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So who was this Jan Hus guy?
By Brittany Muldoon
Jan Hus day is celebrated on July 6th and commemorates the death of Jan Hus. If you don’t live in Europe, you may have never even heard of him before.
Jan Hus was a Czech philosopher, linguist, and theologian in the late 1300s and early 1400s. His influence actually reaches far beyond the Czech Republic.
In fact, his work had a huge influence on Martin Luther. That’s right: the Martin Luther, the one touted in Western history classes as the father of the Reformation.
But truth be told, everything Martin Luther did, Jan Hus did a century before Luther even existed. So where would Luther even be without the legacy and experiences of Jan Hus before him? Is Hus the real father of the Reformation?
To answer that question, we first have to dive into the time period that Hus was born into. He was born in a village in Bohemia in 1369.
At that time, the Catholic Church owned about half of the Bohemian land, and was heavily taxing the Czech population. This obviously caused some tension, especially among the poor villagers.
At the same time, the Church was selling indulgences, meaning that people could pay for their sins to be forgiven, guaranteeing them a spot in heaven. This, of course, favored the richer followers and left everyone else to basically rot in hell.
It was also common for priests to be drunk, to charge money to bury the dead, to not show up for Mass, and to be having sex or even running brothels. Basically, the clergy in Bohemia was a hot mess.
And finally, the Catholic Church had decreed that Mass could only be held in Latin, a language that the Czechs, unsurprisingly, didn't speak.
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So along comes Jan Hus, born into poverty to faithful parents in 1369. So what does Hus do? He tries to escape poverty and pursues a career in the priesthood by enrolling in the University of Prague (Charles University) in 1390.
In the meantime, his friend Jerome of Prague had been studying in England. Jerome returns to Prague during Hus’s studies, bringing with him the writings of John Wycliffe, a controversial figure who was known for criticizing the Church in England.
Hus was inspired by Wycliffe’s writings and found that he agreed with most of his ideas. For example, Wycliffe and Hus both believed that people should be able to read the Bible in their own languages instead of just Latin. Seems pretty basic today, right?
After his discovery of Wycliffe’s work, Hus started preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, following in the footsteps of other outspoken figures like Jan Milac and Matej of Janov. And he began preaching in the Czech language, something the Bohemians loved considering they could finally understand what was going on. He gained so much popularity that about 3000 people were attending his sermons.
Hus was also passionately against the sale of indulgences and the immorality of the clergy in general, and was not afraid to announce it to the congregation.
Upon hearing about all this hubbub, the Pope banned Wycliffe’s writings and demanded that they be burned. Much to the pleasure of the Czech Bohemians, Hus ignored all this and continued to preach, leading to his, and all of Prague’s, excommunication from the Church.
Hus eventually left the city voluntarily, but continued to preach throughout the Bohemian countryside, with dozens of supporters still attending his services. It was during this time that he published his most famous work, De Ecclesia, claiming that only Christ could be the head of the Church, and in essence challenging the pope’s authority.
Seeing that Hus would not easily be silenced, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and the Pope offered him safe passage to stand trial in the German city of Constance. Confident that he’d be able to convince the Council of his points, Hus accepted and was accompanied to Constance by 30 riders.
But the joke was on him. Once he got there, he was betrayed and thrown into a cell, where he would stay for over 70 days leading up to his trial. During the trial itself, over 30 charges were brought against him and he refused to repent, still claiming he had done nothing wrong. And so, on July 6th of 1415, he was sentenced to death by burning at the stake.
His last words are still famous today. “The truth will prevail”, he said, and “today you roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan swing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.”
And as you can imagine, Jan Hus’s supporters, now called the Hussites, did not take well to the news of his death. The villagers now had a martyr for their cause. They sent a letter of discontent to Constance and were basically scoffed at, and a year later, Hus’s friend Jerome was subjected to the same fate.
All of this made the Hussites hate Emperor Sigismund even more. Upon the death of the Bohemian king in 1419, Sigismund claimed to inherit the Bohemian throne.
This pissed the Hussites off even further and they refused to accept his rule. And voila, the Hussite Wars had begun. These conflicts were mostly fought between the Hussites and the Catholics, occasionally with different factions of Hussites facing off against one another.
It may seem strange that such large and impactful wars were fought on a territory that is now mostly atheist. But it was during these very wars that many of the great men of Czech history would shine. Jan Zelivsky led a march in 1419 that ended in the First Defenestration of Prague, triggering the first anti-Hussite crusade during which military hero Jan Zizka held off the invaders at Vitkov Hill. And after the Hussite Wars, George, or Jiri of Podebrady, became king. If you’ve ever been to Prague, you’ll recognize these names as places around the city today.
The Hussite Wars lasted for 15 long years. In the end, the Catholics won, but the Hussites got what they were originally fighting for: freedom of religion in Bohemia.
But why does all this matter for Martin Luther, the so-called father of the Reformation?
Remember Jan Hus’s last words. He prophesized that 100 years later, there would be a swan that the Catholic Church couldn’t roast.
And that swan, my friends, was Martin Luther. Luther, a German scholar and priest, stumbled upon copies of Hus’s writings. After studying them in detail, Martin Luther couldn’t believe that they had killed such a great man as Hus. He saw that Hus was simply trying to correct the moral wrongs he saw within the Church, something he himself was passionate about as well, but that Hus was brutally silenced.
Luther had Hus’s writings republished. Then, in 1517, almost exactly 100 years after Jan Hus’s death, Luther nailed his own work, the 95 Theses, to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
This document contained 95 revolutionary (although not new, as many of them were shared by Hus) opinions that went against the Catholic Church. And as the movable type-press had been invented by then (something Hus had lacked in his time), Luther was able to translate, publish, and distribute his work to a wider audience.
This, dear viewers, explains why people are more familiar with Martin Luther than they are with Jan Hus. A simple publishing and distribution tool made all the difference.
So a copy of the 95 Theses made its way to Rome, and, as you can imagine, the Pope was not thrilled. And the cycle began again. The Church attempted to silence Luther, who refused to back down.
Luther was then offered safe passage to stand trial in Rome. Sound familiar? Knowing that Hus was betrayed after accepting a similar offer, the bold and savvy Luther said “I’m not buying it” and hunkered down in Germany.
It could be argued here that if not for Hus’s example, Luther would have known no better and accepted this offer from the Church. He very well could have trusted the Pope and traveled to Rome, only for his flame to be put out before he had a chance to leave a lasting legacy.
After his refusal, Luther was excommunicated and declared a heretic, just like Hus. They were so desperate to get rid of him that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issued an order known as the Edict of Worms, basically putting a target on Luther’s head.
But luckily, Luther’s allies (many of whom were influential princes) protected him, and they became known as Protestants for protesting against the Church. Very creative.
For the next decade, Luther dedicated himself to translating the Bible from Latin to German, something Hus would have admired. In fact, as a linguist, Hus had translated the Bible from Latin to Czech, and even simplified the language so it was easier for people to understand. As a result, he also had a huge influence on the development of the Czech language.
I don’t know about you, but based on all this, I’m convinced that had Hus not existed, the Reformation would never have happened. Clearly, if he hadn’t been killed, the Hussites wouldn’t have had a martyr or a cause to fight the Hussite Wars. Without the wars, they may never have gotten the religious freedom they wanted.
Then, Luther wouldn’t have found Hus’s writings or learned what the Church did to suppress him. And then maybe, he wouldn’t have been inspired to write the 95 Theses, and so may never have even been offered safe passage to Rome, and never would have needed protection from the first Protestants. In the end, Luther died of natural causes in 1546, leaving behind a legacy of Protestants who believed that the Catholic Church should be reformed.
Without Hus, Luther may have died in anonymity, opposing the Church quietly and under wraps, instead of carrying on a movement started by Hus before him. Because if you think about it, Luther, like Hus, wasn’t trying to establish a new institution: they were both simply trying to correct the wrongs they saw within the existing one.
Based on the events of his life and how they parallel with those of Martin Luther, I’d venture to say that Hus is the real father of the Reformation, while Luther simply picked up the baton where Hus left off and, using more modern tools, made the movement even more widespread. So yes, this is just another thing we can add to Cimrman’s list of Czech ideas that someone else took the credit for.