The life and times of Master John Hus/Chapter 11

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In all early accounts of the life of Hus we find in close connection with the name of the master that of Jerome of Prague. I have in former works[1] pointed out that the importance of Jerome as a Bohemian church-reformer has been greatly exaggerated. His connection with Hus was neither as close, nor as constant as was formerly believed. This is indeed natural, as Jerome was frequently absent from Bohemia for considerable periods during the last and most eventful years of the life of Hus. The career of Jerome contrasts in many ways with that of Hus. While the latter hardly ever left Bohemia before he undertook his fateful journey to Constance, Jerome led a roving life, never remaining long in one country, and sometimes departing in a manner that cannot be called honourable. There can be few greater contrasts than that between the saintly and truly evangelical simplicity of the character of Hus, and the sophistical insincerity of Jerome, who represents an early type of the humanist—with all the qualities and also all the faults that characterise the humanist. It is as a humanist also that he appealed to Poggio Bracciolini, whose letter to Bruni (Leonardo Aretino) describing the death of Jerome of Prague is one of the few documents connected with the Bohemian reformation which have become somewhat widely known. It is certain that Jerome was a man of great erudition, and the not very numerous contemporary notices referring to him lay great stress on his eloquence. On one occasion, when both he and Hus took part in one of the many disputations then customary at the University of Prague, Jerome’s speech quite outbalanced that of the greater man, and the enthusiastic young students conducted him home in triumph. Jerome’s inflammatory language was undoubtedly harmful to the cause of church-reform, as well as to Hus, whom many even at that time identified with the views of Jerome. Probably not unaware of this, Hus, when leaving for Constance, begged Jerome not to follow him there—a prayer that remained unnoticed by the latter.

Very little is known of the early years of Jerome. He is stated, though on no very certain authority, to have been of noble birth, and was probably somewhat younger than Hus. The frequently repeated statement that his family name was “Faulfiss” is founded on a passage of Ænaeas Sylvius’s Historia Bohemica, which was misunderstood. Ænaeas Sylvius mentions[2] among the Bohemian church-reformers a man genere nobilis, ex domo quam Putridi Piscis vocant. This was formerly erroneously believed to refer to Jerome. After beginning his studies at the University of Prague, where he did not attempt to obtain any ecclesiastical rank, Jerome proceeded to Oxford in 1398. He here zealously studied the works of Wycliffe, which greatly impressed him, and he made copies of the Dialogus and Trialogus. Always inclined to a roving life, Jerome did not remain long in England. He next visited Paris, and for some time pursued his studies at the university there. Here his outspoken advocacy of the views of Wycliffe already began to attract public attention, and he incurred the displeasure of Gerson, then rector of the university. It may here be noted that in distinction from Hus, who mainly strove to reform the clergy and laity of Bohemia and to lead them to a truly Christian life, Jerome delighted in the sophistical subtility that was fashionable among the theologians and other scholars of his age. A very vain man, Jerome probably rejoiced in the notoriety which he obtained in Paris. Yet he did not remain long in that city. Under what circumstances Jerome left Paris is not clearly known, and it should be stated that little is known of most of the events of his life. The friends of church-reform revered in him one who had had the honour of obtaining the friendship of Hus, and who at the end of his life met his doom bravely. They therefore preferred to palliate some not very creditable incidents in his life. The partisans of Rome, on the other hand, directed their attacks rather against Hus, whose truly saintly life rendered him a far more dangerous adversary than Jerome. It appears certain that from Paris Jerome proceeded to Köln—then a university town—and afterwards to Heidelberg. In 1403 he is stated to have visited Jerusalem. It is at any rate certain that he returned to Prague in 1407. He there immediately took part in the theological controversies that were then raging at the university. When, in 1408, a French embassy arrived at Kutna Hora,[3] then the residence of King Venceslas, and proposed that the papal schism should be terminated by the refusal of the temporal sovereigns to recognise in future either of the rival pontiffs, Venceslas summoned to Kutna Hora the most prominent members of the university, wishing to consult them. Among those summoned were Hus and Jerome. All the Bohemian magisters spoke strongly in favour of the French proposal, while the German members of the university strongly affirmed their allegiance to the Roman pontiff Gregory XII. The Bohemian magisters believed that they would be graciously received by the king, who was known to be favourable to the French proposals. The astute German rector of the university, Henning von Baltenhagen, however, diverted the king’s attention from the question of the schism, and denounced the Bohemian members of the university as men who held heretical opinions. The king became greatly incensed and threatened with death at the stake Hus and Jerome, who had acted as leaders of the Bohemian magisters.[4] As has been previously stated, the king soon changed his views and again became favourable to the party of church-reform. The antagonism between that party and the Archbishop of Prague, however, continued. Jerome continued to uphold his views with great violence, and here as in so many cases his attitude was injurious to the party of church-reform. It was probably in consequence of his violence that Jerome thought it advisable again to leave Prague in 1410. He resumed his wandering life, and appears first to have visited at Ofen the court of Sigismund, King of Hungary, and afterwards German emperor. Jerome, whose self-confidence—to put it mildly—was very great, appears in Hungary to have exercised the ecclesiastical functions, though he had never been ordained as a priest. It is certain that he preached before King Sigismund in the royal chapel at Ofen and violently denounced the rapacity of the clergy. He was not able, however, to remain long safely in Hungary. The Archbishop of Prague wrote to Sigismund denouncing Jerome as a heretic and adherent of Wycliffe. Jerome was imprisoned for a short time, but soon allowed to leave Hungary. After having perhaps again spent a short time at Prague—authentic evidence concerning Jerome’s many travels and adventures is very scant—he appeared in Vienna. He began lecturing at the university, and here also his eloquence attracted large audiences. His praise of Wycliffe, however, very soon again brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities. Representatives of the Bishop of Passau, to whose diocese Vienna then belonged, summoned Jerome before them and cautioned him. Jerome protested against the accusation of having spread heretical opinions, and declared himself ready to clear himself before an ecclesiastical tribunal that was to meet for the purpose of hearing his defence. Meanwhile, he promised on his oath not to leave Vienna without the permission of the ecclesiastical authorities.[5] Jerome, however, succeeded in escaping secretly from Vienna, and sought safety in the castle of Vottau in Moravia, which belonged to Lord John of Lichtenburg, an adherent of the cause of church-reform. From here he addressed to one of the priests at Vienna, to whom he had pledged his word that he would not leave that city, a letter that was certainly audacious, and that some writers have not hesitated to describe as impudent.[6] He declared that he was sure that the priest—whose name is not given—and his colleagues would excuse him for not heeding a promise which had been extorted, if they rightly considered the circumstances. He then proceeded to inform the priest, who was rector of the town of Laa in Austria, that he had on his journey visited his (the rector’s) church, accompanied by the schoolmaster and the town secretary, and ended by assuring him and his colleagues that he was ready to render them any service in his power. In consequence of his flight from Vienna, the representatives of the Bishop of Passau in that city pronounced the penalty of excommunication against Jerome.[7]

The seclusion of the castle of Vöttau soon became distasteful to the restless mind of Jerome, and we soon again find him in Prague. In the discussion that arose there in 1412 concerning the sale of indulgences,[8] Jerome took a prominent part. His speeches at the university obtained great success, particularly among the younger students. Shortly afterwards Jerome again thought it advisable to leave Prague in consequence of his participation in the foolish buffoonery organised by Lord Vok of Valdstyn. He now proceeded to Poland—it is said on the invitation of King Vladislav. His courtly manners, his striking appearance, and his great eloquence here also won him many friends, but he here also incurred the hostility of the Roman Church. He was particularly blamed for associating with Ruthenians, who were members of the Eastern Church. When the Bishop of Vilna expressed his disapproval Jerome declared that the schismatics and Ruthenians were good Christians, and he continued to assist at the services of the Greek Church.[9] During his stay in Northern Europe, Jerome received the news that Hus had been summoned to appear before the council at Constance He wrote to him advising him to do so, and added that he would himself proceed to Constance to assist Hus. A man of a vain and rather theatrical nature such as was Jerome felt tempted to appear before the council, where he would meet all the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries, and representatives of all the temporal sovereigns and universities of Europe. Hus vainly endeavoured to dissuade Jerome from coming to Constance; he none the less arrived there on April 14, 1415. Hus was at that time imprisoned at Gottlieben, but the Bohemian nobles who had accompanied him warned Jerome of the great danger which he encountered by remaining in the city. Jerome immediately decided to escape secretly from Constance,[10] and to return to Bohemia. He had already arrived at Hirschau, only twenty-five miles from the Bohemian frontier, when he was arrested by the Count Palatine John, who, acting under the orders of the Emperor Sigismund, conveyed him in fetters to Constance. He arrived there on May 23, and was immediately imprisoned. Hus appears to have been informed of these events, and though, speaking generally, he did not often allude to Jerome, he mentioned him several times in his last letters from prison. In a Bohemian letter, dated June 27, Hus writes with touching humility: “I will tell you that the Lord God knows why He defers my death and that of my dear brother, master Jerome; with regard to him, I hope that he will die holily and guiltlessly, and that he will bear himself and suffer more bravely than I, faint-hearted sinner that I am.”[11]

Hus was too holy and too saintly a man to be a good judge of character. Jerome at first indeed displayed great fortitude, but after the martyrdom of Hus his courage entirely failed him. Hoping to save his life and regain his liberty, he solemnly recanted all his former so-called heretical views. He did not even hesitate to blame severely his master Hus. He expressed his altered views in a memorable letter addressed to the Bohemian nobleman, Lacko of Kravar. The letter,[12] little known except in Bohemia, deserves translation here, as it throws a strong and strange light on the character of Jerome of Prague. The letter, dated September 12, 1415, runs thus: “My services to you, first of all, dear noble lord, and my particular benefactor. I bring to the knowledge of your lordship that I am alive and in good health at Constance. I hear that there is much excitement in Bohemia and Moravia because of the death of Master Hus, as if he had been unjustly condemned and brutally burnt. Therefore I write this of my own free will to you as to my lord, that you may know what you should do. Therefore I beg you through this letter, maintain nowise that wrong was done to him (Hus). According to my belief, that was done to him which had to be done. Do not believe, my lord, that I write this forced by necessity, nor that I deserted him through fear. I was long kept in prison and many great scholars endeavoured to lead me to other views, but they did not induce me to change my opinions. I also believed that injury had been done to him (Hus). But when the articles, because of which he was condemned, were shown to me, I examined them very carefully and discussed them repeatedly with more than one scholar. I then clearly understood that of these articles some were heretical, some false, others liable to cause scandal and harm. But I still continued doubtful, not thinking that these articles were by the deceased; for I believed that they contained only fragments and segments taken from the context of his speeches, and that his meaning had thus been altered.[13] And I began to wish for his books, and the council gave me some manuscripts written by his own hand that I might examine them. Then I, together with reverent masters of the holy scriptures, again examined the articles because of which he had been burnt, and compared them with the books written in his own handwriting; and I found in his books all the contents of the articles, fully and almost in the same words. Therefore I cannot do otherwise than justly declare that the deceased wrote many false and hurtful things. And I, who was his friend, and with my lips defended his honour against all, having found this, must decline to be the defender of such errors; this I have in lengthy speech declared before the whole council. Now having much work to do, I cannot write more extensively, but I think that with God’s help I shall write extensively about the events concerning me, and (these writings) I will send to your grace. And now I commend myself to your favour. Written by my own hand at Constance on the Thursday after the nativity of the mother of God.”

Dobrovsky, who discovered this important document in the Carthusian monastery of Dolein in Moravia, had at first some doubts as to its authenticity. Further research tends, however, to prove that Jerome certainly was the author of this mean and Judas-like letter. Dr. Flajshans, the most recent Bohemian writer on the life of Hus, admits the authenticity of Jerome’s letter, but suggests that he may have been forced to write it. There can at any rate only have been; moral persuasion, for there is no evidence whatever to prove that torture was applied to Jerome. That the true nature of Jerome should formerly have been so little known is undoubtedly a consequence of the tradition—which arose at a time when little was known of Bohemia—placing Jerome on the same, or nearly the same level as Hus. Even this short note on Jerome is, I think, sufficient to denote the world-wide difference that existed between the two men. Jerome, a man not exempt from the scepticism innate in the humanist, recanted for the purpose of saving his life and regaining his liberty.

As mentioned in his letter, Jerome shortly after Hus’s martyrdom, recanted the so-called heresies of which he had been accused. This was done by means of a statement which Jerome himself drew up and forwarded to the council. That assembly, however, distrusting his motives,[14] decided to demand a formal and solemn recantation in the presence of the council. Jerome consented and his public abjuration took place at a meeting of the council on Sepetmber 23, 1415.[15] Jerome first read out the statement which he had previously sent to the council, stating that knowing the true Catholic and apostolic faith, he anathematised all heresies, and in particular the teaching of John Wycliffe and John Hus as contained in their works, tracts and sermons before the clergy and the people. Having read out this statement, Jerome added that, had he formerly possessed the knowledge which he now had, he would never have maintained these errors. If then his liberty were restored to him he would, possessing the knowledge and instruction which he had now acquired, be ruled by these precepts, and offer his soul as a new one to the bride of Christ, that is to say the holy church. The council, however, evidently continued to distrust Jerome, and insisted on his making several further statements in which he anathematised a large number of articles derived from the writings of Wycliffe, which were all specially enumerated. He also took a solemn oath henceforth to remain faithful to the true doctrine of the Catholic Church, adding that, should he fail to do so, he accepted as deserved every punishment that might be inflicted on him; he lastly declared that he had made all these statements freely and spontaneously.

Jerome was not, however, liberated. He appears soon to have regretted his recantation. On October 29, 1415, Gerson read before the council a statement[16] treating of the recantation of heretics generally, but obviously aimed at Jerome. Among other matters, Gerson stated that one who had recanted heretical opinions must necessarily continue to be suspected of heresy. This declaration of Gerson produced a great impression on the mind of Jerome. He felt that he had failed to obtain the confidence of those to whose cause he had devoted himself. On the other hand, though he had not been freed, his renunciation had rendered his imprisonment less severe. It is therefore certain that echoes of the fierce resentment and religious enthusiasm prevailing in Bohemia must have reached him at Constance. He determined to act in a manner which practically involved suicide. It is scarcely necessary to mention how greatly classical learning and that of the stoics in particular has lauded suicide, as the door ever open, when all other issues are closed. These theories of the ancients must have appealed to an early humanist in a manner inconceivable to us whose ancestors have for five centuries been steeped in Greek and Latin culture.

Not long after Gerson’s declaration Jerome again gave utterance to statements that were considered heretical, thus as writes Theodoric Vrie,[17] scandalising the whole sacred council. When reproached by members of the council, he claimed a hearing before the full assembly. This was granted to him, and he appeared before the council on May 30, 1416. De Vrie notices his clear voice, pallid look and long black beard. Questioned by members of the council with regard to the heretical opinions which he had again expressed, Jerome answered in a very impressive manner. He declared that he by no means denied having recanted, but that he had never committed a greater sin and crime than when he wrote his recantation. Never also had he so greatly regretted any sin, as he now regretted having rejected the opinions of those holy men, John Wycliffe and John Hus, and having expressed his approval of the death of those good men. A new act of accusation against him was now drawn up[18] which contained principally the same accusations that had previously been brought against Jerome. Though he who wishes to study thoroughly the history of the Bohemian reformation must consider it his duty to wade through the contents of this ponderous document, I do not consider it necessary to refer to them here. The only interesting part of the document is that which refers to Jerome’s connection with the “orthodox” Ruthenians, as it bears witness to the intense animosity which then already existed between the Roman and Greek churches.

A very striking document concerning the last days of Jerome has fortunately been preserved and has rightly attracted great attention. I refer to Poggio Bracciolini’s letter to Bruni (Leonardo Aretino).[19] Though Poggio was present at the council as papal legate, his letter is written entirely in the manner of an Italian humanist, and its brilliancy and eloquence have bestowed on the memory of Jerome a not entirely merited aureole. Poggio by no means approved of Jerome as a church-reformer. He indeed states that if he had said anything contrary to the teaching of the church, he deserved punishment, and that the great talents that nature had given him were his misfortune. It was his eloquence and courage that appealed to the humanist. “I must confess,” writes Poggio of Jerome, “that I never saw one who in the eloquence of his defence came as near to the eloquence of the ancients, whom we admire so much.” Later on the Italian humanist writes: “His (Jerome’s) voice was sweet, clear and resounding. The dignity of the orator’s jests now expressed indignation, now moved to compassion, which, however, he neither claimed nor wished to obtain. He stood before his judges undaunted and intrepid. Not only not fearing, but even seeking death, he appeared as another Cato. He was indeed a man worthy of eternal memory in men’s minds.”

That such a mode of defence or rather defiance did not tend to conciliate the members of the council is evident. Jerome’s speech[20] sealed his fate. The prelates were no doubt particularly indignant at Jerome's allusions to the unedifying life then led by most members of the clergy.[21] Jerome was as a relapsed heretic condemned to death at the stake, and the sentence was carried out on May 30, immediately after his appearance before the council. Poggio thus describes his death: “With joyful brow, cheerful countenance, and elated face he went to his doom. He feared not the flames, not the torments, not death. None of the stoics ever suffered death with so constant and brave a mind, and he indeed seemed to desire it. When he had reached the spot where he was to die, he devested himself of his garments, and knelt down in prayer. Logs of wood were then piled about round his body, which they covered up to the breast. When they were lighted, he began to sing a hymn, which was interrupted by the smoke and the flames. This, however, is the greatest proof of the constancy of his mind, that when the lictor (town official or beadle) wished to light the stake behind his back, that he might not see it, he said: Come here and light the stake before my eyes, for if I had feared it I should never have come to this spot, as it was in my power to fly. Thus perished a man eminent beyond belief. I saw his end, I contemplated every one of his acts. Be it that he acted thus from faithlessness or from obstinacy, you could perceive that it was a man of the philosophic school who had perished. . . . Mutius did not allow his hand to be burnt with more brave a mind than this man his whole body. Socrates did not drink the poison as willingly as this man submitted himself to the flames.”[22]

Though Jerome perished by the same terrible death as Hus, nothing can be more different than the circumstances which preceded the deaths of the two men. Hus, inspired here as everywhere by a truly Christian feeling, was ready to render up his life should his duty as a Christian oblige him to do so. Meanwhile, he “guarded it as God’s high gift from scathe and wrong.” Thus he refused to go to Rome, where certain death awaited him, because he believed that his conscience then ordered him to live. He very clearly expressed his views on this subject in a passage in the treatise De Ecclesia, which I have previously quoted. He did not heed the accusation of cowardice, which was in consequence raised against him by his enemies, and which has been repeated by some of his modern detractors. Similarly, he did not hesitate to leave Prague when his life was menaced there by the Germans, who were determined to destroy the Bethlehem chapel. His difficulty of deciding what course to adopt in this case is shown by many passages of his writings belonging to this period. When, on the other hand, the council demanded that he should recant heretical opinions which he had never held, he refused and calmly and unhesitatingly laid down his life. He well knew that had he himself admitted that he had been a heretic, his life-work for the church and the state of Bohemia would have been undone. Jerome, on the other hand, did not hesitate both at Vienna and at Constance to preserve his life by means that can hardly be called otherwise than dishonourable. When life, or at least the pleasures and interests of life, appeared to vanish, he faced and certainly bravely faced death.

  1. Bohemia, a Historical Sketch, pp. 137, 138, and A History of Bohemian Literature, p. 141.
  2. Aeneae Silvii Historia Bohemica, chap. xxxv.
  3. In German, Kuttenberg.
  4. See Chapter IV
  5. De non recedendo de Vienna sine nostra licentia speciali praestitit juramentu” (Letter of Andrew of Grillenberg, Canon of Passau, to Archbishop Zbynek of Prague. Palacky, Documenta).
  6. Printed by Von der Hardt, T. iv. p. 683.
  7. This document is printed in an abridged form by Palacky, Documenta.
  8. See Chapter V.
  9. Great stress was laid on this accusation at Jerome’s trial at Constance. In the act of accusation—printed by Von der Hardt, T. iv. p. 679—it is stated: (Jerome) “dixit expresse quod praedicti schismatici et Rutheni essent boni Christiani. Quodque idem Dominus Episcopus eidem Hieronymo in faciem suam tunc restitit dicens: Quod non diceret eos esse bonos Christianos. Ipse vero Hieronymus in eisdem suis erroribus permansit eosdem Ruthenos et fidem ipsorum perversam approbando.
  10. It is this secret escape of Jerome from Constance which undoubtedly supplied Richenthal with a foundation for his totally untrue tale that Hus had attempted to escape from Constance in disguise.
  11. Printed by Mares, Listy Husovy (Letters of Hus), p. 228.
  12. This letter written in Bohemian, was first printed by Dobrovsky in his Geschichte der böhmischen Sprache und Literatur. It was subsequently reprinted in the collection entitled Vybor z Literatury ceske (Selections from Bohemian Literature), and in Palacky, Documenta.
  13. It has been previously shown that the council did actually proceed in this manner for the purpose of convicting Hus of heresy.
  14. See the statement in Von der Hardt, T. iv. p. 497: “Pellectus per concilium ad recantandum non ex animo sed metu supplicii ac spe evadendi consensit tandem, formula a se conscripta et in congregatione solemni praelecta.
  15. Von der Hardt (T. iv., pp. 499-514) gives a full account of the proceedings on that day and prints in full the documents referred to above.
  16. De protestatione et revocatione in negotio fidei” (printed by Von der Hardt, T. iii. pp. 39–52)
  17. Von der Hardt, T. iii., p. 182.
  18. Ibid. T. iv., pp. 634–691.
  19. Poggii Florentini de Hieronymi Haeritici obitu et supplicio narratio.” (It has been frequently printed, by Von der Hardt, by Freherus—scriptores rerum Bohemicarum, together with Ænaeas Sylvius, Historia Bohemica, by Palacky, Documenta, etc.)
  20. Printed in full in Von der Hardt’s account of the trial (T. iv.)
  21. Jerome stated: “Cum patrimonia ecclesiarum primum deberentur pauperibus et advenis ac demum fabricis, indignum videri, dispendi illa meretricibus, conviviis, equorum copiae aut canum saginae, cultui vestimentorum et aliis rebus indignis religione Christi” (Palacky, Documenta).
  22. Though Poggio Bracciolini’s account of the death of Jerome, of which he was an eye-witness, is somewhat rhetorical, yet it can on the whole be considered as trustworthy. Other writers describe the event similarly, though they lay less stress on the heroism of Jerome. Only Richenthal, not a very reliable authority, states that Jerome “screamed lowdly” while in the flames.