The letters of John Hus/Letter 3

LETTER III

A full explanation of all the circumstances which led to the writing of this letter would take us far afield. There were wheels within wheels in the complex politico-religious race-feuds and Church struggles of the times. At Prague three distinct issues had become curiously mixed up together towards the close of 1408, in all of which Hus was a leading actor. There was first of all the issue to which this letter especially refers. Tired of the delays of Gregory XII. and Benedict XIII. in coming to any arrangement for ending the great schism, the cardinals of both Pope and anti-pope had withdrawn to Leghorn, and thence on June 24, 1408, had summoned a council to meet at Pisa on March 25, 1409. Under pressure from the University of Paris Europe prepared to obey. What course Bohemia would take was for the moment uncertain. But Wenzel found that Gregory XII. continued to recognise his rival Rupert as king of the Romans. So he determined, at the instance of an envoy of France, that he would side with the cardinals at Pisa, at least to the extent that he would remain neutral (November 24, 1408). For a similar but opposite reason the Germans remained faithful to Gregory and the Rhenish Kaiser, whom they had elected (May 25, 1400) in the place of the drunkard Wenzel. This in itself was sufficient to induce the Bohemian “nation” to follow Hus, when he took up the idea of Wenzel, and brought it before the University. From this arose complication number two. The Czechs found that in the University they were powerless; they had but one vote. The Bavarians and Saxons controlled the Senate, and had the support of Zbinek and the clergy—complication number three—who discerned clearly the danger to themselves in the triumph of Wyclifist Realism, and of the religious and national enthusiasm with which it had become identified. For the Bohemian Church, as Jerome pointed out at Constance, was at this time almost an alien or German institution, fast slipping back into the dependence from which Charles IV. had endeavoured to save it. The Czechs, who had long groaned at the ascendancy of strangers, judged the present a suitable time, by the help of Wenzel, to establish their supremacy, at any rate in the University. Under the lead of Hus they induced Wenzel to decree that the Bohemians should have three votes, the other three nations but one (January 18th, 1409).

The consequences are well known. After a short struggle the “three nations”—variously estimated by mediæval writers at all figures up to 44,000; in reality, as the recently published Matriculation rolls of Leipzig University show us, under 1,000—‘according to their oath quitted the city, some on foot, others on horseback and waggons,’ and founded the University of Leipzig. But a scanty remnant of under 500 Czechs were left behind in Prague. The victory was ascribed to Hus; he was at once appointed rector of the mutilated Czech University. “Praise God,” he said, in one of his sermons, “we have excluded the Germans.” In reality, it was one of the most fatal moves he ever made, and was remembered against him in later years, as the Letters show.

This matter of the “neutrality,” mixed up as it was with the disruption of a University of which Zbinek was chancellor, produced a complete breach, as this letter shows, between the Archbishop and Hus. As a strong adherent of Gregory XII., Zbinek entered into the struggle with the Pisan cardinals by inhibiting, as Hus tells us, ‘in letters fixed to the doors of the churches,’ from all priestly functions Hus and ‘all masters who sided with the sacred college’ (infra, p. 55).

To this challenge Hus replied in the following remonstrance, which we date early in December 1408. It cannot have been written later, for in January 1409 Hus fell dangerously ill, while Wenzel’s decree of “neutrality”—a strong adhesion to the Pisan cardinals—evidently had not yet been issued. From the absence, further, of any reference to the imprisonment of Palecz and Stanislaus of Znaim (see infra, p. 73), we judge that the news of their arrest had not yet reached Prague (about December 8, 1408), for Hus would otherwise have blamed Zbinek for it, or in some way have dentified himself with his friends. For, as The Chronicle of the University informs us, Hus and Christian Prachaticz were the chief agents in procuring their release.[1]

  1. Documenta, p. 731.