The letters of John Hus/Part 3

Part III.—Letters Written during the Exile of Hus

(September 1412—August 1414)

Hus, as we have seen, had left Prague in the early autumn of 1412, but soon returned. On his final retirement in the December, Wenzel, who had insisted on the step, fulfilled his part of the unwritten compact by giving orders for a Synod to meet on February 2 at Böhmish Brod, a small town belonging to the Archbishop. In reality the Synod assembled at Prague on February 6, at the very time at which in Rome the works of Wyclif were being publicly burnt in the great square of St. Peter’s, on the orders of John’s Lateran Council (February 10, 1413). Before this Synod all parties laid their memorials—the theological faculty, the artists, and the Reformers. The opponents of Hus, chief among whom was “the Iron Bishop,” John Bucka of Leitomischl, insisted that the papal decisions and the excommunication of Hus must be upheld, ‘that a vice-chancellor be appointed to search out and punish the errors of masters and scholars,’ and that ‘the Czech writings of Hus—the stalks of these accursed tares and schism—be placed under an anathema.’ Obedience, they claimed, was the first duty of all, nor was it their business to consider whether the excommunication of Hus was just or unjust. Hus on his part—he was not there in person—both in his appeal to the Synod (infra, p. 115) as well as in his ‘conditions of peace,’ demanded the upholding of the decision of Zbinek of July 6, 1411. He harped much on the injury done to the realm by the accusations of heresy. Let the heretic be named, if known. On the personal charge he was prepared to defend himself under penalties against all opponents, but demanded in return that his calumniators, if they failed to substantiate their charges, should not escape scot free. Hus’s most important condition, one that shows also the influence of Wyclif, is his claim that the Civil Courts must be supreme ‘in all approbations, condemnations, and other acts concerning Mother Church.’ Hus was followed by Jakoubek, who put in a plea that peace without a real reform would be valueless. Finally, the masters of Prague, the artists, wrote an elaborate reply, in which we may detect the inspiration of Jesenicz, to the claims and arguments of the theologians. The Synod was dissolved without result, and Hus retired once more to his asylum at the castle of Kozi hradek, near Austi.

Meanwhile Wenzel made one more attempt at compromise. A Commission of four was appointed, with the ex- Archbishop Albik at the head. Both parties bound themselves ‘under a penalty of a thousand guineas and exile from the realm’ to accept its verdict. Hus himself again was absent. He was represented by ‘his proctor, John of Jesenicz, with him Jakoubek of Mies and Simon of Tissnow,’ while on the Commission was his friend, Christian Prachaticz, rector of St. Michael’s, Prague, who in the October of 1412 had been chosen, after a somewhat disputed election, the rector of the University. We have accounts of this Commission written by both parties; by Hus in a letter to Christian Prachaticz (see infra, No. XXVII.), and by Palecz to his colleagues in the theological faculty. At the first meeting, in April, in the usual resort of the advanced party, the parsonage of Christian Prachaticz, it was evident that neither side would accept anything less than a verdict in their favour. Stanislaus said that he was wishful for peace, but the others must agree to the declaration of faith put forth by the theological faculty, ‘that the Pope is the head of the Roman Church, the cardinals the body, that all its decisions in matters of faith are true, that the contrary opinions of the Wyclifists are false and erroneous.’ The other side thereupon, adds Palecz, ‘horribly yelled against us for two days.’ The ‘horrible yelling’ was really an effort to accomplish the impossible, to mix oil and water, the principles of Rome and the Reformation. Jesenicz was willing to yield to Stanislaus’s definition of the Church, provided he were allowed to add to the statement of the faith and obedience due a saving clause, ‘such as every good and faithful Christian ought, or is bound to give.’ This loophole for private judgment was of course impossible. Even this concession, on reflection, seemed to Hus to be granting too much. In his letters to Christian he points out the difficulties of such a view of the Church. These difficulties, chiefly copied from Wyclif, he afterwards expanded into his De Ecclesia. We see, in fact, in these letters to Christian, especially Nos. No. XXVIII. and No. XXIX., the larger treatise in process of becoming. But we are anticipating. The immediate result of the gathering was the formal decision by its president that the two parties were really at one. ‘Be it then announced in the name of all that neither party is permitted in future to wrong the other in word or writing.’

Such official declarations of peace where there was no peace were of course valueless. The meeting was a failure, but the Wyclifists retained the ear of the King. Wenzel relieved his disappointment by at once banishing Stanislaus of Znaim, Stephen Palecz, and two other opponents of Hus as the ‘authors of dissension.’ Stanislaus—‘out of whose head,’ says Hus, ‘the greater part of this nonsense had come’—retired into Moravia as the chaplain to a widow lady. He spent the rest of his days in writing numerous bitter tractates against Wyclif and Hus. He died at Neuhaus, in Moravia, from abcesses, when on the point of setting out for his revenge at Constance. Hus and Palecz were destined to meet again.

This victory for Hus was followed by a political success. Hitherto in the Old Town of Prague the council consisted of sixteen Germans and two Czechs. The Germans were on the side of the papal party, and had attempted, as we have seen, the destruction of the Bethlehem. On October 21, Wenzel issued an order transferring to the Crown the “pricking” of the eighteen councillors, nine from each nation. In the New Town the Czechs had long possessed the control. The whole of Prague was now committed to Hus’s side. The Church authorities were powerless. Albik had resigned (February 10, 1413), or rather exchanged his archbishopric with Conrad of Vechta, Bishop of Olmütz, who in later years became a Hussite. His creed at this time was probably opportunism; at any rate he had but recently been inducted (July 17, 1413). Nevertheless, Hus deemed it well to stay in the country, first at Kozi hradek—not far from the later well-known Tabor—then, that he might be nearer the capital, at the castle of Krakowec, which belonged to his friend Henry Lefl of Lazan. ‘Here he remained,’ says the chronicler, ‘until such time as he went to Constance.’ This statement must not be pressed. In the early months of 1414 Hus tells us that he visited Prague repeatedly. One of his visits was on the Feast of Relics (April 20), an incident that sheds light on certain features of his character and letters (infra, p. 249, n). On another occasion he even preached in the Bethlehem, whereupon the clergy at once renewed the interdict. Apart from these visits and his preaching tours, Hus spent his time in a lively correspondence with his friends, especially Christian Prachaticz, and in composing, as his answer to recent charges, his great work On the Church. Of this famous treatise, Dietrich Niem, the historian of the Schism, remarked at Constance that it ‘attacks the papal power and the plenitude of its authority as much as the Alcoran the Catholic faith’—a statement usually attributed, but wrongly, to Cardinal D’Ailli. But the De Ecclesia of Hus, as Loserth has shown, contains hardly a line, local colouring and polemics apart, which does not proceed from Wyclif. On its completion the volume was sent to Prague and publicly read (July 8, 1413) in the Bethlehem Chapel, on the walls of which the main positions of Hus’s pamphlet, De Sex Erroribus, had already been set up in large text. With the publication of this treatise there is for a while a gap in the letters of Hus. But one letter, in fact, has been preserved for us (No. XXXII.) between this event and the preparations of Hus, in the August of 1414, for his journey to Constance.

The literary labours of Hus, among which must be reckoned many treatises in Czech, whose alphabet he reformed by his invention of diacritical signs, did not interfere with his toils in the gospel, for on leaving Prague he had felt driven by his conscience to resume his sermons (infra, p. 97). ‘Hitherto,’ he writes, ‘I have preached in towns and market-places; now I preach behind hedges, in villages, castles, fields, woods. If it were possible, I would preach on the seashore, or from a ship, as my Saviour did’—an interesting passage with which we may compare a statement in his Letters (infra, p. 101). He specially mentions as a favourite pulpit ‘a lime-tree near Kozi.’ One thing gravely distressed him. ‘Jesus went to preach on foot, not like our modern preachers, proudly carried in a carriage. I, alas! drive.’ His excuse is necessity. ‘I could not otherwise possibly get in time to places so far distant.’ In the stress which he laid upon preaching, both in his Letters and in his other writings, Hus again followed Wyclif. ‘Preachers,’ he said, in words which are an echo from England, ‘in my judgment count in the Church for more than prelates.’ But his power in the pulpit itself Hus owed to no man, and his love of preaching was the gift of God. ‘By the help of God,’ he said, ‘I have preached, still am preaching, and if His grace will allow, shall continue to preach; if perchance I may be able to lead some poor tired, blind, or halting soul into the house of Christ to the King’s supper.’

As the result of these labours, the doctrines of Hus spread on every hand, both in cottage and castle, in Prague and in the country. We see this consciousness of success in the proud answer the Reformer made at Constance to the questions of D’Ailli: ‘Yes, I have said that I came here of my own free will. If I had been unwilling to come here, neither that King (Wenzel) nor this (Sigismund) would have been able to force me to come, so numerous and so powerful are the Bohemian nobles who love me, and within whose castles I should have been able to lie concealed.’ At this the bystanders began to grumble. D’Ailli, with a shake of his head, cried out, ‘What effrontery!’ ‘He speaks truth,’ said John of Chlum. ‘I am a poor knight in our realm, but I should have been glad to have kept him for a year, whoever liked it or disliked it, so that no one would have been able to get him. There are numbers of great nobles who love him, who have strong castles. They could keep him as long as they wished even against both those kings.’ This consciousness of a national party at his back explains the readiness with which Hus went to Constance, and his strange optimism as to the result.

The letters of Hus written during his exile, when read in the light of this introduction, will explain themselves. They are of very diverse interest and value, some chiefly polemical, others exhibiting the tenderest side of a pastor’s care for his flock. The exact order of the letters is largely conjectural, the following letter, for instance, presumably being written on receiving the news of the attempted destruction of the Bethlehem. Though this letter is written in Czech, Hus seems to have had no rule on the matter, the letters that follow, though addressed to the same people, being in Latin. Letter XVII. is a remarkably dignified and interesting pastoral, probably intended to be read from the pulpit of the Bethlehem, as we know from other sources was the custom (infra, p. 172). So too in the case of others of this series. Letters XX. and XXII. are beautiful Christinas addresses, which even in a translation will give some idea of Hus’s powers as a preacher. In Letter XXVI. we have a wistful, tender strain in the first part of the letter, passing into a fighting spirit towards the close. As a revelation of the man this letter (XXVI.) is invaluable. We may add that the letters written during the exile are not easy to translate, while the references they contain to current polemics do not always add interest for a later generation.