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Jan Hus, also spelled Huss, was born in 1370 in Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). He derived his last name from Husinec, his birthplace. He studied at the University of Prague at a time when Europe was in transition from Medieval to the Reformation. Bohemian authorities, including Hus, subscribed to realist philosophy, being heavily influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, a fierce advocate of reform. The Roman Catholic clergy owned half of the land in Bohemia; the poor peasants resented the great wealth of the higher clergy, gained in most part by selling church offices and privileges and high taxes. The national reform movement, founded by Jan Milic in 1374, was supported by none lesser than the king of Bohemia, Charles V.
After obtaining finishing his master’s degree in 1394, Hus began his teaching career at the University and became dean of philosophical studies in 1401. Milic’s followers had founded the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague where, contrary to tradition, public sermons were delivered in Czech rather than Latin. After Hus was ordained a priest, he took charge of the Chapel, which had become the hub of the national reform movement. His sermons grew in popularity till Hus emerged as one of the most eminent leaders of the reform movement. He became adviser to Zbynek Zajic, the new archbishop of Prague. The movement gained a stronger foundation.
1n 1403, Johann Hubner, a German church master, listed 45 articles, presumably written by Wycliffe and proposed condemning them as heretical. The German masters had three votes to the Czech’s one and the offending articles became a test of orthodoxy. The main opposition to Wycliffe’s teachings was his tenet of remanence, which held that the bread and wine of the Eucharist had material substance. Though Hus did not subscribe to this particular view, many pro-reformers did including his teacher, Stanislav and Stepan Palec, his fellow-student.
Within five years of becoming archbishop, Zbynek changed his views towards the “evangelical party” and allied himself with the opponents of reform. In 1407, Stanislav and Palec were charged with heresy and were subjected to examination by the Roman Curia. Both men returned with a drastic change in their theological views and became fierce opponents of reform. Just when Hus came to lead the reform movement, he had to contend with his former colleagues.
Since 1378, the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church had been divided between two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon, France. When the Council of Pisa was called in 1409 to unseat the popes and end what has come to be called the Western Schism, Hus frequently quarreled with Archbishop Zbynek over his opposition to the council. The German masters again succeeded in outvoting the Czechs due to their innate majority. This prompted the new king Wenceslas to dissolve the constitution of the University and establish a new one with three votes for Czech masters and a solitary vote for the Germans. Hus was now elected rector of the new varsity.
Hus supported the doctrine of predestination and championed the supremacy of the bible over the Roman Catholic Church. Hus was a realist who decried the ‘commercialization’ of the church and tirelessly worked to restore its moral authority through reform. During his later exile in southern Bohemia between 1412 and 1414, Hus could no longer preach like he used to in the Bethlehem Chapel. He thus filled the void by putting his views on paper. Now began a period of hectic back and forth writing of retaliatory articles against the treatises of Stanislav and Palec, who composed a large amount of dissertations against him.
The most important of Hus’ work was De Ecclesia (The Church). Another significant compilation is a collection of his sermons called the Postilla, apart from numerous treatises in the Czech language. Hus’ most popular work in Czech is a tract called Vyklad viery, desatera a patere, which translates to ‘Exposition of the faith, of the Ten Commandments and of the Lord’s prayer. When he switched from Latin to Czech, he developed a new orthography like simpler rules of spelling, capitalization, hyphenation and punctuation, etc. These works are considered classics of Czech literature and remain important in the evolution of the Czech language.
The Council of Pisa was subsequently held, which deposed both of the popes and elected Alexander V. However, both of the deposed popes continued to be recognized in various parts of Western Europe; now instead of two there were three popes. Archbishop Zbynek and Bohemia’s higher clergy remained faithful to Pope Gregory XII while Hus and his reformers acknowledged Pope Alexander. When the king forced the Zbynek to recognize the new pope, the archbishop bribed Alexander to prohibit preaching from private chapels, of which Bethlehem Chapel was the most prominent. Hus refused to obey and continued to preach from the Chapel, which prompted Zbynek to excommunicate Hus, which proved to be futile. The king forced Zbynek to support Hus before the Roman Curia, but the archbishop died before the hearing. Though his case of heresy was tacitly dropped, the Curia became Hus’ principal enemy.
In 1412, Alexander’s successor John XXIII, initiated a sale of indulgences to finance his campaign against Gregory XII, the proceeds of which were shared by King Wenceslas, who had approved the sale. Hus publicly denounced these indulgences, which had aroused widespread indignation in Bohemia. This proved fatal. This proved fatal to Hus, who now lost the support of the king. The Curia reinstated his trial for heresy, but Hus refused to appear and was put under ‘major excommunication’. The Curia also pronounced an indictment by which certain sacraments of the church could be denied to the people of Prague or any other city where Hus might reside. In order to spare his fellow-citizens, Hus voluntarily left Prague and stayed in the castles of friends in southern Bohemia.
Death and Legacy
The Western Schism continued over the years and King Sigismund of Germany sought to capitalize on the issue to be seen as the restorer of Church unity. He coerced John XXIII to convene the Council of Constance to find a solution to the Schism and end all heresies. Sigismund sent an emissary to Hus and invited him to explain his views at the council. Hus was naturally reluctant to accept. Sigismund then threatened action against Wenceslas if he tried to prevent Hus from attending. Hus relented after the German king assured him of safe-passage to Constance and back.
However, shortly after arriving in Constance, Hus was arrested and confined with the implicit approval of Sigismund. His enemies used the Council of Constance to try him as a Wycliffe heretic. The Bohemian nobles steadfastly interceded on Hus’ behalf but the concessions they could obtain ere three public hearings, in which Hus could defend himself. Defend himself Hus did and succeeded in refuting certain charges against him. Though the majority of the council members considered Hus to be a dangerous heretic unfit to live, he was given the option of recanting in order to save his life. Hus refused to recant and was subsequently sentenced to be burnt at the stake.
Jan Hus is called the most important Czech religious reformer of the 15th century. The reform movement accelerated by Jan Hus gained many followers in Bohemia who called themselves the Hussites. The movement continued to gain momentum over the course of a century. Martin Luther himself was strongly influenced by the Czech theologian.
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