In This Article Jan Hus

  • Introduction
  • Historiography

Renaissance and Reformation Jan Hus
by
Craig D. Atwood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0024

Introduction

Jan Hus is the most famous leader of the Czech Reformation of the 15th century and one of the most prominent figures executed as a religious dissident in the early modern period. Hus was most likely born in the town of Husinec in Bohemia around 1372, but little is known about his life prior to his entry into University of Prague in 1390. Hus became a master of the university in 1396 and was a proponent of John Wyclif’s ecclesiastical and political theories. After King Vaclav of Bohemia granted control of the university to the pro-Wyclif Czechs on the faculty in 1409, Hus was elected rector. Most of his work focused on the church. He became a priest in 1401 and was soon appointed the preacher in the Bethlehem Chapel, a private chapel established to promote religious reform. Hus was a popular preacher who was openly critical of priests and bishops who violated their vows of poverty and chastity. One of his most important works was on the subject of simony, but Hus fell out of favor with the archbishop and king when he attacked the sale of indulgences. In 1412 three of his students were executed for protesting against indulgences, and Hus was forbidden to preach. That year he was forced into exile in southern Bohemia where he wrote several of his most influential works, including his opus De ecclesia (On the church). He drew heavily on Wyclif’s work of the same name, but Loserth’s thesis that Hus simply plagiarized Wyclif has been successfully challenged by most 20th-century scholars. Hus argued that since the institutional church is an imperfect reflection of the true invisible church, interdicts and excommunications do not affect a person’s salvation. Hus openly questioned the authority of the papacy, especially in light of the papal schism that began in 1378, and he insisted that popes are the vicars of Christ only to the degree that they lived according to the teaching and example of Jesus. He was invited to discuss his views at the Council of Constance (1414–1417), which condemned him on thirty points of heresy. He and his writings were burned in 1415. Four years later his followers rebelled against Emperor Sigismund, launching thirty years of warfare in Bohemia. Hus has been variously interpreted as a heresiarch, patriotic hero, leader of a revolution, a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and a medieval church reformer. A separate article addresses the Czech Reformation, including the Hussite revolution.

Hus in Context

Hus was more than a philosopher and theologian; he was the leader of a popular revolt against certain aspects of feudal culture. Some of the most useful studies of Hus and the Czech Reformation in the late 20th century have been part of larger studies of late medieval and early modern religious and social dissent. One of the persistent questions in Hus scholarship is whether he should be viewed in terms of medieval reform movements, late medieval religious dissent, or as an early Protestant reformer. An argument can be made for viewing the entire early modern period of 1400–1750 as an age of religious reform within Western Christianity. In English language scholarship, much of the interest has been on the role of Wyclif’s thought in the Czech Reformation, but in German and Czech scholarship the interest has focused on late medieval society in central Europe. Much of this research was informed by 20th-century social and political histories of feudalism and the early modern period. These include examinations of the role of the nobility in Bohemia in the 15th century and the role that literacy played in political and religious revolt.

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