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John Hus - Burned at the Stake

John Hus - Burned at the Stake Censorship Civil Rights Law and Politics Social Studies Trials Visual Arts

Jan Hus, born of peasant parents in the Kingdom of Bohemia, disagreed with the Pope on several issues. For one thing, he publicly stated that it was wrong for the Catholic Church to sell indulgences. In short ... among other issues ... Hus did not believe that anyone could "buy their way" into Heaven. He saw such things as corruption in the church.

For another thing, Hus believed that people could hear about religious things in their own language—not just Latin, the language of the Church—and refused to recant his beliefs (including those which were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church).

As a result, Jan Hus (also known as John Hus)—from today's Czech Republic—was burned at the stake outside the city walls of Konstanz (Constance) in today's Germany. The date of his execution was July 6, 1415.

A public execution, of someone like Hus, tended to draw a crowd. People, including some of Hus’ friends, gathered round. As he prepared to die, Hus denied all changes against him, claiming that they were false.

Peter from Mladonovice—who died in 1451—wrote an account of what happened to Hus. Excerpts, translated from Latin into English, tell the tale of what could happen to someone whose beliefs differed from those of the Pope and the Catholic Church:

Then having been divested of his clothing, he was tied to a stake with ropes, his hands tied behind his back. And when he was turned facing east, some of the bystanders said: " let him not to be tuned facing east, because he is a heretic; but turn him toward the west." So that was done.
...
The stake was like a thick post half a foot thick, they sharpened one end of it and fixed it in the ground of that meadow. They place two bound bundles of wood under the Master's feed. When tied to that stake, he still had his shoes on and one shackle on his feet. Indeed, the said bundles of wood, interspersed with straw, were piled around his body so that they reached up to his chin. For the wood amounted to two wagon - or carloads.
...
When the executioners at once lit [the fire], the Master [Hus] immediately began to sing in a loud voice, at first "Christ, Thou son of the God, have mercy upon us," and secondly, Christ, Thou son of the God, have mercy upon me," and in the third place, "Thou Who art born of Mary the Virgin." And when he began to sing the third time, the wind blew the flame into his face. And thus praying within himself and moving his lips and the head, he expired in the Lord. While he was silent, he seemed to move before he actually died for about the time one can quickly recite "Our Father" two or at most three times.

When the wood of those bundles and ropes were consummated, but the remains of the body still stood in those chains, hanging by the neck, the executioners pulled the charred body along with the stake down to the ground and burned them further by adding wood from the third wagon to the fire. And walking around, they broke the bones with clubs so that they would be incinerated more quickly.

And finding the head, they broke it to pieces with the clubs and again threw it into the fire. And when they found his heart among the intestines, they sharpened a club like a spit, and, impaling it on its end, they took particular [care] to roast and consume it, piercing it with spears until finally the whole mass was turned into ashes.

Thus ended the life of John Hus, a man of courage who dared to risk his life to follow the truth of his own beliefs. Authorities in charge of his execution ordered that his ashes be thrown into the Rhine River. 

His execution infuriated people in his country, causing hundreds of Bohemian noblemen to sign a letter of protest.  The Pope sent an army of 150,000 men to quell the unrest, but Jan Zizka—a one-eyed soldier—led a Hussite army of resisters. 

Greatly outnumbered, sometimes as many as ten-to-one, Zizka and his troops won five victories over a ten-year period.  A army made-up of peasants was effectively resisting an army made-up of professionals. 

Hundreds of years later, Lynn Montross (an American historian) said of these battles: 

A greater miracle has not been recorded in the annals of war. (See Montross, War through the Ages, New York 1960, at page 187.)

Just over a century after Jan Hus died, Martin Luther also complained about the Pope's use of indulgences. Hus had, in fact, paved the way for other reformers.

The medieval-era image, at the top of this page, depicts the final moments of Jan Hus. Click on it for a better view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Sep 05, 2017


Media Credits

Image online, courtesy Columbia University.

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