The letters of John Hus/Letter 5

LETTER V

With the expulsion of the Germans and the loss of the national struggle, events at Prague moved rapidly towards a religious crisis. ‘Immediately after,’ we read, ‘Wiclify began to grow strong, and Hus and his adherents renounced their spiritual obedience under the favour of the laity.’ All that Zbinek could do was to persuade the Bohemian nation in the University to severely restrict the right of lecturing on Wyclif, or defending his propositions. The Wyclifists retorted—Hus himself did not join them—by procuring the citation of the Archbishop before the Pisan Curia. Zbinek, realising his isolation by the expulsion of his German allies, deemed it well to abandon Gregory, and make his peace with Alexander V. This he did on September 2, amid universal rejoicing, blaring of trumpets ‘to the fourth hour of night,’ ‘six hundred bonfires,’ and the like. Thus secure of his own position, Zbinek accused the Wyclifists of being the source of all the mischief. He had his reward on December 20. Alexander quashed the citation, and conferred upon Zbinek a commission to take strong steps against the heretics, forbidding also all preaching ‘in chapels, even those which had privileges granted by the Apostolic See.’ This last was an attack upon the Bethehem, whose rights had been ratified by Gregory XII. (May 15, 1408). Alexander further ordered that all books of Wyclif should be delivered up to the Archbishop, ‘that they might be removed from the eyes of the faithful.’

On the publication of this bull in Prague (March 9, 1410), Hus and his friends handed over to the Archbishop certain works of Wyclif: ‘When,’ they added, ‘you have found any errors in them, be pleased to point them out to us, and we shall be glad to denounce them publicly.’ Zbinek’s sole reply was an order that seventeen books of Wyclif, whose names are given, should be burnt, ‘the remaining books of the said John, heresiarch, to await’ fuller examination. Notice of this decision, endowed by a synod in Prague, was served upon Hus and his associates (June 16). The fact that several of the condemned works were purely philosophical shows that the Nominalist faction had not been altogether silenced by the expulsion of the Germans.

Against this attack on its freedom the University at once protested (June 21). Hus, who especially resented the prohibition of further preaching in the Bethlehem, had already appealed on his own account ‘to Alexander himself that he might be better informed.’ On his decease, Hus and others (among whom we notice Zdislaw of Wartenberg and Peter of Zepekow, a student who owned the copy of the De Ecclesia of Wyclif now in the University Library at Prague) further appealed to John XXIII. (June 25), urging that with the death of Alexander the commission had become null and void. They had obtained, they pleaded, the books of Wyclif ‘at great trouble and cost.’ Only a fool ‘would condemn to be burnt treatises, logical, philosophical, mathematical, moral, which contain many noble truths, but no errors. By the same reasoning we must burn the books of Aristotle, the commentaries of Averrhoes, or the works of Origen.’ They further protested against the charge that Bohemia was full of heretics, quoting against Zbinek his own declaration. Alexander’s bull, they concluded, was obtained by fraud and forgery, in which last the friars had borne a hand.

Before the appeal could be considered, Zbinek, who had at first consented to postpone execution until the Margrave Jobst could arrive in Prague, brought matters to a head by burning two hundred manuscripts of Wyclif’s works in the courtyard of his palace on the Hradschin, ‘in the presence of a number of prelates and clergy, who chanted the Te Deum with a loud voice, while the bells were tolled as if for the dead.’ ‘The better copies,’ some of them bound with gold knobs, ‘were, however, it is believed, kept over’ (July 16, 1410). Two days later, Zbinek, amid the angry cries of the people, excommunicated Hus and others for not yet delivering up their copies and ‘for opposing the Catholic faith’ by their frivolous processes. Wenzel retorted by ordering the Archbishop to refund the value of the burnt volumes to their owners, and on his refusal seized his revenues.

The excitement in Prague was intense. In the Bethlehem Hus denounced Alexander V. and Zbinek before an immense congregation. In the University Czech masters, following the lead of Hus, were not slack in their sarcasms upon the Archbishop and in their open defence of the books of Wyclif. In the streets Jerome and others taught the working men to sing satirical skits which Wenzel found it needful to prohibit:

Zbinek, Bishop A, B, C,
Burnt the books, but ne’er knew he
What was in them written.

The mob, in fact, stirred up by an incautious sermon of Hus, took matters into their own hand. On July 22 they burst into the cathedral and drove forty priests from the altars. In the church of St. Stephen’s ‘six men with drawn swords tried to slay a blaspheming preacher.’ The terror, we learn, ‘so overwhelmed all the vicars’ that they dared not give effect to the excommunication.

To this year of strife, probably before it had developed into the edict against the books of Wyclif, certainly before the burning and excommunication, we must ascribe the following undated letter, whose strong evangelical feeling will appeal to many. Laun, the Latin name for which is Luna, is a town about sixty kilometres N.W. of Prague. There is a picture of it, much as it was in the days of Hus, in Merian’s Topographia Provinciarum Austriacarum, (Frankfort, 1649).