A Plethora of Pontiffs

With two popes, then three, vying for power, more was at stake in Constance than Jan Hus.0

by Dr. Peter E. Prosser

The trouble started when Pope Gregory XI died in 1378. One year earlier, he had returned the papacy to Rome after 68 years of “Babylonian captivity” in Avignon, France. The shift made Italians happy but enraged the French, putting the cardinals charged with choosing Gregory’s successor in a very tight spot.

Or maybe the trouble started even earlier. The opulence of the papal court at Avignon had alienated many Catholics. As the abbots of the church in Cologne stated publicly in 1372, “The Apostolic See has fallen into such contempt that the Catholic faith in these parts seems to be seriously imperiled.”

King Edward III of England was even more caustic: “The successor of the Apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to pasture, not to fleece them.”

So the church’s problems were obvious. The solution proved elusive.

Pope and anti-pope

 Because the papacy had been based in France for so long, by 1378 a disproportionate number of French cardinals had been created. Their inclination toward another French pope was stifled, however, by the rioting crowd outside the conclave in Rome. The cardinals took a quick vote and elected an Italian who took the name Urban VI. Then they ran for their lives.

UrbanVI-1000pxUrban VI turned out to be impetuous and despotic, and the cardinals who had elected him promptly repented of their choice—especially after Urban turned on them. He told one cardinal to “shut up his ceaseless chatter.” He called another a “blockhead” and humiliated him in front of his colleagues. Angry and bitter, the French cardinals called another conclave and elected a second pope (or, according to Roman Catholics, an anti-pope), Clement VII, saying that Urban’s election had been forced by the Roman mob. Clement, Swiss by birth, moved his court back to Avignon.

Catholic nations split over which pope to obey. Half the church now accused the other half of being heretical, blasphemous, and excommunicate. Catherine of Siena, who had been influential in bringing the papacy back to Rome, denounced Clement as “Judas Iscariot.” Vincent Ferrer, a prominent Dominican preacher in France, applied the same slur to Urban.

Both sides claimed that the sacraments ministered by the priests of the opposite party were invalid— the children who had been baptized were not really baptized, those who had been forgiven their sins were not forgiven, the dying who had received final rites had died unpardoned. And matrimony pronounced by the wrong priest meant that those who thought they were married were actually living in sin.

Hatred and suspicion rose to such a pitch that when seven of Urban’s newly appointed cardinals came to him in 1385 asking him to step down, he had them arrested, tortured, and killed.

When Urban finally died in 1389, Clement anticipated a triumphal return to Rome. Instead, the 14 cardinals who had survived in Urban’s camp elected one of their number to be the new Roman pope, Boniface IX, and the division continued.

“I’ll quit if you will”

 Pape_avignon_benoit13Clement VII died suddenly in 1394, and instead of accepting Boniface, the predominately French cardinals elected a Spaniard, Benedict XIII, to be the new pope in Avignon. King Charles V of France proposed that both popes should resign and a new one be elected, but Benedict would not resign unless Boniface promised to do so as well.

After Boniface died in 1404, the Roman cardinals elected Innocent VII. A revolt broke out, led by prominent Italian families, and Innocent fled to another town. The Roman mob, looking for the pope, sacked the Vatican in 1405, threw the papal registers and historic papers into the streets, stole all the money and gold they could find, and rioted for days.

After the mob cooled down and sobered up, they made their peace with the pope, asking him to come back and forgive them. Innocent returned, then died a short time later.

Innocent was succeeded in Rome by Gregory XII, who invited Benedict to a conference. Benedict offered to resign if Gregory would, but Gregory’s relatives dissuaded him.

Gregorius_XIIWith no end to the schism in sight, some cardinals withdrew to Pisa and called for a general council to elect a pope acceptable to all of Western Christendom and depose the other two.

Church councils still had the potential for this kind of power, for as philosopher and theologian William of Ockham had proposed in the fourteenth century, “The Church is the congregation of all the faithful; the whole has authority superior to any part. It may delegate its authority to a general council of all the bishops and abbots of the church. Such a council should have the power to elect, reprove, punish, or depose the pope.”

The 1409 Council of Pisa was impressive. In a majestic cathedral, 26 cardinals, 4 patriarchs, 12 archbishops, 80 bishops, 87 abbots, the generals of all the monastic orders, 300 professors of canon law, and ambassadors from many governments all appeared. The council declared itself canonical and ecumenical—representing the whole Christian world (minus the Orthodox church). Then it elected Alexander V as the new pope, told him to call another council before 1412, and directed his rivals to resign.

Of course, neither of the existing popes submitted to the council’s authority. The church now had three popes: Alexander V in Pisa, Gregory XII in Rome, and Benedict XIII, who had no supporters (the French cardinals had defected to Gregory) and had fled to Spain. None acknowledged the others.

Empty victories

 Antipope_Alexander_V_(1409-1410)Just one year after his election, Alexander V died. Rumors circulated that Balthasar Cossa, who succeeded Alexander as Pope John XXIII, had him poisoned. Such treachery would hardly be out of character.

John, who began his pontificate in Bologna (the king of Naples had seized Rome), presided over that city like the pirate he had once been. He taxed everything, including prostitution, gambling, and usury. According to his secretary, he seduced 200 virgins, matrons, widows, and nuns. He also commanded a private army.

Johannes_XXIII_GegenpapstJohn delayed as long as he could in calling the required council, but he was ordered to do so in 1411 by Hungary’s King Sigismund. Sigismund chose Constance, Germany, and set the date for 1414.

Sigismund invited all the prelates, princes, lords, and doctors in the West to attend. Everybody responded except the three popes. So many dignitaries came at their own leisure that six months went by before the assembly could begin. When they all arrived, the clergy and their attendants numbered 18,000—the largest and most complete council since the Council of Nicea in 325.

Constance, normally a small city, was turned into a huge armed camp. Five thousand attended the council itself, while 1,500 prostitutes offered their services after hours.

The council had hardly begun when it lost the support of the pope who had convened it. John was shocked to learn that his enemies were preparing to present a record of his crimes to the assembly. A committee of cardinals advised him to resign. He agreed, read a formal resignation, and fled, disguised as a laborer.

Fearing a repeat of Pisa, the council declared, “If anyone … including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, and ordinances of this holy council … he shall be subject to proper punishment.” The council then sent a committee to find John and ensure his abdication.

The committee got no answer from John, so 54 charges were presented against him, the least of which were that he was a pagan, an oppressor, a liar, a buyer of church office, a traitor, a lecher, and a thief. Sixteen other accusations were suppressed for being too severe.

On May 29, 1415, the council deposed John, leaving him no claim to Peter’s throne. Broken by the charges, John accepted the decree and was imprisoned for three years.

CouncilofConstance-Sigismund950

The council celebrated its triumph with a parade through the city of Constance. Then it ordered Benedict and Gregory to resign. Gregory volunteered, on condition he first would be allowed to reconvene the council by his own papal authority. The council assented, and after reconvening, it declared him a valid pope and named him a governor of Ancona in Italy (to give him something official to do for the remaining two years of his life).

Benedict still refused to resign, but since his cardinals had deserted him, he was deposed in 1417. He retired to Spain and died there at age 90, protesting to the end that he was the true pope.

PopeMartinVIn October, the council decreed that another general council should be convened within five years to elect a replacement pope. On November 17, 1417, an electoral committee chose Martin V. All of Western Christendom accepted him, and so after 39 years of chaos, the Great Schism came to an end.

Though the council achieved this victory, it utterly failed in its other purpose: to reform the church. It sent Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague to the stake, delaying widespread reformation for 100 years. It also allowed Martin to play politics and make sure that only minimal reforms, written in obscure language, could be passed.

In 1430, merely 15 years after the council opened, this grim report of the Envoys of the Teutonic Order pointed to more trouble ahead:

“Greed reigns supreme in the Roman court, and day by day finds new devices for extorting money from Germany. … Hence much outcry and heartburnings. Many questions in regard to the papacy will arise, or else obedience will at last be entirely renounced, to escape from these outrageous exactions by the Italians; and this latter course, as I perceive, would be acceptable to many countries.”


 

Peter E. Prosser is professor of Christian History at Regent University (Virginia) Divinity School.

The Reformation Connection

Hus shared ideas with Wyclif and Luther, yet they were not all of one mind.

by Timothy George

Jan Hus has always been difficult to place precisely in the history of Christian thought. Does he belong to the Middle Ages or to early modern times? Is he a representative of medieval heretical dissent or a precursor of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the sixteenth-century Reformation? Was he merely a local leader of a Czech movement or a figure of wider European significance?

Recent scholars have protested the earlier tendency to depict Hus as a mere echo of English reformer John Wyclif (whose writings he knew and quoted) or a simple forerunner of Luther. These cautions are well taken.

Furthermore, unlike many other reformers, Hus retained much of Catholic theology. He did not teach the doctrine of justification by faith alone, a fact Luther noted when he observed that, unlike himself, Hus had attacked only the life, not the doctrine, of late medieval Catholicism.

All the same, Luther was not entirely without reason when he applied to himself the prophecy attributed to Hus as he faced the martyrs’ pyre: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Luther posted his theses 102 years later; soon after, he read Hus’s work and realized, “We are all Hussites without knowing it.”

Local roots

 Hus’s work was deeply rooted in the Czech reform movement that was already well under way when Hus was born in 1372. The religious awakening in Bohemia was related to the emergence of the Czech language and the revival of national identity led by Charles IV, king and emperor, who ruled in Bohemia from 1333 to 1378.

Charles wanted his capital, Prague, to be a great political and cultural center, and in 1348 he established there a university modeled on those at Paris and Oxford. The exchange of ideas that flourished at Charles University profoundly affected Hus and others of his era.

Early proponents of church reform included Konrad Waldhauser and Matěj of Janov. These preachers criticized the loose morals of many of their fellow clergy and encouraged the study of the

Bible in the Czech language. Scholars have discovered more than 50 manuscripts of the Bible in Czech, all in circulation before the invention of the printing press.

Another key figure in the early Czech reform movement was Jan Milíč from Kroměířž (1325-1375).

Like Hus, Milíč was both a scholar and a preacher: he broke through the language barrier by preaching in Latin for the university audience, in German for Prague’s upper classes, and in Czech for the workers and common people. He called for personal conversion, but he also emphasized the practical and ethical consequences of following Christ.

In Prague, Milíč established a house he called “New Jerusalem.” It was a haven for prostitutes, one of the most despised and marginal groups in medieval society. The name was taken from the Book of Revelation and indicates the strong eschatological character of the Czech reform movement.

One of the ironies of church history is that frequently those who have the most acute sense of the future reign of God—of living in the “last days”—are precisely those who invest themselves with purpose and energy in changing things here and now. Hus too brought together the sense of living at the edge of history (for example, the Antichrist was one of his major themes) with an earnest hope for the renewal of church and society.

Milíč is called “the Father of the Czech Reformation,” but he was not able to carry forward the reforms he had begun. He died in Avignon while defending his cause before his accusers at the papal court. But in 1391 some of his disciples established Bethlehem Chapel, a public center in Prague for preaching and worship where Hus was appointed chaplain in 1402.

From the pulpit in Bethlehem Chapel, Hus preached with great power and persuasion to a large number of followers. At the same time, he emerged as a leader in the university, serving terms as both dean and rector. Like Luther a century later, Hus was trained in scholastic theology (though he never obtained the doctorate), but he also appealed to the masses and became widely known as a popular religious leader.

The invisible church

 During the two years of exile between his departure from Prague and his trial at Constance, Hus wrote some 15 books. In these he continued to sound the alarm against church abuses, criticizing the papacy and the practice of indulgences. But his most important work during this period was a Latin treatise De Ecclesia (1413), “On the Church.” Hus insisted that the true church was invisible, the Body of Christ comprised of all the redeemed of all the ages, God’s chosen elect known infallibly only to Him.

“The unity of the church,” Hus wrote, “consists in the bond of predestination, since the individual members are united by predestination, and in the goal of blessedness, since all her sons are ultimately united in blessedness.” The “chief abbot” of the church was not the pope but Christ, and it was possible to be in the church (visible) without being of the church (invisible).

This idea was not new. Wyclif had said much the same thing, echoing earlier theologians such as Augustine. But in the context of the religious awakening in Bohemia, Hus’s correlation of predestination and ecclesiology ignited a national reform movement with revolutionary implications.

Near the end of his life, Wyclif had repudiated the entire papal system and called for its abolition. What Hus called for was not the abolition of the institutional church, nor even the separation of the godly from the impure (as some later Hussites believed), but rather the reform of the church based on the example of Christ and apostolic simplicity.

Just the same, Hus’s appeal to the invisible church, as well as his elevation of Scripture as a superior norm for doctrine, proved a solvent to the kind of extravagant papal claims made by Boniface VIII in his famous bull, Unam Sanctam (1302), which made obedience to the pope a condition for salvation.

The Czech “Magna Carta”

 The execution of Hus sent shock waves throughout Bohemia. Nearly 500 Czech nobles gathered in Prague to protest his condemnation and death. They entered into a solemn covenant, pledging to defend the Czech reformation against all external threats.

Out of this gathering emerged the Four Articles of Prague (1419), a manifesto that Czech theologian Jan Milič Lochman has called “the Magna Carta of the Czech Reformation.” Lochman sees these four principles as an extension of Hus’s basic theology.

  1. The Word of God is to be preached.

Like Wyclif, Hus insisted both that the Scriptures be in the language of the people and that they be the normative rule of faith and conduct for all believers. Hus defied his archbishop’s order to cease preaching because he was committed to a prior authority, namely, the expressed law of Christ set forth in the Bible.

During his trial at Constance, Hus insisted that he be corrected out of the Scriptures before he would retract his views. This did not mean, of course, that he had no respect for the tradition of the church, but rather that church tradition could not be placed above the written Word of God.

In an age when printed books were not available, Hus stressed the importance of viva vox evangelii—”the living voice of the gospel.” For Hus, public preaching of the Word of God was an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. The Scriptures must be proclaimed freely, without institutional constraints or political interference.

Some later Hussites, especially the Táborites, went even further than Hus in questioning the necessity of a formal preaching office. Táborites thought that all believers, men and women alike, should bear witness to the spirit-anointed Word. This motif was extended by spiritualists and radical reformers in the sixteenth century, some of whom disparaged the external form of the Bible for the “word of faith” and “inner light” within.

  1. The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is to be served in the form of both bread and wine to all faithful.

The practice of withholding the cup from the laity during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was rooted in early medieval traditions. By 1414, some of Hus’s disciples had begun to share the cup as well as the bread with their communicants. When the Council of Constance condemned this practice, Hus lent his considerable support to the serving of the Eucharist sub utraque specie (under both kinds).

Eventually, the chalice became the defining symbol of the Czech reformation. By sharing both elements with laity as well as clergy, the Hussites were reintroducing what later became known as the priesthood of all believers.

Unlike Wyclif, Hus supported the doctrine of transubstantiation, which to him meant that serving Communion in both kinds was that much more important. When priests withhold the cup from the laity, they actually become “thieves of the blood of Christ,” as the Hussite leader Jacob of Mies put it.

The eschatological dimension of the Lord’s Supper was also prominent among the Hussites. They often celebrated the Lord’s Supper under the open skies on mountaintops. As Jesus had ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, so he returned in bread and wine to celebrate with his people the coming kingdom of God.

  1. Priests are to relinquish earthly position and possessions and all are to begin an obedient life based on the apostolic.

The Hussites emphasized obedience and discipleship. They also picked up the earlier emphasis of St. Francis and the Waldensians in advocating a return to the example of Jesus and the apostolic church. Like Milíč with his ministry to the prostitutes and Hus with his devotion to Jesus, the King of the Poor, later Hussites took seriously the mandate to reform both church and society, with special care extended to “the least of these.”

  1. All public sins are to be punished and public sinners in all positions are to be.

In this last article, we hear a plea for intentional Christianity and a protest against the laxity that is endemic to every established religion. Christians should obey and live by the law of Christ and this requires both personal and corporate discipline.

There is an egalitarian thrust in that sinners “in all positions” are to be held equally accountable to the community of faith. This emphasis of the Hussite movement would later be picked up by Calvin and the Reformed tradition with their concern to bring every dimension of human life and culture under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Many scholars see the Czech reform movement as the First Reformation. Luther claimed continuity with Hus in many respects, although there was a theological chasm between the two on the doctrine of justification. Likewise, Hus was not strictly a Wyclifite, although there were important contacts and some influence between England and Bohemia.

Clearly, Hus stood in an indigenous tradition of Czech reformers who emphasized preaching, studying the Scriptures, and eliminating clerical abuses. Hus’s rediscovery of the Augustinian doctrine of the invisible church enabled him to criticize contemporary church practices in the light of God’s sovereignty over time and eternity.

The motto of Hus’s life was “truth conquers all.” He was not without fault, and we may criticize him for his lack of understanding and theological mistakes. But all Christians can surely respond with gratitude to the kind of faith set forth in this letter written by Hus less than two weeks before his death:

“Oh most kind Christ, draw us weaklings after Thyself, for unless Thou draw us, we cannot follow Thee! Give us a courageous spirit that it may be ready; and if the flesh is weak, may Thy grace go before, now as well as subsequently. For without Thee, we can do nothing, and particularly not go to a cruel death for Thy sake. Give us a valiant spirit, a fearless heart, the right faith, a firm hope, and perfect love, that we may offer our lives for Thy sake with the greatest patience and joy. Amen.”


George-Timothy

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and served as executive editor of Christianity Today magazineREAD BIO

This article first appeared in Christian History Magazine issue #68.  Thanks to the Christian History Institute for allowing us to republish the article here.  For more information on how you can subscribe to Christian History Magazine, visit www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine.

Faith Formed in Love

An excerpt from De Ecclesia (“The Church”) where Hus encourages Christians to trust God but question the Church.

by Jan Hus

Whoever has in common with others faith formed in love, this suffices for salvation when accompanied with the grace of perseverance. For God, who gave the first faith, will give to his soldier clearer faith, unless he puts some hindrance in the way. For God does not demand of all his children that they should continuously during their sojourn here be in the particular act of thought about any particular point of faith, but it is enough that, putting aside inertia and callousness, they have faith formed as a habit.

Faith, we must understand, is twofold: the one unformed, which is exercised by the demons who believe and tremble; the other faith formed in love. The latter, accompanied with perseverance, saves, but not the former. Hence with reference to the faith formed in love the words were spoken: “Whosoever believeth in the Son of God, hath eternal life” (John 3:15). And the Savior said to Peter, who had that faith and professed it: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah.”

This faith is the foundation of the other virtues which the church of Christ practices. Inasmuch as faith is not of things which appear to the senses but of hidden things and inasmuch as it is difficult to believe hidden things, therefore two elements are necessary to faith in order that we may believe anything truly: (1) the truth which illumines the mind, (2) the authority [evidence] which confirms the mind.

Here belongs one property of faith, that it is concerned alone with the truth—all falsehood being excluded—the truth which the faithful ought to defend even unto death.

The second property of faith is, that without proof and special knowledge it is obscure to the faithful, for what we see with the eye we cannot be said to believe. And the saints in heaven who see the articles clearly, which we know obscurely, are not said to believe them but to see. In the place of faith they have clear vision and in the place of hope unending fruition.

The third property of faith is, that it is the foundation [assurance] of the things which are to be believed for the pilgrim who is to come to the peaceful dwelling. Therefore, the apostle says that faith is “the substance,” that is, the foundation, “of things hoped for”: “the evidence of things which do not appear,” that is, to the senses (Heb. 11:1). For now we hope for our blessedness and believe, but do not see with the eyes of the flesh. And, because it is not possible without faith to please God, therefore every one who is to be saved ought first of all to be faithful—fidelis.

A faithful person, however, is he who has faith infused by God and has no fear of ill to himself mixed with his faith. But all open offenders according to the law of present unrighteousness are unfaithful —infideles—[without faith], for it is impossible for any one to sin mortal sin except in so far as he lacks faith. For, if he were mindful of the penalty to be inflicted on those sinning in that way and fully believed it and had the faith which comes from divine knowledge—wherewith God knows all things clearly and is present with such sinners—then, without doubt, he would not sin mortal sin.

A person may lack faith in three ways:

  1. By weakness, and in this way he is lacking who vacillates in believing and does not persist unto death in the defense of
  2. He is lacking in faith who firmly believes the many things to be believed and yet is lacking in many things to be believed, which unbelieved things are as holes, and thus he has a shield of faith which is full of
  3. He is lacking in faith who lacks in the use of this shield; and this happens in this way: that, though he has the firm habit of things to be believed, he nevertheless lacks in acts of meritorious living because of an undisciplined These things are referred to in Titus 1:16: “They confess that they know God, but in deeds deny him.”

Every one, therefore, who is lacking in faith in any of these three ways is wanting in the abiding strength of faith.

And we must remember that faith differs from hope:

  1. In this, that hope has reference to the future prize to be obtained, but faith concerns the past, namely such things as that God created the world, that Christ was incarnate, And it concerns also the present, as that God is, that the saints are in heaven, and that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. Faith also concerns the future, as that Christ will come again in judgment; that all who have not arisen at that time will arise in the day of judgment; and that God will finally reward in bliss all the saints who finish this present life in grace.
  2. Hope does not reach the knowledge of faith in that which it hopes for, but it rests in a certain middle act between doubt and belief, so that there are many things which are to be set before the faithful to accept which, when the distinction is removed, they should neither doubt, nor grant, nor deny but only hope for. …
  3. Faith also differs from hope in this, that hope is only of good which is possible to him who hopes, but faith is about the evil as well as about the good, for we believe the forgiveness of sin, which is most certainly a good thing for all who are to be saved; and we believe also that the sin of blasphemy will not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come.

And for the reason that believing is an act of faith, that is, to put trust in—fidere—therefore know that to believe that which is necessary for a man to secure blessedness is to adhere firmly and without wavering to the truth spoken as by God. For this truth, because of its certitude, a man ought to expose his life to the danger of death.

And, in this way, every Christian is expected to believe explicitly and implicitly all the truth which the Holy Spirit has put in Scripture, and in this way a man is not bound to believe the sayings of the saints which are apart from Scripture, nor should he believe papal bulls, except insofar as they speak out of Scripture, or insofar as what they say is founded in Scripture simply.

For both the pope and his curia make mistakes from ignorance of the truth. And, with reference to this ignorance, it can be substantiated that the pope makes mistakes and may be deceived. Lucre deceives the pope, and he is deceived through ignorance. …

Of one kind is the faith which is placed in God. He cannot deceive or be deceived; of another is the faith placed in the pope, who may deceive and be deceived. Of one kind is the faith placed in holy Scripture; and another, faith in a bull thought out in a human way.

For to holy Scripture exception may not be taken, but it is proper at times to take exception to bulls and gainsay them when they either commend the unworthy or put them in authority, or savor of avarice, or honor the unrighteous or oppress the innocent, or implicitly contradict the commands or counsels of God.

It is, therefore, plain which faith is the foundation of the church—the faith with which the church is built upon the Rock, Christ Jesus, for it is that by which the church confesses that “Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God.” For Peter spoke for all the faithful, when he said: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “This is the victory,” says John, “which overcometh the world—even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4).


 

Written in exile, 1413-1414; adapted from translation by David S. Schaff, 1915.

To Build a Fire

by Dr. Thomas A. Fudge

constance-950

Constance, Germany, Saturday, July 6, 1415.

 The cathedral was packed to the doors. A hot heaviness hung in the air. Jacob Balardi Arrigoni, Bishop of Lodi, was preaching from the text, “that the body of sin be destroyed” (Romans 6:6). Cardinals with red hats and bishops wearing miters sat in a semi-circle around a dying man whose chained, emaciated hands were clutched together. Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund occupied an imperial throne in full regalia. In the nave a variety of priestly garments had been carefully laid out on a table. There were now only two options left open to the man in chains: unqualified submission to the council or condemnation. Recant or die.

The stake stood ready outside.

hus-goosePeasant provocateur

 Forty-three years earlier, Jan Hus had been born far from the shores of Lake Constance. He took his name from his hometown, the village of Husinec in southern Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic). In Czech the word “hus” means “goose,” and Hus often punned on his own name.

His parents were peasants—nameless and unknown. His mother taught Jan to pray and, as he grew older, influenced him toward a career as a priest.

Though Hus admits he originally pursued priesthood for the money and prestige, his spiritual zeal grew as he studied. In 1393 he spent his last bit of money to buy an indulgence, a certificate granting him forgiveness of sins. Hus recounts his poverty while studying at the university in Prague: “When I was a hungry young student, I used to make a spoon out of bread in order to eat peas with it. Then I ate the spoon as well.”

Hus was not a brilliant student, and his university career was unexceptional, though he received a master’s degree in 1396. He became well known in 1402 when he was appointed preacher in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, a church founded in 1391 to provide preaching in the common language.

Shortly before Hus’s appointment to the Bethlehem Chapel, the influence of English reformer John Wyclif reached Bohemia via Czech students who had spent time at Oxford. Hus found in Wyclif a philosophical framework for the practical ideas of the Czech reform program. “Wyclif, Wyclif,” he wrote in the margin of a manuscript, “you will turn many heads.”

Not everyone agreed. Prague University, where Hus taught in addition to his pastoral duties, soon split down the middle. The German masters agreed with Wyclif’s 1382 condemnation by the Blackfriar Synod in London, while the Czech masters supported Wyclif’s call for more scriptural teaching in the vernacular and less deference for church hierarchy, since the Roman curia was largely corrupt anyway.

Another major point of contention was transubstantiation. The Germans and other Roman Catholics strongly supported the doctrine, while many Czechs and other “Wyclifites” argued for remanence—the idea that the bread and wine remain unchanged after consecration. Hus never adopted this radical view, though he was repeatedly accused of it later.

Vaclav_IV.1415Here a pope, there a pope

 The debates about Wyclif were overshadowed by an even bigger church battle, the papal schism (1378- 1417). Hus never took a direct role in this conflict, but two men with power over his fate did: King Václav IV of Bohemia and Zbyněk, Archbishop of Prague.

King Václav IV (sometimes called Wenceslaus) was vacillating, unpredictable, and probably mad. He drank far too much, frequently flew into fits of rage, and was notorious for naming incompetent advisers.

Václav’s 41-year reign (1378—1419) spiraled consistently downward. He interfered in ecclesiastical affairs, committed numerous administrative blunders, alienated members of his own family, and was a conspirator to torture and murder. His first wife died after being mauled by his dogs, which he insisted on keeping in his bedchamber.

Václav did have one good adviser: his second wife, Žofie, who understood him perfectly. At their wedding, she presented him with a wagon load of conjurers and juggling fools, which pleased him enormously. Queen Žofie attended Hus’s sermons in Bethlehem Chapel and used her influence in Bohemia to facilitate Hus’s reforms.

The other leading man in the kingdom was Hus’s spiritual superior, Archbishop Zbyněk, a military man wholly unsuited for the spiritual life. In 1402, when he was 25, he outbid other contenders and bought the archbishopric of Prague for the sum of 2,800 gulden. Though pious and well-meaning, at least initially, he had almost no theological training and lacked any sense of church administration.

Zbyněk did not understand the debates that gripped the university, and for a while he seemed to take little notice. However, Wyclifism had been declared heretical before Zbyněk took office, and as the papal schism dragged on, the presence of heresy in Bohemia became a momentous concern.

Václav hoped that if he could ally himself with the right papal contender and take a leading role in ending the schism, he might win back the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which he had lost in 1400. In 1409 he shifted his support from the Roman pope, Gregory XII, to the newly elected Pisan pope, Alexander V.

Zbyněk’s job was to eradicate heresy at home, removing any obstacle to Václav’s election as emperor. But Zbyněk resented the king’s changing allegiance, and he refused at first to recognize Alexander V. Furthermore, Wyclifite “heresy” and church corruption were everywhere in Bohemia—and Hus made sure everyone knew it.

medieval-church-corruptionHard words for “fat swine”

 While church and state clashed over which pope to endorse, Hus had forged ahead onto dangerous ground. In 1405 he denounced alleged appearances of Christ’s blood on communion wafers as an elaborate hoax. His sermons condemned the sins of the clergy. He ridiculed the power some priests claimed for themselves when they called their parishioners “knaves” and declared, “We can give you the Holy Ghost or send you to hell.”

Hus roared against such abuses. “These priests deserve hanging in hell,” he said, for they are “fornicators,” “parasites,” “money misers,” and “fat swine.” “They are drunks whose bellies growl with great drinking and are gluttons whose stomachs are overfilled until their double chins hang down.” The appalled clerics began to murmur against Hus.

Lashing out at widespread simony (the practice of buying spiritual office), Hus condemned Prague’s wealthiest clergy—”the Lord’s fat ones,” as he called them—for charging steep fees for administering sacraments and for taking multiple paid positions without faithfully serving any. While claiming apostolic succession, they bore no resemblance to the apostles.

Hus put these words into the mouth of Christ: “Everyone who passes by, pause and consider if there has been any sorrow like mine. Clothed in these rags I weep while my priests go about in scarlet. I suffer great agony in a sweat of blood while they take delight in luxurious bathing. All through the night I am mocked and spat upon while they enjoy feasting and drunkenness. I groan upon the cross as they repose upon the softest beds.”

The reaction came swiftly. Archbishop Zbyněk, openly guilty of simony and aware that publicized reports of immoral clergy made him look bad, took steps to silence some of Hus’s supporters who had violated customary practice by preaching without permission.

Hus objected and accosted the archbishop: “How is it that fornicating and otherwise criminal priests walk about freely … while humble priests … are jailed as heretics and suffer exile for the very proclamation of the Gospel?”

This was too much for church officials. Spies were placed in Hus’s chapel to report on his preaching. Once, in mid-sermon, Hus spotted one of them.

“Hey, you in the hood, make a note of this, you sneak, and carry it over there,” he said, pointing in the direction of the archepiscopal residence. Hus was cited before a hearing. He successfully defended himself, enjoying support from the crown and the public, but the archbishop was now his sworn enemy.

Catching a goose

 Zbyněk was forced eventually to submit to the king and support Alexander V. The beleaguered cleric had now lost both to Hus and Václav, and he was hungry for revenge.

Zbyněk complained bitterly to Pope Alexander V, begging for action against his enemies. A papal bull was published calling for an investigation into the potential heresies of Wyclif and Hus and demanding that preaching in private chapels cease. Essentially the pope censored Bethlehem Chapel.

Hus spoke publicly against the bull, and more than 2,000 worshipers declared their willingness to stand with him against the archbishop and the pope. The king made no comment, because he needed the archbishop on his side.

Zbyněk went on the offensive. Hus describes an attempt to destroy Bethlehem Chapel while he was in the pulpit preaching: “Led by Bernard Chotek, clad in armor, with crossbows, halberts, and swords, they attacked Bethlehem while I was preaching … wishing to pull it down having conspired among themselves.”

The attempt was abortive. Plan A having failed, the archbishop implemented Plan B. He gathered as many copies as he could find of the works of John Wyclif and hauled them into his palace courtyard. On July 16, 1410, with gates tightly barred, bells tolling, and priests singing the Te Deum, Zbyněk ordered the pile of books set ablaze. More than 200 volumes became ashes.

Fearing a backlash, the archbishop fled to his fortified castle in Roudnice, about 30 miles north of Prague. The reaction was severe—people rioted, made posters ridiculing Zbyněk, and scorned him in popular songs: “Bishop Zbyněk, ABCD, burned books not knowing what was written in them.”

Hus responded forcefully: “I call it a poor business. Such bonfires never yet removed a single sin from the hearts of men. Fire does not consume truth. It is always the mark of a little mind that it vents its anger on inanimate objects. The books which have been burned are a loss to the whole people.”

Feeling safe behind castle walls, Zbyněk excommunicated Hus. Two months later Hus was placed under “aggravated excommunication,” but he continued to preach and go about his duties, paying little heed to the bulls. He had far more support in Prague than the archbishop did.

When the pope stalled in pursuing the Hus case, Zbyněk sent generous gifts. These were distributed at the papal court, and a third notice of excommunication was issued against Hus in February 1411.

Riding the crest of papal support, the archbishop took another step to consolidating his fragmented power. He excommunicated royal officials in Prague on May 2, 1411. It was a fatal move.

Silent for so long, King Václav awoke from his drunken stupor and told Zbyněk to back off. Head to head, like implacable warriors, the king and the archbishop tried to stare the other down. The king called the archbishop’s bluff.

Zbyněk played his last card and placed Prague under interdict, suspending all church activities—marrying, burying, blessing, preaching, administering Communion. Though this was a powerful weapon, Václav did not blink. The magistrates supported the king. The fight was over. Zbyněk had no alternative but to relent and declare obedience to the king.

The archbishop was required to declare all proceedings against Hus null and void. A writ terminating all action against him was to be obtained from Pope John XXIII (the new Pisan pope, elected after Alexander’s sudden death). Hus and his followers were ordered cleared of all heresy, and the archbishop was scheduled to make a public declaration to that effect.

Before these steps could be implemented, however, Zbyněk died under mysterious circumstances. Rumors suggested murder. It was a most inconvenient time to die.

On the brink of Hus’s vindication, papal proceedings moved to another level. Hus was summoned to appear in Bologna. The king forbade it. “If anyone wants to accuse Hus of any charge, let them do it here in our kingdom. … [I]t does not seem right to give up this useful preacher to the discrimination of his enemies.”

Queen Žofie surely prompted Václav’s action. She also took up the pen and in October and November 1411 posted letters to the papal see requesting that “the faithful, devout and beloved Hus,” whom she calls “our chaplain,” continue to have freedom to preach the gospel.

The queen’s sincerity was genuine, but the king’s support was contrived and politically expedient. Žofie’s support would not waver even at the end, but Václav’s could be counted on only as far as Hus remained politically useful. That usefulness was limited.

Johannes_XXIII_GegenpapstThe Indulgences Game

In 1412 Pope John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against the king of Naples, who had seized control of Rome. To raise the funds, the pope instituted a large-scale sale of indulgences. Revenue raised in Bohemia would be shared with the king, so Václav stood to profit from their sale. Three of the principal churches in Prague became indulgence purchasing centers.

Hus was outraged and preached against the practice, charging that the operation supported brothels, taverns, and priests living with girlfriends. He called for a boycott.

Hus was cited to appear before the newly elected archbishop of Prague, Albík. He refused to submit or modify his language. “Even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes,” he said, “I would not obey.”

His enemies continued to gather ammunition, but Hus remained defiant. “Shall I keep silent? God forbid! Woe is me, if I keep silent. It is better for me to die than not to oppose such wickedness, which would make me a participant in their guilt and hell.”

Seeing his revenue stream beginning to slow, the king ordered Hus to submit to ecclesiastical authority. Hus demurred.

At this point, the radical influence of Wyclif comes into clear focus in Prague. Wyclif already had denounced the papacy in strident and provocative terms: “In a word, the papal institution is full of poison, antichrist himself, the man of sin, the leader of the army of the Devil, a limb of Lucifer, the head vicar of the fiend, a simple idiot who might be a damned devil in hell, and more horrible idol than a painted log.”

Hus’s friend Jakoubek of Stříbro joined the chorus declaring the pope antichrist. The indulgence controversy turned bloody, and protesters were summarily executed.

With royal revenue now in serious doubt, Václav breathed an ominous threat: “Hus, you are always making trouble for me. If those whose concern it is will not take care of you, I myself will burn you.” Even Žofie was powerless to stay the rage of the mad king.

Hus was excommunicated for the fourth time, and Prague was again placed under interdict. This time the king did not intervene.

Unwilling to deprive the city of church ministrations, Hus voluntarily went into exile on October 15, 1412. For two years he labored in the villages of southern Bohemia, writing books and preaching in barns, fields, towns, and forests.

Then, in the fall of 1414, Pope John XXIII convened an ecumenical council in Constance, and he invited Hus to attend. The conciliar fathers gathered with two purposes: end the papal schism and eradicate heresy from the Western church.

Ambush

Hus accepted the invitation. On October 11, 1414, riding on his “strong and high-spirited” horse Rabštýn, he departed for the council. His friends warned him he might be walking into a trap, but Emperor Sigismund, Václav’s half-brother, had promised Hus safe conduct, and Hus believed him.

When Hus arrived in Constance, he was optimistic, sending a letter to friends joking that “the goose is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.” The next week he was thrown into prison, where he languished for several months while the council addressed other matters.

Hus’s health declined precipitously in the terrible conditions of the Dominican prison where his dark, damp cell, hard by the latrines, was filled with awful stench. Only a visit from the pope’s physician and relocation to a better cell spared Hus’s life.

Hus’s enemies in the council were caustic. According to one, “Since the birth of Christ there has never been a more dangerous heretic than you, with the exception of Wyclif.” Others insisted that the “Czechs were unworthy of the name Christian.” Hus was singled out as the chief heretic and his ideas declared as inimical to the faith as the “Koran of Mohamed.” To his judges Hus was quite simply a “wicked man.”

Hus’s friends rallied around him, imploring Sigismund to honor the safe conduct. They smuggled letters and documents out of the prison. Since Václav seemed to have forgotten his suffering subject entirely, Czech noblemen signed their names and affixed their seals to numerous formal protests over the treatment of Hus. After receiving the letters, the council in Constance cited 452 nobles to appear. Not one obeyed.

At the hearings, Hus was refused opportunity to defend his ideas or reply to specific charges. Attempts to argue his case resulted in shouts from the conciliar fathers that Hus was arrogant and stubborn.

An old, bald, Polish bishop asserted that the law was clear on how to deal with heretics. Another priest shouted, “Do not permit him to recant; even if he does recant, he will not keep to it.”

Sigismund, far from upholding his promise of safe conduct, acquiesced privately in the opinion that Hus was the greatest heretic ever to have arisen in Christendom and therefore deserved no protection.

“The case of Jan Hus ought not to interfere with the reform of the church and empire, which is the principle purpose for which the Council has been convened,” he said. “For myself, I wish to stand by the holy church; I do not incline to like new ideas.”

In this uproar, Hus was led out of the council chambers and back to his cell. His friend, Lord Jan of Chlum, courageously stepped forward and shook Hus’s hand in full view of the assembly.

Later, Jan of Chlum urged his friend to recant and save his life. “But if, indeed, you do not feel guilty of those things charged against you,” he said, “follow the dictates of your conscience. Under no circumstances do anything against your conscience.” Hus followed only the latter advice.

The last session of the Hus case was held July 6. Thirty final charges were presented against the indicted heretic. Some were preposterous—one declared that Hus taught he was the fourth person in the Godhead!

Hus rejected all charges, but his attempts to speak were shouted down. He did not realize he was doomed. Sigismund had already warned the court that even if Hus recanted, the recantation should be dismissed, because Hus could not be trusted.

The warning was unnecessary, for Hus refused to recant on the grounds that he had never taught the errors ascribed to him. To do so would be to commit perjury: to lie. Instead, between interruptions, he refuted the council’s accusations by telling them their facts were wrong.

Pierre d’Ailly, the presiding cardinal, advised Hus to submit to the council. In a fatherly tone, he gave Hus two options: “Either you throw yourself entirely and totally on the grace and into the hands of the Council… or, if you still wish to hold and defend some articles of the forementioned, and if you desire still another hearing, it shall be granted you.” Then d’Ailly counseled strongly against the latter option. It really did not matter; any hint of mercy was a sham.

When Hus asked to be shown his errors from Scripture, the bishops dismissed him as “obstinate in heresy.” The council assembled the 30 heretical articles Hus supposedly held, ignored Hus’s assertions that he had never taught or believed the doctrines, and sentenced him to death.

Hus assented to the method, telling his friend Jan of Chlum that he preferred to be burned publicly rather than silenced in private “in order that all Christendom might know what I said in the end.”

To the fire!

The Archbishop of Riga led Hus to the cathedral door. Hus protested. Cardinal d’Ailly ordered him to “be silent.” Hus persisted. Cardinal Zabarella rose, saying, “Be silent now. We have heard enough already.” He then ordered the guard, “Force him to be still!”

As Hus fell to his knees on the stone floor, praying, his books were condemned to be burned. Hus wished to know if they had even been read but was met by a volley of shouts demanding silence. Hus appealed to God, and the council declared that such an appeal was erroneous because it contravened canon law.

When Hus prayed aloud that Christ might forgive his judges and accusers, many of the fathers of the council looked indignant and jeered.

Hus declared he had come willingly to the council under imperial safe conduct. As he made these remarks Hus turned to face Sigismund, who looked away.

Muttich,_Kamil_Vladislav_-_Mistr_Jan_Hus_na_hranici_v_Kostnici_1415The council made its final offer: “Recant or die.” With those words ringing in his ears, Hus turned his face from his judges and prepared for his final journey on earth.

When the Bishop of Lodi concluded his sermon on destroying the body of sin, seven bishops dressed Hus in the priestly vestments that had been set on the table. Then he was defrocked.

In turn a different bishop tore each of the vestments from Hus’s body, saying, “O cursed Judas … we take from you the cup of redemption.” They removed the stole, the chasuble, and all of the vestments with appropriate curses concluding with the words, “we commit your soul to the Devil.”

Hus was crowned with a paper miter upon which were three demons and the inscription: “This is a heresiarch.” Accompanied by a multitude, Hus was then pushed through the streets of Constance to the place of death.

He was bound to the stake with a sooty chain wrapped around his neck. Wood was piled to his chin. Hundreds of men, women, and children thronged restlessly.

Hus was given one final chance to save his life by recanting all his errors and heresies. A pause fell over the meadow, then Hus’s voice could be heard clearly: “God is my witness that … the principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn men from sin. And in that truth of the Gospel that I wrote, taught, and preached in accordance with the sayings and expositions of the holy doctors, I am willing gladly to die today.”

Depiction of Hus' ExecutionAn audible murmur rippled. The signal was given. The executioner set the pyre ablaze. From the smoke and flames that shot upward into the summer sky, Hus’s voice could be heard once more, this time in song. “Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me.”

In the midst of the billowing flames, witnessed by an incredulous crowd, Master Jan Hus sang these words three times. The goose was cooked. He died singing.


tfudge-BCMDr. Thomas A. Fudge is professor at the School of Humanities at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia [BIO]. He is the author of The Magnificent Ride: The First Reformation in Hussite Bohemia, and numerous other scholarly books about Hus and the First Reformation.

This article first appeared in Christian History Magazine issue #68.  Thanks to the Christian History Institute for allowing us to republish the article here.  For more information on how you can subscribe to Christian History Magazine, visit www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine.

Photo by Andrew David Cox; courtesy of Moravian Board of Cooperative Ministries.