The beloved musical of the Czechs – Jan Hus superstar – gets fresh staging

As long as the Czech society retains its interest in the medieval preacher and priest Hus, his story will be retold over and again and each time differently – the one needed today is of a courageous and critical intellectual.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Carl Gustaf Hellqvist


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On July 6th, six hundred years will have passed since Jan Hus, an officially sentenced heretic, died in flames. As with many outstanding historical personalities, popular perceptions of Hus vary between the historical, flesh-and-blood intellectual, preacher and priest of the Catholic Church, and numerous imagined versions of Hus, invented by later generations. As a Czech “Highlander,” he has traveled through the centuries, and been transformed into various roles the Czechs needed and wanted him to play within their own political mythologies. He was perceived as a reformation saint in the 15th century, an anti-Catholic heretic in the 17th century, a national leader in the 19th century and finally a social revolutionary in the 20th century. 1

But it would be wrong to conclude that “Hus´ Time-Travel Agency” is closing its business. Hus is thought-provoking and has become a Czech mythological hero that inspires, because of both his historical role and his individuality. As long as Hus interests the Czech community, he will be “re-cast” in new roles and his story will be retold once again. These reinventions will prevent him from being only a historical figure professional historians are interested in. We may no longer understand the religious context of Hus´ life, but his public role as a critical intellectual, who was deeply disturbed by the state of the society he lived and worked in, seems to echo the concerns and questions we have about our current world.

Without Hus? Boring and provincial

But before creating a new Hus for the 21st century, we should look back and examine what we actually know about him. It needs to be noted that Hus, as a historical symbol, and Hussitism (1415 – 1485), both as a religious movement and a key period of the Czech medieval history, somehow retreated from the public discourse after 1989. Maybe Hus was not “needed,” and maybe people considered Hussitism to be too “contaminated” with Marxism, an interpretation that dominated the Hus and Hussitism discourse between 1948 and 1989; or maybe Czechs felt that a priest preaching about money’s potential to corrupt was out of synch with the times and thus sought other historical heroes and role models that corresponded more with the demands of the new era of capitalism.

However eventually the theme “re-energized” itself, and the historians, both domestic and foreign, have had enough time to work on fresh Hus´ interpretations within the referential frameworks and contexts understandable for 21st century Czechs. When reading new biographies of Hus, either authored by one of the most acclaimed historians of the Hussite revolution, František Šmahel,  2 his young disciple, Pavel Soukup, 3 or the British historian, Thomas Fudge, 4 we see Hus in perhaps his most authentic version – as a deeply religious priest and preacher and a genuine child of the late Middle Ages – the many previous historical-ideological layers and political utilizations wiped away.

He was born around 1370 to poor parents, but he was a gifted child and left home at 16 to study at Charles University in Prague. He accomplished his bachelor of arts studies in 1393 and three years later became a master of free arts. He was then ordained into the priesthood and began preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He also simultaneously continued his university career and began climbing the academic ladder.

Hus became acquainted with the writings of John Wycleff  5 and absorbed and developed many of Wycleff‘s ideas in his own texts within the Czech intellectual milieu. He spread Wycleff´s ideas to his listeners and soon clashed with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the papal power structures, who excommunicated him from the Catholic church several times and even put him under anathema, forcing him to leave Prague and abandon his beloved preaching profession.

The conflict climaxed with the invitation to Constance (now Germany) for the 15th Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1414 – 1418), which was tasked with eliminating the Western Papal Schism. Hus was heard several times, but ultimately found guilty of heresy. He refused to recant some of his ideas, was sentenced to death and then burned at the stake on July 6th 1415. As a mythical Phoenix, the Hussite Revolution emerged from his ashes, both literally and figuratively, transforming the Czech Kingdom into a heretical “nest.” Neighboring Christians were afraid to communicate with the Hussites but unable to get rid of them for hundreds of years.

When the Reformation swept over Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, Martin Luther referred to Hus as his predecessor and a source of inspiration. During the Thirty Years‘ War in the 17th century, when the Catholic Reformation triumphed in the Czech lands and non-Catholic confessions were banned, Hus was again branded as a heretic, who inspired the bloody Hussite religious war. However Hus’ memory remained in the Czech protestant tradition, and this former Catholic priest was transformed into a national hero and a symbol of the resistance against the ruling alliance between the Habsburgs and the Roman Catholic Church.  6The historian and journalist Petr Zídek finds Czech history without Hus to be, “boring and provincial,” claiming that Hus and the Hussite tradition became a key uniting and mobilizing historical myth in the 19th century when the modern Czech nation emerged. The Hussite period, inspired by Hus and triggered by his death, has also become a key element of Czech national pride, not only because the Hussites successfully defended their revolution for decades (heavily armed, of course), but also because the Hussite Era was an authenthic Czech contribution to world history.

This perception of Hus’ importance is not just a delusionary construct, stemming from our small nation’s inferiority complex, but a consensus built within the scholarly community. Historian, Thomas Fudge, agrees arguing that this period was not only an early manifestation of national identity, but also, “a nascent movement toward democracy.” He values it as, “neither episodic, nor a minor stage in the evolution of European history and civilization.” 7

Conversely, understanding modern Czech history is not possible without the knowledge of Jan Hus and the role his heritage played in the centuries after his death. Almost every relevant Czech thinker had to deal with Hus’ phenomenon – be it the greatest Czech historian of the 19th century, František Palacký, the philosopher and one of the spokesperson of Charter 77, Jan Patočka or the founder of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, whose interpretation of the Hussite Movement laid the foundation of the First Czechoslovak Republic’s official ideology after 1918. 8 Hus’ importance has also been confirmed in current politics, with President Zeman calling Hus the cornerstone of Czech history.  9

The transformation of Hus into a modern intellectual also corresponds to another paradox in his popular perception. Zídek found that when Czechs are asked in popular polls whom they consider to be the biggest Czech ever, Hus never comes out on top: in 1947 he was third behind Masaryk and Beneš; in 1968 second after Masaryk; and in 2005 he suffered a “humiliating defeat” and ended up 7th place, after the 14th century Czech king and German Emperor Charles IV, Masaryk and Havel.  10 This example also illustrates that Czechs prefer authorities like rulers or presidents, rather than idealistic “lunatics,” who are willing to “foolishly” sacrifice their own life for what they believe in. (By the way, Jan Palach never succeeded in these popular polls either).

Every Czech knows who Hus was but many are not able to explain what he actually fought for. Most people would probably say that Hus was burned for his ideals, adamantly refusing to recant them. “I won´t recant!” is the line we attribute to Hus and teach our children, tacitly admitting that very few of us would follow his example until that hot ending. The historian, Milena Bartlová, claims the story of Hus´ life, “with his suffering and torture belongs to the founding myths of Czech political society.”  11

There is a beautiful scene in Jan Svěrák´s Oscar nominated film, Elementary school (1991), where two boys steal iron circles from a magician who performs at their school, but later, inspired by their teacher´s emotional introduction to Hus´ passion for truth, returns them. When the boys are returning the stolen things, the owner unleashes his dogs, ordering them to scare and chase them, but one of the boys concludes it was worth it: “We suffer as Hus did.” This is a popular version of Hus in a nutshell and it is no surprise that professional historians use this story as an introduction to their books.  12

It would be rather illusionary to claim that his sermons or theological writings are easy to read and understand, even for trained historians. Trivial as it may seem at first sight, determining why Hus was actually burned requires rather sophisticated insight into pretty complicated theological issues. Imitating the famous Monty Python´s sketch, “All-England Summarize Proust Competition,”  13 the journalist, Ivan Motýl, asked renowned historians to summarize Hus´ case in Constance in five sentences; and surprisingly he received no satisfactory answers.

We understand that Hus was experiencing much despair due both to corrupt church practices, and hypocritical colleagues, priests and church representatives. We know that he objected to the Church selling indulgences, a common practice of that time where people were required to pay to have their sins forgiven. Hus also believed that if the ruling elite, whether they represented the Church or the state, did not behave according to God´s laws or committed deadly sins, then their subjects – the common people, craftsmen, villagers would no longer be obliged to obey them either.  14

Raising the Hussite´s flag

Before determining a Hus for the 21st century, we should honestly admit that we are still entangled in the interpretational webs that were woven in the 19th and 20th century. According to historian, Jiří Hanuš, we inherited four major ideological pictures of Hus – as a liberal, a conservative (Catholic), a Communist and a human rights defender.  15

This last one refers to our fresh experience with totalitarian regimes. In this story Hus is a dissident struggling with the Church hierarchy and its authoritative dogmas, as the Czech and Slovak dissidents did against the Communist regime in their struggle for freedom and human rights. Therefore it comes as no surprise that in this interpretational line Václav Havel is considered Hus´ natural successor.  16 When Bartlová analyzed the freshly shot film about Hus (Jan Hus (2015), dir. Jiří Svoboda),  17 she also noted that when the filmmakers applied the motive of ultimate suffering Hus faced in prison, they intentionally embedded his life with the, “experience of a totalitarian regimes’ cruelty, which was able to break an individual.”  18 Bartlová therefore concludes that modern interpretations are based solely on stressing, “the ethos of individual fidelity to oneself and the victory of the spirit over physical torture and suffering.”  19

Photo: Archive J. Adamec

Photo: Archive J. Adamec

This opens Hus for almost everyone – either as an inspiration, or as a symbol to misuse for practical, utilitarian zeals.  20 For example, the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, ordered Prague Castle to raise the Hussite´s flag to demonstrate his affinity to that movement’s legacy. Analyzing Zeman´s act, we can assume that he attempted to stress continuity with the founder of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, who did the same thing on the anniversary of the Hus´ execution in 1925, deliberately enraging Catholic Church and Papal State representatives much to his own amusement. So both Masaryk and Zeman chose a reading of the Hussite tradition that provided them with an opportunity to attack the Catholic Church. Zeman’s action criticized the Church, connecting their ongoing restitution of the Church property taken by the Communists after 1948 with Hus´ writings about the relationship between fortune and the Church, and asking, whether Jan Hus‘ criticism of the Church’s acquisitiveness holds some truth even today.  21

Intellectual and heretic

The problem with Hus’ memory is that it is covered with national myths, and the real man – hesitating or making mistakes – has been lost, replaced by a man deemed acceptable by the general public. The question then is not “what does the Hus of today look like?” but, “what Hus do we need or want?”

Surprisingly, if we want a modern, understandable Hus, we do not have to add any artificial, ahistorical layer to him. We just have to more closely examine the real Hus as a scholar and critical intellectual. He was deeply dissatisfied with the state of the organization he served – the Church. One feature that modern people might find attractive was his heretical act, a deadly sin against God in the Middle Ages but an almost compulsory characteristic of the modern intellectual. As Fudge argues, heresy may be a sign of intellectual independence, a natural resistance to authority and part of a mental process through which extraordinary thinkers such as Hus define and create their own opinions and standpoints. 22

Hus recognized the dilemma between between living a moral life and the corruptive potential of money, which is also a modern struggle. Hus was not a rebel without a cause. On the contrary, for most of his preaching career he was closely interconnected with various power structures of his time – in some sense he was part of the intellectual elite and also spokesperson for the society. He was in close contact with noblemen, kings, archbishops, and was active in the area we would now identify as politics. Although he wanted to persuade his colleagues as well as himself that he was willingly neither a heretic, nor a revolutionary aimed at disrupting the order, he still got into conflicts with the rules of his organization.

Hus´ story is not only about him and it would be incomplete if we did not examine the views of his adversaries and judges – in most cases, Hus’ colleagues – and ask whether they were privy to a piece of truth when they condemned a stubborn individual for the sake of collective stability. Hus´ case illustrates that the responsibility of intellectuals also lies in their ability to weigh the long-term consequences of their ideas on the society. Paradoxically, Hus was highly valued as an intellectual even by his adversaries. When he was tried at the Council of Constance, many of those who tried him agreed, albeit tacitly, with his criticism of the Church; and they were fully aware that something needed to be done in order to restore the Church’s credibility, but not the way Hus intended to do it. Hus’ judges were perfectly aware of his teachings’ explosive potential. Despite their approval of some of his theses, they firmly demonstrated their preference for the Church’s organizational stability when executing him. Being an intellectual was not an extenuation of his guilt – on the contrary.

Nowadays it may precisely be this aspect of his story that might make Hus’ image modern, comprehensible and approachable. Hus was sacrificed for the sake of social stability. He was primarily punished because he brought the theological disputes of his day, which had been confined to a privileged circle of theologians and intellectuals, to the public and common folk. If the same heretical theses had been pronounced within the inner circle, it probably would not have led to such a severe punishment. The system – the Church and the State – had to act in order to save its image and stabilize its power.

Does this not sound familiar? Hus’ struggle with a system he did not want to destroy but one whose founding ideals he wished to restore, is a theme that has not only predicated Czech icons, such as Havel, but also other global “heretics” of the system such as Manning, Assange and Snowden, who broke the rules of the organization they served, to reveal the “secrets” of the power machine to the public with the aim of correcting it.

It is not about the intensity with which intellectuals defend their radical or dissenting opinions to their peers within familiar environments, places where intellectual heresy is permitted and not punished, but it is about their ability and willingness to “translate” and present these ideas to common folks. The revolution Hus’ death inspired was led and fought by the same people who heard him preach at Bethlehem Chapel – they acted in his name and kept his legacy alive. Bartlová was right when she concluded that had his death not been followed by the Hussite Revolution, there would be no Hus, the Czech Superstar, but only another heretic whose name would soon disappear from the people´s collective memory. 23

Notes:

  1.  Zídek, Petr. Hus pro naši dobu /Hus for Our Times/, Lidové noviny, 20.06. 2015, N. 143, p. 19.
  2. Šmahel, František. Jan Hus: život a dílo /His Jan Hus: His life and work/. Praha: Argo, 2013.
  3. Soukup, Pavel. Jan Hus: život a smrt kazatele /Jan Hus: The life and death of a preacher/. Praha: Lidové noviny, 2015.
  4. Fudge, Thomas A. Jan Hus: religious reform and social revolution in Bohemia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  5. John Wycliffe (1331 –1384), a philosopher, theologian, reformer and university teacher at Oxford in England. He was an influential dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. For basic information see John Wycliffe on wikipedia.
  6. Fudge. Jan Hus. p. 2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Zídek. Hus pro naši dobu /Hus for Our Times/. p. 19.
  9. Projev prezidenta republiky při ceremoniálu k uctění památky mistra Jana Husa/The speech of the President of the Czech Republic during the ceremonial event, commemorating Master Jan Hus (5.6. 2015).
  10. Zídek. Hus pro naši dobu /Hus for Our Times/, p. 19.
  11. Bartlová, Milena. Bez husitů by Hus nebyl /There would no Hus without the Hussites/, 2. 6. 2015.
  12. Soukup. Jan Hus: život a smrt kazatele /Jan Hus: The life and death of a preacher/. p. 11.
  13. Monty Python: Summarize Proust Competition Uncensored
  14. Motýl, Ivan. Husomanie /Husmania/, Týden, 22.06.2015, N. 26, p. 36.
  15. Hrubý, Dan. Hus? Václav Havel středověku! (Hus? Václav Havel of the Middle Ages/, Reflex, 04.06.2015, p. 52.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Jan Hus (TV film), Czech Republic, 2015, dir. Jiří Svoboda.
  18. Bartlová. Bez husitů by Hus nebyl /There would no Hus without the Hussites/.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Projev prezidenta republiky /The speech of the President/.
  22. Fudge. Jan Hus. 8.
  23. Bartlová. Bez husitů by Hus nebyl /There would no Hus without the Hussites/.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.