Vol. 6, Chapter V (Cont’d) – Jerome of Prag


A year after Huss’ martyrdom, on May 30, 1416, his friend Jerome of Prag was condemned by the council and also suffered at the stake. He shared Huss’ enthusiasm for Wyclif, was perhaps his equal in scholarship, but not in steadfast constancy. Huss’ life was spent in Prag and its vicinity. Jerome travelled in Western Europe and was in Prag only occasionally. Huss left quite a body of writings, Jerome, none.

Born of a good family at Prag, Jerome studied in his native city, and later at Oxford and Paris. At Oxford he became a student and admirer of Wyclif’s writings, two of which, the Trialogus and the Dialogus, he carried with him back to Bohemia not later than 1402. In Prag, he defended the English doctor as a holy man “whose doctrines were more worthy of acceptance than Augustine himself,” stood with Huss in the contest over the rights of the Bohemian nation, and joined him in attacking the papal indulgences, 1412.

Soon after arriving in Constance, Huss wrote to John of Chlum not to allow Jerome on any account to go to join him. In spite of this warning, Jerome set out and reached Constance April 4th, 1415, but urged by friends he quit the city. He was seized at Hirschau, April 15, and taken back in chains. There is every reason for supposing he and Huss did not see one another, although Huss mentions him in a letter within a week before his death, expressing the hope that he would die holy and blameless and be of a braver spirit in meeting pain than he was. Huss had misjudged himself. In the hour of grave crisis he proved constant and heroic, while his friend gave way.

On Sept. 11, 1415, Jerome solemnly renounced his admiration for Wyclif and professed accord with the Roman church and the Apostolic see and, twelve days later, solemnly repeated his abjuration in a formula prepared by the council.

Release from prison did not follow. It was the council’s intention that Jerome should sound forth his abjuration as loudly as possible in Bohemia, and write to Wenzel, the university and the Bohemian nobles; but he disappointed his judges. Following Gerson’s lead, the council again put the recusant heretic on trial. The sittings took place in the cathedral, May 23 and 26, 1416. The charge of denying transubstantiation Jerome repudiated, but he confessed to having done ill in pledging himself to abandon the writings and teachings of that good man John Wyclif, and Huss. Great injury had been done to Huss, who had come to the council with assurance of safe-conduct. Even Judas or a Saracen ought under such circumstances to be free to come and go and to speak his mind freely.

On May 30, Jerome was again led into the cathedral. The bishop of Lodi ascended the pulpit and preached a sermon, calling upon the council to punish the prisoner, and counselling that against other such heretics, if there should be any, any witnesses whatever should be allowed to testify, — ruffians, thieves and harlots. The sermon being over, Jerome mounted a bench — bancum ascendens — and made a defence whose eloquence is attested by Poggio and others who were present. Thereupon, the holy synod “pronounced him a follower of Wyclif and Huss, and adjudged him to be cast off as a rotten and withered branch” — palmitem putridum et aridum.

Jerome went out from the cathedral wearing a cheerful countenance. A paper cap was put on his head, painted over with red devils. No sentence of deposition was necessary or ceremony of disrobing, for the condemned man was merely a laic. He died on the spot where Huss suffered. As the wood was being piled around him, he sang the Easter hymn, salva festa dies, Hail, festal day. The flames were slow in putting an end to his miseries as compared with Huss. His ashes were thrown into the Rhine. And many learned people wept, the chronicler Richental says, that he had to die, for he was almost more learned than Huss. After his death, the council joined his name with the names of Wyclif and Huss as leaders of heresy.

Poggio Bracciolini’s description of Jerome’s address in the cathedral runs thus: — 

It was wonderful to see with what words, with what eloquence, with what arguments, with what countenance and with what composure, Jerome replied to his adversaries, and how fairly he put his case …. He advanced nothing unworthy of a good man, as though he felt confident — as he also publicly asserted — that no just reason could be found for his death …. Many persons he touched with humor, many with satire, many very often he caused to laugh in spite of the sad affair, jesting at their reproaches …. He took them back to Socrates, unjustly condemned by his fellow-citizens. Then he mentioned the captivity of Plato, the flight of Anaxagoras, the torture of Zeno and the unjust condemnation of many other Pagans …. Thence he passed to the Hebrew examples, first instancing Moses, the liberator of his people, Joseph, sold by his brethren, Isaiah, Daniel, Susannah …. Afterwards, coming down to John the Baptist and then to the Saviour, he showed how, in each case, they were condemned by false witnesses and false judges …. Then proceeding to praise John Huss, who had been condemned to be burnt, he called him a good man, just and holy, unworthy of such a death, saying that he himself was prepared to go to any punishment whatsoever …. He said that Huss had never held opinions hostile to the Church of God, but only against the abuses of the clergy, against the pride, the arrogance and the pomp of prelates …. He displayed the greatest cleverness, — for, when his speech was often interrupted with various disturbances, he left no one unscathed but turned trenchantly upon his accusers and forced them to blush, or be still …. For 340 days he lay in the bottom of a foul, dark tower. He himself did not complain at the harshness of this treatment, but expressed his wonder that such inhumanity could be shown him. In the dungeon, he said, he had not only no facilities for reading, but none for seeing …. He stood there fearless and unterrified, not alone despising death but seeking it, so that you would have said he was another Cato. O man, worthy of the everlasting memory of men! I praise not that which he advanced, if anything contrary to the institutions of the Church; but I admire his learning, his eloquence, his persuasiveness of speech, his adroitness in reply …. Persevering in his errors, he went to his fate with joyful and willing countenance, for he feared not the fire nor any kind of torture or death …. When the executioners wished to start the fire behind his back that he might not see it, he said, ‘Come here and light the fire in front of me. If I had been afraid of it, I should never have come to this place.’ In this way a man worthy, except in respect of faith, was burnt …. Not Mutius himself suffered his arm to burn with such high courage as did this man his whole body. Nor did Socrates drink the poison so willingly as he accepted the flames.

Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pius II., bore similar testimony to the cheerfulness which Huss and Jerome displayed in the face of death, and said that they went to the stake as to a feast and suffered death with more courage than any philosopher.


47. The Hussites

The news of Huss’ execution stirred the Bohemian nation to its depths. Huss was looked upon as a national hero and a martyr. The revolt, which followed, threatened the very existence of the papal rule in Bohemia. No other dissenting movement of the Middle Ages assumed such formidable proportions. The Hussites, the name given to the adherents of the new body, soon divided into two organized parties, the Taborites and the Calixtines or Utraquists. They agreed in demanding the distribution of the cup to the laity. A third body, the Unitas Fratrum, or Bohemian Brethren, originated in the middle of the 15th century, forty years after Huss’ death. When it became known that Huss had perished in the flames, the populace of Prag stoned the houses of the priests unfriendly to the martyr; and the archbishop himself was attacked in his palace, and with difficulty eluded the popular rage by flight. King Wenzel at first seemed about to favor the popular party.

The Council of Constance, true to itself, addressed a document to the bishop and clergy of Prag, designating Wyclif, Huss and Jerome as most unrighteous, dangerous and shameful men, and calling upon the Prag officials to put down those who were sowing their doctrines.

The high regard in which Huss was held found splendid expression at the Bohemian diet, Sept. 2, 1415, when 452 nobles signed an indignant remonstrance to the council for its treatment of their “most beloved brother,” whom they pronounced to be a righteous and catholic man, known in Bohemia for many years by his exemplary life and honest preaching of the law of the Gospel. They concluded the document by announcing their intention to defend, even to the effusion of blood, the law of Christ and his devoted preachers. Three days later, the nobles formed a league which was to remain in force for six years, in which they bound themselves to defend the free preaching of the Gospel on their estates, and to recognize the authority of prelates only so far as they acted according to the Scriptures.

To this manifesto the council, Feb. 20, 1416, replied by citing the signers to appear before it within 50 days, on pain of being declared contumacious.

Huss’ memory also had honor at the hands of the university, which, on May 23, 1416, sent forth a communication addressed to all lands, eulogizing him as in all things a master whose life was without an equal. In omnibus Magister vitae sine pari.

Upon the dissolution of the council, Martin V., who, as a member of the curia, had excommunicated Huss, did not allow the measures to root out Hussitism drag. In his bull Inter cunctos, Feb. 22, 1418, he ordered all of both sexes punished as heretics who maintained “the pestilential doctrine of the heresiarchs, John Wyclif, John Huss and Jerome of Prag.” Wenzel announced his purpose to obey the council, but many of his councillors left the court, including the statesman, Nicolas of Pistna, and the military leader, the one-eyed John Zizka. The popular excitement ran so high that, during a Hussite procession, the crowd rushed into the council-house and threw out of the window seven of the councillors who had dared to insult the procession.

Affairs entered a new stage with Wenzel’s death, 1419. With considerable unanimity the Bohemian nobles acceded to his successor Sigismund’s demand that the cup be withheld from the laity, but the nation at large did not acquiesce, and civil war followed. Convents and churches were sacked. Sigismund could not make himself master of his kingdom, and an event occurred during his visit in Breslau which deepened the feeling against him. A merchant, John Krasa, asserting on the street the innocence of Huss, was dragged at a horse’s tail to the stake and burnt. Hussite preachers inveighed against Sigismund, calling him the dragon of the Apocalypse.

Martin V. now summoned Europe to a crusade against Bohemia, offering the usual indulgences, as Innocent III. had done two centuries before, when he summoned a crusade against the Cathari in Southern France. In obedience to the papal mandate, 150,000 men gathered from all parts of Europe. All the horrors of war were perpetrated, and whole provinces desolated. Five times the holy crusaders entered the land of Huss, and five times they were beaten back. In 1424 the Hussites lost their bravest military leader, John Zizka, but in 1427, under his successor, Procopius Rasa, called the Great, the most influential priest of Prag, they took the offensive and invaded Germany.

While they were winning victories over the foreign intruders, the Hussites were divided among themselves in regard to the extent to which the religious reformation should be carried. The radical party, called the Taborites, from the steep hill Tabor, 60 miles south of Prag, on which they built a city, rejected transubstantiation, the worship of saints, prayers for the dead, indulgences and priestly confession and renounced oaths, dances and other amusements. They admitted laymen, including women, to the office of preaching, and used the national tongue in all parts of the public service. Zizka, their first leader, held the sword in the spirit of one of the Judges. After his death, the stricter wing of the Taborites received the name of the Orphans.

The moderate party was called now Pragers, from the chief seat of their influence, now Calixtines, — from the word calix or cup, — or Utraquists from the expression sub utraque specie, “under both forms,” from their insisting upon the administration of the cup to the laity. The University of Prag took sides with the Calixtines and, in 1420, the four so-called Prag articles were adopted. This compact demanded the free preaching of the Gospel, the distribution of the cup to the laity, the execution of punishment for mortal sins by the civil court, and the return of the clergy to the practice of Apostolic poverty. The Calixtines confined the use of Czech at the church service to the Scripture readings.

After the disastrous rout of the Catholic army, led by Cardinal Cesarini at Tauss, Aug. 14, 1431, the history of the Bohemian movement passed into a third stage, marked by the negotiations begun by the Council of Basel and the almost complete annihilation of the Taborite party. It was a new spectacle for an ecumenical council to treat with heretics as with a party having rights. Unqualified submission was the demand which the Church had heretofore made. On Oct. 15, 1431, the council invited the Bohemians to a conference and promised delegates safe-conduct. This promise assured them that neither guile nor deceit would be resorted to on any ground whatsoever, whether it be of authority or the privileges of canon law or of the decisions of the Councils of Constance and Siena or any other council. Three hundred delegates appointed by the Bohemian diet appeared in Basel. On the way, at Eger, and in the presence of the landgrave of Brandenburg and John, duke of Bavaria, they laid down their own terms, which were sent ahead and accepted by the council. These terms, embodied in thirteen articles, dealt with the method of carrying on the negotiations, the cessation of the interdict during the sojourn of the delegates in the Swiss city and the privilege of practising their own religious rites. The leaders of the Bohemian delegation were John Rokyzana of the Utraquist party and the Taborite, Procopius. Rokyzana was the pastor of the Teyn Church in Prag.

The council recognized the austere principles of the Hussites by calling upon the Basel authorities to prohibit all dancing and gambling and the appearance of loose women on the streets. On their arrival, Jan. 4, 1433, the Bohemians were assigned to four public taverns, and a large supply of wine and provisions placed at their disposal. Delegations from the council and from the city bade them formal welcome. They followed their own rituals, the Taborites arousing most curiosity by the omission of all Latin from the services and discarding altar and priestly vestments.

On the floor of the council, the Bohemians coupled praise with the names of Wyclif and Huss, and would tolerate no references to themselves as heretics. The discussions were prolonged to a wearisome length, some of their number occupying as much as two or three days in their addresses. Among the chief speakers was the Englishman, Peter Payne, whose address consumed three days. The final agreement of four articles, known as the Campactata, was ratified by deputies of the council and of the three Bohemian parties giving one another the hand. The main article granted the use of the cup to the laity, where it was asked, but on condition that the doctrine be inculcated that the whole Christ is contained in each of the elements. The use of the cup was affirmed to be wholesome to those partaking worthily. The Compacts were ratified by the Bohemian diet of Iglau, July 5, 1436. All ecclesiastical censures were lifted from Bohemia and its people. The abbot of Bonnival, addressing the king of Castile upon the progress of the Council of Basel, declared that the Bohemians at the start were like ferocious lions and greedy wolves, but through the mercy of Christ and after much discussion had been turned into the meekest lambs and accepted the four articles.

Although technically the question was settled, the Taborites were not satisfied. The Utraquists approached closer to the Catholics. Hostilities broke out between them, and after a wholesale massacre in Prag, involving, it is said, 22,000 victims, the two parties joined in open war. The Taborites were defeated in the battle at Lipan, May 30, 1434, and Procopius slain. This distinguished man had travelled extensively, going as far as Jerusalem before receiving priestly orders. He was a brilliant leader, and won many successes in Austria, Moravia and Hungary. The power of the Taborites was gone, and in 1452 they lost Mt. Tabor, their chief stronghold.

The emperor now entered upon possession of his Bohemian kingdom and granted full recognition to the Utraquist priests, promising to give his sanction to the elections of bishops made by the popular will and to secure their ratification by the pope. Rokyzana was elected archbishop of Prag by the Bohemian diet of 1435. Sigismund died soon after, 1437, and the archbishop never received papal recognition, although he administered the affairs of the diocese until his death, 1471.

Albert of Austria, son-in-law of Sigismund and an uncompromising Catholic, succeeded to the throne. In 1457 George Podiebrad, a powerful noble, was crowned by Catholic bishops, and remained king of Bohemia till 1471. He was a consistent supporter of the national party which held to the Compactata. The papal authorities, refusing to recognize Rokyzana, despatched emissaries to subdue the heretics by the measures of preaching and miracles. The most noted among them were Fra Giacomo and John of Capistrano. John, whose miraculous agency equalled his eloquence, succumbed to a fever after the battle of Belgrade.

In 1462 the Compacts were declared void by Pius II., who threatened with excommunication all priests administering the cup to the laity. George Podiebrad resisted the papal bull. Four years later, a papal decree sought to deprive that “son of perdition” of his royal dignity, and summoned the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus, to take his crown. Matthias accepted the responsibility, the cross and invaded Moravia. The war was still in progress when Podiebrad died. By the peace of Kuttenberg 1485 and an agreement made in 1512, the Utraquists preserved their right to exist at the side of their Catholic neighbors. Thus they continued till 1629, when the right of communion in both kinds was withdrawn by Ferdinand II. of Austria, whose hard and bloody hand put an end to all open dissent in Bohemia.

The third outgrowth from the Hussite stock, the Unitas Fratrum, commonly called the Bohemian Brethren, has had an honorable and a longer history than the Taborites and Calixtines. This body still has existence in the Moravians, whose missionary labors, with Herrnhut as a centre, have stirred all Protestant Christendom. Its beginnings are uncertain. It appears distinctly for the first time in 1457, and continued to grow till the time of the Reformation. Its synod of 1467 was attended by 60 Brethren. The members in Prag were subjected to persecution, and George Podiebrad gave them permission to settle on the estate, Lititz, in the village corporation of Kunwald. Martin, priest at Koeniggraetz, with a part of his flock affiliated himself with them, and other congregations were soon formed. They were a distinct type, worshipping by themselves, and did not take the sacraments from the Catholic priests. They rejected oaths, war and military service and resorted, apparently from the beginning, to the lot. They also rejected the doctrine of purgatory and all services of priests of unworthy life.

The exact relation which this Hussite body bore to the Taborites and to the Austrian Waldenses is a matter which has called forth much learned discussion, and is still involved in uncertainty. But there seems to be no doubt that the Bohemian Brethren were moved by the spirit of Huss, and also that in their earliest period they came into contact with the Waldenses. Pressing up from Italy, the followers of Peter Valdez had penetrated into Bohemia in the later part of the 14th century, and had Frederick Reiser as their leader. This Apostolic man was present at the Council of Basel, 1435, and styled himself, “the bishop of the faithful in the Romish church, who reject the donation of Constantine.” With Anna Weiler, he suffered at the stake in Strassburg, 1458. One of the earliest names associated with the Bohemian Brethren is the name of Peter Chelcicky, a marked religious personage in his day in Bohemia. We know he was a man of authority among them, but little more.

Believing that the papal priesthood had been corrupt since Constantine’s donation to Sylvester, the Brethren, at the synod of 1467, chose Michael, pastor of Senftenburg, “presbyter and bishop,” and sent him to the Waldensian bishop Stephen for sanction or consecration. It seems probable that Stephen had received orders at Basel from bishops in the regular succession. On his return, Michael consecrated Matthias of Kunwald, while he himself, for a time and for a reason not known, was not officially recognized. The synod had resorted to the lot and placed the words “he is” on 3 out of 12 ballots, 9 being left blank. Matthias chose one of the printed ballots. Matthias, in turn, ordained Thomas and Elias bishops, men who had drawn the other two printed ballots.

By 1500, the Bohemian Brethren numbered 200,000 scattered in 300 or 400 congregations in Bohemia and Moravia. They had their own confession, catechism and hymnology. Of the 60 Bohemian books printed 1500-1510, 50 are said to have been by members of the sect. A new period in their history was introduced by Lucas of Prag, d. 1528, a voluminous writer. He gave explanations of the Brethren’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to Luther. Brethren, including Michael Weiss, the hymnwriter, visited the German Reformer, and in 1521 he had in his possession their catechism.

The merciless persecutions of the Brethren and the other remaining Hussite sectarists were opened under the Austrian rule of Ferdinand I. in 1549, and continued, with interruptions, till the Thirty Years’ War when, under inspiration of the Jesuits, the government resorted to measures memorable for their heartlessness to blot out heresy from Bohemia and Moravia.

The Church of the Brethren had a remarkable resurrection in the Moravians, starting with the settlement of Christian David and other Hussite families in 1722 on land given by Count Zinzendorf at Herrnhut. They preserve the venerable name of their spiritual ancestry, Unitas Fratrum, and they have made good their heritage by their missionary labors which have carried the Gospel to the remotest ends of the earth, from Greenland to the West Indies and Guiana, and from the leper colony of Jerusalem to Thibet and Australia. In our own land, David Zeisberger and other Moravian missionaries have shown in their labors among the Indian tribes the godly devotion of John Huss, whose body the flames at Constance were able to destroy, but not his sacred memory and influence.