Review: Hus the Heretic

This is not really a book review per se. It is more of a long footnote concerning a fabricated document, related to the trial of John Hus. This book is easily accessible to those doing research. In English it has been published under at least four different titles:

  1. The last days of John Hus, a historical romance (1909)
  2. The infallibility of the Pope at the Council of Constance; the trial of Hus, his sentence and death at the stake, in two letters (1930)
  3. The trial and burning of John Huss! An eye-witness account (1991)
  4. Hus the Heretic (1997-2003)

The book includes two sensational letters, purportedly giving an eyewitness account of the trial and death of John Hus. But the letters are nineteenth-century fabrications, written to stir up fervor against Catholicism.

Who (supposedly) wrote these letters?

The author is given as Poggio Bracciolini, or, in some versions, “Poggius the Papist”! Poggio Bracciolini attended the Council of Constance, and even wrote about the death of Jerome of Prague in 1416. As far as we know, Poggio Bracciolini did not attend Hus’ trial.

What is in the fabricated account?

 Here is a famous portion of Hus the Heretic:

. . . With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him in a skirt drenched with pitch. At this moment the elector of Palatinate, Ludewig, rode up and prayed Hus with fervor to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away . . .

The saying about the goose and the swan (referring to Martin Luther) is first recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; most of the other details and dialogues in Hus the Heretic are not recorded in any other sources. The book concludes:

I wanted to acquaint you with this story of a heretic, my dear Nikolai, so that you might know how much fortitude of faith Hus had shown before his enemies and how blissful, in his faith, this pious man’s end had been. Verily, I say unto you, he was too just for this world!

John Hus died in 1415, but this book first appeared more than four centuries later, in German. It has also been translated into Czech, Dutch, and Latin.

Why did someone fabricate this?

Historian Richard G. Salomon gives a detailed historiography in his article “Poggio Bracciolini and Johannes Hus: A Hoax Hard to Kill.”

The letters appeared first in 1845 in serial form in an obscure periodical . . . and one year later in book form, without the name of an editor.

It first appeared in book form under the German title Hussen’s letzte Tage und Feuertod [Hus’ Last Days and Burning at the Stake]. Salomon goes on to explain that there was a rise in sectarian conflict centering around the figure of Johannes Ronge, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church in 1845.

What was this book based on?

Probably the most insulting part of this fabricated book is that it is based on a true letter that Poggio Bracciolini wrote about Jerome of Prague. Poggio Bracciolini didn’t write a 60-page eyewitness account of John Hus’ death in 1415; but he did write a glowing 5-page letter describing Jerome of Prague’s martyrdom! One historian has called this Poggio’s “dangerous letter”; Poggio was employed at the papal court, and it was a very odd choice for him to write a letter praising a condemned and executed heretic!

Bracciolini waxes eloquent concerning Jerome of Prague. He begins his account:

I confess that I have never seen anyone, who came so near the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire.

This is another case in which truth is stranger than fiction.

‘Tis strange,–but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
(Lord Byron, Don Juan)

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