The life and times of Master John Hus/Preface


It is hardly necessary to state that it is not without diffidence that I attempt to give an account of the life and times of John Hus. So much has been written on the great subject of the Bohemian reformation, and yet so little that is satisfactory. Hus has often been described as a martyr and as a forerunner of the German reformation, and both statements are to a certain extent true. It has equally often been attempted to blacken the memory of Hus, frequently by the most unworthy means. I write as a fervent admirer of Hus, both as an enthusiastic Bohemian patriot and as a fervent and pious Christian, whose life-purpose was to strive for a return to the conditions of the apostolic church, and to rescue the Church of Rome from the state of unspeakable corruption into which it had then fallen; and from which, partly by the action of Hus, it has since been delivered. It is no part of my task to attempt to prove that Hus was perfect. No man, indeed, would have resented such an attempt more than he, who in his writings constantly refers in a childlike and touching manner to his—very insignificant—shortcomings.

The very fact that my sympathy is entirely with Hus has, I hope, been to me an inducement to sift carefully all reliable evidence that may be contrary to him, and to study diligently the writings of all those who have written unfavourably of Hus. This impartiality appears to me as a duty for those who attempt, as historians, to pass judgment on the great men of bygone days. Not one of these great men has been judged more differently than Hus; and recent German historians have with great ingenuity attempted to classify the writers who have dealt with the life of the greatest man who belonged to the Czech or Bohemian race. It is sufficient to note here that these writers are either favourable to the Church of Rome and therefore, though often with great limitations, hostile to Hus, or opponents of Rome, who revere in him one of the earliest champions of religious liberty and one of the forerunners of the German reformers. This division may appear obvious, but it is far less absolute than might be imagined. Thus Romanist writers who belong to the Czech or Bohemian nationality have often written somewhat favourably of Hus. Though condemning those of his views—far less numerous than has often been thought—which are opposed to Rome, these writers have done thorough justice to the beauty of his truly saintly character, and they have admitted that it was the virtuous indignation caused in him by the immoral life led by many—and principally the higher—ecclesiastics of the Roman Church that induced him to denounce that church in very strong terms.

On the other hand, Protestant German writers have, principally within the last years, violently attacked the memory of Hus. They saw in him mainly the undaunted champion of the oppressed Czech or Bohemian nationality. It was found easier in Germany to render justice to Hus at a time when the national cause for which he struggled so manfully appeared to be doomed, than it is now, when the Bohemian language, which owes so much to Hus, has attained a development that was undreamt of a century ago. Incidentally, and no doubt unintentionally, these German writers have done great service to the fame of Hus by drawing attention to the great part which he played as a Bohemian patriot. It was the word of Hus, as well as the sword of Zizka, which preserved the autonomy and the national character of Bohemia, which at the period of the Hussite wars were seriously menaced by the numerous German colonists whom the policy of the Premyslide princes had established in the Bohemian towns. It will, of course, be my duty to point out the great part that Hus played as a Bohemian patriot. He believed as firmly as the Bohemian patriots of the present day that the nation as an individuality stands and falls with its language. Hus devoted much time and care to the development of that language, and a little-known part of his activity also consisted in his endeavour to introduce into the churches the singing by laymen of hymns in the national language.

The fact that the movement in favour of church-reform, which had in England found expression in the writings of Wycliffe, found in Bohemia a particularly fruitful soil, was a consequence of the condition and past history of the country. Bohemia had first received the Christian teaching from Greek monks of Salonika, and even after it began to form part of the Western Church, Roman institutions penetrated into the country gradually and slowly. Thus the celibacy of the clergy was introduced into Bohemia later than into most countries, and it seems probable—though this is a most controversial matter—that communion in the two kinds continued to be customary there up to a late period, perhaps up to the beginning of the fifteenth century. It also requires mention that, in consequence of its geographical position, Bohemia for a long time suffered less from the extortions of the Roman pontiffs than many other countries. Only when, in consequence of the schism, the rival popes found that the number of countries from which they could derive funds was diminishing, the claims of Rome on Bohemia became more urgent and more frequent. The discontent caused by the rapacity of the rival pontiffs, whose violent controversies did not raise the Western Church in the esteem of the Bohemian people, found a centre in the University of Prague. Under the influence of this university, a school of theologians sprung up who are known as the forerunners of Hus. These writers long remained almost unknown, and it is only since the revival of Bohemian literature in the nineteenth century that their works have again begun to attract attention. Even now much work has to be done and many MSS. remain unprinted; still it can already be stated that recent research has thrown much new light on Hus and the Hussite movement. I have in this work endeavoured to give a resume of the studies of modern Bohemian writers on this movement. These works, mostly written in the national language, have by no means received hitherto the attention which they well deserve.

It may be here stated that these writings prove clearly the existence in Bohemia of a strong national movement in favour of church-reform, which depended by no means entirely on foreign influences. As Dr. Kybal recently wrote in his valuable work on Matthew of Janov, the greatest of the forerunners of Hus: “The view that Hussitism is merely artificially fostered Wycliffism appears to me logically and historically as nonsense.”[1] It would be invidious to attribute to racial antagonism the recent attempts of German writers to depreciate the importance of Hus. Yet it is certain that the German writers, who recently have extolled Wycliffe at the expense of Hus, have attributed to the English divine greater originality and greater depth of thought than is generally attributed to him by his countrymen.

I have under the heading “Bibliography” given a large though by no means complete list of the authorities which I have consulted, and specially drawn attention to the writings of the modern Bohemian historians, on whose labours this work is mainly based. I wish to express my particular thanks to Dean Müller of Herrnhut, who has kindly forwarded me a photograph of the portrait of Hus—reproduced here—which has been preserved by the community of Herrnhut.

  1. Dr. Kybal uses the English word “nonsense.”