A Short History of Jan Hus, the Protestant Leader You Never Heard of, or, Martin Luther Jacked Hus’s Whole Style

So because it is 2017, we are currently living through a cruel time in which people are attempting to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This, in and of itself is problematic as hell, because it feeds into the idea that the study of history is a study of Great Men™ who came along in a manly way and moved the world forward. That ain’t the case. History is really more of a study of a number of trends. It’s looking at a million pieces of day-to-day writing and interpreting them in their context. Sure, dudes came along who – given this context – were able to influence society. However, society as a whole was not a blank slate, just waiting for some guy to come swing his dick around in order to change course.

This approach also massively privileges not just dudes, but *specifically* white dudes from Western Europe. Not because they necessarily achieved more than dudes from other parts of the world (AHEM – Alexander the Great v. Genghis Khan), BUT because the West has dominated the political sphere since the age of colonialism and therefore privileges its own history above the history of other places.

A part of this is a collective social tendency to privilege one’s one society because one is a part of it. We can’t escape culture, even if we can critique it. Another part of this is that historians are basic too, and don’t want to learn the other languages that it takes in order to do the work to study certain things.

The lionisation of Martin Luther and Reformation is a perfect example of how major social and religious movements get lost in the Great Men narrative in order to allow for ease of research.

You know why? Because his shit had already been done and several major European wars had been fought over it before the sixteenth century even came along.

That’s right mofos – the Hussites had already done all this, tho.

So – backing right up – you may have vaguely heard of Jan Hus and/or the Hussites in passing. Some A Levels focusing on Luther will spice the curriculum up by mentioning that Jan Hus existed, and then moving swiftly along, but it tends to remain a subject that is only broached at a university level, and even then, you generally have to be taking a Central European specific course to learn about it.

So, I’ll lay a quick run-down on you. Jan Hus was the man. Born in Prague in 1369, he was burnt at the stake by the papacy for heresy in 1415 and got to wear this fly-ass demon hat when he did so.

Hus stake
#Looks

Hus’s career began at the University of Prague (now Charles University) where he was a rector from 1402-03. In 1402 he also began preaching around Prague, and his major concern was the reformation of the Church. You see, the Church in the early fifteenth century was some wild shit. There were at any given time at least two popes, and sometimes three. Anyway homeboy, was like ‘But what if instead, no?’ and went around Prague talking mad shit about the Church and how it’s clergy and Bishops were basically hella sinful.

Prague had a long and proud history of letting preachers talk smack about the Church. From 1364-1374 Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (shout out to my boy) had been doing it. (Please enjoy an entire book I wrote about Milíč here.) When he died his acolyte Matěj of Janov took up the job from 1381-1392 when he got himself in trouble for calling one too many people Antichrist, as you do.

Anyway, homeboys actually had rather a lot to bitch about. The whole multiple popes situation was, as many famous historians have noted, awkward. Moreover, in Prague at least, the clergy were actually hella sinful. We know this because from 1379-1382 the Archdeacon Pavel of Janovice went around Prague and all its neighbouring diocese asking everyone if they had anything the wanted to complain about. Oh yeah they did. They complained about priests never showing up for mass. They complained that priests in Czech speaking parishes only spoke German, or that in German speaking parishes they only spoke Czech. They complained about priests charging money in order to bury the dead. They complained that priests were having sex. Constantly. And sometimes also running brothels.

In one notable case a priest named Ludwig Coiata from the parish of St. John on the Rocks [Jan Podskalí], was living with between four and eight sex workers, and when the local police came to get him in trouble he ran out the house and through the streets butt-ass naked.[1] At the church of St. Giles [Jiljí] other priests were allowing wooden structures to be built around their churches and in their cemeteries under which ‘sexual intercourse [was] often committed.’[2] That is to say they were building fuck shacks and renting them out.

Anyway, you get the picture.

So Jan Hus being a priest who actually was quite into the whole not sinning thing was Not. Down. He went around town talking mad smack about all of the, you know, generally being not holy and the Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc was like, ‘HAHA YASSSS. SPILL THAT TEA.’, and basically let him do his thing. Problem was Hus was also into some shit that John Wycliff also liked, so both  Pope Innocent VII and Pope Gregory XII got their knickers in a twist that Hus was out here bigging up Wycliff and literally no one in Prague gave a fuck, and they made Zajíc crack down on it.

Anyway meanwhile a third pope, Alexander V got elected and Zajíc was getting nervous about all the heresy, so he snitched on Hus and his followers. In 1410 Alexander V excommunicated Hus and all his followers and had anything vaguely Wycliff-related burnt. Next year Zajíc up and dies and Alexander V dies too, and a new Antipope John XXIII is crowned. That’s where things get LIT. He called a crusade against Ladislaus of Naples who was supporting one of the OTHER popes – Gregory XII. (I know, I KNOW. I love it so much.) The crusade was preached in Prague and was being paid for by the sale of indulgences.

Hus was like oh HELL NO. According to Hus, a) Priests/the Pope shouldn’t be starting wars because they’re supposed to be holy, seriously what is wrong with you? And b) you can’t pay your way out of sin. JFC. So Obvs stuff kicked off. Hus and some dudes from the University burnt the papal bulls declaring the crusade and told everyone that the Hussites should be leading Christendom as opposed to the Church – whatever the Church meant at the time given that there were three. IDK. Three dudes who were openly questioning indulgences got beheaded by King Wenceslas IV.

This did not help calm shit down.

By this time everyone in Bohemia was really feeling Hus. He was preaching on the regular in his Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, which you can still go see.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem Chapel – so cute and late medieval!

The Church got well annoyed by this and put the whole city under interdict. Hus then decided to peace out to the country side to take the heat off everybody, and he just started writing his ass off.

His main deal at this point was that on 18 October 1412 he was pretty much the first guy to go all ‘no one but God can judge me’ – and said that Jesus Christ was the supreme judge. AKA fuck yo Church. He wrote all this stuff – theological treatises, sermons, prayers – and crucially he did it all in Czech as opposed to Latin. This way it was accessible to everyone, and not just people who had a schmanzy education. He also was big on the laity being able to take communion in both kinds – that is bread and wine – regularly. In the medieval period they only got to take the bread, and really it was only for special occasions. Hus wanted to open the clergy’s access to communion to everyone. He also wanted priests to stop sticking their dicks in everything, and to stop demanding so much money off people all the damn time and defo knock it the fuck off with their indulgences. People loved this shit. It spread to Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia. That’s when stuff got out of hand.

The King of the Romans Sigismund (Wenceslas’s brother, natch) was not super pleased about everyone in his Empire kicking off and being not Catholic. He also had wild sideburns, witness:

Sigismund
I can’t.

As we’ve discussed here before in order to be the Holy Roman Emperor (a title you received after being King of the Romans) you need the Church to crown you after being elected. Therefore, if your subjects stop believing in the Church it does not bode well for your ability to rule them. Anyway, he wanted to solve the Church schism and get the kingdom he was born in back under control. He arranged for the Church to call a council at Constance and gave a guarantee of safety to Hus if he showed up to defend himself against heresy charges.

His trial started on 5 June 1415 and he straight went in saying that unless they could show him in the bible where he’d done something heretical then they could jog on. He had another trial on the 8th of June and Hus was again like – yo I’ll apologise if you can prove to me that I’m wrong. Then they sat around reading out his books, and Hus was like yeah – that is lit as hell though. I am great. The Church was like, no dog, and we’re gonna need you to confess:

  1.  that you erred in the theses which you hitherto maintained;
  2. that you renounce them for the future;
  3. that you recant them; and
  4. that you declare the opposite of these sentences.

He was like, no. One, I’m not going to recant some stuff which I didn’t teach (the Church was trying to say he was teaching Wycliff’s forty-five articles or Lord’s Supper). Two I’m not gonna revoke stuff I think is true just because the assembly doesn’t believe it. Three, if I sell myself out on this it would be against my conscious. So suck it.

So yeah that did not go down well, and on 6 July 1415 he was sentenced to death. Basically they Church begged him to recant, but he was like yeah no, I’m good. I love the bible, especially if it is in Czech. Peace. They dressed him up in that fly ass hat, and this was his speech before he got burned:

“God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.”

BALLER.

That’s when the wars started.

All of Bohemia was like, you did NOT just burn our boy at the stake. The Church was like, ‘fraid so fam, you gonna be Catholic now or nah? Bohemia: nah. The Church LEGIT called a crusade on Bohemia in 1420 and Pope Martin V authorised the killing of anyone who followed Hus. Nice. A total of four crusades had to be called in the end because the Hussites were absolutely baller at military techniques under the direction of my man Jan Žižka.

zizka

Eventually the Church just straight up gave in and at the Council of Basel in 1436 they were like, you know what, fine. I’m well tired. It’s estimated that a century later up to ninety percent of the Czech Lands (that is, Bohemia and Moravia) was Hussite. That is no fucking joke. Bohemia was home to one of the largest silver mines in Europe. Prague was one of the largest cities on the continent, and all of it was dead centre in the Holy Roman Empire – the largest power block in Christendom. The Hussites were not a proto-Reformation group – they WERE the first large scale group of reformed Christians and they controlled entire kingdoms.

More to the point, as you can see the shit that got Hus burnt is pretty much exactly the same stuff that Luther came up with literally 105 years later. A focus on personal piety, vernacular bible-based spirituality, greater lay involvement, and a condemnation of indulgences and the Church’s profligacy were all a part of Hussite dogma.

All of this is largely ignored, however, by the great majority of educational systems in the West. Instead everyone is taught that Luther ran up and blew everyone’s mind by nailing the 95 thesis to a church door and that changed everything. Hell, the whole nailing things to church doors wasn’t even dramatic at the time. It was a regular practice and people did it to announce what they were going to preach the next day. Trust –  Hus nailed some heretical shit to doors when Martin Luther didn’t even exist.

People aren’t taught this, however, because Hussite stuff is written in Czech. By its very nature it was serving a community of Czech speakers and in a post-colonial world, Slavic speakers aren’t considered to be important. Unless you managed to enslave a whole group of people and suck their resources dry, we figure, you can’t have been that important historically.

Besides, it’s all much more simple to maintain that a German speaker – nice, easy German – started this whole thing off and was the first to inspire whole kingdoms to rebellion.

That shit ain’t true.

History and the world are complicated. Societal shifts are occurring around us constantly, and they happen not just because one person decides to say something, but because other people respond to what is being said. As important as Hus was, his ideas were held up by Czechs because they felt the same frustrations with the Church. They were perfectly willing to undergo decades of war and a designation as heretics to get their spiritual needs met.

Luther came up with a weak-ass German version of Hussitism a century after the Czechs had already done the whole damn thing and literally beaten the Church and armies from all over Europe to set up TWO Hussite kingdoms. Tell me one more fucking time about the five hundred year anniversary of the Reformation.


If you want to read more about Hus and don’t speak Czech (seriously, just learn Czech), here’s a short English bibliography of books I think are good:
Thomas A Fudge, Jan Hus: Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia.
R. R. Betts, Essays in Czech History.
David S. Schaff, John Huss: His Life, Teachings and Death.
Oscar Kuhns and Robert Dickie, Jan Hus: Reformation in Bohemia


[1] ‘Item dicit, quod dominus Ludvicus dictus Coiata … quod binavice fuit per iudicem Nove civitatis Pragensis nudus fugatus, quod vix ad domum suam, que est versus scolas sancti Appollinaris, evasit, in qua stolet interdum IIIIor, interdum VI, interdum VIIIo mulieres publicas fovere, ad quas est communis accessus hominum, de quo vicini et omnes homines transeuntes scandalisantur.’  Ivan Hlaváček and Zdeňka Hledíková (eds.), Protocollum visitationis archidiaconatus Pragensis annis 1379–1382 per Paulum de Janowicz archidiaconum Pragensem factae, (Prague, 1973), pp. 48–49.

[2] ‘Item dicit, quod ponuntur ligna in cimiterio et circum ecclesiam, sub quibus acerbis carnales commixtiones sepius committebantur et commituntur [sic], ut audivit, et hoc ex permissione decani, ut audivit, et plebani.’  Ibid., p. 53.


For more like this, see:
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

One thought on “A Short History of Jan Hus, the Protestant Leader You Never Heard of, or, Martin Luther Jacked Hus’s Whole Style”

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