17.01.24, Šmahel, ed., A Companion to Jan Hus

Main Article Content

Sean A. Otto

The Medieval Review 17.01.24

Šmahel, František, ed., in cooperation with Ota Pavlíček. A Companion to Jan Hus. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 54. Turnhout: Brill, 2015. pp. vi, 447. ISBN: 978-90-04-28055-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sean A. Otto
Wycliffe College

A Companion to Jan Hus is a welcome addition to Brill's extensive Companions to the Christian Tradition series, which is rapidly approaching eighty volumes. One of its most important contributions is that it can serve as an introduction to Czech scholarship on the Bohemian reformer; for scholars who can read English, but not (yet) Czech, here is a way into the vast and complex historiography around this important and controversial figure. The volume offers much more than this, of course, but we must recognize from the beginning that there is still a long way to go before English language scholarship has integrated the scholarship of Czechs on their own reformer into its understanding of late medieval religion: this volume is a clear and helpful step in that direction.

Across eleven substantial chapters, the volume covers the chronology of Hus' life and works; Hus' precursors in reform in the Czech lands; various aspects of his works, including Hus' preaching and his vernacular theology; his trial at the Council of Constance; as well as Hus' commemoration in liturgy, iconography, and the interpretation of his works and life by various parties through to the Enlightenment. This mere listing of topics demonstrates yet another strength of this collection--its admirable interdisciplinarity. Given the constraints of a review, I will limit my comments to those particular areas that I found most interesting, important, or problematic, and encourage the reader to explore the book for themselves--their efforts will be richly rewarded.

Following a brief introduction by Šmahel which provides an overview of the volume's contents, Ota Pavliček offers a detailed and exhaustive look at the chronology of Hus' life and works. This is a sort of manuductio, as Pavliček deftly leads the reader through what could easily become a dizzying wealth of information, names, places, and dates. This chapter pairs well with the late Vilém Herold's chapter on three of Hus' precursors: Conrad Weldhauser, John Milíč of Kroměříž and Matthias of Janov. Herold's work here contextualizes Hus' reforming tendencies beyond a facile and mistaken tendency to lay the credit (or blame) solely at the feet of John Wyclif. While not discounting Wyclif's influence on Hus, Herold reiterates that there was already a reform movement in Bohemia prior to the arrival of the English's reformer's works in the Czech lands, and that Hus and the movement which bears his name were products of their environment as much as they were of the ideas of Wyclif. Nor was there universal acceptance of Wyclif's ideas, and Herold helpfully outlines the beginnings of the controversy at the University of Prague over the reception of Wyclif's works.

Pavel Soukup's detailed study of Hus' preaching places it within the larger tradition of reformist preaching. Hus had a productive preaching career at Bethlehem Chapel (which had a capacity of something like 3000 people) and while in exile, making himself the most famous and influential of the reformist preachers in the process. Soukup is surely correct that such a successful career, while dependent on Hus' own skills as a preacher, was also founded on the preachers of the previous generations, who laid the groundwork for reformist work through their emphasis on preaching and rhetoric.

Soukup's study is followed by that of Stephen Lahey on Hus' commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Lahey offers a careful examination of the contents of this commentary, demonstrating that it was essentially conservative and Aegidian in nature, and arguing that the elements of Wyclif's thought which arise throughout the commentary do not do so in a way that "suggests heretical intentions" (168). Lahey characterizes Hus as an able but not innovative theologian, "capable and confident," but not yet demonstrating that he was "reformatively minded" (168-169). More on precisely how Hus moved from this essentially conservative position to become the central figure in the Bohemian reform movement, and to be subsequently declared a heretic, would be a welcome expansion to Lahey's foundational work here.

Pavlína Rychterová's chapter explores the importance of Hus' use of the vernacular, both in his preaching and in his writings. Of course, we have known for a long time that it was not unusual to preach in the vernacular in medieval Europe despite Protestant historiography's claims, but the importance of European vernaculars for the writing of theology in the later Middle Ages is now becoming more widely recognized, and Rychterová here outlines the importance of the use of Czech to the Hussite movement, an importance that Hus himself recognized (see 210-213); this was especially so with Hus' catechetical materials, which maintained a strongly biblical message.

The importance of Hus to the Czech language is explored in the final chapter of the book, a second contribution of Šmahel, "Instead of Conclusion: Jan Hus as Writer and Author." Here he considers Hus' methods and purposes for his various compositions, covering the entirety of Hus' oeuvre. Medieval understandings of authorship and authority are touched on in order to defend Hus from Johann Loserth's old charge of plagiarism; [1] Šmahel could have perhaps gone deeper here, although word limits no doubt played a role. Nonetheless, Šmahel's overview is even-handed and helpful, emphasizing the multi-faceted approaches that Hus took to support the catechetical needs (in the tradition of the Bohemian reform movement) of both the laity and clerics, in Latin and the vernacular.

Šmahel's first contribution follows that of Rychterová, and is a carefully considered study of Hus' political theology, taking into account Hus' teachings about the Czech nation, about the functioning of secular power, and about social issues. Šmahel argues that the situation in Prague and Bohemia was much more complex than a simple antagonism between Germans and Czechs, and recognizes that not all Germans were opposed to the reformist ideas of Hus and his fellows, nor were all Czechs in agreement with the same. This fact, Šmahel argues, forced Hus to subordinate national ideals to reforming ideals.

The contentious issue of Hus' trial at the Council of Constance is handled with aplomb by Sebastián Provvidente. He opens his chapter with a very helpful historiographical overview, and then moves through the various stages of the trial to its conclusion with Hus’s relinquishment to the secular arm. Provvidente argues convincingly that there was a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of Hus' approach to his interactions with the Council--for while Hus prepared himself for a disputation, that is a disputatio in the scholastic sense, the council fathers were conducting an inquisition. Moreover, Hus was caught up in the Council's attempts to legitimate its power, especially in the face of John XXIII's refusal to abdicate, as the Council used Hus' trial to demonstrate its plenitudo potestatis.

The three yet-to-be-discussed chapters in the collection deal with the influence of Hus: the reception of his ideas, the construction of liturgies, music, art, and other commemorations. There is an impressive amount of information in these chapters, and all three will reward the reader is this regard. David Holeton and Hana Vlhová-Wörner's work on liturgy and music is especially rich, and demonstrates that Hus' contribution to Czech religious lyrics and liturgy is much smaller than used to be thought, while at the same time offering a survey of commemoration from Hus' execution to the present day, through phases of Utraquist commemoration of Hus as proto-martyr and patron saint; polemical football for Protestant and Roman Catholic polemicists in the period of the Reformation(s); and inclusion in a wide-variety of calendars of saints' feasts today. Milena Bartlová's survey of artistic representations, accompanied by a number of high-quality plates, is likewise informative, demonstrating the varieties of portrayal across the centuries, while recognizing the limits of what these portrayals can tell us. The third of these chapters is Zdeněk V. David's well-organized summary of the various historiographical camps into which interpretation of Hus fell between his execution and the Enlightenment.

Overall, this collection represents a valuable contribution to Hussite studies, and the historical study of late medieval religion in general. The difficulties of working with different languages are apparent here and there in the volume, but with that said, the scholarly quality of the contributions is consistently high, and the contributors and editors are to be thanked for what is sure to be the touchstone in English for anyone embarking on the study of Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformation, something a stray háček or two is not going to change.



1. See Johann Loserth, Hus und Wiclif: Zur Genesis der hussitischen Lehre (Leipzig, 1884).

Article Details