From Hus to Havel
Jan Hus’s Lasting Impact on Czech Culture and National Identity
On 6 July, Czechs across the country will celebrate Jan Hus Day. While many will spend the holiday enjoying a day off, it is worth remembering and commemorating the famous theologian and church reformer who inspired generations of social activists after his time.
When polled in 2015 by public radio broadcaster Český rozhlas, Czechs voted Jan Hus the greatest hero of the Czech nation. Those unfamiliar with Czech history may be surprised that present-day voters would nominate a figure from the Middle Ages. However, Hus’s lasting impact on Czech culture and national identity makes his life story still relevant today.
Jan Hus was born into a poor family in Husinec, Bohemia, around 1370. Despite coming from humble beginnings, he studied theology at the University of Prague and later served as dean of the philosophical faculty and then rector of the university. During his studies, Hus read the works of English theologian John Wycliffe, who had made proposals to reform the Catholic clergy. These works influenced Hus, who began to deliver his sermons in Czech, rather than in Latin as was customary, and to criticise aspects of the Catholic clergy.
At this time, the Roman Catholic Church was split by the Papal Schism, a period in which the papal jurisdiction was divided between Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon. The clerical estate owned half of all land in Bohemia and collected taxes from landowning peasants. One of the practices of the Catholic Church that Hus denounced publicly was the selling of indulgences, which churchgoers paid in order to be pardoned for their sins. The sale of indulgences was unpopular in Bohemia, but had been approved by King Wenceslas IV, who shared in the proceeds. Ultimately, Hus’s condemnation of this practice lost the support of King Wenceslas IV and shortly thereafter his heresy trial was revived by the Roman Curia, the administrative body that oversaw church affairs.
In 1412, Hus was excommunicated from The Church and sought refuge in southern Bohemia. He spent the next two years writing works such as De ecclesia (The Church) and a collection of sermons entitled Postilla, largely in response to the treatises issued by his adversaries. During this time, the Western Schism continued without interruption and Hus remained in Bohemia, until Emperor Sigismund saw an opportunity to restore the church’s unity. Sigismund called the Council of Constance to put an end to the schism and invited Hus to Constance in Germany to explain his views, promising him a safe-conduct for the journey.
Shortly after arriving in Constance, however, Hus was arrested, placed in confinement (despite protests by Sigismund), and later tried before the Council of Constance as a heretic. The council urged him to recant, but Hus refused and in Sigismund’s absence, the council sentenced him to be burned at the stake on 6 July 1415, the date Czechs now commemorate as Jan Hus Day.
Following Hus’s death, his followers, known as Hussites, published the Four Articles of Prague, a formal protest which stipulated freedom of preaching; communion in both kinds (reception of both the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist); poverty of the clergy and expropriation of church property; and the punishment of notorious sinners. In 1420, Sigismund waged a crusade against the Hussites. The Hussite union, which included the municipalities of Prague and other Bohemian cities, deposed Sigismund and repelled various attacks against them over the next several decades.
In 1431, the Roman Catholic Church agreed to negotiate with the Hussites at the Council of Basel, where the Hussites were granted communion in both kinds, one of their stipulations in the Four Articles of Prague. However, the peace negotiations resulted in the Hussites breaking into various factions, one of which established independence under the name Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren). By 1467, the Unitas Fratrum reformation movement began in Bohemia, where it remained in contact with Lutheran and Reformed Protestant movements happening across Europe. Eventually, Protestant barons were defeated by the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 during the Thirty Years’ War.
The history of Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation is largely one of papal power struggles and conflict among the Catholic clergy. But it is his stance against authority and his unabated commitment to his beliefs that has had profound effects on Czech culture and national identity. For example, one of the most important cultural contributions Hus made was to the Czech written language. It is believed that he authored De Orthographia Bohemica, the first known document in which the spelling of a Slavic language is codified and diacritics, such as háček, are introduced.
Hus’s life story has also been a subject of fascination for many famous Czechs, including Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of the independent Czechoslovak Republic. Indeed, the resilience of the Hussites against outside forces served as inspiration for Masaryk’s bid for Czechoslovak independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his famous Geneva speech, delivered on the 500-year anniversary of Hus’s death, Masaryk said that “there was no peace between the Czechs and the Austrians,” demarcating Czechs as a nation of independent people.
Hus wrote, “Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death,” an ideal that is believed to have inspired the Czech national motto “Pravda vítězí” (“Truth prevails”). Ultimately, Hus’s commitment to his truth and to the interests of the Czech common folk cements his place in history as a great social activist and reformer. As Václav Havel said in his 1999 speech at the International Symposium on the Master Jan Hus, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Everything points to the fact that the great contribution of Jan Hus to European history is that of the principle of individual accountability. Truth for him was not merely a freely transferable piece of information, but a life attitude, obligation, and entitlement.” In this way, the story of Jan Hus continues to inspire Czechs to embody the loftiest human ideals and also serves as a bright example for humankind.
By Anna West