Jan Hus: reformation before the Reformation

Legitimising and defending Reformation frequently required turning to the past. Reformers both attacked the corruption and decadence of the late medieval church and glorified those who stood against it. This striking image depicts one of the most important of these figures, Jan Hus, who was condemned and burnt as a heretic (an enemy of the Catholic Church) at the Council of Constance in 1415. It is part of a late sixteenth-century text which describes both Hus and his follower, Jerome of Prague (also executed at the Council of Constance) as ‘martyrs and confessors of Christ’.

The binding of this volume reveals that it was owned by John Whitgift, [c. 1531–1604], who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583. Whitgift, like many other Elizabethan Protestants, almost certainly saw Hus as a powerful symbol of historical opposition to the Catholic Church. Much like the English theologian John Wyclif [d. 1384], Hus was seen as an important forerunner of the sixteenth-century Reformation that was to come. For Protestants, such figures helped to answer one perennial Catholic gibe: ‘where was your church before Luther?’. Keeping alive the memory of Hus gave historical legitimacy and continuity to a movement that saw itself not as the new creation of Martin Luther, but as the true church with an unbroken history that could be traced back to Christ. CL

Historia Ioannis Hussi et Hieronymi Pragensis: martyrum et confessorum Christi (Nuremberg: Katharina Gerlach, 1583), a8v.

LPL: H4917.(H4) [*]

Further reading

Zdeněk V. David, ‘The Interpretation of Jan Hus from the Beginning through the Enlightenment’, in Ota Pavlicek and František Šmahel (eds), A Companion to Jan Hus (Leiden, 2015), pp. 342-69.

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