Jan Hus (1369-1415), a fifteenth-century religious reformer, was (along with John Wycliffe) one of the most important forerunners of the 16th-century Reformation.
Among the many, no doubt apocryphal, stories of Jan Hus's life is one that relates an incident in his youth, which foreshadowed his fate as a Christian martyr. According to the account, the youthful Hus was sitting beside a fire one winter evening reading about the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. Suddenly, he thrust his hand into the flames. When a fellow pupil pulled him away from the fire and questioned his intentions, Hus replied: "I was only trying what part of the tortures of this holy man I might be capable of enduring."
What truth, if any, there is in the story cannot be determined. But what is historical fact is that on July 6, 1415, condemned as an arch-heretic by the Council of Constance and turned over to the state for execution, Jan Hus sang a hymn as the flames engulfed his body in a meadow just outside the city walls of Constance. Hus was charged with propagating the heretical teachings of the late 14th-century English reformer John Wycliffe, "the Morning Star of the Reformation," whose bones the Council of Constance ordered disinterred and burned. One hundred years later, Martin Luther was charged with heresy by the church hierarchy for espousing views associated with Hus and condemned as heresy by the Council of Constance. Therein lies the historical significance of Jan Hus. He was a vital link in the chain of reformers who sought to reform the late-medieval church, and whose efforts, often punctuated by martyrdom, culminated in the 16th-century Reformation.
The period of the Renaissance church (roughly the mid-14th through 16th centuries) was, spiritually speaking, the bleakest chapter in Church history. In 1303, Pope Boniface VIII was taken captive by the French king Philip IV, and the papal court moved to Avignon in southern France. An attempt in 1378 to end the "Babylonian Captivity" and return the papal court to Rome led only to the election of two rival popes, one in Avignon and the other in Rome. Both were dominated by men who often made no pretense to spiritual interests. But as destructive as it was, the worldliness of the Renaissance popes did not damage the spiritual authority of the church nearly so much as the Great Schism, the scandal of two popes.
According to the teachings of the medieval church, the pope, or bishop of Rome, was "the vicar of Christ, the successor to St. Peter, the keeper of the keys, the servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God." How then could the authority of Christ be divided? Only one of the two popes could be the true successor of St. Peter according to apostolic succession. The other had to be an antipope. But which was the pope and which was the antipope? And were the sacraments, held to be necessary for the salvation of the individual, valid if performed under the authority of the antipope?
It is within the context of this crisis of faith within the late-medieval church that the life of Jan Hus must be considered. But it also must be viewed against the backdrop of imperial politics within the Holy Roman Empire and the emergence of Bohemian (or Czech) nationalism. The two are so closely intertwined that they cannot be separated. The cause of religious reform in Bohemia at the turn of the 15th century was also the cry of Bohemian nationalism within the Holy Roman Empire.
The exact date of Jan Hus's birth cannot be determined. It has been variously given as the year 1369, 1372, 1373 or 1375. Popular legend placed the exact date as July 6, 1369, but July 6 is believed to be nothing more than an imaginative analogy with the date of his martyrdom. In any event, he was born in Husinec (meaning "Goosetown") in southern Bohemia on the border of Bavaria.
In his youth, Jan Hus was known simply as "Jan, son of Michael," since it was customary in Bohemia to identify a man by giving his Christian name and the name of his father. In the register of the University of Prague, he is inscribed as "Jan of Husinec," or "Jan from the village of Husinec." Between 1398 and 1400, he signed his name as "Jan Hus," or "Jan Hus of Husinec." After 1400, he always signed his name as simply "Jan Hus." Thus he derived his last name "Hus" from the name of his birthplace, and his actual family name is lost to history.
Of Jan Hus's family even less is known. It is assumed that his parents were humble people of peasant background. Nothing is known of his father, who apparently died when Jan was very young. His mother was a very pious woman. A casual mention in one of his surviving letters leads scholars to assume that Jan Hus had brothers, but nothing is known of them or any possible sisters.
Jan Hus received his "elementary" schooling in the Latin school of the nearby town of Prachatice. When 18 years old, he enrolled at the University of Prague. From then until his death in 1415, his life and fate were shaped by the political and religious struggles that characterized this divided university. In 1393 or 1394, he received his bachelor's degree, and by 1396, his master of arts. That same year, he became a member of the faculty of arts at the university. At first, he lectured on the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the realist philosophy of John Wycliffe. While teaching, Hus also pursued theological studies and in 1404, he earned a bachelor of divinity degree. Three years later, he was in the process of earning his doctorate but never received it. Instead, he earned the martyr's crown.
At what point in his life Jan Hus made the transition to a religious reformer is also unknown. He once commented that the reason he wanted to become a priest was "to secure a good livelihood and dress and be held in esteem by men." During his early years at the university, he lived what he characterized as a lighthearted lifestyle. Hus nowhere records a "conversion" experience as do Martin Luther and other religious reformers. Rather, he simply states that "when the Lord gave me knowledge of the Scriptures, I discarded from my foolish mind that kind of stupid fun making."
Following his ordination in 1402, he was appointed rector and preacher of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. Founded in 1391, the Bethlehem Chapel was the point at which the Czech national movement coalesced with the cause of religious reform. Under the patronage of Charles IV, king of Bohemia, and his son Wenceslas IV, both of whom were also Holy Roman Emperors, Bethlehem Chapel was a refuge for a group of reform-minded Bohemian clergy, including John Milič of Kroměříž and Matthew of Janov. They preached in the Czech language, rather than Latin, and hence were very popular with the common people.
Jan Hus soon became the leader of the reform party centered in the Bethlehem Chapel and shared their condemnation of the corrupt clergy. Matthew of Janov characterized the priests as:
worldly, proud, mercenary, pleasure-loving, and hypocritical…. They do not regard their sins as such, do not allow themselves to be reproved, and persecute the saintly preachers. There is no doubt that if Jesus lived among such people, they would be the first to put him to death.
Such outspoken opinions ran the risk of incurring the wrath of the church hierarchy. But so long as Hus and his associates enjoyed the protection of Wenceslas and Zybněk Zajic, the young reform-minded Archbishop of Prague, they were safe.
What drew upon the reformers the charge of heresy was their acceptance of many of the theological teachings of John Wycliffe, a leading exponent of the philosophical position known as "realism." Prior to 1401, Hus knew only Wycliffe's philosophical works, but this was enough to incur the enmity of the German-dominated faculty of the university, for they were committed to the opposite philosophical position, "nominalism." The realists believed that universals have objective reality, whereas the nominalists held that universals or abstract concepts are mere names. For Wycliffe and his followers, this meant that in theology they emphasized the priority of faith over reason and the authority of the Scriptures (Bible) over church tradition.
After the marriage of Wenceslas's half-sister Anne of Bohemia to Wycliffe's patron and defender, Richard II of England, a number of Bohemian students went to study under Wycliffe at Oxford University. As these students returned to the University of Prague, they brought with them the theological works of Wycliffe. Many of Wycliffe's views were congenial to the Bohemian reformers of the Bethlehem Chapel and accepted by them. Among them was Wycliffe's doctrine of the true Church. According to Wycliffe's understanding of Scripture, which he held to be authoritative, the true Church consisted of all those—past, present, and future—predestined by God to salvation. Since the Roman Catholic Church included both those predestined to salvation and those "foreknown" to damnation, it was not, as it believed itself to be, the true body of Christ. Hence, Wycliffe rejected the divine origin of the Roman Catholic Church and the alleged authority of the pope.
Wycliffe also advocated "territorial churches, each protected, regulated, and supported by the territorial lords and princes." There was, of course, much more to Wycliffe's theological teaching, but the attraction it held for the Bohemians trying to liberate themselves from German cultural domination should be clear. Likewise, the connection with the 16th-century Reformation is clear. The fundamental doctrines of the Protestant Reformation are present in Wycliffe's teaching, and hence that of Hus, also.
Jan Hus did not accept carte blanche all that Wycliffe taught. He did not, for example, accept Wycliffe's doctrine of remanence with respect to the Eucharist, or Mass. The doctrine of remanence held that in the celebration of the Eucharist, the bread and wine retain their material substance. Thus it denied the alleged miracle of transubstantiation by which, according to the Roman Catholic Church, the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation was the key to the whole edifice of medieval theology. Remove it, and one removed the need for the priesthood and the medieval institutional church as it then existed.
Although Hus did not agree with all that Wycliffe taught, and which his associates at Bethlehem Chapel and the university were teaching, he refused to denounce those views which he did not hold. The Bohemian party at the university was locked in a struggle with the German party for control of that institution. The Germans soon realized that their most effective way of countering the Bohemian party was to focus on its Wycliffism. Many of Wycliffe's teachings had been condemned by Pope Gregory XI and the English prelates, although Wycliffe died officially orthodox ("conforming to established doctrine").
In 1403, Johann Hübner, one of the German masters at the university, drew up a list of 45 articles from Wycliffe's writings. Among them were the doctrine of remanence and the teaching that the Bible is the sole source of Christian doctrine. Hübner was able to have the 45 articles condemned as heresy. As they became a test of orthodoxy at the university, Hus was in danger of being branded a heretic and soon lost the support of both Archbishop Zbyněk and King Wenceslas, although for different reasons. The change of events grew out of efforts to end the Great Schism.
Wenceslas and the king of France (Charles VI) sought to end the Great Schism by convening a church council in Pisa in 1409. The Council deposed both Gregory XII (Rome) and Benedict XIII (Avignon), and elected Alexander VI, who was succeeded in 1410 by John XXIII. Since neither of the former two resigned, the number of popes was merely increased by one.
The Council of Pisa and its aftermath sealed Hus's fate. Hus supported Wenceslas and recognized Alexander VI as pope. Zbyněk and the German masters at the University of Prague refused to do so. When many of the German masters chose to leave Prague to found a new university at Leipzig in Germany, Zybněk began to take a closer look at Hus's teachings.
In 1410, Archbishop Zybněk confiscated Wycliffe's books and ordered them burned. When Hus defended the books, Zybněk excommunicated him, and the following year Hus was ordered to appear in Rome. Refusing to go, Hus was excommunicated for disobedience. Having lost the support of his onetime ally, the Archbishop, Hus would next lose the support of his King.
John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against King Ladislas of Naples, a supporter of John XXIII's rival, Gregory XII. The cost of the crusade was to be paid for by the sale of indulgences in, among other areas, Bohemia. Since Wenceslas was to receive a portion of the income from the sale of indulgences, he supported the crusade. Hus, however, openly condemned both and accused John XXIII of "trafficking in sacred things." Such action cost him and his associates the support of Wenceslas. Shortly thereafter, three members of the reform party who spoke out against indulgences were arrested and beheaded.
In September 1412, a papal bull of excommunication of Hus was published in Prague. The city was placed under an interdict, and Bethlehem Chapel closed. An interdict was still a powerful weapon against heretics or other enemies of the church hierarchy. An area under interdict was denied the sacraments: "All masses and sermons, all religious functions, even burial with the Christian rites were prohibited." It was intended to turn the people of an area against the one—in this case Hus—who was defying the church authorities. To spare the city the rigors of being under an interdict, Hus withdrew from Prague and took refuge with various Bohemian nobles.
The final act of Hus's life was played out at the Council of Constance (1414-18), called to bring an end to the Great Schism and to deal with the problem of heresy, especially Hus. Zygmunt, the king of Hungary and brother of Wenceslas, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1410. To strengthen his position in Germany, he pressured John XXIII to call the Council. Then, in the spring of 1415, offering a guarantee of safe conduct, Zygmunt invited Hus to attend. At first Hus hesitated, but with the urging of Wenceslas, he accepted.
Once in Constance, Hus was lured into the papal residence, then imprisoned in a Dominican dungeon. What followed were months of interrogation and suffering. Zygmunt withdrew his safe conduct in January 1415. It was only due to great pressure exerted by Bohemian noblemen that Hus was given any semblance of a public hearing on June 5, 7, and 8, but he was not allowed to respond to the charges made against him. Presented with a list of 30 articles allegedly drawn from his writings but in fact drawn from the writings of John Wycliffe, Hus was ordered to renounce them upon oath. He refused, unless instructed from Scripture as to where his teachings were in error. The Council rejected his appeal to the Bible as a superior authority.
On July 6, Hus was given a final opportunity to recant. Again he refused, saying that since he did not hold all of the views as stated, to recant would be to commit perjury. He was then declared an arch-heretic and a disciple of Wycliffe. He was ceremoniously degraded from the priest-hood, his soul was consigned to the devil, and he was turned over to the secular authorities for execution. That same day, he was led to a meadow outside the city wall and burned alive.
Although the Council had consigned his soul to the devil, Hus—singing loudly as the flames consumed him— consigned his soul to God: "Jesus Christ! The Son of the living God! Have mercy upon me." His ashes were then gathered up and cast into the Rhine River.
Further Reading on Jan Hus
de Bonnechose, Emile. The Reformers Before the Reformation. Harper and Brothers, 1844.
Estep, William R. Renaissance & Reformation. Eerdmans, 1986.
Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Whitaker House, 1981.
Kaminsky, Howard. "John (Jan) Hus," in Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. VI. Scribners, 1985.
Lutzow, Count. The Life & Times of Master John Hus. J. M. Dent, 1909.
Palmer, R. R., and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. 6th ed. Knopf, 1984.
Spinka, Matthew. "Jan Hus," in The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. IX. 15th ed. 1973.
Bartok, Josef Paul. John Hus at Constance. Cokesbury Press, 1935.
Loserth, Johann. Wiclif and Hus. Hodder & Stoughton, 1884.
Previte-Orton, C. W. and Z. N. Brooke, eds. The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1964.
Roubiczek, Paul, and Joseph Kalmer. Warrior of God. Nicholson and Watson, 1947.
Schwarze, William Nathaniel. John Hus: The Martyr of Bohemia. Revell, 1915.
Spinka, Matthew. John Hus: A Biography. 1968.