Chapter 23 - JOHN HUSS (AD 1369-1414)

It would seem that after a time Wyclif's opinions almost died out in England. But meanwhile they, or opinions very like them, were eagerly taken up in Bohemia. If we look at the map of Europe, we might think that no country was less likely than Bohemia to have anything to do with England; for it lies in the midst of other countries, far away from all seas, and with no harbours to which English ships could make their way. And besides this, the people are of a different race from any that have ever settled in this country, or have helped to make the English nation, and their language has no likeness to ours. But it so happened that Richard II of England married the Princess Anne, granddaughter of the blind king who fell at Cressy, and daughter of the emperor Charles IV, who usually lived in Bohemia. And when Queen Anne of England died, and the Bohemian ladies and servants of her court went back to their own country, they took with them some of Wyclif's writings, which were readily welcomed there; for some of the Bohemian clergy had already begun a reform in the Church, and Wyclif's name was well known on account of his writings of another kind.

Among those who thus became acquainted with Wyclif's opinions was a young man named John Huss. He had been an admirer of Wyclif's philosophical works; but when he first met with his reforming books, he was so little taken with them that he wished they were thrown into the Moldau, the river which runs through Prague, the chief city of Bohemia. But Huss soon came to think differently, and heartily took up almost all Wyclif's doctrines.

Huss made many enemies among the clergy by attacking their faults from the pulpit of a chapel called Bethlehem, where he was preacher. He was, however, still so far in favour with the archbishop of Prague, that he was employed by him, together with some others, to inquire into a pretended miracle, which drew crowds of pilgrims to seek for cures at a place called Wilsnack, in the north of Germany. But he afterwards fell out of favour with the archbishop who had appointed him to this work, and he was still less liked by later archbishops.

From time to time some doctrines which were said to be Wyclif's were condemned at Prague. Huss usually declared that Wyclif had been wrongly understood, and that his real meaning was true and innocent. But at length a decree was passed that all Wyclif's books should be burnt (AD 1410), and thereupon a grand bonfire was made in the courtyard of the archbishop's palace, while all the church bells of the city were tolled as at a funeral. But as some copies of the books escaped the flames, it was easy to make new copies from these.

Huss was excommunicated, but he still went on teaching. In 1412, Pope John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against Ladislaus, King of Naples, with whom he had quarrelled, and ordered that it should be preached, and that money should be collected for it all through Latin Christendom. Huss and his chief friend, whose name was Jerome, set themselves against this with all their might. They declared it to be unchristian that a crusade should be proclaimed against a Christian prince, and that the favours of the Church should be held out as a reward for paying money or for shedding of blood. One day, as a preacher was inviting people to buy his indulgences (as they were called) for the forgiveness of sins, he was interrupted by three young men, who told him that what he said was untrue, and that Master Huss had taught them better. The three were seized, and were condemned to die; and, although it would seem that a promise was afterwards given that their lives should be spared, the sentence of death was carried into effect. The people were greatly provoked by this, and when the executioner, after having cut off the heads of the three, proclaimed (as was usual), "Whosoever shall do the like, let him look for the like!" a cry burst forth from the multitude around, "We are ready to do and to suffer the like." Women dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood of the victims, and treasured it up as a precious relic. Some of the crowd even licked the blood. The bodies were carried off by the people, and were buried in Bethlehem chapel; and Huss and others spoke of the three as martyrs.

By this affair his enemies were greatly provoked. Fresh orders were sent from Rome for the destruction of Wyclif's books, and for uttering all the heaviest sentences of the Church against Huss himself. He therefore left Prague for a time, and lived chiefly in the castles of Bohemian noblemen who were friendly to him, writing busily as well as preaching against what he supposed to be the errors of the Roman Church.

We shall hear more of Huss by-and-by.