1627: Matthäus Ulicky, for communion

Add comment September 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1627, Matthäus Ulicky had his right hand chopped off, and then his head, in Caslav, Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

Ulicky and his offending extremity were casualties of the centuries-old struggle for reformation in Bohemia, and more specifically of the 1620s triumph of Catholic arms and the consequent promulgation of Habsburg edicts enforcing orthodoxy in ecclesiastical doctrine and practice.

One of the chief fault lines in the generations’ religious strife* had been Rome’s practice — never dictated in Scripture — to limit Holy Communion for the laity to

  1. Bread only, and not both bread and wine; and,
  2. Bread only when distributed by a priest, and not by another lay congregant.

Perhaps this point reads in retrospect like a minor ritualistic difference, but for disputants upholding or breaking the priestly domination over Christ’s body and blood denoted a question of power, of the intrinsic nature of Christianity. Little surprise that the Catholic order of the 1620s barred the reformist practice of permitting communion of both types, distributed by hands unburdened with holy orders.

Ulicky and his right hand broke that prohibition, delivering both bread and wine from his own unworthy lay deacon’s hands. He initially escaped Bohemia, leaving a reformist manifesto in his wake, but was arrested when he attempted to return.

* Both the Bohemian Hussite movement and the later Lutheran Reformation opposed Catholic doctrine restricting communion to the control of ordained priests.

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1422: Jan Zelivsky, Hussite defenestrator

Add comment March 9th, 2015 Headsman

Radical Hussite Jan Želivský was beheaded on this date in 1422.


1952 memorial plaque of Zelivsky in Prague

Zelivsky (English Wikipedia entry | Czech), a priest, emerges in the 1410s as a fiery populist orator at Prague’s Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

After the treacherous capture and execution of Jan Hus, the Hussite movement split between radical and moderate factions. The firebrand Zelivsky became the chief voice of the lower-class, radical Hussites and led the dramatic Defenestration of Prague wherein a Hussite mob pitched several Catholic city ministers out the window of the Prague town hall — triggering a revolution and 15 years of war.

Over the ensuing year, Zelivsky came to dominate politics in Prague. But he had to struggle for his power against both the external threat of Hapsburg armies, and the internal rivalry of moderate Hussites — and these factions did not scruple to deploy the executioner for mastery of Prague.

Zelivsky in the summer of 1421 mounted a coup against moderate Hussites who were negotiating with the Catholic nobility, and even executed some of those movement apostates. But power was wrested away from him in the ensuing months and he was arrested by surprise at a town meeting and secretly put to death.

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1433: Pavel Kravar, Hussite emissary

Add comment July 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1433, Pavel Kravar — known in the place of his death as Paul Craw — was, “found an obstinate heretic, he was convicted, condemned, put to the fire and burned to ashes”* at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Kravar was a Czech (probably) physician who entered that hotbed of religious reform, the University of Prague, the very year after Jan Hus burned at the stake.

Adopting the burgeoning Hussite creed with gusto, Kravar spent the 1420s proselytizing in Poland as a side gig to a medical practice. (He was the court physician to the King of Poland, who was briefly friendly with the Hussite cause.)

In the early 1430s, perhaps as part of an aggressive, Europe-wide Hussite propaganda campaign, Kravar turned up in evangelizing in Scotland.

Lest this strike the latter-day reader as bizarre — a Bohemian church seeking converts in the Highlands — it bears remembering that Hus himself took inspiration from a Briton, Englishman John Wycliffe; one of Wycliffe’s followers, James Resby, had become the first documented Christian reformer martyred at the stake in Scotland in 1408. There are other traces of anti-Lollard legislation in the first decades of the 15th century that hint at some level of heretical ferment abroad.** And in the widest sense, the Hussite movement had, until its imminent military destruction, a legitimate shot at mounting the sort of continent-wide challenge to ecclesiastical orthodoxy that the Reformation accomplished a century later.

That events didn’t quite work out that way was hard luck for Kravar, who had headed straight to the country’s only university town where his reformist ideas (and Latin lingua franca) might have some currency. There he may also have run into the realm’s most implacable Inquisitor: Kravar’s actual activities,his objectives, his specific doctrines, and the circumstances of his capture and condemnation — these are all most obscure. The best we have is a hostile chronicler allowing that the Hussite was “fluent and skilled in divinity and in biblical argument.”†

Tudor-era Scottish cleric John Knox filled in the dubious detail that Kravar had been gagged en route to the stake with a large brass ball, to prevent his exhorting the crowd; more contemporary-to-Kravar sources unfortunately did not think to notice this picturesque expedient.

* From Walter Bower in Book XVI of the Scotichronicon (1440s), via Paul Vysny, “A Hussite in Scotland: The Mission of Pavel Krava? to St Andrews in 1433” in The Scottish Historical Review, April 2003. It’s not clear from the primary source whether events proceeded from trial to execution all in the same day, but July 23 is the date typically given for Kravar’s death and certainly the last date of his life distinctly in the historical record.

** See Vysny, op cit.

†Bower, again; via Vysny, again.

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1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr

Add comment May 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1416, the Council of Constance had Jerome of Prague burned at the stake in the town square.

This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.

Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.

While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.

Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.

After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.

Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.

By the time he was ready to answer for himself, and his soul, he was well past any spirit of capitulation. A witness to the procedure wrote of Jerome on trial for his life:

I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.

When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”

Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.

At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.

Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.

“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”

Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.

* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.

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1437: Jan Rohác z Dubé, Hussite marshal

1 comment September 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1437, Hussite marshal Jan Rohác z Dubé was hanged in Prague.

The Bohemian commander had upheld throughout the Hussite Wars the cause of its namesake heretical priest. (There’s a Czech biography of Rohac here.)

The Hussites had a nice run in the 1420s — no less a personage than Joan of Arc took time out from French battlefields to dictate an anti-Hussite jeremiad threatening to “remove your madness and foul superstition, taking away either your heresy or your lives” — but eventually succumbed to repeated papal onslaughts.

They were decisively crushed at the 1434 Battle of Lipany … but Rohac survived it, and “emerg[ed] from the ashes” like “a phoenix”, the last champion of the forbidden sect.

Rohac rallied the remnants of his partisans to a fortress named Sion* near Kutna Hora, where they were besieged and ultimately overwhelmed.

Days later, he was demonstratively executed in Prague, where all this Hussite trouble had started.

The people of Prague, as an act of intimidation directed at dissenters, were forced … to watch the gruesome display. Clad in his red baronial robes, with a sign draped around his neck stating his condemnation, Rohac was hung by a gold chain from the top of a three-story gallows. Beneath him hung the bodies of the Sion garrison.

Present-day Jan Rohac appreciation is best done Czech.

This bio is available reprinted from a public domain source. There’s also a 1947 Czechoslovakian film (appropriately titled Jan Rohác z Dubé, but also known in English as Warriors of Faith) celebrating Rohac’s exploits.

* No truth to the rumor that the Hussites’ doings in doomed Sion inspired the techno rave scene in the city of the same name in The Matrix.

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1419: The (first) Defenestration of Prague

14 comments July 30th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1419, an angry mob of Hussite peasant rebels stormed the town hall on Charles Square in Prague and threw the judge, the mayor and several city council members (either seven or thirteen; accounts differ) out the window. They all either died in the fall or were killed by the crowd outside.

The event has been the subject of several paintings, as well as being beautifully illustrated in Lego form and also reenacted.

Hussites followed a Christian reformer, Jan Hus, who was one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Hus was eventually excommunicated and burned as a heretic. The cause of the July 30 riot was the city council’s refusal to release from custody several Hussite prisoners.

The mob, led by the Hussite priest Jan Želivský and future general Jan Žižka, marched to the town hall, but they only became violent after someone inside the building threw a stone at them. After that there was no stopping them.

The riot had far-reaching consequences, inasmuch as it is seen as the start of the Hussite Wars, which lasted until 1434 or so and involved government-sponsored military action against the Hussites as well as Hussites fighting amongst themselves.

This event has come to be known as the First Defenestration of Prague. That is, I’m sure we all can agree, an AWESOME name, and probably the principal reason the riot is still remembered today. The word “defenestration” comes from Latin: de-, meaning “out of,” and fenestra, “window.”

The Czechs have a habit of throwing people out of windows at critical junctures in history; since 1419 there has been at least one more (nonfatal, but more famous) Defenestration of Prague, in 1618. A couple of similar events since then have sometimes been called the Third Defenestration of Prague, though this is not universally agreed upon.

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