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John Wycliffe and Jan Hus

Through the 1300s the Church continued to be concerned with heresy, and some Christians remained courageous, independent and willful thinkers. One of them was John Wycliffe (1330-84), a theologian at Oxford University who spoke of scripture as being primary in authority. He believed that anybody who could read should have access to it. He started a movement that translated the Bible into English, copied by hand from the Latin Bible. In England, people hungering for spirituality became part of what was called the Lollard movement. Many were rejecting clerical wealth, including Wycliffe, who favored a return to Christian asceticism. He believed that the Church should be poor, as in the days of the apostles. Wycliffe was forced to appear before the Catholic bishops in the first half of the year 1377 to give an account of his doctrine. The bishops then appealed to Pope Gregory XI, and in May 1377 Gregory issued five papal edicts against Wycliffe. But Wycliffe was protected in England by powerful individuals, the Duke of Lancaster and Queen Joan, the wife of Edward III.

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe. His works were burned. He died at 60 after a stroke.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus, Czech scholar burned at the stake.

In 1401 England's parliament instituted death by fire for heresy, and in 1407 English language Bibles were banned. Followers of Wycliffe were arrested and imprisoned, especially those followers who had been associated with Oxford University. Pope Alexander V issued a papal edict that moved the Church against the threat to Church authority by scripture not in Latin – the language special to the priesthood. The works of Wycliffe were burned.

Pope Alexander's move against the followers of Wycliffe extended to Jan Hus, a Czech scholar and rector at the University of Prague. He had been attracted by the writings of Wycliffe. Czechs had been complaining about what they saw as the immorality of the clergy. Most of their priests were German, and their resentment against Germans accompanied their dislike for clergy privileges and their demand that scripture be translated into Czech. An ecumenical council, the Council of Constance, addressed the issue of heresy. Jan Hus was called before the council to defend his views, and soon after, on July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake.

John Wycliffe had died in 1384 following a stroke. In 1415 his writings were banned and he was declared a heretic. In 1428 his body was disinterred and burned.

The burning of Hus, meanwhile, had provoked rebellion among the Czechs. The King of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, on the side of the Church, sent his army against the rebellion. The Hussite leader, Jan Zizka, developed a disciplined army of peasants. The Hussite War of 1420-34 was on. In a series of battles Zizka frustrated Sigismund's well armed knights. The Hussites used pikes, swords and also hand held gunpowder weapons. After Zizka died from plague in 1424, another capable leader, Andreas Prokop, was successful against Sigismund for ten years. In 1436, Roman Emperor Sigismund chose to accept Czech independence. Heresy had won. The Hussites secured a treaty that confirmed their expropriations of Church property and their new Hussite church – which was to last into the 1600s.

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