This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.
Though ending the Great Schism was the most important question facing the Council of Constance, the fathers considered other matters. They tried to tackle the reform of the Church as a whole—and failed. Then, they had to deal with a particularly troublesome priest who was causing problems in the kingdom of Bohemia.
This priest was John Hus (1369–1415), a famous preacher from the city of Prague in Bohemia. Hus also was a professor, and twice the rector, at the University of Prague. He was among those who had learned of John Wycliffe and his teachings from students who had come to Prague from the University of Oxford. Hus himself became a zealous promoter of the teachings of Wycliffe—so much so that, when the archbishop of Prague in 1410 ordered the burning of all Wycliffe’s books, he excommunicated Hus as well.
Hus, however, had become extremely popular in Prague. He ignored the archbishop and continued preaching. He had little to worry about from the archbishop, for Hus had the support of Bohemia’s King Wenzel. Because of Hus and his preaching, John XXIII, the pope of Pisa, placed Prague under an interdict in 1411. Yet, despite this, Hus went on preaching. In the end, however, he lost the support of the theologians at the university. At the king’s request, he left Prague for the small town of Krakowitz in Bohemia.
In 1414, the fathers of the Council of Constance ordered Hus to appear before them. The German emperor, Sigismund, promised him “safe conduct” to and from Constance—which meant that whatever the council decided concerning him, Hus would be free to return unharmed to Bohemia.
Trusting in the emperor’s promise, Hus appeared before the council. In June 1415, the council condemned many of his teachings and demanded that he recant them. Though the council ruled that he had denied the doctrine of Transubstantiation, Hus insisted that he accepted it. But he said he would not reject his other teachings that the council declared heretical—including his belief that Peter was not the head of the Church. Hus said the council had to prove from Scripture that his teachings were false. Finally, on July 6, 1415, despite Sigismund’s promise of safe conduct, the council condemned Hus to death as a heretic. John Hus was burned at the stake. Enveloped by the smoke and flames, he cried out, “Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us!” Then, he expired.
The execution of Hus ignited a brutal series of wars in Bohemia between his followers and the supporters of Pope Martin V and Emperor Sigismund. The Hussites denied that the pope is head of the Church; they taught that only Scripture and the law of Christ are the sources of Christian teaching, and that temporal rulers have authority only if they are in a state of grace. The wars raged for 17 years, devastating whole regions in Bohemia. In the end, the Catholic side could not crush the Hussites, who have continued to this day to exist in Bohemia as a distinct religious group.
Music by One Who May Have Seen Hus Die
The songs of Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376/77-1445) are one of the monuments of the early Renaissance in Germany. A native of the Tyrol, Wolkenstein joined the entourage of the duke of Austria and count of Tyrol, Friedrich IV, at the Council of Constance. Here is a recording of one of Wolkenstein's songs, Wer ist, die da durchleuchtet.