In search of Jan Hus

Jan Hus preaches in Bethlehem chapel

On July 6th, it will be 600 years since the death of Jan Hus, the celebrated priest and reformer, who was burned at the stake for heresy against the Catholic Church. In this programme, Zdeněk Uhlíř of the historical and musical collections section of the Czech National Library, and also Vlasta Urbánková, a guide at the Bethlehem Chapel where Hus preached, will help to piece together what we know about the man, his beliefs, and some of the myths surrounding this “Greatest Czech”.

Zdeněk Uhlíř,  photo: Eva Hodíková / NK ČR
Zdeněk Uhlíř is responsible for the conceptual design of a new exhibition being held at the library in Prague's Klementínum called “Jan Hus: The Problem of Accepting Freedom”. He is also the author of an accompanying book of the same name. I suppose that in writing a new book about someone who died 600 years ago it is difficult to come up with new information. So how did you go about putting this book and exhibition together?

“I tried to prepare an exhibition from another point of view than to present a biography of Jan Hus, or an event history of Jan Hus. I tried to show Hus’ place within Czech medieval history. So that gave rise to the idea of titling the exhibition ‘Jan Hus: The Problem of Accepting Freedom’. Because I think that it is important to show the context surrounding the burning of Jan Hus at the stake. The issue was a clash of different streams of thought in Czech, or Central European medieval society.”

To begin at the beginning and explain to someone who may not know who Jan Hus was and why he is so important to Czech people. He is known as a reformer, a pioneer of the Protestant movement...

“Jan Hus was small man who tried to find a career via education, via the Church organisation, and via the university organisation. So he started his studies, and when finishing them, and when obtaining a beneficium in Bethlehem Chapel, he wondered about what he could do next. Because he was about thirty. And the active life was still ahead of him. He was oriented towards the so-called active faith of the layman.”

So was this active faith a way of promoting the idea of not practicing absolute subservience to the Vatican, or to the Pope?

“It isn’t a Vatican or Papal point of view. The point of view is the participation of the layman in Church activities was completely passive with regards to the liturgy and so on. But Jan Hus tried to increase the participation of these common folk in the congregation so they would play a more decisive role in the Church organisation. And that means ‘active faith’.”

The idea that forms the title of your book – “The Problem of Accepting Freedom” – does that relate to the idea that Jan Hus is regarded as a rare example of A Czech hero who stood up for their beliefs and suffered the consequences?

Jan Hus preaches in Bethlehem chapel | Photo: Wolfgang Sauber,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Jan Hus is a tragic man. Because the movements in Bohemia, Prague, and across the Czech lands in the second half of the 14th, and the beginning of the 15th centuries, was the notion of Church reform. There were two main movements, or streams, related to this. The so-called Czech reform movement, as interpreted by Protestant or Evangelical reformers. And on the other side was reform Catholicism. Both of these movements sought to emancipate the lay person. But for the Catholic reformers, this was to be achieved via correct ways of approaching ones profession – and for the Czech reform movements it was from the point of view of morals.”

How would you describe the philosophy of Jan Hus?

“Jan Hus was not a philosopher. Jan Hus was a preacher. And he tried to find freedom for the layman. And this caused a major clash. Because he tried by following John Wycliffe [c 1331-1334, English theologian and reformer] and Matěj z Janova [or Matthew of Janow, late 14th century reform-minded Bohemian writer]...”

Explain briefly who both of these men were.

John Wycliffe
“John Wycliffe was an English reformer and founder of the Lollard [reform] movement. He is the main figure behind the first English Reformation. Matěj z Janova was a major Czech thinker dealing with the Czech version of the first Reformation. And both of these thinkers had basically totalitarian ideas of only one power in a society and that this power should be King – or in modern words the state.”

Should Jan Hus be viewed as an early revolutionary?

“No, no, no. Jan Hus was a follower of people like Wycliffe or Matěj z Janova. And Hus tried to connect their totalitarian ideas with his own idea of active faith, and Christian freedom. And this is tragic nonsense! Because totalitarian regulation of human behaviour, and of human ideas, as proposed by Wycliffe or Matěj z Janova, is incompatible with freedom. On the other hand, there was a movement of Catholic reformism in whose core was, by modern words said, that free subjective action lay within a particular profession. This is similar to the second Reformation – Calvinist [based on John Calvin, 16th century French reformist theologian] – but it should be done freely.”

Why were Jan Hus’ ideas viewed as heresy, and why was he burned at the stake?

“Jan Hus was not a heretic. From the point of view of dogmatic theology he was completely orthodox. Completely Catholic orthodox.”

But is that not a relatively new reassessment?

Exposition 'Jan Hus - Problém přijmout svobodu',  photo: Eva Hodíková / NK ČR
“Not at all. He was banned, but not from a position of heterodoxy, rather from a point of view of causing disruption to society. He wasn’t, for example, a supporter of remanence [tenet stating that bread and wine in the Eucharist retain a material substance] like Wycliffe. He wasn’t for Donatism [5th century sect which removed the need for a middle-man, namely the clergy, from Christian practice], like Wycliffe. But anyone listening to Jan Hus would understand very well that he was critical of the clergy in a way that mirrored Donatism. This means that priests who live bad lives have no right to undertake sacrament-related actions.”

What would you like for a reader of your book, or a visitor to the exhibition, to come away with? What kind of new viewpoint are you trying to put forward with regards to Jan Hus?

“The new point is that Hus wasn’t a reformer in the sense of the so-called first Reformation.”

Like Martin Luther.

“Exactly. Like Luther and John Calvin, and so on. Hus must be understood in the context of social ideas as the central person of the clash of [ideas of] freedom of human action. And what was tragic about his activities is that he wanted common people to be free, but he closed the very path towards that freedom by denying the free subjective action of his congregations. And that is the tragic path that culminated in his being burned at the stake.”

I have shifted to Bethlehem Chapel where Jan Hus preached to his congregations back in the early 15th century. And I am with Vlasta Urbánková, a long-serving guide here at the chapel. She has very kindly agreed to talk with me about Hus. Could you start by telling me a little bit about the life of Jan Hus?

“Jan Hus came from southern Bohemia. He was born around 1370, most probably it was 1371 in Husinec. He came to Prague to study university, and he obtained a Master of Philosophy degree. And then he became a Master of Theology. He came here to the chapel in 1402, and he remained here until 1412, when he had to leave because he was cursed [excommunicated] by the Pope.”

Bethlehem Chapel,  photo: Wolfgang Sauber,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
So what sparked Hus’ interest in progressive or reformist thought? Why was he not content with merely following existing Church doctrine?

“Jan Hus criticised the Church, but it is important to note that the Church was pretty rotten at that time in many respects. There was major corruption. There were two Popes fighting for power, and after 1409 there were even three Popes. The Church was rich and spoiled. On the other hand, all people were believers in comparison with today. Common people were strongly religious.”

And those are the people to whom Jan Hus would speak.

“Yes. There were people who would gather here in the chapel, and Jan Hus spoke to them. There were a lot of other people who separated themselves from what they saw as the sinfulness of the Church, and wanted to reform this institution.”

Why was Jan Hus interested in reforming the Church? Why was he willing to take the risk of preaching reformist ideas?

“Yes, it was very risky. But he was a strong believer, too. He believed in the Bible. He translated the Bible into Czech. He believed in Jesus Christ. And that Jesus Christ was the Supreme Authority of the Church, not the Pope.”

Which was heresy in the Catholic Church.

“Yes, of course. It was heresy for the Church. And this was the reason why Jan Hus was executed.”

Bethlehem Chapel | Photo: Øyvind Holmstad,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
What did Jan Hus want from the Church? He didn’t nail a list of demands to a door like Martin Luther. What were his demands for change from the Catholic Church?

“I think the ideas were similar. Or some of the ideas were the same as the ideas of Martin Luther, and also the ideas of John Wycliffe.”

Tell us about these ideas.

“For example, that a bad Pope was not a Pope at all, and people didn’t need to follow him. That was an idea from John Wycliffe, and also Hus. Wycliffe’s preaching, teaching, philosophy and theology was brought to Prague university [Charles University]. And this university and the Bethlehem Chapel were the centres of reformation here in this country. It isn’t easy to explain Wycliffe’s philosophy and theology in a succinct way. I would say that his philosophy was based on [Greek philosopher] Plato, rather than Aristotle as the philosophy of the Church. This was very different, and I think that this is one of the reasons why Hus was executed.”

What do we know about Jan Hus as a person? What kind of person was he?

“He was a nice person. We don’t know much about his childhood, but we know he came from a poor background. He came from a small village called Husinec, which is near Prachatice. But we aren’t certain about this because there is another Husinec – but it was most probably Husinec in south Bohemia. But we know more about his life at the university, and after that.”

Today Jan Hus is held up as a kind of revolutionary hero by some people. And often according to political outlook. So was he a champion of the poor, or was he a champion of reform, or was he an intellectual champion? How true are today’s representations of Jan Hus?

“Presently, a competition is being held in which Czechs can vote for their greatest countryman. Right now, Jan Hus is in first place. But the vote will continue up to December.”

For what reasons is Hus viewed as such a hero? Because he gave his life?

“Yes. Because he sacrificed his life for what he believed.”

Is that something Czechs particularly admire given that there are chapters in history - just as an example President Edvard Beneš – where others did not appear to be so resolute. Or you have the Emil Hácha figure, seen as collaborating with the Nazis. So is Hus’ ultimate sacrifice viewed as being a rare example of heroism?

“It is difficult to say. But I personally think that Jan Hus was the first among the heroes of our country. Around ten years ago, we last voted in this Greatest Czech competition. And I voted for Hus that time too!”

The reason we are standing here in Bethlehem Chapel today at all is that during the 1950s, the communists rebuilt this chapel because the regime wanted to venerate Hus a socialist-style reformer. So are such political comparisons – to perhaps describe Hus as a kind of Che Guevara figure – out of place?

Exposition 'Jan Hus - Problém přijmout svobodu',  photo: Eva Hodíková / NK ČR
“He was not a revolutionary. But he liked and felt empathy towards poor, common people. So, the communists took this part of his character and they gave it a central standing. But there was a time during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was Hus’s nationality that was highlighted [for nationalistic purposes]. Now I think we look at Jan Hus as a whole person who was an especially religious man, and who wanted to reform the Church because he liked the Church, wanted to improve it. He didn’t want to start a new church.”

I am standing now in the Klementinum gallery within the Czech National Library. In front of me are various glass cases containing very old looking books and manuscripts. So, Zdeněk Uhlíř, tell me what are we looking at here?

“These books are mostly chronicles from the 14th century. This Velislav’s Bible is a painted [or illuminated manuscript] Bible from the mid-14th century. It is the largest illuminated Central European manuscript from the Middle Ages.”

So we are looking at hand-illustrated colour representations within these books. In a way, Biblical chapters are being related like comic books. How does this relate to Jan Hus?

It relates as a base of ideas lifted by Bohemian society in the high Middle Ages. Because the Chronicle of Dalimil [14th century Czech-language illuminated historical chronicle] is a masterpiece of noble ideology and the Velislav’s Bible is a masterpiece of the political theology of the Czech kingdom and Czech society during this period.”

We have shifted to another book case. Contained therein are manuscripts labeled ‘Czech reform movements’. So what are these books?

Exposition 'Jan Hus - Problém přijmout svobodu',  photo: Eva Hodíková / NK ČR
“These books deal with Czech reformers like Jan Milíč z Kroměříže [14th century Czech reform-mined Catholic priest] and Matěj z Janova. Milíč was originally a notary and then a preacher.”

Are these Hus’ contemporaries?

“Milíč was in the 1360s and 1370s. Matěj z Janova was a theologian and preacher mostly in the 1380s and 1390s. That makes them the so-called forerunners of Jan Hus. That may not exactly be the case, but this is the general concept of the reform movement starting in the 1360s, under Emperor Charles IV, and ending with Hus, Jakoubek ze Stříbra [Jacob of Mies, a Bohemian reformer and colleague of Hus], and other persons from the Hussite movement.”

Are there any manuscripts in existence featuring Jan Hus’s own handwriting?

“There are, but that isn’t part of this exhibit.”

Now we are walking over to another bookcase, which is called ‘Hus and his conflict’.

Jan Hus's handwriting
“Here we have some texts, which are written by him. But not in his own hands.”

So someone would have listened to him and taken down his words?

“I think that this is probably re-copied from another manuscript record. There are very few of Hus’s writings in his own hand. Because he was a preacher, most of his words were written down by other people. And in terms of his university activities, he was a Magister actu Regens, which means a full professor [or Regent master] and a dean of the philosophy faculty and a rector of the university, so he had secretaries and scribes to take down his words.”

I am now with Vlasta Urbánková in the middle of Bethlehem Chapel, and I am noticing that all around on the walls are replica writings by Jan Hus. And there is also one section of the wall, which has a tiny fragment [from 1412] of an original inscription. So this is to symbolise Hus adorning the walls of the chapel with his statements, with his views on the Church, and what was wrong with the Church?

'The Six Heresies of the Church' on the walls of Bethlehem Chapel,  photo: Wolfgang Sauber,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“Yes, that is correct. The text is called ‘The Six Heresies of the Church’ [De sex erroribus, a treatise by Hus posted on the chapel’s walls]. The first heresy is about creation. Jan Hus criticises the Church – the priests say they are more than the Virgin Mary, who gave life to Jesus Christ only once, but they can create him as many times as they would like to. Jan Hus says that this isn’t true.

“The second heresy concerns belief. Jan Hus says that the priests’ command to believe in the Virgin Mary, in the saints, in the Pope, is because they don’t know that there is something other to believe in – to believe in God, about God, and God Himself. To believe in God means to love Him and to follow Him. To believe believe about God means to believe that what the Holy Bible says about God is true. And to believe God means to believe that what God says is true.

“The third heresy is about forgiveness of sins. Only God can forgive sins. Priests should explain to people how to repent. He should say: ‘dear brother, as you repent your sins and ask the merciful Saviour to forgive them, your sins are forgiven.’

“The fourth heresy is about listening to priests. About obedience. People should only obey good commandments of priests.

“The fifth heresy is about the curse – condemnation by the Church. The so-called anathema. This means excommunication from the Church. It should [Hus argues] only be pronounced and executed in unity with God, and with eternal love. The person who pronounces the anathema should love the person being cursed. If not, it isn’t love, but hatred. The anathema is harmful for the person who pronounces it.

“The last and sixth heresy is about Simony – the buying and selling of Church-bestowed benefits. It is when something that is earthly is exchanged for something which is of spiritual origin. Jan Hus gives an example: one wants to become a bishop, so he buys the bishopship. Hus says that this is very bad because in this case such an earthly thing as money is being exchanged for something of spiritual origin.”

Yes, that sounds very much like a reform manifesto.

“It was something like that. There was no print of it. But Jan Hus had the walls of the chapel to display this message.”

Jan Hus
Zdeněk Uhlíř, Hus is often regarded as a hero figure in Czech history. How would you describe him as a person?

“I am not sure that Hus was a hero. He was a very important person. He was a very famous preacher, but from an intellectual point of view, rather a simple man.”

What makes you say that? Or what evidence is there for that?

“The evidence is found through his university lectures. As the faculty’s head of arts, philosophy and theology.”

Do you think that had he not been burned at the stake he might have been forgotten by now?

“It is not a question of forgotten or not forgotten. His importance is different than how it is commonly understood. He was not a great thinker, but he was a great social activist. There is a big difference between these two things. The big thinkers are, for example, Hus’ teacher Stanislav ze Znojma [14th century philosopher, teacher and theologian], or his classmate friend and opponent Štěpán z Pálče [14th century priest]. These two people were excellent theologians and excellent intellectuals. On the other hand, Hus was an ordinary educated man...”

And, of course, during the communist times this made him of use as a supposed early Marxist or sorts.

“Yes. This is a very interesting development of Hus’ so-called second life since the 19th century. In the first edition of his monumental Czech history, František Palacký understood Hus rather critically. On the other hand, after the polemics and discussions with Konstantin von Höfler [19th century conservative nationalist German historian] in the 1860s, Palacký re-painted Hus as a modern liberal – as Palacký himself was. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia, wrote a short book called ‘Jan Hus [our Renewal] and our Reformation’ [Jan Hus: Nase obrození a naše reformace, 1923] and Masaryk said that Hus is at the core of Czech history connecting the Middle Ages and modern era, and that this was a religious question. Back during the 19th century, the religious question was converted into a social question.

'Jan Hus',  a film by Otakar Vávra,  photo: Československý státní film
“And then Alois Jirásek [early 20th century Czech writer] wrote many novels about the Hussite movement and so on. Václav Novotný [early 20th century Czech historian] wrote a big biography of Jan Hus. And then, on this basis, Zdeněk Nejedlý [mid-20th century historian and politician] converted the person of Jan Hus into a communist. In 1954, director Otakar Vávra brought us a supposedly historical film about Jan Hus. But this was a completely different image of Jan Hus created by Nejedlý and Vávra, and also Palacký – although there is an illusion of continuity.”

And Hus is also used by today’s politicians sometimes to make a point. Even an English UKIP [UK Independence Party] politician recently mentioned him...

“Not just UKIP. I remember a speech by governor [of South Bohemian region Jiří] Zimlola. And he brought up Hus and the Hussite movement to inaugurate the South Bohemian Year of Hus [formally 20 locations across the south associated with Hus and Hussites]. But it was like Nejedlý, like Vávra, like author Josef Macek’s 1961 book on Hus – just old ideas presented in a new version.”