The life and times of Master John Hus/Chapter 10



In distinction from many writers on Hus, I have in this work frequently referred to the writings of the master—both Latin and Bohemian, and quoted them largely. These writings alone enable us to thoroughly conceive the real nature of Hus, who was entirely guided by religious and national enthusiasm, while the minutiae of mediaeval theological controversy did not greatly appeal to him. If he none the less became a skilful scholastic dialectician who at Constance was able to hold his own against very learned accusers, the reason is that such skill was for him a necessity. At a period when politics and religion were closely connected, the accusation of heresy was the most deadly arm that could be used to destroy an opponent. It was certain that those who disapproved of Hus’s endeavours to reform the Bohemian Church and to raise the Bohemian nation to a higher political and intellectual level would attempt to declare him a heretic. While some of the Latin works, particularly the Super IV. Sententiarum, bear witness to Hus’s erudition, his true nature appears to us more clearly in the works which he composed in his own language. His Bohemian letters, though known in England and France only in second-hand translations, have long been read with interest, and I have in this work quoted largely the equally valuable Postilla and the Expositions (Vyklady). It will, therefore, be sufficient briefly to outline here the general complex of the writings of Hus. This, still a difficult task, would have been almost impossible before the appearance of Dr. Flajshans’s valuable bibliographical work.[1] Many writings formerly attributed to Hus really had as authors Matthew of Janov, Wycliffe, Chelcicky, and others. On the other hand, many authentic works of Hus disappeared during the so-called “Catholic reformation” which began after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Jesuits were entrusted with the task of discovering and destroying every book that had not been sanctioned by the Church of Rome. The possession of such a book became a crime, punishable by death.[2] It is, therefore, probable that some works of Hus have altogether perished, while others have only recently been rediscovered and published. Though, therefore, even the latest bibliographical study of Hus, that of Dr. Flajshans, can lay no claim to completeness, attempts were made from a very early period to collect the scattered writings of the master and classify them. The first attempts to do so, however, extended only to the so-called writings of Constance, mainly letters to friends that were written by Hus in prison. The trusty disciple and companion of Hus, Peter Mladenovic, tells us that he preserved copies of the writings of the master, and he gives us some slight information as to what these writings were. Lawrence of Brezova[3] gives us somewhat more extensive information and states that Hus, besides numerous letters, wrote several small treatises while in prison.[4] These writers wrote immediately after the death of Hus, but somewhat later the tradition became more obscure. While, as Dr. Flajshans conjectures, some works of Hus were at this early period already definitely lost, works of other writers soon began to be attributed to him. Books written by Peter Chelcicky,[5] whose views certainly in many respects resemble those of Hus, were supposed to be the work of the originator of Bohemian church-reform, and in the hymn-books of the community of the Bohemian brethren,[6] who considered themselves the truest continuators of the work of Hus, numerous hymns by other writers were attributed to the master. Later on, the greater the fame of Hus became the more devotional works were ascribed to him. When the Roman creeds had been forcibly re-established in Bohemia it was endeavoured by all means to blacken the memory of the church-reformer. For that purpose, several writings containing extreme views were wrongly attributed to him.[7]

It is a proof of the great fame of Hus that some of his writings were among the earliest of printed works. The earliest printed work of Hus of which we know the existence, though no copy has been preserved, was a small treatise entitled Gesta Christi. In 1459 two and in 1495 four of the letters from Constance were printed. The quaint Book against the Priest Kitchen-master was first printed at Litomysl in 1509. Of the last-named work a unique copy is preserved in the library of the Bohemian museum; of the others little is known except the fact that they existed. Martin Luther, who always considered the Bohemian reformer as his forerunner, in 1536 published at Wittenberg a translation of four of Hus’s Bohemian letters; among them was the famed “Letter to the Whole Bohemian Nation.” The translation was in German and Latin. A year later a larger collection of Hus’s letters was printed under the influence of Luther, who wrote an introduction.[8] The best early editions of Hus's works, though they are incomplete and, on the other hand, included many writings that are not by the master, are those published at Nuremberg. The Bohemian works were printed in 1563 and in 1592, the Latin ones in 1558 and again in 1715.[9] These editions for many years were the standard ones, and the one containing the Latin works has not been superseded up to the present day. During the period of Bohemian independence the Bohemian works of the master were frequently reprinted; this applies particularly to the Postilla, of which an edition was published at Nuremberg in 1563, and another at Prague by the celebrated printer Melantrich in 1564. The latter edition, which is illustrated, contains, besides the Postilla, several of Hus’s letters, which have always been very popular. After the year 1620 such publications necessarily ceased. When the Bohemians in the latter part of the eighteenth century again obtained a limited amount of religious freedom, their thoughts again turned to Hus. Joseph Dobrovsky,[10] in his history of the Bohemian language and literature, is the first Bohemian writer who again ventured to mention Hus. In the third edition of his work, to which I have just referred, he gives a list of the writings of Hus, which is principally interesting as proving how very limited was the number of works of Hus that were known at that time. Dobrovsky in this work also gives short extracts from some of Hus’s writings. Joseph Jungmann, in his history of Bohemian literature was already able to enumerate a considerably larger number of works of Hus. To no other Bohemian writer of the nineteenth century is the memory of Hus so greatly indebted as to Francis Palacky.[11] His history of Bohemia, founded on, almost unknown documents, revealed the great Bohemian as he really was. In his extensive collection of documents concerning Hus published in 1869, Palacky has printed the fullest and most correct version of Hus’s letters, both Bohemian and Latin, which exists. Professor Höfler, in his Geschichtschreiber der Hussitischen Bewegung, has also published a considerable number of letters of Hus. Dr. Höfler’s superficiality, his very slight knowledge of the Bohemian language, and his fanatical hatred of church-reform and the Bohemian nation, render it necessary to use his works with great caution. A large number of Hus’s letters, among them some not contained in Palacky’s collection, were published by Mr. Bohumil Mares in 1891. The Latin letters, however, appear only in a Bohemian translation. Karel Jaromir Erben, in his edition of Bohemian works of Hus, which will be mentioned presently, has included fifteen Bohemian letters of the master. Some of the letters were translated into English by the late Rev. A. Wratislaw, who was acquainted with the Bohemian language, and I have translated a few in my previous writings. I have done so on a larger scale in the present work. Hus’s letters have also been translated into English by Mr. Mackenzie, who used the French version of M. de Bonnechose, and by Mr. Workman, who for the Bohemian letters used the Latin translation of Professor Kvicala, as well as the not always trustworthy German translation of Professor Höfler.

Though the letters have remained and perhaps always will remain the work of Hus that has most admirers, other works of the master were also again published in the nineteenth century. This task was not always an easy one. Though the Austrian government no longer attempted entirely to suppress all memory of Hus among the people, the absolutist authorities of Vienna still viewed with marked displeasure all mention, and particularly all praise of Hus. As late as in 1857 the celebrated Bohemian philologist, Safarik,[12] wrote to the Russian scholar Pogodin: “Nobody here dares to edit Hus’s works, writings against Hus would be more in request. Let the dead repose. Hus ne nominetur quidem, aut uratur denuo!” The editors of Hus’s writings had also up to 1848 to face the perils of a double censorship.[13] Of the two censors one investigated whether a book contained anything opposed to the policy of the government, while the other, an ecclesiastic, suppressed everything antagonistic to the Church of Rome. In spite of these obstacles Venceslas Hanka[14] published in 1825 an edition of the Dcerka (daughter), one of Hus’s best works. The edition is not, however, complete, as several passages were omitted by order of the censor. In the years 1864 to 1868 Karel Jaromir Erben published three large volumes containing the principal Bohemian works of Hus, such as the Postilla, the different expositions (Vyklady), the treatise on simony (Svatokupector) , the Dcerka, some of the Bohemian letters, and a large number of other treatises. This has remained and probably will long remain the standard edition of the Bohemian works of the master, and it is therefore to be all the more to be regretted that though censorship had then already been nominally suppressed, some passages in this work were altered, others suppressed by order of the government. Several Bohemian works of Hus have been newly edited and published within the last years. Thus Dr. Flajshans, the foremost authority on Hus at the present time, published in 1900 a very handsome illustrated edition of the Postilla. Dr. Flajshans has very skilfully modernised the language, thus rendering the valuable book more accessible to scholars unacquainted with the Bohemian of the fifteenth century. In 1907 Dr. Novotny published a small edition of the treatise on Simony, which has very useful notes. The Latin works of Hus have also not been entirely neglected within the last years. Under the patronage of the Bohemian Academy the publication of the Latin works in a new edition has been begun, and it is sincerely to be hoped that this undertaking will meet with the success which it fully deserves. The editors decided wisely not to begin their publication with the one or two Latin works that have hitherto been almost exclusively known, and have indeed already included two or three works of Hus that had never previously been printed. The works already published are the Expositura Decalogi, De Corpore Christi, De Sanguine Christi, Super IV. Sententiarum, and the Sermones de Sanctis. The last-named work, just printed for the first time, contains, as Dr. Flajshans the editor writes, a collection of sermons of unequal value. Some are Hus’s own, while others are merely copies from the writings of St. Chrysostomus and St. Bernard.

It will be seen from what I have written that the works of Hus have been greatly neglected, if we consider the worldwide importance of the master. Even now it is impossible to state with certainty the number of genuine works of Hus that have been preserved. Josef Jungmann, writing about the year 1840, enumerates thirty-eight Bohemian works of the master. Jungmann, whose book treated of Bohemian literature, makes no reference to Latin works. Dr. Flajshans, whose work which I have frequently quoted supersedes Jungmann’s and all other earlier bibliographical attempts, enumerates seventy-four Latin, one German, and thirty-six Bohemian works of Hus.[15] The ancient traditions, which saw in Hus only the adversary of the Roman Church, which he became by the force of circumstances, by no means by his own wish, attributed all his numerous works to the last troubled years of his life. This, as previously noted, is quite untrue. Dr. Flajshans has for the first time seriously attempted to establish at least approximately the dates of the principal writings of Hus. Certainty, as the learned professor remarks, is very often not obtainable. The entire obscurity which surrounded all the master’s works renders research very difficult. Dr. Flajshans divides all Hus’s works, both Bohemian and Latin, into four periods. The first period, which Dr. Flajshans calls the academic one, extends from the year 1402 to 1409. To these peaceful years, during which Hus was not yet in conflict with the Church of Rome, belongs the master’s most important Latin work, the treatise Super IV. Sententiarum. Other Latin works of this period are the treatises De Corpora Christi and De Sanguine Christi. A large number of sermons also belong to this period, as well as, probably, the hymns attributed to Hus. To this period belong also the synodal sermons (charges) delivered by Hus by order of Archbishop Zajic of Hasenburg. The second period, comprising the years 1409 to 1411, is by Dr. Flajshans called the polemical one, and he has thus generally indicated the purpose of many of these works. Among them are the treatises Contra Anglicum Joh. Stokes, Contra occultum adversarium, Hus’s defence against the accusation of having driven the German students from Prague.[16] Other works of this period are the Orthographia Bohemica and the Expositio Decalogi, which has recently been printed for the first time. The third period, called by Dr. Flajshans the apostolic one (1412–1414), comprises the time from the beginning of Hus’s exile from Prague to his departure on his fateful journey to Constance. Most of the important works of the master, both Bohemian and Latin, belong to this period. Among these are many of the dogmatic works, in which Hus’s opposition to the Roman see is more marked than in the earlier ones. Many of the writings of the apostolic period have previously been mentioned in this work, and it will here be sufficient to enumerate a few of those that have most importance. Of the Bohemian works the treatise on Simony, the Dcerka (daughter), the five Vyklady (expositions) of the faith, the ten commandments and the Lord’s prayer, and the Postilla—Hus’s greatest work in his own language—should be mentioned. Of Latin works the treatise De Ecclesia, one of Hus’s best known but least original books, belongs to this time. Though Dr. Flajshans has named this period the apostolic one in distinction from the previous polemical one, controversial writings abound at this period also. Hus, indeed, “was ever a fighter.” Of such controversial writings the treatises Contra Palec, Contra Stanislaum de Znoyma, Contra octo doctores, Contra praedicatorem Plznensem are the most important. The last period, which Dr. Flajshans has not very felicitiously called the apologetic one, comprises the time from Hus’s departure for Constance to his death. This period is naturally not fertile in literary productions; but it is to this period that belong the Constance Letters, the most precious memorial of Hus that we possess.

As is proved by contemporary writings, the tragical death, or as the Bohemians deemed it, the martyrdom of Hus, was immediately considered an event of the highest importance in all Europe. The subsequent Hussite wars, in which almost the whole of Europe was arrayed against Bohemia, naturally spread the fame of the master yet further. Portraits of Hus must, therefore, have been numerous from an early time. It is none the less certain that no existent portrait can lay claim to be an authentic representation of the Bohemian reformer. It is needless to say that the many portraits of the master which have appeared almost continuously since his death have great historical interest. In Bohemia, where everything connected with Hus is still a matter of the greatest interest, a considerable literature on the subject of Hus’s appearance has recently sprung up. It is here sufficient to state that the portraits of Hus belong to two types that are entirely different. Generally, though not absolutely, it may be stated that the older portraits represent Hus beardless, and the newer ones with a large beard. The oldest representations are found in the illustrated editions of Richenthal’s chronicle, and they represent Hus as being without a beard. It is, however, obvious
Medals of John Hus.jpg


from the drawing of these illustrations that they did not attempt seriously to portray Hus. Very many other later representations of a beardless Hus have been preserved. We find several such representations in a hymn-book preserved in the town of Litomerice.[17] They represent, however, a very young man, and have a very conventional character.[18] The numerous medals of Hus which have been preserved represent both types, and we find even medals that had a beardless Hus on one side, and a bearded one—generally represented as bound to the stake—on the other. Of the later beardless representations of Hus the one contained in the edition of the Postilla of 1563 is undoubtedly the best. In the course of the sixteenth century the bearded representations of Hus, now so familiar to all, took the place of the earlier type. The general acceptation of the new type at a time when traditions concerning the appearance of Hus must still have been widely spread, rather militates against the assurance with which some recent writers have declared in favour of a beardless Hus. It is certain that Hus grew a beard while in prison, and after a short stay in the cathedral he was immediately led to the stake on the fatal 6th of July. That he was shaved immediately before his degradation from priest-hood that he might present the appearance of a secular priest, as secular priests were then beardless, is a conjecture for which I can find no evidence. The faithful Mladenovic would certainly have mentioned such an occurrence. The portrait of Hus without a beard may also have been drawn in accordance with the memory of those who had known Hus as a young man. Those which I have seen certainly do not present the appearance of a man over forty whom illness and anxiety had certainly aged. It is perhaps in this case wise not to seek for certainty where none can be found. Of the countless paintings and statues of Hus which we possess, the great majority represent the master bearded, and this type has, rightly or wrongly, been generally accepted. One of the noblest of these portraits is the—probably slightly idealised—one which is preserved at Herrenhut, the present centre of the community of the Bohemian brethren. The fact that the brethren consider themselves the true followers of Hus adds to the value of the portrait, which has been reproduced in this work. According to a very ancient tradition in Bohemia, the numerous statues of Hus that existed there were by order of the Jesuits declared to be representations of that somewhat dubious saint, John of Nepomuk, and have thus been preserved.[19] These statues, which every traveller in Bohemia will remember to have seen, certainly bear a striking likeness to the representations of the bearded Hus. The same type has been adopted for the statue of Hus, which forms part of the Luther monument at Worms, and for the painting of Hus before the Council by the Bohemian painter Brozik, which now adorns the town hall of Prague. The same can be said of the many other modern pictures representing Hus.
  1. Literarni cinnost mistra Jana Husi (Literary Activity of Master John Hus), 1900.
  2. As late as in 1755 a Bohemian forester named Thomas Svoboda was sentenced to death at the stake because he had been found in possession of a Bible. By an act of grace he was strangled before being burnt.
  3. See my Lectures on the Historians of Bohemia, pp. 35–47.
  4. In ipsa ergo captivitate Magister Johannes Hus virilem habens animum mori potius eligebat quam cleri pestiferi scelerum enormitates approbare, multasque epistolas et scripta utilissima occulte suis scribebat amicis . . . ad vota amicorum et aliquorum carceris custodum tractatus pulcerrimos . . . edidit puta de mandatis dei et oracione dominica, item qualiter committitur peccatum mortale, item de cognicione dei, item de tribus hostibus hominis. . . . Scripsit quoque tractatulum de communione utriusque speciei.” (Laurentii de Brezova, Historia Hussitica, ed. Goll, pp. 332–333.)
  5. See my History of Bohemian Literature, pp. 153–171.
  6. See Chapter IX.
  7. It is probable that this occurred even much earlier. Thus John Stokes at the Council of Constance referred to a treatise which had been shown to him at Prague as a work of Hus. Hus had no connection whatever with this treatise.
  8. This introduction was reprinted with the editions of the Latin works published in 1558 and 1715.
  9. I have used the edition of 1715 when quoting Hus’s Latin works.
  10. b. 1753—1829. See my History of Bohemian Literature, pp. 359–362.
  11. Ibid. pp. 388–403.
  12. See my History of Bohemian Literature, pp. 383–387.
  13. See my History of Bohemian Literature, pp. 366–367 and 396–398.
  14. Ibid. pp. 403–404.
  15. I do not enter here into the difficult question of the manuscripts of Hus. Dr. Flajshans has written fully and clearly on this subject.
  16. The full Latin title of the treatise runs thus: “M. J. Hus literis publicis diluit crimen falso sibi objectum quod Germanos ex universitate studii Pragensis expulerit.” The manuscript is in a very imperfect state.
  17. In German, Leitmeritz.
  18. Messrs. Faber and Kurth have reproduced these miniatures in their otherwise valueless study entitled “Wie sah Hus aus.
  19. It should be stated that Professor Kalousek, one of the most eminent of the Bohemian historians of the present day, totally denies the authenticity of this tradition.