The letters of John Hus/Part 5

Part V.—Letters Written during the Imprisonment at the Blackfriars

(November 16, 1414—March 24, 1415)

In January, on his partial recovery from his first illness, Hus once more began his interrupted letters. They were passed out, in spite of the vigilance of Michael’s spies, by means of his Polish visitors, and by the connivance of his gaoler Robert, whom he had made his devoted servant—‘the faithful friend,’ ‘that good man,’ to whom Hus cautiously alludes in his Letters—for whose benefit he penned in prison several short tracts, still preserved for us in the MonumentaThe Lord’s Prayer, The Ten Commandments, On Marriage—‘which estate, please God, Robert is shortly about to enter’—and On Mortal Sin. A larger tract, compiled also at his gaoler’s request, was his Lord’s Supper,[1] written for edification rather than controversy. ‘I beg of you,’ he writes, ‘not to trip me up if my quotations from the doctors are not exact, for I have no books, writing in prison.’ All his books, in fact, including his Vulgate and Peter Lombard’s Sentences, had been taken away from him. Hence the request in Letter XLI. But the absence of second-hand unacknowledged quotations is not altogether to the disadvantage of Hus’s prison tracts. They are pleasant reading, with little distinctive save their tenderness. Others than Robert the gaoler had been won over by the charm of their prisoner. Even the officials of the Pope seem to have been betrayed into kindness (infra, p. 176). To these works we shall find frequent reference in the letters that follow. Unfortunately, save for No. XLIV., no manuscript of these letters now exists; we are entirely dependent on the early printed editions, especially the Epistolæ Piissimæ. The preservation of the originals would have been almost impossible. The circumstances under which they were written would be against their life. ‘Alas, alas!’ cried Hawlik, the priest of the Bethlehem, as he read the following letter to the congregation, and pointed to the torn scrap on which it was written—‘alas, alas! Hus is running out of paper’ (’Doc.’ 255). Chlum also (p. 196) speaks of one of Hus’s letters as written on a ‘tattered three-cornered bit of paper.’ We understand this when we remember that Hus sometimes spent whole nights in writing letters or scribbling hexameters ‘to pass the time,’ to say nothing of formal answers to his enemies (infra, p. 206). These prison letters are generally undated, and contain few indications of time. The student will understand that the order in which they are arranged is therefore to a large extent conjecture, and indicates merely whether in our opinion the letters come early or late in this first imprisonment. With one or two exceptions, we have seen little reason to question in this matter the judgment of Palackẏ. That Letters XLII.V. were written in February 1415 is clear from a statement of Fillastre in his Diary, that that month was filled up with Inquisition matters, only to be broken off towards the close by the issue of the abdication of John (see Fillastre in Finke, op. cit. 166). Of the value of the letters themselves we need say little. They will appeal to every reader by their tenderness and true piety.

  1. For these works, see Mon. i. 29–44.