The letters of John Hus/Hus's Respite; etc.

From June 8 until the final scene Hus remained in prison at the Franciscan convent. As his letters show, every day he expected that it would prove to be his last. He little anticipated the four weeks’ respite, if such a name may be attached to the prolongation of his trials, cooped up in a narrow cell amid the sweltering heat of a June that drove Sigismund and others to seek a cooler retreat in the fields. This month's grace was not as a rule granted to the victims of the Inquisition, unless indeed they were condemned to linger out the remnant of their days in some lonely cell. But Sigismund and the Council were both anxious to obtain a professed penitent, whom they could send back to Bohemia reduced by his recantation to powerlessness. To obtain this end they exhausted, as the Letters of Hus show us, the resources of casuistry. Learned doctors and others plied him with all manner of ingenious illustrations, while great ‘Fathers’ of the Council went out of their way to offer him convenient ‘baskets’ (p. 240), in which, as Paul, he might be ‘let down’ over the wall. But to all their blandishments Hus stood firm.

The student should understand clearly, what Sigismund had shown that he for one did not see (p. 218), the real point at issue between Hus and the Council, the ground on which he was executed. Hus was a martyr not so much to his convictions of the untruth of current beliefs, as because of his fidelity to conscience. As regards his heresies, he was, as he repeatedly told the Council, willing to abjure. Without the individuality of Wyclif, he was also without Wyclif’s clear conception of the value of the individual judgment. He expressly yielded himself, not once nor twice only, to the teaching of the Church. But he could not acknowledge that he recanted heresies which he had always stoutly disclaimed, and which the Council had attributed to him along with doctrines to which he confessed. ‘Serene Prince,’ said Hus to Sigismund, ‘I do not want to cling to any error, and I am perfectly willing to submit to the determination of the Council. But I may not offend God and my conscience by saying that I hold heresies that I have never held.’ For Hus truth was supreme: ‘I have said that I would not for a chapel full of gold recede from the truth.’ ‘I know,’ he had written in 1412, ‘that the truth stands and is mighty for ever, and abides eternally, with whom there is no respect of persons.’ Throughout his letters his chief anxiety is ‘lest liars should say that I have slipped back from the truth I preached.’ Few scenes in history are more touching or ennobling than the fidelity with which Hus refused to swerve from absolute truth even to save his life. He realised that it was better that he should burn than confess that he had ever held doctrines which his soul abhorred, as, for instance, the monstrous article alleged against him by a nameless doctor ‘that he had stated that he was the fourth person in the Trinity!’ (Doc. 318). To Sigismund and worldlings of that ilk recantation of such a charge seemed a bagatelle; the falser the charge the easier to recant. But Hus thought otherwise. To Sigismund the breach of a safe-conduct was a mere matter of expediency; to Hus a falsehood, however great its purchasing power, was a strain upon the soul that no mere “authority” could either sanction or pardon (p. 89).

Hus “followed the gleam” to the end, not counting the cost. It is this emphasis by Hus of the great modern idea that the foundations of truth lie, not so much in unreasoning authority, as in the appeal which it makes to man’s consciousness and conscience—the two are often one—that gives to the last letters of Hus their undying value, and marks at the same time the rise of a new age. As Bishop Creighton well points out: “A new spirit had arisen in Christendom when a man felt that his life and character had been so definitely built up round opinions which the Church condemned, that it was easier for him to die than to resign the truths which made him what he was.”[1] But of the truth of our estimate of the value and importance of these last letters the reader can judge for himself.

The letters of this last month for the most part are without date, nor are we anxious to date them. They are letters that deal with the great eternal principles and struggles of the soul. With these the time element has little concern.

The following letter is dated by Palackẏ as written before the trial. The whole tone of the letter, especially clause two, leads us to attribute it to the three weeks between the trial and the final scene, when Hus was visited by deputation after deputation anxious to overcome what they deemed the scruples of an overnice conscience. Luther’s comment to this epistle prefixed in the Epistolæ Piissimæ is most just: ‘Hus fights another battle between the flesh and the spirit over the confession of truth, a fight worthy of the knowledge of pious men.’

  1. Papacy (new ed.) ii. 46.