The Life and Death of Jan Hus

Jan Hus is a name foreigners will soon stumble upon if he or she starts to study Czech history, or even attends a city tour. Hus is seen by many as a forerunner of the European church reformation. His opinions and stubbornness with which he refused to abandon his teachings earned him a horrible death at the stake on July 6, 1415. Nevertheless, Hus’s death did not quell the popular movement that he started in the Czech Kingdom. On the contrary, his death only enhanced the tensions, which eventually led to 15 years of Hussite wars.

Jan Hus by Kamil Vladislav Muttich, photo: CC-PD

Jan Hus by Kamil Vladislav Muttich, photo: CC-PD

Hus was born around 1370 in a small village; Husinec in South Bohemia. He studied theology at the new Charles University founded in 1348 in Prague. In 1396 he attained a Master’s degree. Two years later he became a teacher at the university (later becoming the rector). At the university he became acquainted with the works and teachings of English reformist John Wycliffe whom he often quoted, or even copied.

The early 15th century was not a good time. Plague repeatedly rippled through Europe and was accompanied by famine and increased banditry. The overall situation was quite bleak, and in such a time of uncertainty, many people turned to religion. The Catholic Church, then the only guardian of salvation, was not in very good shape itself. For long periods, it had two popes – or even three. Many high representatives of the clergy were corrupt, sinful and arrogant. Many thinkers of the time voiced opinions of atonement of the church, its reformation.

In Bohemia, such views were strong and Hus was a prominent speaker of the reform group. When the new Bethlehem Chapel in Prague opened Hus was appointed as preacher. The eloquent Hus soon attracted large numbers of people and during his sermons, the chapel was full. He often preached to crowd of 2,000 – 3,000 people! After several years, the Church excommunicated Hus, placing Prague under interdict (no sacraments could be granted in Prague, i.e. weddings, funerals, baptism, etc.).

Bethlehem Chapel, photo: CC-PD

Bethlehem Chapel, photo: CC-PD

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church itself felt that the situation was untenable. In cooperation with Roman Emperor and Hungarian King Sigismund (brother of Czech King Václav IV and eventually his successor), a Council was convened in Constance with the goal to end papal schism. Hus was invited to defend his teachings in a disputation at the Council. He was given a safe-conduct by Emperor Sigismund. However, Hus’s opponents had him arrested weeks after his arrival to Constance. The debate with the Council soon turned into a trial of Hus as a heretic. Despite an imminent death sentence Hus refused to recant even as he was tied to the stake. Hundreds of Czech nobles added their seal to a petition asking for the liberation of Hus, yet he still met his horrible death.

The following year, Hus’s colleague from the university Jerome of Prague was also tried and burned. Detailed reports of those Council proceedings caused great uproar in the Czech Kingdom. The issue had also an ethnic element since the reform ideas were widely accepted by Czechs, whereas the numerous Germans living in Prague held the Catholic position. The Czech-German animosity manifested itself repeatedly during the Hussite wars. Apart from his reform efforts, Hus also  influenced the Czech language by inventing wedges (such as č, š) and acutes (e. g. á, é), which have distinguished the Czech language ever since.

Jan Hus Memorial, photo: CC-PD

Jan Hus Memorial, photo: CC-PD

During the 19th century, both Hus and the Hussites were considered the cornerstone of the national identity by the Czech national revival. After 1918, the Czechoslovak Republic also saw the Hussite period as the glorious age. Ironically, the Communists did the same although they viewed the period – and the Hussite movement – as revolutionary by emphasizing certain aspects such as the religious component.

It is no surprise, therefore, that you can find a huge Hus memorial in Prague. It stands in Old Town Square and was unveiled in 1915 (500th anniversary of Hus’s death). The memorial depicts Hus as an ascetic bearded man. This is idealized representation, as Hus admitted in his own letters to being fat. Furthermore, it was unusual for priests in his time to have beards.

Also the Bethlehem Chapel (in Old Town at Bethlehem Square), which was torn down in the 1780’s was rebuilt. It is very similar to the original Gothic building.

July 6, the day of Hus’s execution, is a national holiday.

Author: Pavel Janecek

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  1. Hussite Wars: Part One - - […] It was also to deal with a leading Prague reformist Jan Hus whose teachings were deemed heretic.[1] Hus, expecting a …

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