(Blogger’s note: This is the sixth in a series titled “Martyrs of Reason” spotlighting historical religious skeptics who paid a heavy price for their unorthodoxy. Here are links to my previous posts about Socrates, Hypatia of Alexandria, John Wycliffe, and Giordano Bruno.)
As dissident Czech Catholic priest Jan Hus stood atop a pile of dry wood and straw on July 6, 1415, chained at the neck to a post, an elderly peasant man added another piece of kindling.
“O santa simplicitas! (O holy simplicity!),” Hus repotedly exclaimed, according to eyewitness anecdotal accounts of his execution in the city of Constance in what is now southern Germany.
Among the ostensible heresies that Hus was ultimately condemned for by church authorities, at least three were justifiable, rational positions: 1.) Believers should be able to read the Word of God in their own language (forbidden at the time), 2.) Priests should not be wealthy because Jesus was not, and 3.) Scripture does not prohibit priests from marrying (the church arbitrarily imposed the ban a thousand years after the death of Jesus).
At heart, Hus was a reformer, appalled by the morally corrupting influence of wealth and elitism within the church hierarchy, as were Italian monk Francis of Assisi, English firebrand priest John Wycliffe and other putative reformers before him. Hus was influenced by Wycliffe’s underlying principles, though he reportedly never accepted their more extreme implications, but he was particularly impressed by Wycliffe’s proposals for reform of the Roman Catholic clergy.
Of relevance in Hus’ ideas, more political than theological, was that the church owned about one-half of all the land in his native Bohemia. He railed against the great private wealth of high-ranking church clergy and their selling of ecclesiastic privileges, such as church offices, practices that aroused jealousy and resentment among poorer priests. The Bohemian peasantry, too, resented the church as one of the heaviest land taxers. This comprised a huge potential base of support for any church reform movement at a time, when the authority of the papacy itself was discredited by the Western Schism.
The schism was a split between the Eastern and Western branches of the faith in the erstwhile Roman Empire. A significant causal factor was an arcane difference in opinion in which the Eastern church body based in Constantinople subscribed to a Trinitarian doctrine holding that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from God alone, while the Western church in Rome believed it proceeded jointly from God and Jesus Christ. Historical and other factors also contributed to the divorce, which is still in effect today.
A university radical
Hus also ran afoul of the ascendant German masters at the University of Prague, where he taught theology. The Germans looked down at and lorded over Hus and other Czech professors in general and in determining university policy. And the Germans and Czechs also disagreed on arcane theological concepts, such as nominalism, a philosophical idea that generallys rejects the existence in reality of abstract or universal things.
This antagonism worsened in 1403, when a German master named Johann Hubner compiled a list of 45 passages derived from Wycliffe’s writing, and had them condemned as heretical. Because the Germans (who each had three votes the Czechs’ one) outvoted their rivals, the 45 passages were deemed unorthodox. The key accusation was against Wycliffe’s (and now Hus’) tenet of remanence, which held that the bread and wine of communion remained what it was in the sacrament of communion with only a spiritual, non-corporeal, essence of divinity. Others, like the German masters, believed the bread and wine were transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ.
Anticipating Luther, Wycliffe also declared that the only authentic source of Christine doctrine was scripture, at odds with Catholic Church doctrine.
Ultimately, Hus partly became a scapegoat for displaced Catholic rage from previous decades against English Wycliffe, who, as Hus later did, had the gall to translate the Bible into the vernacular language of his region — an illegal act in both their days. The highly popular and well-connected Wycliffe evaded execution and died a natural death, much to the chagrin of eccelesiastical authorities.
Indeed, some remaining writings of Wycliff (who died long before of natural causes), including a translated Bible, were symbolically placed atop Hus’ execution pyre to send a message to the masses: the arm of Catholic canon law is long, and its memory longer. And, clearly, for pure mean-spirited if only symbolic vengeance.
Hus’ ashes were later gathered and cast into the nearby Rhine River, and just over a century later, in 1517, Protestant Reformation igniter Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting many of the same Catholic ecclesiastical transgressions that Hus and Wycliffe had fairly decried. Hus had widely read Wycliffe’s ideas — embedded in Hus’ Czech translation of the Briton’s Trialogus — in the decades after his death before Hus’ execution. The treatise contained Wycliffe’s beliefs that secular rulers should not be ruled by the church, papal power should be greatly reduced, friars (and the wealth of their monasteries) should be eliminated, and Jesus is only incorporeally present in the bread and wine of communion.
In the end, the Bohemian priest found himself alone and vulnerable on the dock before a punitive ecclesiastic council in 1415 in Constance after being tricked, with official promises of safety, to appear. During he trial, he respectfully but steadfastly claimed his innocence of the charges of heresy against him. But the die had already been cast.
After a full mass and liturgy at the local cathedral on July 6, Hus was condemned and then castigated in a bishop’s hell-raising sermon against heresy. Some of the priest’s offending texts and those of Wycliffe were then read to the congregation. After professing his piety and innocence, and quietly asking God to forgive his enemies, a paper heretic’s hat was placed on Hus’ head.
Hus was led away by armed guard to the city’s public stake, where the executioners disrobed Hus, roped his hands behind his back and chained him, standing, against the stake.
One final time before kindling was lit at the pyre’s base, Hus was again urged to recant his “heresies,” and he again refused, reportedly saying, intermittently:
“God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. … In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.”
A punitive statute targeting any remaining followers of the late Wycliffe had been approved by the Church in 1401 before Hus’ burning, formally authorizing persecution of the long-abused theologian’s disciples, and the Constitutions of Oxford decree in 1408 sought to reaffirm Catholic Church authority over all ecclesiastical matters. The latter decree had also posthumously accused Wycliffe of heresy, banned certain of his writings and ordered them burned, noting that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity was a heretical crime punishable by death.
The later Council of Constance formally banned Wycliffe’s writings on May 4, 1415—not long before Hus’ execution — and decreed that his books along with his exhumed remains should be burned. This callous act sparked a rebellion by Wycliffe’s and Hus’ followers that exploded into a fifteen-year conflict known as the Hussite Wars.
Wycliffe’s corpse was retrieved from his grave in England and burned along with his books in an unusual posthumous “execution,” and the ashes of both were purposefully tossed into the River Swift, which flowed past the town of Lutterworth, where he once served as parish rector (from 1374-1384).
Yet, while Hus lost his private battle, his descendants, including Martin Luther, won the Protestant war against Catholicism and gained their religious freedom.
For nonbelievers today, though, it’s just a lot of sound and fury from the past signifying only the endless human fascination with invisible realms.
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