20.04.09 Perett, Preachers, Partisans, and Rebellious Religion

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Ian Forrest

The Medieval Review 20.04.09

Perett, Marcela K. Preachers, Partisans, and Rebellious Religion: Vernacular Writing and the Hussite Movement. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 304. ISBN: 978-0-81225-053-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ian Forrest
Oriel College, University of Oxford

In 2008 John Van Engen coined the phrase "multiple options" to characterise the fifteenth-century Christian church, and since then historians and literary scholars have made various attempts to flesh out this model, exploring why certain options came to the fore in particular times and places. Once of the places manifesting a truly distinctive flavour of Christianity at this time was the kingdom of Bohemia, whose "Hussite Revolution" has been celebrated in the canons of protestant, Marxist and nationalist historiography for many years. Much of the story of Jan Hus, the Czech masters of Prague University, Kings Wenceslaus and Sigismund, the radicalism of Tábor, the influence of John Wyclif, the long wars against crusading armies, eventual military defeat and political compromise, is very well known. Since 1989 the subject has blossomed in Czech, German and English-language scholarship, and a growing body of work places fifteenth-century Bohemia and Moravia in the context of religious and political developments across Europe, particularly the world of multiple religious options characterised by Van Engen. What he meant to evoke with that phrase was the increasing potential for lay people to shape their engagement with Christianity at a local and personal level. This meant forming voluntary communities of worship and interpretation, beyond the parish; it meant forging links with currents of thought emanating from university, monastic and mendicant contexts; it meant reading, or listening to, works of religious instruction and devotion written in the European vernacular languages rather than Latin. It is on this last aspect of the Hussite moment that Perett's book focuses.

Complementing a fascinating body of existing scholarship by the likes of Thomas Fudge, Pavlina Rychterová, Pavel Soukup, Alfred Thomas and Blanka Zilynská amongst others, Perett likewise draws attention to the outpouring of religious songs, polemical tracts and both academic and popular theology written in Czech during the Hussite period. Such a body of vernacular compositions has many comparators across late-medieval Europe, but these Czech texts have a strong claim to being more momentous than all others in their political and religious consequences. The growing interest in Czech religious compositions reorients the Hussite historiography of František Šmahel and Howard Kaminsky, which was based in the analysis of Latin works.

Taking a broadly chronological approach, Perett re-tells aspects of the familiar narrative from Hus's appointment as preacher at the newly-founded Bethlehem Chapel in 1402 to the anti-Hussite crusades of the 1420s and '30s, looking in particular at the contribution of vernacular texts to shifts and splits in public opinion. From Hus's lifetime these enthralling texts, brought vividly to life by Perett, include mural calligraphy at Bethlehem besides Hus's own sermons, his tracts such as O šesti bludiech ("On the Six Errors") written in Prague, and others written in exile between 1412 and 1414 alongside a vernacular sermon-cycle and a series of letters. That final period before Hus's fateful trip to Constance is accorded especial significance by Perett for the emergence of a self-conscious reforming faction in Prague, seeing itself as an alternative congregation. This is a significant correction to the view that it was Hus's execution which radicalised his followers.

From the post-Hus period Perett looks first at written versions of Prague street songs for and against reform, dealing with clerical corruption, biblical authority and Hus's life and thought, before turning to the songs associated with the millenarian and experimental society at Tábor in southern Bohemia. In these verses, arguably the most revealing and original productions of the entire period, we can perceive the formation of an identity based on rejection and renewal. The biblical and para-biblical themes of flight to the mountains and metaphorical feasting are strong, emphasizing Tábor's separation from the moderate Hussites as well as the Catholics, their anticipation of warfare and perhaps martyrdom after the example of the Maccabees, and their repudiation of the hierarchies of the outside world. Táborite compositions were lampooned by more conservative Hussites or Utraquists, as in the song 'Now you shoemakers of the true faith', which parodied Tábor's Nuž křestané viery pravé ("Now you Christians of the True Faith"). In this war of words the use of the vernacular--so Perett argues--exacerbated splits and divisions, something she calls the 'price of theology in the vernacular'. There were, nevertheless, some texts which seemed to give space to the exploration of divergent views, even while a particular line was being promoted. In the fictional discourse known (rather wonderfully to anyone familiar with later Czech literary and political history) as "Václav, Havel and Tábor," the character Václav ventriloquizes a traditional perspective, while Tábor takes the radical line, and Havel is a "waverer," unsure of who or what to believe. Besides giving attention to the eucharistic controversies surrounding the fringe "Pikart" movement, the book gives substantial attention to two works by the major Utraquist master Jan Příbram, first his Život kněží táborských ("Lives of the Táborite Priests") which satirized the theology and morals of the commune's leaders, and second his Vyznání věrných Čechů ("Confession of the Faithful Czechs") which purports to record his disputation with the English Wycliffite Peter Payne in 1429. Finally, the book ends with discussion of two histories of the Hussites written by Lawrence of Březová and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). These were Latin works and, though interesting interventions in shaping learned impressions of Hussitism, it is not obvious why they are included here.

Perett's principal argument is that vernacular texts were clerical compositions designed to persuade the laity, to create factional identities, and respond to other efforts at lay engagement. She highlights the tendency of vernacular writing to split public opinion, despite the creation--in this moment--of Czech as a written language suitable for expression in all genres and registers, and despite the fact that it was the use of Czech which created this public sphere in the first place. The use of vernacular languages had different meanings around Europe, and comparison is always instructive. In Bohemia the use of Czech was not simply a replacement for clerical Latin but an exclusion of German speakers from the emerging religious-national community. All of this will be of great interest to the reader.

There are, nevertheless, some problems and inconsistencies in Perett's argument, which would repay further consideration. Writing of the clerical authorship of vernacular texts Perett proposes that "all genres, even those deemed most popular, such as songs, remained firmly in the control of clerical authors" (115). The reader needs to understand that Perett is responding to a previous generation of Czech literary scholarship which assumed an equation between the vernacular and lay authorship, a sort of secularization of written expression. However, it may seem to some that she over-corrects this view: if we are to think of songs as actually sung in streets and churches, and of religious texts as speaking to lay concerns, can lay initiative be so thoroughly excluded from the textual realm? Perett often asserts the clerical authorship of anonymous texts, but provides no evidence for this blanket attribution. It would also be interesting to know whether the purported clerical authorship of Táborite verses holds a different meaning for her, given the attempt there to erase the distinction between clergy and laity. At root these problems arise from the absence of a sustained consideration of audience and of how texts actually contributed to the campaigns of persuasion and mobilization. Perett does not seem to have quite worked this out for herself, assuming that because a text exists, it must have achieved its effect: but how? For instance she dismisses Bohuslav Havránek's admittedly-dated belief that this body of Czech literary compositions reflected a lay "hunger" for vernacular theological writing, (145) but on the final page of the book she specifically calls this the "most profound of the laity's desires" (226). Elsewhere she accuses the Táborites of having "neglected to reach out to the undecided," (144) while later noting their "commitment to effective proselytization to the laity" (175). How people used texts, rather than the mere fact of their existence, and how the surviving texts speak of the horizon of expectation of their imagined audiences, remain unanswered questions.

A related area for consideration by readers is the paradox that we have only textual evidence for what was still a predominantly oral culture of religious and political debate, something that is especially important when considering sermons, songs and verses. Unravelling this knotty problem would require discussion of the manuscripts in which vernacular compositions were recorded, and of any evidence for the relationship between the performed sermon or song and its written textual version. Surely there was not a one-to-one relationship between writing and performance, but this is what Perett sometimes seems to assume. As in any historical investigation, the really interesting questions revolve around the indeterminate relationship between the survival of particular sources and the lived experience of the time. In what sort of manuscripts do popular tracts and verses actually appear? What does the materiality of these texts tell us? If songs circulated as broadsheets do any survive? Were writers (whatever their identity) transcribing street compositions or conducting the choir themselves? Are written sermons transcripts or prescripts? As scholars of other times and places have noted, writing down popular songs or sermons is somehow at odds with their orality, so an explanation is required of the historian.

Perett's study nevertheless opens up some fascinating texts for consideration, and the situation of her research within the wider field delineated by Van Engen will raise all sorts of interesting questions among specialist readers. Ultimately, explanations for the mobilization of mass support for radical theological positions must probably extend beyond the rather restrictive model of clerical leadership and clerical authorship advanced here, but Perett's readers will be in no doubt as to the interest and importance of early-fifteenth century Czech vernacular texts.

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