Marcela K. Perett examines the early phases of the so-called Hussite revolution and illustrates how vernacular discourse diverged from Latin debates on the same issues, often appealing to emotion rather than doctrinal positions.
2018 | 304 pages | Cloth $85.00
History / Religion
View main book page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. From Golden Boy to Rabble-Rouser: Jan Hus and His Preaching Career
Chapter 2. Creating a Faction: Jan Hus and the Importance of Moral Victory
Chapter 3. Battle for the Minds: Vernacular Propaganda For and Against Hussite Reform
Chapter 4. The Parting of the Ways: Prague and Tábor
Chapter 5. Combining Education with Polemic: The Price of Theology in the Vernacular
Chapter 6. The Dangers of Popularizing Wyclif: The Eucharistic Debates That Fragmented Bohemia
Chapter 7. Writing History to Shape the Future: Historia Hussitica by Lawrence of Březová and Historia Bohemica by Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini
Describing the situation in Prague in 1421, Lawrence of Březová, the chief chronicler of the Hussite movement in Bohemia, records a surprising incident. He tells of a group of women in the New Town district of Prague, who were so dissatisfied with the way in which the councilmen managed the religious affairs in their district that they wrote what we might call an open letter to them. In the letter, recorded in the vernacular in an otherwise Latin chronicle, the women complain that numerous priests in Prague do not believe that the Eucharist really is God's body and blood and that this heresy is taught to the laity. The women write: "We are afraid that many of the new priests, who hold heretical beliefs, continue to be appointed to parishes where they blaspheme against God and doctrine and against the rituals of the church. Meanwhile, you, councilmen, watch it happen and do nothing to stop it. . . . Therefore, we beg you to take action, for example, you could tell the priest in Poříčí that you will no longer tolerate the violence that he inflicts on the holy sacrament. If you do not wish to do this, if you continue to ignore the true faith, we will be forced to turn against you and so help us God."
This petition captured the squabbles between two major pro-reform factions (Prague and Tábor), characteristic of the period between 1419 and 1436, which was generally seen as the main phase of the Hussite revolution and is the central focus of this book. For most of the period, the two main reform factions struggled against each other for adherents and for control over parishes in Prague and across Bohemia, with the Eucharist looming as the most divisive subject, as some were swayed by Wycliffite and other reform ideas and others rejected them. The standard narrative of the Hussite reform assumes that the only notable theological discussions were held among the educated clerics. Scholars have dismissed exchanges such as this one as mere complaints by the laity who were, it is implied, naturally garrulous and had little to contribute to the theological reflections at the university. This latter assumption is partly true. The laity had little to add to the theological deliberations among the reform's leaders, but the example shows that they knew enough about them to debate with each other and to form their own opinions. The narrative needs to be refocused to take into account the real importance of the women's official complaint: it shows that theological debates were not confined to the clerical caste, nor were they confined to Latin. The women clearly understood the basic ramifications of the debate and officially—and in their vernacular—protested against the priests' Wycliffite understanding of the mass, even threatening disobedience if their request, which was theological in nature, went unheeded. Moreover, the women were convinced that they—and, this is important, not their priest—held the "true faith" and swore to commit acts of civil unrest, such as turning against their councilmen, in order to promote what they understood this to be. This shows that disagreements about what constituted "true faith" divided also the laity, who held their own conclusions with impressive confidence, even in the face of powerful city magistrates.
Such was the nature of religious disagreements in fifteenth-century Bohemia—one man's true faith was another man's heresy, but accusations to that effect did little to weaken the determination of those who held it. The above example illuminates the specifically late medieval context of this disagreement. It involved proliferation of a semilearned doctrine (based in an academic program) among a highly motivated laity, by clerics, often university educated and in possession of a good living, but who nevertheless distanced themselves from the "institutional" clerics, harshly criticizing the established church and its servants. In the case of Bohemia, clerics disagreed about the nature and extent of church reform, and since agreement proved elusive, they turned to the laity for support. To reach their audiences, these clerics, many of whom were university masters, wrote a new kind of vernacular text, trying to persuade the laity to side with them against other clerics. The opening example shows that they were successful. One of the (perhaps unintended) consequences of such writings was the emergence of an opinionated, and deeply divided, lay population. Indeed, as the examples in this book suggest, in the 1420s and 1430s, Bohemia was full of laypeople brimming with opinions, willing to debate theology on the slightest provocation. Much like the Roman province of Cappadocia in the fourth century, where—as reported by Gregory of Nyssa—one asked for bread and received an opinion about the nature of Christ's hypostatic union, Bohemia's laity was abuzz with debates that resisted any clear-cut resolution. The laity was drawn into debates about the mass (the central sacrament of the church and exclusive preserve of priests), about rightful authority in the church, about salvation more broadly, even taking a stance against the city authorities. Open debates among people and clergy about central teachings and claims of the church did not first begin in what is called the Protestant Reformation. We see it full-blown in Prague, the late medieval imperial capital, one of the most important cities in the European world at that time, a full century earlier.
Vernacular Writings: Indispensable Yet Often Ignored
Given how much attention the reform leaders in Bohemia paid to their lay followers, it is striking how little those who study these leaders have. Most of the scholarly work on the Hussites has revolved around the careers of the movement's movers and shakers, their treatises, their ideas and the origins of those ideas, their political and diplomatic negotiations. The two most extensive and influential works on the Hussite movement, Howard Kaminsky's comprehensive History of the Hussite Revolution and František Šmahel's Die hussitische Revolution, both focus on the Latin texts that gave shape to the movement. Kaminsky is primarily interested in the intellectual history of the Hussite revolution and deals with the writings and cogitations of the revolution's erudite leaders, whereas Šmahel offers a social portrait of the movement in order to round out his discussion. And although both of these influential scholars take into consideration the popular element, their analyses deal mainly with Latin treatises and compositions, perpetuating the tacit assumption that the really interesting and important conversation was the one conducted in Latin. Only more recently have scholars turned their attention to the Hussite movement's vast vernacular output in an attempt to understand the importance it held for the reform leaders themselves, who poured tremendous energy into it throughout the entire period.
In the course of the Hussite reform, the emphasis on vernacular communication was so great that the inherited literary genres were themselves completely transformed. Literary genres that had previously enjoyed high popularity among the laity were no longer perpetuated and practically disappeared. In this shift, genres that were previously popular, such as romances and chivalric poetry, were replaced with compositions intended to communicate a political or religious message, such as sermons, tractates, spiritual songs, manifestos, and various other dialogues and monologues, as well as chronicles and annals. These were disparate kinds of writings, but they shared an important feature: the educated clerics composed and disseminated them because they were ideologically useful. These vernacular writings parallel the enormous expansion of religious literature in German and Dutch and, to some degree, English in this era, but their intense factionalism sets them apart from the vast amount of catechetical and devotional writings circulated elsewhere. In Bohemia, these vernacular works set out the fundamental issues, both theological and ecclesiastical, at stake in the reform, taught the laity about proper scriptural exegesis, and lambasted their opponents. Here catechesis was not politically neutral but served to demarcate the doctrinal lines of the different factions. The interest in literature of entertainment returned after 1436, when the Council of Basel endorsed toleration of Utraquism and sealed a kind of status quo among the religious factions, with such works once again being copied and disseminated. But the kind of literature that was written during the heyday of the Hussite reform, between 1419 and 1436, continued to be written for other occasions of ideological conflict, in which the laity's consent became important, for example in later debates within the Hussite leadership about the future direction of reform. In the span of a mere generation a lasting change was wrought in how theological arguments were conducted, how they were decided, and who participated.
The dominant school of thought that dates back to the 1960s interprets this disappearance of genres as a sign that literature had ceased to be the domain of clerics and nobility and instead came to be "owned" by the laity. This view is attributed to a Marxist reading of the Hussite movement, which projected it as the first serious attempt to overthrow the feudal system, for which the church was only a stand-in. The same scholars talked about a shift toward "popularization" of literature, in which the laity began to penetrate the sphere that was previously dedicated to the clergy. However, they overlooked an important point. Although they were composed in the vernacular, all of the new kinds of writings (such as songs and poems) containing the seeds of the alleged revolution remained firmly in the hands of clerical authors, who used the texts to communicate a specific message for a specific purpose. As noted by Thomas Fudge, this message was often propagandistic and fueled by a desire to gain the laity's support over other groups of clerics and their followers. Fudge first opened up the role and function of the vernacular compositions and drew attention to their marvelous variety.
This book aims to rethink the role of religious instruction, literary production, and the blurring of social and ecclesiastical ranks by analyzing the entire spectrum of vernacular production, from songs and simple compositions to lengthy theological treatises, all of them already edited but never before made the subject of a book-length study. Reformers rarely reflected on their use of the vernacular, but what and when they chose to write in the vernacular speaks volumes about what they thought vernacular writings could accomplish. Vernacular writings coincided with, and largely affected, the formation of different factions, which coalesced around a few select questions of doctrine and ritual. Rather than to focus on the theological or philosophical arguments as such of these various writers, this book examines the role of these texts in the creation of symbols, myths, and rituals that forged allegiances and constructed enemies, thereby serving to solidify distinct religious communities. This is the first book to analyze a wider spectrum of Czech vernacular texts and their function in the religious controversies of the fifteenth century, focusing on how they challenged and transformed the Latinate culture.
Although there is extensive literature on Hussites, it is for the most part quite insular, relegating the movement to the eastern margins of European affairs or framing it in terms of sixteenth-century concerns. Here, the Hussites are examined against the context of early fifteenth-century religion and culture and of Prague, the vibrant capital of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the largest cities in Europe and the home to the first university in the empire north of the Alps. This illumines what is truly revolutionary about the movement: in early fifteenth-century Prague, disagreements about religion were shouted in the streets and taught to the laity in the vernacular, giving rise to a whole new kind of public engagement that would persist into the early modern era. The Hussites brought theological learning to the people, not mere catechesis or moral education, and employed a variety of genres, including songs, poems, tractates, letters, manifestos, and sermons. The leaders, many of whom were also university masters, provided the laity with the tools to discuss contentious issues and arrive at their own conclusions, empowering the semi-learned and unlearned to make up their own minds about important theological issues. While there exists a literature on theology as an institutional practice, it is mostly restricted to studies of universities or framed as the province of "subversive" laymen. None of this explains the marketplace of competing religious ideas in the vernacular that emerged in Bohemia a full hundred years before the Reformation. This is also a new way of telling the story of Jan Hus and the Hussite movement, recasting the ways in which Hus's vernacular works formed a discrete religious faction in what is now the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. The vernacular writings of all genres are considered, instead of merely "official," Latin, erudite reports. What emerges is a rich portrait of a society in transition, a polyphony of voices discussing religion and other influential questions, which made the Latin academic discussions irrelevant, ushering in an era of new and previously unimaginable possibilities for the laity.
Mass Movements Before the Printing Press
The Reformation of the 1520s is generally accounted the first large-scale grassroots campaign rooted in a theological agenda. The traditional narrative holds that the invention of the printing press enabled these reformers, for the first time in history, to shape and channel a mass religious movement. However, religious movements employing the vernacular, such as the Lollards in England or the Hussites in Bohemia, had mobilized lay populations long before the invention of the printing press. While there are scholarly questions about the actual extent and influence of the Lollard movement, despite the elaborate attention given it by a generation of scholars, there is no question that the Hussite controversies turned the capital of the empire into the site of religious dissent and unrest, evident by public acts of violence against people and property, the extent of which astonished observers in the empire and beyond.
The Hussite reformers in the early fifteenth century offer an especially striking case of a successful late medieval mass movement driven by a theological agenda. Marked by strong ethnic or even nationalistic overtones, it was precipitated by the Council of Constance's decision to put Jan Hus to death as a heretic in July 1415. Hus's former colleagues at the university in Prague continued his work, preaching the message of reform, and, with time, they incited the laity to disobey the ecclesiastical authorities. Within a few years, the movement's leaders—with the tacit support of the king—won a number of important ritual and administrative victories. For example, the Hussite priests offered the sacrament of the mass in both bread and wine (sub utraque specie), a practice discontinued in the twelfth century and banned as heretical by the Council of Constance in 1415. Hussite leaders also secured a de facto independence from the archbishop in matters of parish appointments and other administrative decisions, making the university in Prague the official head of the Hussite parishes in the realm. Between 1420 and 1432, the Hussite leaders succeeded in fighting off successive armies of crusaders. At the Council of Basel in 1436, the Hussites even gained the grudging approval of a church council to continue their own particular religious practices within Bohemia. The Hussites were the only medieval "heresy" ever to achieve such concessions from a council.
The Hussite success, achieved without the benefits of the printing press, would, however, have been unthinkable without the direct and active support of the laity. Their involvement had been planned for from the start. In order to mobilize the laity for their reform agenda, the Hussite leaders wrote different kinds of vernacular writings that combined catechesis with severe criticism of the church. First, they persuaded the laity that the medieval church was in need of reform. Later they claimed that they, and not the pope, represented the true church. Making the laity privy to these intra-ecclesiastical disputes gave rise to what Jürgen Habermas later came to call the public sphere. In Bohemia, this sphere grew out of disagreements about how religious, political, and social life ought to be arranged, disagreements that were now openly expressed. It transformed the expectations for how religious or political discourse would be conducted in the future. Obviously this touches upon themes first raised by Habermas but argues for notions of "publics" in the plural that were distinctively medieval, diverse, sometimes overlapping, and as yet broadly understudied. In fifteenth-century Bohemia theology became vernacularized in intellectual, literary, and social terms, thus allowing the laity for the first time to organize themselves into discrete religious factions and to participate in the discussion of religious and political issues. It was a brazen move and a virtual revolution with profound consequences in Bohemia and throughout the empire.
The Hussite message gained a large number of followers because it answered a growing desire among the laity for theological education in the vernacular as laymen made conscious commitments to Christian life that transcended indifferent observance. In Hussite studies, this kind of popular support is generally presumed to be self-evident. Jan Hus and the Hussites are regarded as national heroes, whom the laity would naturally have supported. In addition, this narrative was first written by theologians who saw the Catholic Church as necessarily headed toward the Reformation. But this is the stuff of hindsight and special agendas, both national and religious. We need rather to appreciate the artfulness and cunning with which the reformers addressed their contemporaries. Many of the pro-Hussite compositions imparted new theological information, quoted scriptural passages, paraphrased church fathers, and explained relevant points of doctrine. This is not to say, of course, that the pro-reform compositions are only educational. Many of them are deeply polemical and argumentative, presenting only those theological arguments that favored their cause. Thus, the genius of the pro-Hussite campaign: they gave the people what they wanted but wrapped their educational message in a coating of antagonism against the established church and its directives.
This demand for religious literature was not limited to Bohemia. Elsewhere in Europe the production of vernacular works increased steadily since the 1380s, especially in German, Dutch, and English. The tradition of vernacular religious texts began as early as the thirteenth century and paralleled university and monastic traditions of learning. However, in the late medieval period the kind of writing that would originally have been meant for a monastic audience was now written explicitly for the laity. This included all sorts of catechetical writings, that is, works that introduced the fundamental tenets of the faith and their correct application in everyday life, such as explanations of the Paternoster, Ave Maria, the working of the mass, as well as instruction on the sacraments and teaching about virtue and sin. In addition to catechetical works, collections of sermons, as well as contemplative and mystical texts, were also increasingly finding an audience outside of the religious houses. Clearly, this growing desire among the laity for theological education was not limited to Bohemia. The demand was also fueled by growing establishments of church and city schools for the children of middle-class parents and a sense of prestige that religious literacy bestowed.
The majority of the authors of these vernacular texts were among learned and high-ranking officials of the church. This is important, because it means that this tradition of writings was never seen as independent from the clerical class, their goals and preferences, as some modern scholars would like. There were exceptions, of course, such as Thomas of Štítné (1333-1401/1409), Czech lay nobleman who wrote catechetical works in the vernacular. But for the most part, the vernacular texts were authored by members of the secular and regular clergy, many of whom considered themselves in favor of church reform and who wished to make university erudition useful to those laymen wishing to live pious lives. The notion of late medieval schoolmen as public intellectuals, such as Jean Gerson addressing laity with tracts of knowledge adapted to their pastoral needs, fits well with this larger trend. This was a new direction in theology, called by Bernard Hamm the "theology of piety" (Frömmigkeitstheologie); its goal was to "cultivate the proper, salutary form of the Christian life." The method was one of simplification, boiling down complex scholastic theology (where possible) to elements considered fundamental to the "didactics of piety." The consequence of these deliberate efforts by reform-minded clerics was to open up the content and language of theology for nonexperts in the vernacular in order to foster Christian piety and virtue.
When we put the Hussite movement into the context of wider cultural debates, we can see how it coincided with the concurrent shift in the role of the theologian, from an academic, occupied with matters of his university inner circle to a clarifier and popularizer of orthodox doctrine. But unlike other places, in Hussite Bohemia, this task of explaining and catechizing was linked with factional struggle, which meant that masters and clerics sought to explain doctrines that found themselves at the heart of the controversy, such as transubstantiation or lay chalice, and did it in a way that accentuated distinctions rather than suppressing them. Not surprisingly, this massive catechetical effort, aimed as it was at faction formation rather than pure catechesis, undermined doctrinal and devotional unity rather than fostering it. The vernacular increased factionalism and, ironically, made it more difficult to come to an agreement.
Indeed we must be careful not to idealize the vernacular medium, as contemporary scholarship is wont to do. This observation flies in the face of current wisdom about vernacular texts and literatures, and many may be surprised by the implication that using the vernacular to discuss matters of theology introduced serious—and sometimes fatal—new limitations. This is a crucial point, so much so that it encapsulates the argument of the whole book. Taking theological debates outside of the university widened access and the number of laypeople who were at least rudimentarily conversant with fundamental theological questions. But because the laity was uneducated, they were asked to accept arguments on grounds other than intrinsic theological merit, which they could not evaluate. This changed the way in which theological debates were conducted and decided: arguments about theology were resolved by political leverage and popular (often populist) appeals, rather than exclusively by sophisticated theological disputation in Latin. The switch to the vernacular as the language in which theological debates were conducted did not only contribute to the spread of heresy; it also transformed the rules by which such debates were adjudicated.
This contention contradicts much of what has been written by scholars of late medieval vernacular texts, be they historians, theologians, or literature scholars. Many of them have used the phrase "vernacular theology," brought into vogue by Nicholas Watson after Bernard McGinn used it to describe the third strand of literary tradition, besides scholastic and monastic, beginning in the thirteenth century. McGinn saw this third literary tradition as particularly influenced by women, as did many after him. In recent decades, much scholarship has been done to deepen our understanding of vernacular theology, especially investigations of the capacity of the vernacular, the subversive potential of the vernacular, as well as its various uses. The subversive potential of the vernacular has been explored by Nicholas Watson and his interlocutors, most of them writing about the particularly English phenomenon of Lollardy in England. They use the phrase "vernacular theology" with a specific set of assumptions, implying that the vernacular was always subversive of the Latin discourse, always battling against it, but always marking a positive development. This view has gained some influence, but the examples here will show that this was not always the case. In order to put some distance between Watson's view of vernacular theology and its function, the longer, slightly clumsy phrase "theology in the vernacular" is used here instead.
If anything, there is even less clarity now than there was before about what vernacular theology is and what its implications are. Beginning in the 1300s, the vernacular was used for all sorts of different purposes: to educate, to share (mystical) experiences, to retell and shape (previously inaccessible) narratives, to escape in various ways the limitations of Latin (and its audiences) and to control. Vernacular theology is now taken to describe a vast number of different kinds of writing, written for different purposes for different audiences and united by the fact that they were all written in the vernacular. It is a vast and analytically unwieldy category of texts that obstructs more than it explains. Curiously, there is comparatively little interest in the authors of vernacular theology, except when they happen to be women or heretics, or in the purpose for which they were written. But most were written by clerics, regular or secular, for a lay audience with a specific purpose in mind. Although a few of these works enjoyed many translations and circulated widely across linguistic boundaries, most did not, rather serving smaller audiences and communities, which began to emerge around specific textual traditions. The role of vernacular texts in the formation of the Hussite movement illustrates the full potential of vernacular learning, which—rather than fostering submissive piety—gave rise to distinct religious communities and their identities.
The fact that the laity responded to these catechetical writings points to a larger desire to more actively participate in the daily practices of Christianity. Another way of putting that is that in the course of the late medieval period, laity increasingly wished to tailor and control the devotional experience of the religion into which they were born. Increased endowments of chantries and altars, new religious fraternities, and growing popularity of vernacular writings (both catechetical and moralizing) all belong to this same desire for participation and were evident in Prague at the turn of the fifteenth century.
This increased participation came with a gradual encroachment of the laity on practices previously deemed to have been the preserve of the ordained religious. In the Early and High Middle Ages, monasticism was seen as the highest form of Christian spirituality. Anyone wishing to attain spiritual perfection could only have considered the monastic route, the right and proper place for professional and spiritual athletes. Moreover, living out in the world meant that one could, at best, attain a second-rate spiritual life. However, this entire ideal, resting as it did on a strict separation between the professional religious and the nonreligious, was crumbling. In the course of the fifteenth century, religion ceased to be "the preserve of the professed religious," with the rest confined by these implicit limitations. A new kind of spiritual ideal began to take shape as various new groups were founded in order to appropriate monastic practices and disciplines for everyone. The Devotio Moderna, or the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life, is perhaps the most famous of these attempts to eliminate the division between monastic and lay religious practice. Beginning with houses in Deventer and later in nearby Zwolle and Kampen, communities soon formed across the Netherlands, in Flanders, and in Germany. Their spirituality was urban, literate, disciplined, meditative, and immersed in the book culture, with brothers copying and composing texts as part of their spiritual exercises. Theological learning was not seen to be in competition with spiritual devotion; they were seen as two sides of the same coin. Thomas à Kempis, a member of the Brothers of the Common Life, wrote of the attitude toward theological study in his spiritual best seller The Imitation of Christ. The attitude was not one of rejection: "No reason why we should quarrel with learning or any straightforward pursuit of knowledge," Thomas wrote, "it is all good as far as it goes, and part of God's plan."
These authors of vernacular theological works had little intention to weaken the laity's dependence on clerical ministrations. Quite the opposite. The concerted efforts at education sought to strengthen the integrity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, perceived as having its credibility damaged by numerous late medieval scandals. The learned authors' focus on everyday piety was, in effect, a reminder to the laity about what was most important, a gesture in favor of reforming lay life and morals at times when any other form of church reform remained a deeply controversial topic. However, the controversy about reform in the church did, at times, trickle into the vernacular writings with catastrophic results for the clerical establishment. Bohemia in the early decades of the fifteenth century is a case in point. When Jan Hus began denouncing clerical corruption and immorality in sermons to the laity, he found himself facing charges of heresy almost overnight. The charges were later dropped, but Hus continued to labor under suspicions of scandalous preaching and of inciting the laity against clerics. In his vernacular writings, the message of lay piety was inextricably linked to an exhortation to disobey immoral and corrupt clerics. This is how the Bethlehem Chapel, where Hus delivered most of his sermons, became both a source of vernacular catechesis and complaints against clerical colleagues. Hus was not the only charismatic preacher who criticized his fellow clerics; this practice was endemic to sermons of numerous reformers, such as Johann Geiler, and it may have contributed to the church's loss of authority in lay circles. In Bohemia, Hus's followers continued this trend and their public complaints against other clerics produced a laity watchful of clerical immorality and escalated into a kind of civil war between clerical factions, which would be repeated with the sixteenth-century Reformation. The Hussite writings for the laity fit well in the burgeoning genre of vernacular theological writings, but by combining catechesis with an invitation to dissent they became dangerous. They also became antithetical to the original goals of vernacular writings, which were to strengthen, and not undermine, the church's unity.
The ease with which vernacular theological writings were repurposed reflects their popularity. It also underscores how divided the church was, with the main division running not between laity and clergy, as is often maintained, but between different groups of clerics. This process of fracturing extended seemingly in all directions, including, for example, the Franciscans and Franciscan Spirituals. The fact that university masters should become leaders of groups reaching into the laity—a phenomenon that is not at all obvious—is a product of these increasingly irreconcilable divisions among the Latinate class. When they reached a stalemate, masters turned to the laity and joined forces with them in a way that would previously have been unthinkable. Understood in this way, the Hussite movement was an attack of one group of clergy against another.
This is the broad context for this book about theology in the vernacular: increased desire for participation that challenged the exclusivity of clerical learning and monastic devotional practices and that gave rise to diverse groups within the church, competing for influence and authority. Groups like the Devotio Moderna undermined the monastic monopoly on spiritual perfection. It was no accident that both of the fifteenth-century popular heretical movements, the Lollards in England and the Hussites in Bohemia, grew out of university reform programs. These programs were nothing new, but the potency of their popular appeal was. The laity wished to participate in semi-academic discourse, clearly evident, for example, in the intense debates over the Eucharist in Bohemia and in England, with a number of vernacular treatises on the topic. The lack of consensus among the Lollards or Hussites on a subject as fundamental to Christian life as the Eucharist also suggests that in the absence of a central enforcer, different groups of clerics and laity settled on whichever understanding most appealed to them, giving rise to factionalism.
A World in Decline?
According to the older standard accounts, this was a world in decline, on the brink of a catastrophe. And by some standards, it was. Academic heresies proliferated into massive popular movements. Anticlericalism was on the rise. All ranks of the society called for church reform. Papal authority had been damaged by decades of schism yet unwilling to do anything that would weaken its control. Other institutions, both religious and secular, hardly fared better. To them, the so-called "long fifteenth century" brought discord, divisions, and disorder. But this is a one-sided and distorted picture. Judging by other standards, the fifteenth century was brimming with religious vitality, even if, like all other transformational periods, its narrative history is rather messy around the edges. This is certainly true of Bohemia, whose fifteenth-century developments were once—and influentially—described as an aberration in medieval history. But the Hussite wars are not an aberration. They mirror spectacularly tensions existing under the surface of the religious status quo. In Bohemia, as in England and elsewhere, many clerics aligned with the laity to bring about changes or reforms that they thought necessary. The alliances took a number of different forms, such as preaching circles, religious fraternities, or communities, but all were primarily fueled by the nascent vernacular textual production. In turn, the texts contributed to the breaking down of the traditional divisions and separations between laity and clergy, reconfiguring them into new kinds of groups and communities. It is no accident that the Council of Constance ruled specifically against such alliances, banning "any alliance made between the laity or between the laity and the clergy to the detriment of the holy council, the apostolic see and the Church in favor of those condemned heretics Jan Hus and Jerome and preachers of that sect . . . apparent by the letters written to the sacred council."
The religious controversies of the fifteenth century brought about changes in the fabric of the church that are not yet well described. In order to illuminate the link between theology in the vernacular and the formation of factions in the church, the terms "heresy" and "heretic" are avoided in the chapters that follow. The Hussites were declared heretics by the church and deemed dangerous enough to merit the interest of five crusading armies. Accepting the label means accepting a one-sided category that defines groups by their opposition to the authority of the church or the pope. Worse, the label imposes a kind of artificial unity, obfuscating the very real differences and disagreements among those declared heretics. The term "heresy" evokes a marginalized, sidelined, and isolated group of people, completely obscuring the fact that in Bohemia, religious observances deemed heretical became in some areas mainstream. The label also obliterates variations among heretical groups. These differences often proved so serious as to be insurmountable, in a similar way that the label "orthodoxy" obliterates differences between different orthodox groups, among whom there existed "sets of ideas and modes of worship that enjoyed distinctive and to some extent separate existences, whilst coming under the broader umbrella of 'orthodoxy.'" Finally, these labels turn late medieval Europe into a binary landscape and religion into a yes-or-no proposition. The following chapters seek to uncover the textual production that gave rise to different factions and guided their exchanges with others, some deemed heretical. This allows us to see what divided the heretics and what brought them together. It is only when we sidestep the label of heresy that we can finally recover some of the importance of the Hussite movement: a series of debates and discourses about topics at the heart of laity's religious experience of utmost importance to fifteenth-century Christians.
Another note on nomenclature: there is some (friendly) disagreement among scholars of fifteenth-century Bohemia regarding the precise words to use in describing the reform movement that gains momentum in the early decades of that century, becomes divisive by Jan Hus's martyr's death at Constance, and is transformed into a violent struggle, with the reform's adherents alternating between fighting the pope's crusaders and fighting each other until the Council of Basel recognized the establishment of a legitimate, national church in Bohemia, called the Utraquist Church after its practice of offering communion to the laity in both kinds in 1436. At which point can we talk about Utraquism? Does it obfuscate more than it clarifies when we refer to the reformers as "Hussites," a name coined by their detractors to associate them with the condemned heretic? It turns out that it depends on who you ask. In the pages that follow, I will use the adjective "Hussite" to refer to the reformers. Although the term started out as an expression of opprobrium, by opponents of Hus and his supporters, it quickly became the "conventional term for the Bohemians in the wider European consciousness." As for distinguishing among the different proreform factions, my discussion will move between the commune at Tábor (peopled by the Taborites) and Prague, whose reformers tended to be more theologically moderate and will sometimes be referred to as "the moderates." However, their churches in which they offered communion under both kinds to the laity since 1414 will be referred to as "Utraquist" although the official recognition (and tolerance) of that fact would not come until 1436 and the Council of Basel.
This book also contradicts some accepted wisdom about the kinds of changes that were supposedly only results of the sixteenth-century Reformation. The following chapters show that, in Bohemia, learned culture began to impact popular culture long before the sixteenth-century reformers responded to the laity's desire for theological information. But other groups and initiatives suggest that even in other areas, the laity tried to increase their participation in Christian practices and to understand it in a way that suited them best, well before Martin Luther appeared on the scene. When he did appear, Luther's nascent movement could rely on a "rather well-read and critical urban readership among the urban elites . . . that had educated itself largely through its independent study of religious literature in the vernacular."
The rejection of Latin and of the scholastic modes of settling theological disputes brought about a number of unintended consequences. Among them was a deep crisis of authority that deepened during the sixteenth-century Reformation and was never again universally resolved. In Bohemia, Scripture and God's law were thought to provide authority, but the daily squabbles revealed only too well the limitations of texts as decisive arbiters of anything. It was clear that human readers were needed to interpret them, but without a single and agreed-upon arbiter of doctrine, the veracity of theological arguments directly related to their persuasiveness. What the lay followers came to accept became, in effect, the truth. One only needs a passing acquaintance with recent political campaigns in the United States in order to understand the disastrousness of this approach. Accordingly, in fifteenth-century Bohemia, writers looked for ways to be persuasive in the vernacular in order to endow their words with authority. But because laymen and laywomen were asked to accept arguments on grounds other than intrinsic theological merit, which they were not able to evaluate, writers resorted to a number of misleading strategies, such as reading biblical texts out of context or interpreting certain passages literally where previously allegorical readings had been preferred. Authors resorted to Bible-tweaking, accusations, and invective, or sought alternative markers of authority such as morality or martyr status of leaders. As a result of bringing theological debates into the vernacular, discourse became more deeply polarized and discussions became increasingly polemical, with diminishing chances of arriving at an agreement.
In six chapters, ordered chronologically, this book analyzes the role of vernacular writings in the formation of different religious factions, focusing on the shift to theology in the vernacular and the repercussions of that shift for Bohemia in the first third of the fifteenth century, between 1412 and 1436.
The book covers the beginning phase of the so-called Hussite revolution, between 1412, when Jan Hus first radicalized his followers, and 1436, the agreement between reform leaders and the Council of Basel permitting the Hussite ritual practice to continue. This was a time when the reform movement's leaders most needed to garner the laity's support and employed the vernacular for that purpose. Vernacular production was at its most frequent and most creative, translating and simplifying basic theological arguments (about the Bible, about the church's ritual practice, about authority in the church) and presenting them to the people in a variety of formats. However, this level of access came at a price. While the process of translation and simplification made basic theological arguments intelligible to the laity, the education contained therein had an ulterior motive: not only to educate but to persuade. This is why theological arguments were often augmented by appeals to emotion and fearmongering, deemed persuasive in a way that to a layperson mere theology could not be. And there was an additional cost of theology in the vernacular: Divorced from the traditions and conventions of the university milieu, there was no agreed-upon arbiter of disputes, and the Bible, which many touted as the New Law, proved simply too malleable in the hands of competing interpreters. Due to these hidden costs of theology in the vernacular, vernacular learning actually deepened the ideological divisions that had engulfed Bohemia rather than assuaging them.
The following chapters illustrate that the vernacular discourse, even if it revolved around the same topic, was different from the Latin debates. Theological arguments were simplified and often sacrificed in favor of more intelligible arguments from the Bible or appeals to emotion. These strategies did speak to the laity and persuaded them to side with the reformers, as the nationwide resistance to five different crusading attempts makes clear, but they made agreement about theological issues impossible. The theologically moderate Prague party prevailed only after its followers chose to destroy their former reform brethren in the battle of Lipany in 1434, having joined forces with the Catholics. The scholarship presents this victory in the positive light, as necessary to secure peace and the backing of Rome for reform in Bohemia. But this book complicates this optimism by suggesting that vernacularization of theology increased—rather than decreased—religious factionalism and radicalism, minimizing the chances of an agreement among the leaders.
The first chapter discusses the public activities of Jan Hus up until his excommunication and exile in 1412. It offers a reinterpretation of Hus's role as a preacher, arguing that although Hus encouraged interior conversion like many other proreform preachers, his vernacular preaching proved contentious when he used his pulpit at the Bethlehem Chapel (set up for preaching in the Czech language) to air complaints about the clergy in Prague and to encourage the laity to judge the moral standing of clerics, even to withhold tithes from priests they deemed undeserving.
The second chapter analyzes events subsequent to Jan Hus's excommunication in 1412. With nothing to lose, Hus's interactions with the laity became increasingly deliberate, and he used a number of public media, such as wall inscriptions, treatises, open letters, and proclamations, all in order to persuade the laity that although he had lost his legal case against the curia, the moral victory was his and that he, rather than corrupt officials, held authority in the church. In so doing, he deliberately created a religious faction of followers that would continue to push for reform in the church even after his death.
Chapter 3 takes up the short vernacular compositions in verse and song that proliferated in Prague after Hus's death. Written by leaders of pro- (and anti-) reform factions, these street ditties were meant to persuade the laity to support (or reject) the political agenda of Hus's successors. This effectively widened the subject areas that the laity were invited to take sides on and prepared the ground for much longer compositions on a variety of theological and political subjects that began circulating by the early 1420s, analyzed in later chapters.
Chapter 4 analyzes the textual production of the radical commune at Tábor or what was left of it after extensive purges in the wake of Tábor's defeat in the 1430s. The few extant poems that were composed for Tábor's adherents display a high level of biblicism; they are steeped in the Bible, often quoting it at length. But Tábor's biblicism is problematic: it is selective and radicalizing.
Chapter 5 focuses on longer compositions written against Tábor. Combined, these compositions show that questions of correct exegesis and rightful authority, among others, were being debated among the laity in different reform and anti-reform factions. Such tractates democratized access to theological learning. But this level of access came at a price: Theological education came to serve political and ideological agendas, and each side translated and disseminated only those arguments that helped them. The goal was to persuade, which meant that being coherent or well informed mattered less than being persuasive. This, in turn, deepened rather than resolved the disagreements between Prague and Tábor to the point that moderate reformers resorted to military intervention against their radical brethren, defeating and marginalizing the commune in the battle of Lipany in 1434.
The sixth chapter focuses on the mass, which traditional accounts held to be at the center of the Hussite dispute. Sidestepping the issue of the lay chalice, the usual focus of scholarly narratives, I argue that in the course of the 1420s Wyclif's critique of the doctrine of transubstantiation gave rise to a host of vernacular treatises on the nature of the sacrament in Bohemia. This group of treatises, previously unexamined, offers abundant evidence of lay doubt about transubstantiation and debates that aimed to offer alternative definitions of the Eucharist. I show that the laity was asking incisive theological questions and answering them in a variety of ways, some of them deemed heretical.
The seventh and final chapter explores historical writing about the Hussite reform on the example of two chronicles, Historia Hussitica, written in late 1420s by Lawrence of Březová, a Hussite supporter, and Historia Bohemica, written in 1458 by Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (the future pope Pius II), a harsh opponent of the Hussite movement. Both were Latin chronicles and both circulated widely. They provide a fitting end to the narrative of vernacular compositions and their import, because—although written in Latin and for educated audiences—both authors not only responded to the concerns expressed in the vernacular treatises discussed in the first six chapters but also adopted their means of persuasion. Forgoing theological explanations, their narratives appealed to emotion, incited fear, and exaggerated the violence perpetrated by the faction that the given author opposed in order to incite hatred against it. This shows how quickly the concerns discussed in the previous chapters were cast as historical narratives. Moreover, it shows that the same persuasion strategies developed for vernacular discourse (that proved so divisive) found their way into Latin official accounts of the Hussite reform outliving the formative decades of the movement discussed here and continuing to divide Europe long afterward.
As evident from examples of writers discussed in this book, however, not all masters responded to this pressure to publish in the vernacular in the same way. Some insisted that theological learning was not to be put into the language of the laity, while others seemed keen to translate, simplify, and circulate doctrine among the laity. This is another example of how, in the course of the fifteenth century, new arrangements of what institutional Christianity would look like were being created through a series of disagreements and controversies, some labeled heretical.
The dynamic that emerges is a complex one: it is a world in which a university man reaches out to the people as a performer while also remaining a Latinate university man and cleric; a world in which scriptural commentaries and university disputations are turned into vernacular verse, while the same university men continue their work in Latin; and a world in which university masters form alliances with laity and together with them push for what they consider the true faith and the correct form of religious observance. This picture underscores the diversity contained in the late medieval urban landscape and the multiplicity of lay and clerical discourses present within it. And yet, this entire discourse in the vernacular has been ignored and its importance downplayed. Scholarship has ignored not simply a song here and a tractate there, but an entire discourse in the vernacular, actually a number of different discourses, so important to their contemporaries that they antagonized councils, frightened popes, and ushered in an era of new (previously unimaginable) possibilities for the laity, a full hundred years before the start of the Reformation.