The letters of John Hus/The Indulgence Controversy; etc.

Within a few weeks of writing this letter to the people of Pilsen, Hus became involved in a controversy of wider import On September 9, 1411, and again on December 2, John XXIII., in the throes of his struggle with Ladislaus, the King of Naples, and Gregory XII., issued bulls preaching a crusade against his foes. The same indulgences were offered as for a campaign in Palestine to all those who should take up arms, or who bought ‘suitable men’ to fight for them. As with the later Tetzel, the indulgences, no doubt, were duly qualified with the usual limitations, which not only Hus, but the Council of Constance, in their attack upon John seem to have overlooked. In theory they were restricted to the ‘truly penitent.’ In practice, for men do not sin in Latin, John’s indulgences were regarded as the selling permission to sin, or the buying of pardon for past transgressions. In some cases priests of no conscience and evil life used the opportunity to wring out in the confessional money and profit for themselves, a practice which Archbishop Albik tried to check.

In the May of 1412, Master Wenzel Tiem, Dean of Passau, who in the previous December had been appointed agent for the dioceses of Salzburg, Magdeburg, and Bohemia, arrived in Prague and opened his sale. The traffic was soon in full swing, money chests set up in the Cathedral, the Teyn Church, and the Wyschehrad, middlemen doing a good trade for country parishes, where payments were often made in kind. Hus, like Luther—who himself points out the similarity of their circumstances—at once entered the lists. For neither Luther nor Hus seems to have recognised how old the custom was. Hus looked upon it as a complete innovation, and forgot his own early experiences. He placarded church doors with his theses, and thundered against ‘Antichrist’ in the Bethlehem Chapel, and among ‘the artists’ of the University. As ‘the German vicars had received the bull and read it aloud’ in their churches, the Czechs at once rallied to the cause of Hus, and the national feud was revived in a new form.

In his proceedings against the indulgences, Hus seems to have been from the first more conscious of his opposition to the authorities than was Luther. News of the coming sale had already driven him to the bold step of answering publicly in the Bethlehem Chapel, in a legal deed drawn up by a notary—‘because people are come to give greater credence to such a document’—three questions that had been sent to him (March 3, 1412). The questions and the answers of Hus go to the root of the controversy: ‘Whether a man must believe in the Pope, and whether it is possible that a man can be saved who does not really confess to a priest.’ As regards the first, Hus appears at this time repeatedly to have preached that ‘we can well be saved without a Pope.’ We see the same spirit of conscious opposition, so different from the early movement in Germany, in the account Hus has given us of an interview he had with Wenzel Tiem shortly after the latter arrived at Prague. ‘I know well,’ he writes, ‘the difference between the apostolic commands and the commands of the Pope. So when I was asked by the legates of John, in the presence of Archbishop Albik, whether I were willing to obey the apostolic commands, I answered: “I desire with all my heart to obey the apostolic commands.” Thereupon the legates, holding apostolic and papal commands to be interchangeable, thought that I was willing to preach to the people the crusade against Ladislaus. So the legates said: “He is willing you see, lord Archbishop, to obey the commands of our sovereign Pope.” So I said to them: “Sirs, understand me. I said that I am willing with all my heart to obey apostolic commands, but by apostolic commands I mean the doctrines of the apostles of Christ. So far as the commands of the Pope agree with the commands and doctrines of the apostles, and are after the rule of the law of Christ, so far I am heartily prepared to render them obedience. But if I see anything in them at variance with this, I will not obey, even if you kindle the fire for the burning of my body before my eyes.”’

In this spirit, on June 7, 1412, in spite of the opposition of the eight doctors of the theological faculty, led by ‘the friend of his youth,’ Stephen Palecz, Hus delivered his disputation against indulgences in the large hall of the University. This was his answer to what he called the determination of the friars to proclaim that ‘the Pope is a God on earth.’ His arguments, though aptly applied to the disputes of Gregory and John, need not detain us. When not copied from Gratian they are adopted, as Loserth has shown, with verbal fidelity from three tractates of Wyclif, a circumstance which the doctors were not slow to point out in their reply.

The counterblast of the theological faculty was soon forthcoming. Once more they condemned the forty-five articles of Wyclif, and, with the sanction of Wenzel, in whose presence the articles were read (July 10), forbade their teaching in Bohemia under penalty of expulsion. To these they now added six propositions from Hus. Hus had previously challenged their judgment as regards two of the condemned articles in a dissertation, again taken, word for word, from Wyclif. The two articles were those which touched him closest, for they dealt with the duty and right of preaching, a subject in which, as his Letters show, he was always intensely interested. He followed this up by a Defence of Disendowment (De Ablatione Temporalium a Clericis), of which we shall hear at Constance. This treatise was taken in the main from Wyclif’s De Ecclesia. A third tractate in the same year, nominally on Tithes, contains an uncompromising defence of the weakest point of Wyclif’s system. This was the doctrine of dominion founded on grace, the assertion that office, whether civil or spiritual, lapsed with mortal sin. Hus had moved far since his letter of the previous year to John.

Three days after his dispute in the Carolinum with the theological faculty over the indulgences, Hus wrote the following interesting letter to the King of Poland. The letter not only breathes intense hatred of the whole system and its abuses, but is also an illustration of how far-reaching was the influence of Hus. The Slav races, as the clergy complained, ‘through Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, and Moravia’ rallied to a cause which was almost as much national as religious.

Ladislaus (Jagiello), to whom the letter was addressed, is an interesting character. Originally he was the semi-savage chief of Lithuania, a state at that time at the height of its power, holding possession even of many Russian cities. His mother was a Christian, but Ladislaus himself grew up a pagan. But he was quite willing to turn Christian to secure his marriage with Jadwiga (Hedwig), the heiress of Poland. On his marriage and baptism (1386) he took the name of Ladislaus (Wadyslaw) and transferred his capital from Wilno (Vilna) to Cracow. This step, together with their compulsory conversion to the religion of their Prince, displeased the Lithuanians; but after a short struggle the combined forces of Lithuania and Poland were turned against the Teutonic Knights, whom they overthrew in the disastrous battle of Tannenberg, in Prussia (July 15, 1410). Jagiello was thus looked upon by all Slavs as their champion against the encroachments of the Germans, and probably ranked high on this account in Hus’s thoughts. Hus would also remember that in 1397 Jadwiga had established a college at Prague for poor students from Lithuania. It was one of the grievances of the Czechs that this college had become filled with Germans. Jagiello, though on his marriage he could neither read nor write, yet showed his interest in learning by founding in 1397–1400 a University at Cracow. So successful was his rule that on the death of Jadwiga (1399), though in reality his rights to the crown of Poland had lapsed, the Poles continued him in his position. Like all Lithuanians, he was opposed to the claims of Rome, or any attempts to make mischief in Lithuania by ousting on her behalf the Orthodox Church. This sense of opposition would form a further link between Hus and himself. We must also remember that shortly before this date Jerome of Prague had visited Lithuania, and after allowing his beard to grow—a little matter that was never forgiven—had preached before its duke, Witold, Jagiello’s cousin. Jagiello, after a most successful reign, died in 1434, and is buried in the Cathedral of Cracow, surrounded by the successors in the dynasty he founded.