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Heresy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the many faces of Reformation: reflections on the 600th anniversary of the execution of Jan Hus


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The execution of Jan Hus, as depicted in Ulrich Richental’s chronicle.

This post has kindly been written for us by Duncan Hardy, a Scouloudi Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research

Six hundred years ago on Monday a former priest, preacher, and university master known to posterity as Jan Hus was burned at the stake in Constance (Konstanz in modern-day Germany), a city in the Holy Roman Empire. For more than a decade Hus had been fulminating against what he perceived as the abuses and errors of the Church in his native kingdom of Bohemia, inspired by a unique Czech brand of vernacular piety, his own understanding of the Scriptures, and the writings of the English heretic John Wyclif. After eight years of disputations and trials before ecclesiastical officials in Prague, Rome, and Bologna, Hus had travelled to Constance in 1414 to defend his views before the enormous assembly of prelates that had gathered there for a General Council of the Church. Despite a safe-conduct from Sigismund, the king of Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire, Hus was put on trial by the finest canon lawyers of the day. On the morning of 6 July 1415 he was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death before the entire Council of Constance, then handed over to the secular authorities for execution. What followed was recorded in detail by a chronicler, Ulrich Richental, a citizen of Constance who witnessed the events of 6 July:

‘Then Duke Ludwig [a prince-elector of the Empire and Sigismund’s marshal] ordered the city guard and the hangman to take him [Hus] out to be burned, and to remove his clothes and possessions… And he had a white mitre made of paper placed on his head, on which were painted two devils, and in between them was written “Heresiarcha”, which is to say an archbishop of all heretics. And more than a thousand armed men led him out of Constance, as well as the princes and lords, who were also armed. And he was not bound because they surrounded him completely, and they called me, Ulrich, over to them. And the city council’s guards went before and behind him. And they led him to the Geltinger gate, and thence out of the city… And during this outward journey he said nothing other than “Jhesu Christe, fili dei vivi, misere mei”. And when he came to the field outside the city and saw the torches, timber, and straw, he fell three times to his knees and said in a loud voice “Jhesu Christe, fili dei vivi, qui passus es pro nobis, misere mei”. Then he was asked if he wished to make confession. He replied: “Gladly, but it is too crowded here”. People were making a ring around him. Then I asked him if he wanted to make confession. There was a priest there called Sir Ulrich Schorand, who had the authority of the General Council and the diocese. I called over the same Sir Ulrich. He came to Hus and said to him: “Dear sir and master, if you will turn away from your unbelief and heresy, for which you must now suffer, I will gladly hear your confession. If you do not want to do that, you yourself know well that according to canon law one cannot administer any sacrament to a heretic.” And Hus replied thus: “It is not necessary, I have committed no mortal sins.” After that he tried to start preaching in German. Duke Ludwig did not want this, and ordered him to be burned. So the hangman took him and bound him with rope to an upright plank. And he placed a small stool under his feet, and light wood and straw around him, and then he poured some pitch over it and set it alight. Then Hus began to emit horrifying shrieks, and was soon burned. […] Thereafter all of Hus’s ashes that were lying there were thrown into the Rhine.’ (My translation from the frühneuhochdeutsch original in Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils 1414-1418 von Ulrich Richental, ed. Thomas Martin Buck (Stuttgart, 2010), pp. 64-6).

What was the significance of Jan Hus’s execution, and why should we care about it? For centuries scholars and polemicists of every political and religious persuasion have examined and written about the striking life and death of this cleric from Bohemia. The story of Jan Hus as an individual certainly has some allure, in that it involved the dramatic actions of a hero of the faith or an infamous heretic (depending on one’s perspective) on an international stage at a time of profound crisis but also of political and intellectual ferment in Europe. Furthermore, accounts of Hus’s last days and moments, such as the narrative of Ulrich Richental, are simultaneously fascinating, moving, and horrifying to modern readers. The punishment of burning at the stake is emblematic for what are perceived today as the worst excesses of late medieval and early modern cruelty, and Hus was one of the most iconic victims of this method of execution. Because of his fate – suffering a gruesome death for standing by his convictions – we tend to look upon Hus with an instinctive sympathy, or at least to assume that his judges and executioners were inherently unjust and vindictive.

Some scholars, including Paul de Vooght, Jiří Kejř, and Thomas A. Fudge, have sought in recent years to establish whether Hus was indeed a heretic by the standards of contemporary canon law, and therefore legitimately sentenced by the Council of Constance, in an attempt to move beyond these emotive and moralistic interpretations of his trial and execution, and to analyse and reconstruct them in their late medieval context. Other historians, armed with the critical apparatus furnished by the various recent ‘turns’ in the humanities, are not convinced that the contemporary category of ‘heresy’ can be accessed and defined objectively, and conceptualise cases like Hus’s in terms of a power dynamic between ecclesiastical authorities and the increasingly complex societies in which they operated.

Yet the importance imputed to Jan Hus far exceeds the questions raised by his own life, trial, and death. At a broader level, historians have considered the events of 6 July 1415 to be an important manifestation of a range of developments that shaped European history in the early fifteenth century. The Council of Constance (1414-18) that condemned Hus had been convened in order to resolve a decades-long schism in the Church. By the 1410s there were three competing popes jostling for the allegiance of Catholic princes and subjects. In much late medieval historiography, Hus represents a widespread anxiety about ecclesiastical corruption and division, while his trial has become a famous example of the measures taken to try to restore clerical authority. Hus’s name also became linked to a religious and political movement within Bohemia that emerged around the time of his death. The ‘Hussen’ (or ‘Hussites’ in English) – so called by their German enemies – emerged in the 1410s as a heterogeneous group united loosely by a shared commitment to some of the principles defended by Hus himself, notably the taking of the Eucharist in both kinds and the transfer of ecclesiastical properties and jurisdictions into secular hands. Many Hussites also opposed the succession of Sigismund (the Hungarian and Roman monarch) as king of Bohemia in 1420. These conjunctures led to a series of extremely violent wars in Bohemia and in the regions surrounding it in the 1420s-30s, including five failed Crusades launched from within the Holy Roman Empire.

These broader developments associated with Jan Hus have been fitted into two main interpretive and narrative schemes. The first sees Hus as a hero of the Czech nation, who – in a nineteenth-century idiom – galvanised the people of Bohemia into following their ideals and fighting against their German oppressors, and – from a post-Soviet perspective – inspired the humanistic and tolerant values that are now held to be the hallmarks of contemporary Europe. The second situates Hus within the teleology of the Reformation, often including him within a triad of Great Men – John Wyclif, Jan Hus himself, and Martin Luther – who are thought to have spearheaded the call for reform in an age of ecclesiastical corruption, leading to what is typically characterised as an epoch-making rupture circa 1517 and, ultimately, to the birth of the modern world.

Both of these narratives are much in evidence in the various commemorations marking the 600th anniversary of Hus’s death. In the Czech Republic, for instance, a national festival entitled ‘Jan Hus – European of Modern Times’ is being held this year with the patronage of the president, Miloš Zeman, and the Charles University of Prague. In the documentation associated with this festival, Hus is described not only as a prominent reformer but as ‘a personality of pan-European significance… thanks to [whom] we can celebrate essential human qualities that are nowadays so important: personal responsibility, perceptive consciousness, insusceptibility, veracity, thoughtfulness, diligence, and heroism.’ On 1 July a four-hour biographical film of Hus’s life – the product of collaboration between the Czech broadcaster Česká Televize and the Franco-German channel Arte – was shown on television in several European countries. According to its producers, the film depicts Hus as ‘one of the most significant figures of the Reformation movement… [who] still has much to teach us today’.

As somebody who studies the later middle ages, I am pleased that Jan Hus and his era are currently receiving so much attention. Although the rhetoric of many of these commemorative events appears, from the perspective of academic history, anachronistic and transparently presentist, they are understandably seeking to convey some well-established narratives accessibly to broader audiences. However, I think that there is a key element in the Jan Hus affair that has been missed in all of the narratives and interpretations, scholarly and ‘popular’, discussed so far: the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire was the overarching political context within which the lives and actions of Hus and his opponents unfolded. Certainly, the proto-national dimensions of Hus’s vernacular preaching is significant, so politics within the kingdom of Bohemia needs to be taken into account; and there is no doubt that clear links can be made between Hus and the Hussites and the sixteenth-century reform movements (Martin Luther, for instance, explicitly identified with Jan Hus). However, this was not just a ‘Czech’ event, nor was it confined to the ecclesiastical sphere.

The first page of a mid-fifteenth-century copy of the Reformatio Sigismundi (München, Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 702). The title, ‘Kaysers Sigmunds Reformacion’, is written in the top-right corner.

The first page of a mid-fifteenth-century copy of the Reformatio Sigismundi (München, Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 702). The title, ‘Kaysers Sigmunds Reformacion’, is written in the top-right corner.

Indeed, if we are to make sense of the meaning of the concepts of ‘reform’ and ‘Reformation’ as people living in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries understood them, we will need to pay more attention to the Holy Roman Empire as the political framework within which many reformist impulses emerged and played out. Jan Hus’s career and his trial at Constance were two instances amongst many of the inhabitants of Central Europe attempting to address the perceived problems of the Church and the Empire – two interrelated bodies in contemporary understanding. While the Council of Constance condemned Hus – a self-proclaimed reformer – the professed aim of its members was also ‘the alleviation and reformation of the Roman and Universal Church’ (Romane ac universalis ecclesie relevationi ac reformationi). Polemicists at both the Council of Constance and its successor, the Council of Basel (1431-49), called for the simultaneous reform of the Church and the Empire. Especially notable in this respect was the Reformatio Sigismundi, a vernacular tract written in the name of King/Emperor Sigismund which called for the radical centralisation of religion and politics in the Holy Roman Empire. It met with enormous success, and was printed in multiple editions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Bohemia, Hus’s homeland, was not cut off from these Empire-centred calls for reform, but inextricably bound up within them, despite the rhetorical enmity between Czech-speaking Hussites and their German-speaking neighbours. The kingdom of Bohemia was a part of the Empire, and its kings were prince-electors. Under the Luxemburg dynasty of Charles IV, Wenceslas, and Sigismund, the Empire, Bohemia, and Hungary came to be ruled by the same family, and similar dynastic links – this time generated by the house of Habsburg – would hold these regions together in the sixteenth century.

The Holy Roman Empire, then, was not simply the backdrop for the dramatic deeds of ‘Great Reformers’ like Jan Hus and Martin Luther. ‘Reformation’ was a multi-faceted and widely employed concept, and discussion of reform addressed a series of intertwined religious and political issues which were anchored in the specific structures, practices, and discourses of the Holy Roman Empire in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. For instance, the Empire had an unusually acute degree of crossover and friction between ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions, owing to the high number of its bishops and abbots who were also temporal princes. In this context, debates about reforming the Church – and, in particular, of curtailing its powers and possessions – were especially highly charged. Equally, I have found in my research into the core lands of the Empire that elites across the political spectrum, from princes to guild masters, articulated their concerns about violence, conflict, and corruption, both religious and secular, in terms of what might be called ‘reformist’ concepts such as peace (Friede), necessity (Notdurft), and the common good (gemeiner Nutz). Long before Luther famously faced the emperor and the papal legate at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the means of implementing these pressing reformist goals had been discussed at many imperial diets (gemeine Tage, Reichstage) and myriad conferences organised by regional leagues of princes, nobles, and cities throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Often these meetings resulted in manifestoes and legislation which explicitly appealed to reformist ideals, such as the königliche Reformation issued by King Frederick III and the imperial estates at Frankfurt in 1442, an edict which sought to curtail feuding, protect priests, and regulate coinage throughout the Empire.

As we move from the 600th anniversary of Hus’s death to the 500th anniversaries of Luther’s deeds in 2017 and beyond, we should bear in mind the long and diverse history of religious and political reform in the Holy Roman Empire, much of which remains to be explored in relatively untapped archival collections throughout Europe.

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