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July 6: Jan Hus Burned for His Opinion

Jan Hus Burned for Heresy (1415)

Jan Hus

It was on this date, July 6, 1415, that the leader of a much-needed reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake for heresy at Constance. Born in 1369, the Czech-Bohemian Hus was an able student and son of the church. He was ordained a priest in 1400, becoming rector at the University of Prague two years later, and took an appointment as preacher in the newly erected Bethlehem chapel about the same time.

After the marriage of Richard II of England to the Bohemian King's sister, Hus had become familiar with the teachings of John Wyclif and, by 1401, he had become familiar enough with them to preach on them. Hus was austere and serious himself, so Wyclif's ideas about reforming the corruption of the Church, condemning the vices of the monks and clergy, and the "unscriptural" doctrines surrounding the supremacy of the papacy, indulgences, purgatory and so on, appealed to him.

The church was not amused. In 1405 Innocent VII directed Archbishop Zbynek to take measures against the heretical teachings. The archbishop condemned the doctrinal "errors" and forbade any further attacks on the corrupt clergy. Complying with the order to desist from Wyclif's writings, Hus declared that he condemned whatever errors they contained. That should have been the end of it, but a new Pope, Alexander V, in a Bull of 1409, directed the archbishop to see that Wyclif's writings were suppressed. The archbishop ordered Wyclif's writings burned.

Hus took to his pulpit in protest, and with others of like mind sent a collective letter to yet another Pope, John XXIII, described by historians as "one of the most brutal and licentious men who ever sat on the papal throne." (It is confusing, but there were three competing Popes at the time!) For his efforts, in 1410, the Archbishop excommunicated Hus. But Hus had royal protection and continued his agitation in favor of Wyclif. This caused him to be summoned to Rome to see the Pope himself. For failure to appear, Hus was excommunicated by the Pope and his church ordered burned. However, King Wenceslaus failed to enact the Pope's edict and his church survived.

Still believing in Wyclif's reforms, Hus decided to defend his views before the Council of Constance, in what is now Germany, under a guarantee of safe passage from Emperor Sigismund. Sigismund was himself such a brazenly loose man that he could be seen cavorting half-naked in public with prostitutes. The 446 clerics who attended the Council of Constance did not lack for similar entertainment: contemporary chroniclers report that a thousand prostitutes descended on the city for the duration of the divine meeting.

It is said that Hus's doctrinal divergences with the Church were socially harmful, but that is laughable given the corruption against which he and Wyclif (who had died in 1384) had been protesting. It was at this Council that Pope John was judged guilty of every known crime and vice – but was sentenced to a comfortable retirement and "anti-pope" status, under Martin V as Pope. As for Jan Hus, his "safe conduct" was a ruse: once at Constance, he was arrested, tried, and condemned. He was burned at the stake on this date in 1415. His followers, knows as Hussites, still pushed for reform – and were persecuted and slaughtered by the Church.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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