Jan (John) Hus (1374-1415) and Master Jerome of Prague

Jan Hus was a Bohemian (Czechoslavakian) priest ordained in 1401, who shared similar views with John Wyckcliffe  concerning the excesses of the medieval Catholic Church. He came from a modest background and by scrimping and saving his parents put him through the university of Prague where he obtained a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity degrees.

There was a strong link with the teachings of John  Wicklcliffe through the offices of Queen Anne (d 1394) wife of Richard II, daughter of the Emperor Charles IV,  and sister to king Wenceslaus, of Bohemia.  Anne could not tolerate the devotions of the Catholic church and became a devout follower and sponsor of Wickcliffe.  Through her and her royal contacts evangelism gained a hold in Bohemia; meanwhile Wickcliffe`s books were taken to Prague by an Englishman, Peter Patne, principal of Edmund Hall, Oxford who had to flee from the papists. A response to this was the seizure of such books from across Bohemia by the order of archbishop Sbynko and a ceremonial burning - said to be 200 volumes finely written, bound in leather and gold bosses. Paine was soon lecturing at the university and was avidly supported by the students who resented the actions of the archbishop.

 Hus spent most of his career at Prague University and as a preacher in the nearby Bethlehem Chapel. Held in great esteem, he became involved in the politics of the university which had been set up by Charles IV with three quarters of the professors from the states of Bavaria, Saxony and Poland ( most of whom were German). As a result Bohemians were worse off in the allocation of benefices and other appointments. Hus represented the case to King Wencelas and the privileges were revoked. This caused a split in the university with the German faction moving to Misnia. But Prague continued to thrive under the new order. His early conflict with the Church came through his opposition to two decrees by Archbishop Sbynko concerning Wickcliffe`s books, when he maintained that the professors had the right to read whatever they wished without being molested.

His public speaking emphasised personal piety and purity of life and stressed the role of the Scriptures as the authority for the church. An early publication by him, On the Church, defined the church as the body of Christ with Christ its only head, and taught that only God can forgive sin. These beliefs put him into conflict with the Catholic Church  who regarded him and Wyckcliffe as two of the most dangerous  heretics in Europe. Underpinning the resentment of the church was that Hus had sought to remove the University of Prague from the jurisdiction of Gregory XII ( one of the Three Popes then disputing amongst themselves who was the genuine Pope).

Hus continued to speak against the pope and cardinals establishing doctrine of the church, which he said was contrary to Scripture. He further advocated that non one should slavishly follow  an instruction from a cleric that was plainly wrong. These seeds of discontent he expanded to dissatisfaction with the conduct and corruptness of clerics, the worshipping of idols,  going on pilgrimages ; the practice of indulgences; and the withholding of the wine from the people during Holy Communion.

About 1410 Hus retired from the university and went to his birth place at Hussenitz where he continued a strong critic of the church, including the Bull of Pope John XXIII declaring a crusade against the King of naples and granting indulgences to all who participated. In 1412 he returned to Prague where his orations gave rise to some public unrest, including demands that Pope John XXIII was the Antichrist. The unrest caused the magistrates to take action against the Hussites some of whom were arrested, and despite assurances to their armed supporters, the prisoners were privately beheaded . This led to the bodies being forcibly recovered and removal for burial. A list of some forty five of Wickcliffe`s propositions was drawn up and censured (thereby exerting the authority of Rome) , after which the magistrates accused the Hussites of sedition, thereby seeking to justify their action. Hus responded by publishing a treatise about the church with Jesus Christ its head and foundation - the pope and cardinals are only members of it, and no one is obliged to obey them or the bishops. He also published a  list of six errors  that were fixed to the church door  charging the clergy:

By believing that the priest by saying mass,  becomes the creator of his creator.
Of saying that we ought to believe in the virgin, the pope,  and in the saints.
That the priests can remit the pain and guilt of sin.
That everyone must obey his superiors, whether their demands be just or unjust.
That every excommunication, just or unjust, binds the excommunicant.
The sixth related to the practice of simony.

For a while Hus was reasonably safe in the distant lands of Bohemia but in late 1414 he was summoned to the Council of Constance that had convened on  15 November 1414. He was called by Pope John XXIII to explain his views. In the fashion of the day, despite having a most solemn safe conduct from the Emperor, Sigismund, he was seized and cast into prison when he presented himself at Constance. But  Pope John fled when the Emperor arrived in December, the Council having decreed that the three Popes then existing should stand down pending consideration of the matter (who was the one and true pope).

The Council  appointed the cardinals of Cambray and St Mark, the bishop of Dol and the abbot  of the Cistercians, to continue with the process against Hus. Joined by other bishops thye was asked Hus to confirm his writings, some thirty of which were cited, many being commentaries based on issues raised by Wyckcliffe.  Some eighty nine  charges were raised against him but very few indeed were in any wayproven. On 10 June the Emperor sent four bishops and two lords to get Hus to receant but he declined to do so. On 7 July he appeared before the Council at its fifteenth session, and again he refused to abjure. At this the bishop of Lodi launched into a tirade about heretics and the Council proceeded to condemn him as a manifest heretic;  taught many errors; defied the keys of the church; seduced and scandalised  the faithful by his obstinacy ; having rashly appealed to the tribunal of Christ. He was duly condemned to be degraded,  have his books burnt and handed over to the secular authority ( for burning).

In fact Hus was not condemned for any error of doctrine but for having the temerity to attack the pomp, pride and avarice of the pope, cardinals and prelates of the church. It is true that he could not abide the dignities and high living of the church and  considered the doings of the pope to be Antichrist like. But he had not opposed transubstantiation, the seven sacraments or the mass - the usual benchmarks for determining a heretic. Indeed both he and Jerome accepted the mass and transubstantiation, both believing in the  real presence. Neither did he specifically attack the authority of the church of Rome - , if it was well governed. But such was the arrogance of the Church at that time there was no stopping the inevitable cry for condign punishment for heresy.

Despite these quite moderate criticisms as compared with Wyckcliffe`s more substantial allegations, Hus was seen to be a danger and rushed to execution on 6/15 July 1415 ( Rolt in Lives of the Principal Reformers says 2 May 1415). The despicable treatment of Hus`s remains serves perhaps to illustrate just how afraid the prelates were of the martyr, his criticisms and his very memory.

But the spite and bitterness of the Church did not stop there, turning to focus its venom on  Master Jerome of Prague, a friend and co religionist of Hus. Jerome was held in great respect, not only for being Hus`s colleague but in his own right as a man of great learning, with degrees of Master of arts from Prague, Heidelberg, Paris and Cologne.  Among his earlier accomplishments was a journey to England where he had copied out all the writings of Wyckcliffe that he brought back to Prague. He was cited to appear before the Council of Constance  17 April 1415. Jerome sought a safe conduct to Constance but ominously only received one for going there, not for a return. Approaching Constance he was duly seized and cast into prison where he was surrounded by friends urging him to recant as they thought there was no chance of escape if he went for trial [The Emperor had already publicly said that an example ought to be made of him]. His public abjuration was, however, rejected saying that he was insincere. New articles were then alleged to keep him in prison.He was returned to prison where he was again assailed by his dissatisfied enemies who brought some 107 specious charges against him, in their determination that he should be executed.

 Jerome was disgracefully treated, harassed and bound in chains. His accusers, such as they were, made sweeping allegations of errors but could not come up with specific instances nor would they allow Jerome to explain his views without interruption. Soon the cries of heretic broke out and a blood - or burning, lust took over. Jerome was heard by the Council of Constance over a period of days in May 1416 having been incarcerated in a dungeon, without food, daylight or sleep for three hundred and forty days. Despite the privations  he dealt effectively with the charges; finally he withdrew his recantation and greatly regretted unjustly speaking of Hus and his doctrines.  Again he was chained and fettered and thrown into prison to await his judgment.

Shortly after the odious bishop Lodi preached a sermon and set the machinery of execution into motion. Jerome was formally deemed a heretic and sentenced to be burned forthwith. On 30 May 1416 (Rolt in Lives of the Principle Reformers has 1 June 1416) , at the same spot as Jan Hus had  died, they stripped him of his clothes, chained and roped him and heaped firewood over him, then set it alight. It is said that Jerome kept singing and praying for many minutes before the roar of the fire drowned his voice out, even then his body and mouth were working for a further fifteen minutes or so.  His clothes, boots, bedding from the prison, and his personal papers, were brought and heaped on the fire so that eventually all was burned, and the residual dust cast into the waters of the river Rhine.

A consequence of these executions was  a  protestation by some  fifty four nobles to the  Council of Constance in defence of Hus and Jerome. The spite and malevolence of the prelates only succeeded in raising national feelings in Czechoslovakia and the establishment of a Hussite Church which survived until ca 1620. Moreover, their executions did not extirpate opposition but served to focus attention of the serious minded throughout Europe to the cruelty, injustice and hypocrisy exercised by the papal authority. The obvious intention became clear - to perpetuate ignorance  superstition and, in short, slavery to Rome. Other kingdoms and states occasionally resisted the encroachments of Rome  and a momentum was beginning to build for reformation.

Actual breaks would soon follow that created new political alliances based on religion. In a short time  the contending religions separated out to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Brandenburgh, Prussia, England, Scotland, Ireland and Holland with Protestant governments.  Italy, Spain, Portugal,  and the Spanish Belgic states were Catholic.  Germany, with its many princes  were divided roughly half and half; Switzerland was divided  but preponderantly Protestant. And France almost turned, having a large minority firm in the Protestant faith. The catholics were still numerically superior although the Protestants rather weakened their position by the two major divisions - following Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon or  Calvin. Lutheranism  largely prevailed in the northern states of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the German states, while in Britain, Holland, Switzerland and France Protestantism followed Calvinistic lines. The importance to the English Reformation of these alignments was in the strategic alliances to safeguard her borders.

18/07/2011

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