Hus, John (c. 1369–1415)

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(c. 13691415)

John Hus, the Czech church reformer and national hero, was born at Husinec in southern Bohemia. He made his way through the University of Prague, receiving his A.B. in 1393, his M.A. in 1396, and his B.D. in 1404. Some of the logical works of John Wyclyf were known in Prague in the early 1390s, and there is still extant a copy of a half dozen of Wyclyf's philosophical works in Hus's hand, made in 1398. Wyclyf's realism (universalia ante rem ) found a warm welcome among Czech professors and students, not least because the German community at the university was strongly Ockhamist and Wyclyf's vigorous defense of universals (prior to individuals) fortified the Czechs' position. He was deeply influenced by the Augustinianism of the Victorine school of the twelfth century.

Hus became well known and popular, partly for his teaching and partly for his preaching in the vernacular. In 1402 Hus was named stated preacher in the Bethlehem Chapel, and his sermons in Czech were well attended by Czechs of all classes. In October 1401 Hus was elected dean of the arts faculty and in 1403 rector of the university (though there is some uncertainty as to this first rectorate). By this time disputes over Wyclyf's teachings had become acrimonious, and Hus with some of his friends undertook to defend Wyclyf from charges of heresy against a party largely of German professors, who demanded strict condemnation of Wyclyf's teachings. Hus continued his preaching and writing in the interest of reform, but in 1408 the Prague conservative hierarchy (mainly German) lodged specific charges of heresy against him. Soon thereafter the struggle for predominance in the university broke out between Czech and German. The Germans had three votes, the Czechs only one. Hus led the fight for a reversal of the proportion, and King Wenceslaus decided in the Kutná Hora decree of 1409 that the Czech professors and students should have three votes and all others combined, one vote. The Germans left in a body to form the University of Leipzig. Hus, as leader of the national Czech party, was elected rector of the university.

Opposition to Hus on the part of the conservative Czech clergy remained, and the serious charges of 1408 were renewed in 1409 and 1410. He disobeyed a summons to Rome and was excommunicated in 1411. Hus had formed his opinions clearly by then and was prepared to defend them under any conditions. He believed firmly in predestination and the unity of the church under the headship of Christ. He was deeply influenced by the teaching of Wyclyf but in one important matter he categorically disagreed. He rejected Wyclyf's teaching on the Eucharist, accepting completely the church's doctrine of transubstantiation. Realist philosophy was important in the formulation of his theological positions, and his competence in Scholastic exposition is evident in all his writings. From the excommunication of 1411 to his death four years later it was clear that his position and that of the established hierarchy were irreconcilable. In 1412 King Wenceslaus reluctantly had to withdraw his protection, and Hus went into exile to relieve the city of Prague from the interdict. It was during his exile that he finished his most important work, the De Ecclesia, very similar to a book under the same title by Wyclyf. He argued against the authority of the pope and the cardinalate over the church and their control of the means of salvation, basing his conclusions on the doctrine of predestination. "The church is the body of the predestinate." Inasmuch as only God knows who is predestinate, the pope's function and power are readily dispensable. The hierarchy could not tolerate so basic an attack on its existence. Hus appealed to the general council called for November 1414 at Constance and, receiving a safe-conduct from Emperor Sigismund, arrived in Constance on November 3. However, the safe-conduct was soon disregarded; Hus was imprisoned and interrogated at length. He asked simply to be shown from Scriptures or the Fathers where he was in error. The council demanded that he make a blanket recantation. No compromise was possible. Hus's concept of the church as the body of the predestinate, regardless of the decision of the pope and the hierarchy, was declared pure heresy. He was "relaxed to the secular arm" on July 6, 1415, and burned at the stake that morning. His martyrdom set off the Hussite Wars (14191434), which in turn isolated Bohemia from the rest of Europe for several generations. Hussitism, as it developed, took forms that Hus might not have approved.

Hus may not have been one of the leading minds of his century. On the other hand his commentary on the Sententiae of Peter Lombard, composed in 14071409, is a very impressive work and shows complete familiarity with the dominant currents of philosophical thought in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and an easy ability in the handling of contradictory arguments. His realism is confident and precise.

See also Augustinianism; Peter Lombard; Realism; Universals, A Historical Survey; Wyclyf, John.


works by hus

The early edition of his collected works (1558; reprinted in 1715) is still indispensable. Some of his works have been published in modern critical editions: Opera, edited by V. Flajšhans (Prague, 19031912), and De Ecclesia, edited by S. H. Thomson (Boulder, CO, 1956). Also indispensable is Documenta Mag. Joannis Hus, edited by Francis Palacký (1869), containing his correspondence and salient documents of his career.

The Letters of John Hus. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1972.

works on hus

There are several useful biographies in English, including D. S. Schaff, John Huss (New York: Scribners, 1915), and Francis Lützow, Life and Times of Master John Hus (London: Dent, 1909). Johann Loserth, Hus and Wiclif (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884), is bitterly anti-Hus, arguing that Hus borrowed all his ideas from Wyclyf. The classic study in Czech is by V. Novotný and V. Kybal, M.J. Hus, Život a Učení, 5 vols. (Prague: Laichter, 19191931). See also two more recent and important studies by P. de Vooght, L'hérésie de Jean Huss (Louvain, 1960) and Hussiana (Louvain: Bibliothèque de l'Université, Bureaux de la Revue, 1960).

Spinka, Matthew. John Hus' Concept of the Church. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Spinka, Matthew. John Hus: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

S. Harrison Thomson (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)