The Medieval Review 14.04.12


Fudge, Thomas A. The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xxiii, 432. $74.00. ISBN: 9780199988082.



Reviewed by:


Marcela K. Perett
Bard College Berlin
m.perett@berlin.bard.edu

Thomas A. Fudge's book The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure analyzes the legal proceedings against the famous heretic from Bohemia and sets it in the context of more general questions of heresy and legal procedure in the Middle Ages. Fudge's book seeks to answer a query posed in 1967 by Howard Kaminsky, an eminent historian of the Hussite movement, who wrote: "what the historian wants is not a careful demonstration that Hus should not have been burnt, but a reasonable explanation--in a sense even justification--of why he was" (xix). The author proposes to arrive at such an explanation by following a two-pronged approach, to ask whether Hus's trial was legal, that is to say whether the trial's proceedings complied with the prevailing canonical legislation and procedural law, and to examine Hus's expressed beliefs to evaluate whether they were, indeed, heretical as the church had claimed.

In Chapter 1, entitled "Jan Hus in History, Heresy and Court," Fudge begins by surveying the different opinions scholars have held of Jan Hus, as either fully deserving his ignominious death or an innocent victim of a curial witch hunt, the worst of heretics or a holy martyr. Subsequent scholarship, fueled by confessional or national preoccupations, obfuscated the matter by focusing on the wrong or irrelevant questions, and few have been willing to touch the question lurking at the heart of all these discussions, that is, whether Hus was really guilty of heresy. The author argues that much of this intractable conflict can be resolved if we focus on the law and legal procedure, a difficult and, therefore, much neglected subject, but one that can yield real answers. Fudge aims to be iconoclastic here, rejecting our modern, knee-jerk sympathies with a man burnt for his convictions as misleading. His book is best seen as an argument against "an enduring conviction that Jan Hus was unjustly accused, illegally tried and thereafter murdered for his attempts to reform the church" (3).

Next, Fudge turns to the question of heresy in general, in Chapter 2, tellingly entitled "Inventing Medieval Heresy." But presenting an all-encompassing definition of heresy proves to be a difficult task. What is certain is that in the Western church heresy came to be linked with papal decrees, but as a definition this obscures the many variations among heretics. The author proposes an image of a "haunted house of heretics" with nine windows, which affords us nine different views, or dimensions, of late medieval heresy. There is heresy as intellectual deviance, as religious formation and reform, as contumacy, as challenge to the social order, as civil disorder, as madness, as disease, as perversion, and as diabolism. This varied list demonstrates that heresy was an invented category, always determined in relation to something outside of itself and often used as an "instrument of power created by the church to safeguard its own interests and authority" (38). In this way, "heretics were the medieval equivalent of terrorists, in the sense of threatening the stability and tranquility of Christianity as determined by the Latin Church" (39).

In Chapter 4, entitled "Law, Procedure, and Practice in Medieval Heresy Trials," Fudge turns to the ways, in which heresy was combatted. He traces the development of "antiheresy legislation, legal procedure and policies of repression aimed at controlling and eliminating the perceived threat" (72), highlighting major players (mostly popes) and major principles (varied). It was Innocent III, who criminalized heresy, establishing the consequences for such criminality, and regularized the process as a form of criminal procedure. But the process was far from standardized and the variation in practice was staggering. In effect, there was no single approach to those suspected and accused of heresy. The suspects might be granted legal council to represent them but they might not. They might be imprisoned, sometimes as a punishment but not always. They might be interrogated using one of the many manuals and they might be tortured or not. The only certainty was in death: by burning. The author shows that there was no such thing as a universal procedure that governed the court's approach to heresy, even the application of heresy legislation varied with time, place, custom, episcopal presence, or penchant for one inquisitorial tradition over another.

Discussion of Hus's case comes next. Entitled "Beginnings of the Hus Trial from Prague to the Papal Curia," Chapter 5 traces the origins of the trial against Hus, showing his accusations grew out of a local conflict, beginning in 1408. But it was Hus's appeal against the archbishop's decision to have Wyclif's books burnt that launched the proceedings that eventually led to his death. As with most things in the career of Jan Hus, the appeal had as much to do with local politics and personal animosities as with convictions and principles: While Hus believed that all manner of books deserved to be studied, he also did not hesitate to speak up against an odious archbishop and support the king. But once initiated, the legal proceedings could not be stayed and, after refusing to appear before the court in Rome, Hus was excommunicated for the third time by the ecclesiastical synod in Prague on October 18, 1412 and subsequently forced into exile. Along the way, Hus was the target of numerous complaints and accusations. The author leaves no stone unturned, showing that proceedings were often driven by political or personal agendas and sometimes lost or won on technicalities.

Facing exile, Hus ignored his one remaining option for appeal and decided to go public, appealing to Christ, the one judge whom he believed capable of delivering a just judgment. In Chapter 5, "An Extraordinary Motion to an Appellate Court," Fudge discusses Hus's appeal, a unique document that Hus made public on October 18, 1412, within days of being excommunicated and forced into exile. In his appeal, Hus refuted the legal charges brought against him, arguing that the curia failed to take into account his reasons for failing to appear in 1411 and that, for that reason, the entire string of excommunications was invalid. Fudge argues that Hus's decision to turn to Christ as his appellate judge was a sign that "Hus was confusing faith with law and moral conviction with legal procedure" and that the "posture of morality that Hus assumed was incompatible with the posture of law and legal procedure" (208). Indeed, Hus's own lawyer did not approve of the document and the councilmen at Constance later mocked him for it. His appeal constituted an act of grave disobedience and revolt, defiance of contemporary legal channels and systems of authorities that angered his opponents.

In Chapter 6, "The Ordo Procedendi as a Political Document," Fudge analyzes another important, little studied, document. It is an account of the events, accusations and legal proceedings up to that point and was most likely put together by Hus's lawyer, John of Jesenice, possibly edited by Hus, sometime between April and September 1414. There would be nothing mysterious about wanting to have a little summary of what has happened before setting out for Constance, but there is a catch. The document is not entirely accurate as a description of the legal proceedings but is heavily biased in favor of the defendant. The most glaring inaccuracy is its claim that Hus had filed an appeal not with Christ but with a future church council. This was an attempt to re-write history, possibly as a way of salvaging some of Hus's credibility. Fudge argues that the document was made for circulation and suggests that the inaccuracies were intentional, in order to present legally a more favorable picture of Hus. The document is valuable for its account of the early stages in Hus's trial and also for giving us an insight into Hus's understanding that it was not only a legal battle that awaited him at Constance but also a battle for public opinion.

In Chapter 7, "Legal Process at the Council of Constance," Fudge recounts the trial since Hus's arrival in Constance. He reminds his readers that the council was a continuation of the on-going legal proceedings against Hus not a fresh new trial, which, naturally limited Hus's options. Hus was arrested and imprisoned in late November 1414, and his safe conduct was revoked in early January 1415 on the grounds that "safe conducts were irrelevant" (248) when it came to accusations of heresy. Shortly after, the commissioners of the council drew up a revised set of charges against Hus, most of them culled from his work De ecclesia inspired by Wyclif's work of the same name. In Fudge's telling, the prosecution was determined from the beginning to sentence Hus for heresy and put him to death. To advance their case, Hus's opponents mounted a public campaign against Hus, using exaggerated rhetoric inside the courtroom and even outside it. This effort was met with an opposition from Hus's supporters, who posted placards and notices in public places, especially places where councilmen might pass by and see them. But the trial outcome seems to have been a foregone conclusion, with Sigismund urging that Hus be burned even if he recants, because "he would not be sincere in the retraction" (269). This shows a "damning indictment of official prejudice against Hus, indicating the presumption of guilt in violation of canon law" (269). At the same time, Fudge notes no deviation from prior legal conduct here, suggesting that while the judges were eager to convict Hus, the law gave them ample opportunity to do so. And when Hus refused to recant (for the fear of perjury and in order not to offend God and the people to whom he preached), the judges convicted him of heresy and seduction of the people.

In Chapter 8, entitled "Assessing the Accusations and Criminal Charges," Fudge recounts the charges against Hus starting in 1408. This is to some extent a repetition of much of the information from the previous chapters, but it is also a handy, more systematic summary of all the accusations leveled against Hus. Six discrete groups of charges emerge: "concerns about emphases on moral issues, disobedience, ecclesiology, connections to John Wyclif, Eucharistic irregularities and contumacy" (316). Hus was pronounced guilty on charges of contumacy and maintaining a "deviant doctrine of the church" (328), and Fudge concludes that there was "preponderance of legitimate evidence to sustain these charges" (329). The author concludes by saying that Jan Hus may have been a heretic, but he was also a good man.

Thomas Fudge's The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure synthesizes a massive amount of scholarship on medieval legal procedure in general and on the trial of Jun Hus in particular. As such it will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Jan Hus and in canon law on heresy. The author's detailed discussion underscores the fact that canon law, as impressive an edifice as it was, did not have agency of its own. It was wielded by individuals, whose motives were varied and not necessarily honorable. Fudge's discussion of Hus's last months in Constance and of the machinations that went on behind the scenes makes this abundantly clear: Politics, fear of Hus, and personal vendettas all contributed to Hus's conviction. And although Hus was guilty of heresy and contumacy, the road to his conviction was strewn with coerced witnesses, prejudiced testimony and outright perjury. The implication is that, in Hus's case, context was everything. Although Hus held views about the church that were not all that unique, the fact that he held them at that particular moment in the church's history (papal schism, crisis of authority, fiscal disaster) and that it was he, Hus, who held them (university educated vernacular preacher with a growing lay following) led to his death. The question of Hus's dangerousness then emerges once again. Why did the councilmen, a diverse group of highly esteemed men, employ their resources against this one man? Thanks to Fudge's painstaking analysis of the legal documents in Hus's case, we can now re-evaluate the political and social motivations that urged his death.

This book is a very welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on Jan Hus in English. It is an impressive study that incorporates legal and narrative sources and draws a wide array of secondary scholarship, bringing research by eminent Czech scholars (especially Jiří Kejř) before an English audience, often for the first time. This book illumines the trial of Jan Hus while shedding light on the way in which canon law regarding heresy could be mobilized against a perceived threat to the church.



Copyright (c) 2014 Marcela K. Perett



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