Jan Hus: radical proto-protestant, martyr, or nationalist myth?

Alfons Mucha’s painting of Jan Hus preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel.

In the formulation of the national and nationalist narratives that were such a part of nineteenth century European political and state formation, most countries sought to reach back into their disparate histories and to pluck from them figures who it might be politically expedient to present as being as being harbingers of a nation later to emerge. Jan Hus is one such figure from Czech history and since today is his day, I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the ways Hus has emerged as a figure of the Czech nation.

If July 6th is Jan Hus day in Czech Republic, a notoriously atheist country, then many who are unfamiliar with the country, will also be surprised to learn that the day before is also a national holiday, for Ss. Cyril and Methodius, thought to have played a significant role in the emergence of the Czech language. In both cases then, Cyril and Methodius on the 5th and Hus on the 6th, the primary reasons for celebrating these men is not religious but instead national.

To understand Hus as a figure of nationalism first, it might be best to start with Alfons Mucha’s extraordinary series of paintings, Slovanská epopej (The Slav Epic). This extraordinary cycle of over 20 paintings was completed between 1910 and 1928, and tells the story of the Slav people’s from their mythical prehistory to the apotheosis of the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.

The eighth painting in the cycle, “Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel” is subtitled “Truth prevails”. In the painting, at the top of the post, we can see Hus almost rapturously revealing the truth to those congregated. Hus was appointed to the chapel from the Prague University and was deeply involved in the debates around the various ideas of Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe. As Peter Demetz notes of Hus:

[Hus] was surely a man of quiet decisions, and he was far from being a belligerent radical, even though he looked like one to many. He grew with the events, in which schismatic popes, legitimate and illegitimate kings, comfortable prelates enjoying many benefices and ascetic theologians, the church’s legal establishment and the resolution to live in the truth of Jesus Christ, conservative Bohemian patriots and early defenders of the idea of a nation based on language rather than territory – all these were chaotically pitted against each other.” (Prague in Black and Gold, 132-133).

This, it might be fair to say, is an attempt to strip back from Hus the national connotations which he gained as a proto-protestant, national hero figure from the time of Frantisek Palacky’s five-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia (1836-67). As Mary Heinemann has noted:

A Moravian Protestant, Palacky took a particular interest in rehabilitating the reputation of Jan Hus, whom he presented, in the first volume of his History to be written and published in Czech, as at once a proto-Protestant and a proto-nationalist martyr. This view was to have a profound influence upon – among others – the man who was eventually to found the first state ever to to be named for the Czechs and the Slovaks: lapsed Catholic and fellow Moravian Tomas Masaryk. (Czechoslovakia: the state that failed, 13).

Heinemann’s observations are especially astute on Hus, who she sees as being moulded in the following way in order to help legitimate the initial claims for what eventually became the first Czechoslovak republic:

The Czech-speaking Bohemian priest and activist Jan Hus (John Huss), presented as a sort of Martin Luther, becomes the chief symbol of Czech resoluteness and independence; while the Taborite (radical Hussite) Jan Zizka, a kind of Oliver Cromwell figure, is cast in the role of proto-nationalist and primitive socialist. (Czechoslovakia, 3).

And this is not just Heinemann’s view, which is stridently myth-busting in her approach, but is also backed up by other scholars looking at how the myth of the First Czechoslovak Republic, led by Masaryk and Benes, was cultivated. As historian Andrea Orzoff notes of Palacky’s famous nationalist history, for Palacky – and thus for Masaryk et al. – Hus and his followers were not merely engaged in a discussion over church doctrine but became

freedom-loving, democratic, tolerant, egalitarian, morally righteous, and pacifistic until unjustly attacked. These were the qualities permanently bred into the Czechs by their national history, Palacky implied. (Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1918, 27).

This view of Hus and the Hussites was reinforced in paintings like Mucha’s Slav Epic and also in the staggering art nouveau statue of Hus which dominates the heart of historical Prague, Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), designed by Ladislav Saloun and erected there on his 500th anniversary in 1915, three years before the foundation of the first Czechoslovak republic.

The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.
The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.

Jan Hus,the Hussites and also Jan Zizka and the Taborites, all have come to represent in the Czech Republic, a kind of ant-authoritarian resistance – whether it was Hus preaching the words of Wycliffe to his congregation, or the view of Czechs as a Protestant “nation” crushed and controlled by a Catholic empire – they have all come to represent something closer to the vision of Palacky than their real historical personages or that their own contexts could possibly have allowed. National identity and myth are built on such figures, however remote they end up being from the person who once lived, breathed and preached.

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