The following is my impression of what might have occurred in the days before Jan Hus was burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. The character of Mikes Zajic, the Franciscan monk, is fictional and is used to illuminate the stand of the Roman Catholic Church toward Hus. Where possible, I have used letters and sermons of Hus to place words in his mouth. These references will be noted in the Works Cited.
The charges against Hus at the Council of Constance are found in numerous books. Hus’ responses to the charges against him, however, are sometimes given verbatim and sometimes as a “sense” of the answers, and not as the actual wording. I have taken some liberties with Hus’ own works to give him voice.
The general tone of the times and historical detail have been gleaned from various sources, listed on the Works Cited page. I have not attempted to use the idiom or speech form of that time and place, instead allowing my characters to speak modern English.
The play is constructed with a prologue
(a monologue in which the young priest sets the stage as to where and why
we are with him), three scenes including a back-and-forth dialogue between
the two men as they discuss Wyckliff, transubstantiation, the office of
the Pope and Hus’ defence to the charge of heresy. The epilogue is
another monologue by Zajic, following Hus’ death and putting it in historical
perspective as well as foretelling the future to some extent. A short play
cannot begin to cover all of the political, scriptural and religious concerns
of the life and death of Jan Hus. I offer it as bait…hoping the reader
will be inclined to research further.
(A small monastic cell in Prague, containing only a cot, a prayer rail and a crucifix. Kneeling is a young Franciscan monk, Mikes.)
Oh Lord, hear my prayer! You know me, Lord, for I am often at your feet! Today I pray for another and for the strength to bring him once again to you, Lord. My old teacher, Jan Hus, has been accused of heresy at the Council of Constance and my abbot has given me permission to go to him in an effort to get him to recant.
Lord, you know I came to Holy orders in fear of the heresy I heard from the wicked Wyclif when a student at Oxford. In terror, I fled to my homeland and became a Franciscan. But before I went to Oxford, I was a student of Hus. He was a good professor, encouraging students to excellence. I have heard of the calumnies he is purported to have preached, but my memory of the man forces me to leave the safe haven of the monastery and go to plead for his immortal soul.
Give me the strength and the wisdom to
speak the words he needs to hear and at the same time to avoid the worldly
wiles that await me there. Keep me ever in the safety of your sheltering
arms, Lord. Open my lips that I may speak your Word and it only.
In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.
(The cell of Jan Hus in . . . Prague.
Hus sits on a bench, hands folded and head bent. At a sound from
the cell door, he rises and turns. A young Franciscan monk stands
partly hidden in the shadows.)
HUS: Well, have they sent another false friar to entrap me (Bonnechose 58)? Do they think your young, open face will beguile me? Go away! They will not listen to me in conference…shouting to drown out my words. I will not speak here.
MIKES: (Stepping out of the shadow) Do you not recognize me Master Hus? I am Mikes…I was your student not many years ago. Have I changed so much?
HUS: (Approaching) You do have the look of that young student…but he was not intended for Holy Orders … his mind was set upon the Law.
MIKES: You are right, I was to study law. The University sent me to Oxford for a time, to study with the learned men there. It was there I first heard the words of John Wyclif. I recoiled in horror and returned to Prague, taking Holy Orders and retreating from the world.
HUS: If you recoil at the mention of Wyclif, why are you here? They have painted me with the same brush of heresy as Wyclif. Do you not fear contamination in this cell?
MIKES: I remember well the kind words and deeds when Doctor Javiz Merckes brought me to you at the University. I was just a young boy, fresh from a farming community and overwhelmed by the city and the university. You told me of how your widowed mother brought you to the university, carrying a cake and a goose to assure your good treatment by the scholars (Bonnechose 29). And how upset she became when the goose ran away. You said we were brothers, far from home, and you made me welcome at your fireside. It was you who inspired me to question and study. You told me “I set up for myself the rule that whenever I discern a sounder opinion in any matter whatsoever, I gladly and humbly abandon the earlier one. For I know that those things I have learned are but the least in comparison with what I do not know” (Spinka, John 29). And now I find you in grave peril because you did just that.
HUS: So. . . have you come then to save me from the fire? I believe that is what they have planned for me. Do you come with some final offer from the conference or King Sigismund to spare my life if I will just recant? Or to use their phrasing, abjure? If so, you have come on a fool’s errand. I do not subscribe to Wyclif’s teaching…or at least only a few of them which are present in Scripture. I did defend his right to speak and write. I warned them that burning a man’s words would not destroy his ideas.
MIKES: No. I cannot offer you salvation from the fire, if that is what they choose. I come only in hopes of saving your immortal soul, a soul I believe is not wicked but only mistaken. You cry out for change and reform in the papacy and priesthood. God will answer your prayers and the Church will cleanse itself from within…even now there are committees of cardinals seeking solutions (Bokenkotter 216). They say you wish to abolish the papacy! That you preach that the apostles and faithful priests of the Lord ruled the Church unto salvation, before the office of the pope was introduced and that they would be doing so even to the day of judgment were there no pope (Denzinger 213).
HUS: You are as innocent as when you left the farm! How can the Pope cleanse the Church when he is himself guilty of simony? When the Church cannot even determine who is really Pope (Spinka, Council 36)? Jesus did not tell his followers to pray through the auspices of a pope. He told them to speak to the Father in Heaven…not in Rome or Avignon. I came here under a safe conduct from Sigismund. See where the king’s word has brought me! He said, “He may remain safe in Constance. I will not let any one interfere with him, even though he had killed my own brother” (Kitts 234).
MIKES: But surely you knew that the king’s safe conduct was only a political one…that it had no power with a spiritual court! He had no power to keep you safe from the council. If only you had gone to Sigismund and placed yourself under his protection, you would have been treated with more respect and received a more patient hearing (Spinka, Council 233). And where are your friends? Why are they not here to defend you, Master Hus?
HUS: Please Mikes, call me by the name my mother gave me. In this place they call me nothing but heretic or blasphemer. I long to be addressed as a man. Call me Jan. As to my friends, John of Chlum remains, giving me what comfort he is allowed. I have warned Doctor Jesenic and Master Jerome to stay away, as well as the others, for fear that they may suffer as I do (Spinka, Council 250).
MIKES: Very well, I will call you Jan. But can you not seem to accede to their wishes and save yourself? If you recant, they might imprison you but not burn you. Is your life and the work God may still have for you not worth it?
HUS: You ask me to lie to these men! These men who do not even know of what they accuse me. Does any one of them read or speak Czech? How can they denounce my words when they cannot understand them. There have already been a great many exhorters persuading me by many words that I ought and lawfully can recant. But none of them knows how I may do this knowing I never preached, held or asserted the heresy ascribed to me (Spinka, Letters 275). Would I not be as guilty as they, if I were to recant? To deny what I believe is the Word of God and the Will of God? Go away, Mikes. You will be corrupted by this business. Go and do not return. Save yourself! You cannot save me!
MIKES: I cannot go. Help me
to understand why you are doing this. Your students loved you…respected
your simplicity and blameless life. Even the German students were
won by your indomitable faith and enthusiasm (Kitts 32). Why do you defend
Wyclif and his heresies?
MIKES: They say you agree with Wyclif that a priest in the state of mortal sin cannot validly administer the sacrament.
HUS: No, never did I preach that! The Grace of God operates equally through a bad as through a good priest (Kitts 43). But the priesthood has much to account for. Why are they robed in fine raiment while the common people are cold and hungry? Resplendent churches are built but the relief of the poor is neglected (Spinka, Concept 73). Is this what Jesus would have permitted? You know it is not so!
(There is a rattling sound at the cell door)
MIKES: That is the signal that I must go. Be of stout heart, Jan. I will return tomorrow. Is there something I can bring you? Some food or delicacy you would like?
HUS: No, Mikes, the food is much
better here (Spinka, Council 265). I do not lack for nourishment.
But do not return tomorrow. It is hopeless. You have my thanks
for this brief time of companionship.
(Hus’ cell the following day. Mikes enters. Hus is lying on his cot and seems ill.)
MIKES: Jan, what has happened? You seem ill.
HUS: (Rising) Do not be alarmed, Mikes. It is just a bad toothache (Spinka, Council 265). I wish I had my mother’s herbs to take away the pain, God rest her soul. I take comfort that she did not live to see me here. I will see her soon if God wills it.
MIKES: You must not give up hope, Jan. Trust in God and His goodness. The Council may yet find you blameless.
HUS: This Council? You jest! Have you not walked the streets of Constance? Can you not hear the sounds of debauchery that come through my cell window? I saw them as I entered the city…musicians, actors, strolling players. The dancing and singing goes on all day and well into the night. Troops of naughty damsels flock from all sides to minister to their carnal pleasures (Spinka, Council 246). What can I expect from this Council? Only the assurance that if they burn me it will be their own damnation they foretell.
MIKES: Do not speak so, Jan. The walls have ears… you only give them more reason to rid themselves of you!
HUS: They need no other reasons. They have fabricated charges against me and refuse to allow me to defend myself. I have begged them to send me a confessor…someone who can show me my errors in Holy Scripture (Bonnechose 93), to no avail.
MIKES: You must admit that you defied the pope’s crusading bull.
HUS: They erect the cross and call for holy war and for holy battle, granting remission of sins and punishments to those who aid the war. If some faithful Christian like myself preaches against their wickedness, they hate him and devise plots to stop God’s services if they cannot otherwise stop the preaching which reveals their wickedness to the people. What can cause Christians greater deprivation than to refuse them funeral, baptism, confession and the Lord’s body (Spinka, Concept 114-15)? And they call themselves servants of God!
MIKES: You must admit, Jan, that you defied the Church and continued to give communicants both the bread and wine (Spinka, Council 57). You knew they would not allow this.
HUS: Why not? Does not Holy Scripture tell us that Jesus gave his disciples the bread and then the wine? Where in scripture does it tell us to do otherwise? It is merely a ploy to set the priesthood apart from the people. A means to extend their authority (Spinka, Council 128 ). I have written to John of Chlum, entreating him to continue my crusade to make the sacrament of the cup granted to those who request it from devotion (Spinka, Council 253).
MIKES: What of remenance? They accuse you of preaching Wyclif’s teachings on transubstantiation.
HUS: Wyclif believed that any real thing is the material objectification of a divine idea and thus, cannot cease to be what it is. If all things are the result of a divine idea, cannot God himself change his mind (Spinka, Concept 119)? His was a foolish thought! Andrew of Brod warned me to speak only of the grievous irregularities of the clergy…to be silent about errors and the books of Wyclif. Many others have preached against the clergy without being placed under an interdict (Kitts 35). They punish the good people of my church to silence me.
MIKES: I must leave soon, Jan. Tell me what I may do to lift your burden.
HUS: Go and do not return. Pray for me and for those who may suffer because of me. You are a good man, Mikes. I pray God will keep you so.
(Mikes embraces him and leaves.)
(Hus’s cell. Enter Mikes.
Hus is sitting quietly, seemingly at peace.)
HUS: No, Mikes…there will be no reprieve. I implore you, Mikes, to leave. You can do nothing for me and you place yourself in peril. I have heard that they have taken Jerome into custody. Do you know? Is it true?
MIKES: Yes, there are rumors that he has recanted! Unfaithful friend!
HUS: No …do not judge him. Only the Lord God can do that.
MIKES: What of you, Jan? What can I do to ease your pain? Are there messages I can take for you? Friends I can comfort?
HUS: No, Mikes. They have allowed me to write to those friends for whom I have final words. I wanted them to know that the Council did not defeat me by any Scripture or any proof but they tried to seduce me with deceits and threats. The Lord God, whose law I extol is with me and I hope will be with me to the end and preserve me in His grace until my death (Spinka, Letters 195-97).
MIKES: How can you be so accepting, Jan? What awaits you is terrible!
HUS: I have decided that it is better to suffer death for the truth …my intention is not that good men be defamed and harmed but that they should guard themselves against evil and that evil men should repent (Spinka, Advocates 278). I believe that God knows what is in my heart. I have nothing to fear.
(Sounds of footsteps in the corridor.)
And now, my young friend, you must go. Go at once to your monastery and, if you can, pray for me. I do not wish you to see me burn. It is for your own safety and your immortal soul that I ask this. Please, Mikes, go. The Lord be with you.
(Mikes goes to the cell door but turns back. He has tears in his eyes and his voice shakes.)
MIKES: God be with you, Jan. I will never forget you and I pray that others will remember as well.
(Exit Mikes. Hus goes to his cot
and kneels to pray.)
(One year later. Mikes’ cell. He is again at prayer.)
Oh Lord, before you is a broken and penitent sinner. Forgive any doubts I have had in the past weeks and months. Heal, I pray, the pain that remains within my heart at the death of Jan Hus. I disobeyed my friend and followed him to the end. I watched as the authorities, fearing the love the common people had for him, swept up his ashes and threw them into the Rhine (Bonnechose 104). I fear they worked in vain. Already militant groups are calling themselves Hussites and there are rumors of secret chapels where the bread and wine are distributed to the faithful. The Council has exacerbated the situation by burning Jerome of Prague. A Holy War seems imminent (Spinka, Biography 298).
Lord, only you know what was in Jan Hus’ heart. Was he a saint or a devil? I do not know. I only know that he was a kind and gentle friend who went with dignity and faith to his death. Lord, in your infinite wisdom and mercy, open your arms and the gates of Heaven to this man…a sinner like us all. Like your Son, he begged forgiveness for those who tortured him.
The last words I heard him speak, before the flames engulfed him, called You to witness that he had not taught, preached or written false doctrine, that he sought only to rescue souls from the tyranny of sin (Bonnechose 104).
In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, I commend the soul of my friend Jan Hus to your loving care. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.
Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church, rev.ed. New York: MJF Books, 1953.
Bonnechose, Emile de. The Reformers Before the Reformation. The Fifteenth Century: John Huss and the Council of Constance. Campbell Mackenzie, tr. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1844.
Denzinger, Henry. Enchiridion Symbolorum: The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Roy J. Deferarri, tr. Powers Lake, N.D.: Marion House, 1957.
Kitts, Eustace J. Pope John the Twenty-third and Master John Hus of Bohemia. London: Constable and Company Limited, 1910.
Spinka, Matthew. Advocates of
Reform. The Library of Christian Classics,
---. John Hus, A biography.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.
---. John Hus’ Concept of the Church. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.
---. Letters of John Hus.
Manchester, England: Manchester UP, 1972.