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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1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language

4 comments July 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake at Konstanz for heresy.

This statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town is a tourist magnet. image (cc) autumnal fire

Hus might be the most consequential pre-Lutheran Christian religious reformer, and the Hussite faith he founded still persists to this day.

In his own time, Hus expounded a reformist theology inspired by John Wycliffe, and putting Holy Writ into the vernacular was essential to his program. His religious movement found common cause with a Bohemian political interest in exploiting western Christendom’s clown carful of rival popes to stake out greater national independence.

He eventually met his martyrdom by agreeing to come to the Council of Konstanz (Constance) under a guarantee of safe conduct, where prelates were going to sort out their rival popes and do the periodic Church reform thing.

Instead, Hus was seized and imprisoned — you don’t have to keep promises to heretics, see; it’s all a part of this noble era’s expediently plastic sense of honor — and tried and condemned and implored to recant and finally burned alive.*

But the disobedient movements Hus had kindled in life were not so easily reduced to ash.

In the aftermath of the great ecclesiastic’s execution, a significant conflict erupted in Bohemia. For a generation or so of the Hussite Wars, the man’s followers repelled Catholic incursions before they too finally succumbed.

Even then, it wasn’t over (and still isn’t). Though it wasn’t all specifically about the guy named Jan Hus — these things never are — the Catholic powers that be were still fighting and propagandizing against Hus centuries later, into the Counter-Reformation.

Today, the statue of Jan Hus that everyone flocks to see in Prague’s Old Town Square is flanked by a Catholic church on one side … and a Catholic church that’s become a Hussite church on another.


Since all of the above and a great deal more about Hus and Hussites is readily available at the search engine of your choice, we thought — after the above introduction — to redirect our conversation to a dimension of Jan Hus less widely recognized: his foundational role in the development of the modern written Czech language, and especially its use of diacritics. Hus is generally credited as the creator of the haček or caron.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for helping ferret out this excerpt, from the chapter on Czech by Robert Auty in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander M. Schenker and Edward Stankiewicz, Yale: 1980.

The religious reform movement associated with the name of Jan Hus (1371-1415) had important consequences for the Czech literary language. Knowledge of the Bible was an important element in the reform program of Hus and his followers: the Bible was to be made available to the people in their own language and priests had to be able to expound it in a clear and straightforward manner … The establishment and continuous polishing and revision of the scriptural text played a great part in the development of the written Czech vernacular. Moreover the Czech translation profoundly influenced the earliest Polish versions of the Bible.

Hus’s own views on the language emerge not only from his practice but also from various theoretical utteranes on the subject. It has been shown that in morphology and vocabulary he tried to modernize the language in accordance with the development of natural speech. In phonology however he took up a more conservative position … Hus was also critical of another element of contemporary Prague speech, the proliferation of Germanisms in the vocabulary. In this he took up a position similar to that of many of his countrymen four or five centuries later and castigated those who said handtuch (Ger. Handtuch) for ubrusec ‘towel,’ šorc (Ger. Schurz) for zástěrka ‘apron,’ trepky (Ger. Treppen) for chódy ‘steps,’ knedlík (Ger. Knödel) for šiška ‘dumpling’ and the like. It is interesting to note that many of the Germanisms to which Hus objected have in fact disappeared from the language; yet others have resisted; knedlík, for example, has become fully domesticated.


A Czech knedlík by any other name would still taste as chutný. (cc) image from Michal Sänger.

It is in all probability to Hus that we must ascribe the establishment of the orthography of modern Czech, for this is essentially based on the diacritic system expounded in the treatise known as De orthographia bohemica. Written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the tract, though it cannot with absolute certainty be ascribed to Hus, is nevertheless held by the great majority of scholars to be his work. …

The revolutionary innovation advocated in De orthographia bohemica was the introduction of the diacritic system, that is to say the extension of the repertory of graphemes by the user of superscript marks. For the consonants the principle adopted was to use the unmarked Latin letters for sounds which (in the contemporary pronunciation) were identical in Latin and Czech, but to indicate specifically Czech sounds by means of a superscript dot over the letter concerned. Thus … č, š, ž, ř … [which] indicated not palatal articulation but non-Latin-ness. …

It seems most probably that he was influenced by the Hebrew practice of indicating by a dot (dageš) variant phonetic realizations of the same grapheme. We know that Hus learned some Hebrew, and this would seem the most obvious source of this orthographic device. …

The diacritic orthography was not immediately accepted, despite the fact that a handful of early fifteenth-century manuscripts employed it. It gained ground in the later fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth century and became adopted as the standard. With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century the Gothic (black-letter) form of the Latin alphabet was used for Czech books as it was for German. When the forms of the letters were standardized Hus’s lozenge-shaped dot was changed to the ‘hook’ (haček) which lives on as the reversed circumflex of the present-day Czech alphabet. The indication of vowel length, originally similar to a comma, was systematized as an acute accent (referred to in Czech as &#269árka) …

By the time the Hussite wars ended in the 1430’s the Czech language was in use in most spheres of national life. It was established as a medium of administrative and legal documents, and it was increasingly used for learned and technical writings … When we consider that the relative uniformity of the phonological and morphological structure of the language remained unimpaired, and that its orthography was in the process of consolidation, we can establish the mid-fifteenth century as the period of origin of the Czech literary language as a normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom.

Czechs and their normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom get a public holiday and all the hačeks they can drink in Jan Hus’s honor today.

* Just to make sure everyone got the point, this same council ordered the remains of the long-deceased Wycliffe exhumed and posthumously “executed”.

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1536: William Tyndale, English Bible translator

7 comments October 6th, 2009 Headsman

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” cried William Tyndale at the stake this date in 1536 … just before he was strangled and burned.

“Translated the Bible into English,” reads Tyndale‘s epigraph; in the Protestant blossoming, this Herculean academic labor was also of itself a dangerous religious and political manifesto.

As with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale’s English version threatened, and was intended to threaten, papal ecclesiastical authority. In undertaking the work, Tyndale defied the 1408 “Constitutions of Oxford”, an English clerical pact further to the suppression of the Lollards and kindred post-John Wycliffe heresies which expressly prohibited rendering scripture in the vernacular.

In Protestant hagiographer John Foxe‘s Book of Martyrs, a young Tyndale exasperated with a Romish divine memorably declared,

“I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”

Tyndale would give his life to, and for, that ploughboy.

On the lam in Protestant Germany, Tyndale produced an English New Testament, and then an Old Testament, of startling poetry.

The scholar also kept a reformist voice in the day’s robust theological pamphleteering — trading fire, for instance, with Sir Thomas More.

Even when the once-staunch Catholic Henry VIII broke with Rome over Anne Boleyn, the English manhunt for Tyndale continued: Henry’s reformation did not share radical Protestant objectives like scriptural authority, and the king was not shy about enforcing his version of orthodoxy.

Tyndale was equally stubborn in defense of his life’s mission to put a Bible in the hands of the English ploughboy. Offered the king’s mercy to return and submit, Tyndale countered by offering his silence and martyrdom if Henry would but publish the Good Book in English.

I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.

Luckily for posterity, the English crown wasn’t biting, leaving Tyndale’s mellifluous rendering of Holy Writ to enter the English tongue.

And leaving Tyndale, eventually, to enter the martyrs’ ranks.

In 1536, an English bounty hunter befriended the fugitive translator and betrayed him to the authorities in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. It was the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire that did the dirty work of their rivals in the Isles.

And — the Lord works in the mysterious ways, they say — Tyndale’s dying prayer was indeed answered.

By the end of the decade, a Bible in English drawn from Tyndale’s version (revised by former Tyndale assistant Myles Coverdale under Thomas Cromwell‘s direction; prefaced by Thomas Cranmer) was by regal authority placed in every parish of the Church of England.

The Tyndale Bible became the basis for the King James Bible that remains for many authoritative to this day … and Tyndale’s work lodged in the textual DNA of the evolving English Bible(s) in the five centuries since his death. (The wonderful site The King’s English deals with the linguistic legacy of the King James Version; many of the examples in fact trace back to Tyndale.)

Works by and about William Tyndale

Audiophiles should consider this podcast from a Protestant perspective, located here.

[audio:http://www.bethanybaptist.co.uk/mp3/2008-05-09-pm-Brian-Edwards.mp3]

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