by Pope Alexander V., on December 20, 1409, of a bull which ordered the abjuration of all Wickliffite heresies and the surrender of all his books, while at the same time—a measure specially levelled at the pulpit of Bethlehem Chapel—all preaching was prohibited except in localities which had been by long usage set apart for that use. This decree, as soon as it was published in Prague (March 9, 1410), led to much popular agitation, aud provoked an appeal by Huss to the pope's better informed judgment ; the archbishop, however, resolutely insisted on carrying out his instructions, and in the following July caused to be publicly burned, in the courtyard of his own palace, upwards of 200 volumes of the writings of Wickliffe, while he pronounced solemn sentence of excommunication against Huss and certain of his friends, who had in the meantime again protested and appealed to the new pope (John XXIII.). Again the populace rose on behalf of their hero, who, in his turn, strong in the conscientious conviction that " in the things which pertain to salvation God is to be obeyed rather than man," continued uninterruptedly to preach in the Bethlehem Chapel, and in the university began publicly to defend the so-called heretical treatises of Wickliffe, while from king and queen, nobles and burghers, a petition was sent to Rome praying that the condemnation and prohibition in the bull of Alexander V. might be quashed. Negotiations were carried on for some months, but in vain; in March 1411 the ban was anew pronounced upon Huss as a disobedient son of the church, while the magistrates and councillors of Prague who had favoured him were threatened with a similar penalty in case of their giving him a contumacious support. Ultimately the whole city, which continued to harbour him, was laid under interdict; yet he went on preaching, and masses were celebrated as usual, so that at the date of Archbishop Sbynko's death in September 1411, it seemed as if the utmost efforts of ecclesiastical authority had resulted in absolute failure.

The struggle, however, entered on a new phase with the appearance at Prague in May 1412 of the papal emissary charged with the proclamation of the papal bulls by which a religious war was decreed against the excommunicated King Ladislaus of Naples, and indulgence was promised to all who should take part in it, on terms similar to those which had been enjoyed by the earlier crusaders to the Holy Land. By his bold and thorough-going opposition to this mode of procedure against Ladislaus, and still more by his doctrine that indulgence could never be sold without simony, and could not be lawfully granted by the church except on condition of genuine contrition and repentance, Huss at last isolated himself, not only from the archiépiscopal party under Albik of Unitschow, but also from the theological faculty of the university, and especially from such men as Stanislaus of Znaim and Stephen Paletz, who until then had been his chief supporters. A popular demonstration, in which the papal bulls had been paraded through the streets with circumstances of peculiar ignominy and finally burnt, led to intervention by Wenceslaus on behalf of public order ; three young men, for having openly asserted the unlawfulness of the papal indulgence after silence had been enjoined, were sentenced to death (June 1412) ; the excommunication against Huss was renewed, and the interdict again laid on all places which should give him shelter,—a measure which now began to be more strictly regarded by the clergy, so that in the following December he had no alternative but to yield to the express wish of the king by temporarily withdrawing from Prague. A provincial synod, held at the instance of Wenceslaus in February 1413, broke up without having reached any practical result ; and the labours of a commission appointed shortly afterwards were equally unsuccessful in the attempt to bring about a reconciliation between Huss and his adversaries. The so-called heretic meanwhile spent his time partly at Kozihradek, some 45 miles south of Prague, and partly at Krakowitz in the immediate neighbourhood of the capital, sometimes varying the monotony of his life with an occasional course of open-air preaching, but finding his chief employment in maintaining with his numerous friends that copious correspondence of which some precious fragments still are extant, and in the composition of the largest and most exhaustive of all his printed works, the De Ecclesia, which subsequently furnished most of the material for the capital charges brought against him.

During the year 1413 the arrangements for the meeting of a general council at Constance were agreed upon between Sigismund and Pope John XXIII. The objects originally contemplated had been the restoration of the unity of the church and its reform in head and members; but so great had become the prominence of Bohemian affairs that to these also a first place in the programme of the approaching oecumenical assembly required to be assigned, and for theii satisfactory settlement the presence of Huss was obviously necessary. His attendance was accordingly requested, and the invitation was willingly accepted as giving him a long-wished-for opportunity both of publicly vindicating himseli from charges which he felt to be grievous and of loyally making confession for Christ. He set out from Bohemia on October 14, 1414, not, however, until he had carefully ordered all his private affairs, with a presentiment, which he did not conceal, that in all probability he was going to his death. The journey, which appears to have been under' taken with the usual passport, and under the protection, of several powerful Bohemian friends (John of Chlum, Wenceslaus of Duba, Henry of Chlum) who accompanied him, was a very prosperous one; and at almost all the halting places he was received with a consideration and enthusiastic sympathy which he had hardly expected to meet with anywhere in Germany. On November 3 he arrived at Constance, and took up quarters in the house which is still pointed out (Paulsgasse, 328); shortly after-wards there was put into his hands the famous imperial " safe conduct," the promise of which had been one of his inducements to quit the comparative security he had enjoyed in Bohemia. Of this safe conduct, the formal words of which have often been quoted, it would be absurd to say that it was intended to guarantee its holder against the infliction of due punishment should he be convicted by existing law of any crime; but there can be no doubt that both the letter and the spirit of it were scandalously violated, when on November 28 Huss was arbitrarily seized and thrown into prison before any accusation whatever had been formulated. Sigismund himself never sought to defend this act, which was not done with his consent or authority; the only excuse he ever alleged for having tolerated it was that otherwise in all likelihood the council would have been broken up. On December 4 the pope appointed a commission of three bishops to investigate the case against the heretic, and to procure witnesses; to the demand of Huss that he might be permitted to employ an agent in his defence a favourable answer was at first given, but afterwards even this concession to the forms of justice was denied. While the commission was engaged in the prosecution of its inquiries, the flight of Pope John XXIII. took place on March 20, an event which furnished a pretext for the removal of Huss from the Dominican convent to a more secure and more severe place of confinement under the charge of the bishop of Constance at Gottlieben on the Rhine. On May 4 the temper of the council on the doctrinal questions in dispute was for the first time fully revealed in its unanimous condemnation of Wickliffe, especially of the so-called " forty-five articles " as erroneous, heretical, revolutionary. It was not, however, until June 5 that the case of Huss himself came up for hearing; the meeting, which was an exceptionally full one, took place in the refectory of the Franciscan cloister. Autograph copies of his work De Ecclesia, and of the controversial tracts which he had written against Paletz and Stanislaus of Znaim, having been laid before him and duly acknowledged, the extracted propositions on which the prosecution based their charge of heresy were read; but as soon as the accused began to analyse them and to enter upon his defence, he was assailed by violent outcries, amidst which it was impossible for him to be heard, so that he was compelled to bring his speech to an abrupt close, which he did with the calm remark ; "In such a council as this I had expected to find more propriety, piety, and order." It was found necessary to adjourn the sitting until June 7, on which occasion the outward decencies were better observed, partly no doubt from the circumstance that the emperor was present in person. The propositions which had been extracted from the De Ecclesia were again brought up, and the relations between Wickliffe and Huss were discussed, the object of the prosecution being to fasten upon the latter the charge of having entirely adopted the doctrinal system of the former, including especially a denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The accused defended himself by repudiating the charge of having abandoned the Catholic doctrine, while at the same time he gave expression to his hearty admiration and respect for the memory of Wickliffe. Being next asked to make an unqualified submission to the council, he expressed himself as unable to do so, while at the same time stating his willingness in all humility to amend his teaching wherever it had been shown to be false. With this the proceedings of the day were brought to a close. On June 8 the propositions extracted from the De Ecclesia were once more taken up with some fulness of detail; some of these he repudiated as incorrectly given, others he defended; but when asked to make a general recantation he steadfastly declined on the ground that to do so would be a dishonest admission of previous guilt. Among the propositions he could heartily abjure was that relating to transubstantiation ; among those he felt constrained unflinchingly to maintain was one which had given great offence, to the effect that Christ, not Peter, is the head of the church to whom ultimate appeal must be made. The council, however, showed itself inaccessible to all his arguments and explanations, and its final resolution, as announced by D'Ailly, was threefold:—first, that Huss should humbly declare that he had erred in all the articles cited against him; secondly, that he should promise on oath neither to hold nor teach them in the future ; thirdly, that he should publicly recant them. On his declining to make this submission he was removed from the bar, and it was obvious that the end could not be far off. The emperor himself gaye it as his opinion that it had been clearly proved by many witnesses that the accused had taught many pernicious heresies, and that even should he recant he ought never to be allowed to preach or teach again or to return to Bohemia, but that should he refuse recantation there was no remedy but the stake. During the next four weeks no effort was spared to shake the determination of Huss; but the spirit of the martyr rose within him as he saw his end approaching, and he steadfastly refused to swerve from the path which conscience had once made clear. " I write this," says he, in a letter to his friends at Prague, " in prison and in chains, expecting tomorrow to receive sentence of death, full of hope in God that I shall not swerve from the truth, nor abjure errors imputed to me by false witnesses." The sentence he expected was pronounced on July 6 in the presence of the emperor and a full sitting of the council; once and again he attempted to remonstrate, but in vain, and finally he betook himself to silent prayer. After he had undergone the ceremony of degradation with all the childish formalities which are usual on such occasions, his soul was formally consigned by all those present to the devil, while he himself with clasped hands and uplifted eyes reverently committed it to Christ. He was then handed over to the secular arm, and immediately led off to the place of execution, the council meanwhile proceeding unconcernedly with the rest of its business for the day. Many touching incidents recorded in the histories make manifest the meekness, fortitude, and even cheerfulness with which he went to his dreadful death. After he had been tied to the stake and the faggots had been piled, he was for the last time urged to recant, but his only reply was :—" God is my witness that I have never taught or preached that which false witnesses have testified against me. He knows that the great object of all my preaching and writing was to convert men from sin. In the truth of that gospel which hitherto I have written, taught, and preached, I now joyfully die." The fire was then kindled, and his voice as it audibly prayed in the words of the " Kyrie Eleison " was soon stifled in the smoke. When the flames had done their office, the ashes that were left and even the soil on which they lay were carefully removed and thrown into the Rhine.

Not many words are needed to convey a tolerably adequate estimate of the character and work of the "pale thin man in mean attire," who in sickness and poverty thus completed the forty-sixth year of a busy life at the stake. Huss was much less remarkable for the amount of his mental endowments and acquirements than for the candour with which he formed his convictions, the tenacity with which he held them, the unselfish enthusiasm with which he spoke them. He cannot be said to have added a single new item to the intellectual wealth of the world, but his contribution to its moral capital was immense. It might not be easy to formulate very precisely the doctrines for which he died, and certainly some of them, as, for example, that regarding the church, were such as many Protestants even would regard as unguarded and difficult to harmonize with the maintenance of external church order; but his is undoubtedly the honour of having been the chief intermediary in handing on from Wickliffe to Luther the torch which kindled the Reformation, and of having been one of the bravest of the martyrs who have died in the cause of honesty and freedom, of progress and of growth towards the light.

The works of Huss are usually classed under four heads:—the dogmatical and polemical, the homiletical, the exegetical, and the epistolary. Of those belonging to the first category, the earliest was that Be Omni Sanguine Christi Glorificato, already referred to ; others, besides the De Ecclesia, are a Quaestio de Indulgentiis, relating to the bull of Pope John XXIII. against Ladislaus, Responsio ad Scripta M. S. Paletz, Responsio ad Scripta M. S. de Znoyma, and a Refutation of the Writing of the Eight Doctors of Prague. The sermons include several discourses relating to Anti-christ. It is worthy of note, in connexion with these, that by means of them and his other public teaching Huss exercised a considerable influence, not only on the religious life of his time, but on the literary development of his native tongue. His exegetical writings include A History of Jesus Christ according to the Four Gospels, A History of the Passion, An Exposition ofl Cor. i.-vii., Commentaries on the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, and an Enarratio on Psalms cx.-cxviii. The Letters are arranged in two series, one of which, numbering fifteen, relates to the period of his exile under the interdict, while the other, fifty-six in all, belongs to the time when he lived in Constance. The De Ecclesia was printed by Ulrich von Hutteu as early as 1520, others of the controversial writings by Otto Brunnfels in 1524; and Luther wrote an interesting preface to Epistolae Quaidam published in 1537. The earliest collected edition of the Latin works was that of Nuremberg (Historia et Monumenta Joh. Huss atque Hicron. Pragensis), published in 1558 in 2 vols, folio; this was reprinted with a considerable quantity of new matter in 1715. The Bohemian works have recently been edited by K. J. Erben (3 vols., Prague, 1866).

On Huss the hest and most easily accessible information for the English readers is to be found in the Church Histories, especially in that of Neander (vol. ix., Engl, trans. 1858), and pre-eminently in Lechler's Wiclef (1873), translated by Lorimer (1878). Among the earlier authorities is jEneas Sylvius, De Bohemorum Origine ac Gestis Historia (1475). The Acta of the council of Constance (Labbe Cone., vol. xvi., 1731, or Von der Hardt, Concilium Constantiense, 1697-1700), as also Lenfant's Histoire, must of course be consulted. Palacky's Geschichte Bohmens (1836-65) contains much valuable material carefully sifted. The earliest biography is that of Zitte, Lebensbeschreibung des Magisters Joh. Hus (1789-95). Monographs have in recent years been very numerous; among others may be mentioned Helfert, Studien über Hus u. Hieronymus (1853; this work is ultra-montane in its sympathies); Becker. IIus u. Hieronymus von Prag (Nordlingen, 1858); Friedrich, Johann Hus (1863); Krummel, Joh. Hus, eine Kirchenhist. Studie (1863); Id., Geschichte der bbhm. Reformation (1866); Hoflcr, Hus u. der Abzug der Beutsehen (1864); Id., Die Geschichtschreiber der Husitischen Bewegung (1856-65); Id., Fontes Rerum Husiticarum; Berger, Joh. Hus u. Konig Sigismund (1872); Denis, Huss et la Guerre des Hussites (Paris, 1878). (J. S. BL.)

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