Jan Hus

Expats.cz looks at the religious zealot and diacritical inventor

Erin Naillon

Written by Erin Naillon
Published on 25.06.2010 17:22 (updated on 25.06.2010)

July 6 is a public holiday; Jan Hus Day. Who is Jan Hus and what influence did he have on the country?

Jan Hus was born to poor Czech parents in the town of Husinec, near Prague. The popular year given for his birth was circa 1369, but the year varies according to the source. His leaning towards the priesthood, he claimed later in life, was that he wanted “to secure a good livelihood and dress and be held in esteem by men.” As a student in Prague, he gained one academic degree after another, becoming ordained as a priest in the year 1400. Two years later, he was appointed preacher of Prague´s Bethlehem Chapel; centuries afterward, artist Alfons Mucha would include a painting of Hus preaching at the chapel in his famous Slav Epic.

In the year 1382 Anne of Bohemia, sister of King Václav IV, married Richard II of England. This created increased communication between the two nations; English authors were translated into Czech. One such writer was John Wycliffe, also known as “the Morning Star of the Reformation;” his writings were brought to Bohemia by Jerome of Prague in 1401 or 1402, and were read widely. Wycliffe´s opinions matched Hus´s own growing dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church´s corruption and abuse. He preached tirelessly on his stance that Christ, not the Pope, was the sole head of the Church.

During this time, the Great Schism was causing deep rifts throughout Europe. King Václav was deposed in the year 1400, but remained King of Germany. With the help of Charles VI of France, Václav sought to end the schism by convening the Council of Pisa in 1409. The result was that the Pope of Avignon (Gregory XII) and the Pope of Rome (Benedict XIII) were deposed, and a new pope (Alexander V) was elected. This merely created a third pope, since Gregory and Benedict refused to resign their positions. Hus supported Václav and recognized Alexander as the true pope; Archbishop Zbyňek Zajic and the Germans of Charles University refused, and many of the German masters left Bohemia and formed the University of Leipzig. It was then that the Archbishop took a closer, fateful look at Hus and his teachings.

In 1410, Zajic confiscated Wycliffe´s books and ordered them burned. A civil court demanded that the Archbishop reimburse the University for the destroyed works and his property was confiscated, leading to rioting. When Hus also protested, the Archbishop excommunicated him. Worse yet, a crusade against Naples was to be funded by the sale of indulgences in Bohemia, among other places. Václav, formerly a supporter of Hus, welcomed the sale, as he would receive a portion of the profits. Hus objected to this “trafficking in sacred things.”

The sellers of indulgences arrived to a very hostile Prague. More rioting occurred when the sales continued. Not long afterwards, three members of Hus´s reform party were beheaded for speaking out against the sale of indulgences.

In September of 1412, a papal bull excommunicating Jan Hus was published in Prague. The Bethlehem Chapel was closed, and the city of Prague placed under an interdict, which meant that it was denied all sacraments; no religious services, even those related to burial, were allowed. Hus then left Prague and sought refuge with various noble families of Bohemia.

The Council of Constance (1414 – 1418) was called to deal with the Great Schism and with the problem of heresy in Europe. King Sigismund of Hungary, the brother of King Václav, who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, had been the motivating force behind the Council. In the spring of 1415, he “invited” Hus to attend, promising him safe conduct. It was to be Hus´s death warrant.

Hus had planned to defend his position before the highest authorities of the Church. After his arrival, when word spread that he planned to flee, he was thrown into a cell near an open sewer. All his books, including his Bible, were taken from him. He was then moved to a nearby castle belonging to the Archbishop of Constance, where he was kept in chains and given little food. Charged with heresy, refused the chance to defend himself. The sentence was a foregone conclusion – unless he recanted, which he steadfastly refused to do.

On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was chained and burned at the stake, singing as the flames surrounded him. His ashes were gathered and thrown into the Rhine. In 1428, upon the order of Pope Martin V, the long-dead remains of his forerunner and greatest influence, John Wycliffe, were disinterred and burned as well, the ashes cast into the River Swift.

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When news of Hus´s death reached Bohemia, the nobles – some of whom had sheltered him, and who supported reform – sent a protest, the protestatio Bohemorum, to the Council on September 2, 1415. Sigismund, in turn, threatened to drown all Wycliffites and Hussites. All hell broke loose throughout the area, and many Catholic priests were forced from their parishes. The Hussites soon split into groups: The moderates were known as Utraquists or Calixtines (from the Latin word calix, meaning “chalice”); the more extreme members were called Taborites (from the town of Tábor) or Orphans. Later, another group would spring up, uniting members from both previous factions; this group was called the Unitas Fratrum, and concentrated on pacifism.

The Hussites, with an enormous grudge against Sigismund, soon made their presence felt on a larger scale. On July 30, 1419, priest Jan Želivský led a Hussite group through the streets of Prague; anti-Hussites threw rocks at them from the New Town Hall. The infuriated crowd stormed the building, seized the burgomaster and six town councilors, and threw them from the windows onto the spears below in the “First Defenestration of Prague.” Popular legend states that Václav died of shock upon hearing the news. In September of the same year, the recently widowed Queen hired mercenaries to deal with the Hussites; a truce was declared on November 13, but not before much of the city had been destroyed. Legendary warrior Jan Žižka left the city, eventually finding his home in a new settlement called Tábor. Želivský was arrested by Prague´s town council and beheaded on March 9, 1422.

There were three anti-Hussite crusades, which eventually involved much of Europe. It was not until the late fifteenth century that the subsequent fighting ground to a halt.

In the late 18th century, the famous Bethlehem Chapel was torn down. In the 1950s, it was resurrected, rebuilt according to the original plans, on the same site. A statue grouping of Hus stands in Prague´s Old Town Square.

In addition to his lasting influence on religion, Hus has another claim to fame: During his short stint as chancellor of Charles University, Hus introduced the diacritical marks that are still used in Czech writing. Given the difficulty these marks make in the language, Czechs today joke that “Hus wasn´t burned soon enough.”