Celebrity and Preaching in the Fifteenth Century: Jan Hus and Late Medieval Homiletics


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Celebrity and Preaching in the Fifteenth Century: Jan Hus and Late Medieval Homiletics
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Weber, Reid S.
University of Florida
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Gainesville, Fla.
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Submitted as part of application for U.S. Student Fulbright Program 2011-12

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Statement of Grant Purpose
Reid S. Weber, Czech Republic, Cultural History
Celebrity and Preaching in the Fifteenth Century: Jan Hus and Late Medieval Homiletics

Jan Hus (d. 1415) has long been a central figure in the history of the Czech nation. As an
academic, preacher, reformer, heretic and ultimately martyr, Hus was at the vortex of the
religious, political, and social upheaval that changed the historical landscape of fifteenth-century
Bohemia. Burned at the stake for heresy at the Council of Constance, his death served as the key
event galvanizing much of Bohemia in rebellion against their King, Emperor, and Pope. From
the moment of his martyrdom and for generations afterwards, his popular legacy was employed
by Hussites, Protestants, Catholics, nationalists, and Marxists alike. His story has been told and
retold countless times with each generation shaping the narrative to meet the ideological needs of
their specific agenda. Underneath all the various interpretations of Hus, is it possible to find the
charismatic academic and priest? The renegade cleric had a tremendous impact on Czech
identity, Czech language and literature, and European religion during his lifetime and beyond.
His influence extended well beyond Bohemia's borders. When one considers his legacy in the
Czech lands, however, it is easy to forget that he was not simply a product of a specific
Bohemian culture but of an academic and clerical world stretching from Oxford to Cracow.
Although the historiography on Hus is substantial, scholars have not thoroughly examined the
way in which he related to his audience as a dynamic preacher as many historians have simply
assumed that Hus's popularity was based on his use of the vernacular and his propensity for
controversy. Public preaching is one of the shared facets of late medieval society that tied this
world together. The actual content of his preaching merits a fuller examination.
Historians writing on the life of Jan Hus commonly mention his popularity as a preacher
at the Bethlehem chapel in Prague. Why was Hus popular during his lifetime? The answer to this
question is relevant to any study of the charismatic preacher's relationship to his city, language,
and all of Christendom. Historians have often taken his popularity for granted and preferred
instead to track questions of heresy and nationality. Studying Hus as preacher sheds light on the
basis of his popularity. A greater understanding of Hus' preaching could reveal details not just of
Hus's time and the violent fall-out after his martyrdom, but also give us a greater understanding
of late medieval and early modern preaching more generally. Clearly audiences found something
compelling about Hus's preaching. A careful examination of Hus within the broader context of
late medieval preaching combined with a comparative study of Hus and his contemporary
celebrity preachers could reveal causes of Hus's local popularity and link Hus to the wider world
of charismatic preaching in that era. The results of this investigation will expand our
understanding of the prominent figure of Jan Hus, as well as the wider topic of charismatic
preaching in the Late Middle Ages.
The link between Hus's preaching and his popularity is, at present, not entirely clear.
What prompted thousands flock to hear him speak? Historians have often cited Hus's preaching
in Czech as a key to his popularity, but they rarely consider the actual content of his sermons. It
stands to reason that his message, not just his language brought him an audience. What was the
content of his sermons? How did Hus relate to his listeners at the Bethlehem chapel? Was he
concerned with the day-to-day spirituality of his audience? Since the Czech reinterpretation of
Hus under communism, historians have lamented the distortion of the "historic" Hus over time.
Howard Kaminsky suggested in 1968 that the place to start looking for Hus is in his Wyclifism,
the theology that shaped his career and in turn ended his life. Other historians have examined
Hus as part of a Bohemian Reformation, earlier and distinctly separate from the Protestant

Statement of Grant Purpose
Reid S. Weber, Czech Republic, Cultural History
Celebrity and Preaching in the Fifteenth Century: Jan Hus and Late Medieval Homiletics

Reformations of Luther and Calvin. As an alternative to a more theological analysis, I suggest
investigating the relationship between Hus and his audience. Historians need to examine his
popularity in the specific context of his sermons, the daily messages that drew in thousands of
listeners. Only then can we begin to understand his place in Bohemian society and recover the
daily pastoral concerns of an individual whose legacy has been shaped by nationalist and
religious agendas.
By placing the evidence used by historians to build a narrative of conflict into a broader
mundane context, I hope to create a more complete picture of Hus the preacher, and if the
evidence allows, de-emphasize Hus the reformer. If one can examine Hus as a preacher, a clearer
foundation will emerge on which to base his charismatic and popular legacy. Unfortunately, the
only recorded words by which one might investigate the connection between the preacher and his
audience are Hus's sermons. The investigation of the sermons themselves can provide clues on
how that connection was formed, but without documentation to represent the listeners' reactions,
their views can only be inferred through the cultural and historical context. The relationship with
his audience formed the roots of his living popularity. That popularity fueled a violent reaction to
his martyrdom, which, in turn, established his legacy. Though I certainly recognize that Hus's
use of the vernacular contributed to his popularity as a preacher, more attention needs to be
devoted to the actual content of his sermons. It is highly unlikely that thousands would flock to
the Bethlehem Chapel twice a day to hear an unappealing message just because it was in their
native tongue. A detailed analysis of the content, in both published and manuscript form is,
therefore, critically important to move scholarship closer to the elusive "historic" Hus.
To complete my work, it is critical that I spend a year studying in Prague, where there are
two sets of indispensable resources for the project. Prague provides a place of access to all major
works of Jan Hus and many of the leading scholars in the field necessary for conducting research
on this dissertation. The Czech Academy of Science's Center for Medieval Studies contains
every secondary work on Jan Hus from the last century as well as publications of Hus's works
and every published edition of Hus's Omnia Opera. I will investigate many of these texts before
my arrival in Prague. However, it will be necessary to compare many of the published texts with
the manuscripts to ensure reliable transcriptions as many of the earliest were quickly compiled
by nineteenth-century historians with nationalist agendas. Along with easy access to published
sources, the National Library, National Museum, and Prague Castle Archives all contain the
manuscript collections of Hus and most importantly the unpublished sermons and letters of
contemporaries that may provide critical insight into the expectations and reactions of Hus's
audience. Prague is the center of Hussite scholarship today. I am grateful to have an offer of
sponsorship from Dr. David Holeton from the Husitskd Teologickd Fakulta at Charles
University. Dr. Holeton has significant experience working with North American graduate
students and has facilitated their contact with a broader community of scholars who study late-
medieval Bohemia. I also anticipate interaction with the Center for Medieval Studies and its
director Dr. FrantiSek Smahel. During an earlier trip to Prague in the summer of 2008 for
language study and pre-dissertation research I had extended conversations with Pavel Soukup
from the Center. Dr. Soukup has worked extensively on Hussite material and may provide
critical assistance with fifteenth-century Czech paleography and as well as helping some of the
difficult linguistic issues.

Personal Statement
Reid S. Weber, Czech Republic, Cultural History

"Why would an American want to study Czech history?" A Czech companion asked me
this question in 2001 as I was participating in a study abroad program in Olomouc. At the time, I
could only describe to him the novelty and Hollywood-like tale of a reformer named Jan Hus
who was betrayed by the emperor and a blind warrior named Jan Zizka and his defiance of
Europe in Hus's martyred name. My time in Olomouc left me with a desire to conduct further
investigations into the complexities of late medieval Bohemia I have pursued an answer to the
question of the relevance of Czech history and have felt its story is too often forgotten in the
standard histories of the Middle Ages. With the end of the Cold War and the expansion of the
European Union much is still to be done to integrate all of Central Europe into a broader
historical narrative of the continent. It is important to remember how small Europe was in the
Middle Ages and that goods, people, and ideas could move from Hungary to Ireland and from
Sicily to Denmark with relative ease. For the medieval past, there is still a need to more
effectively incorporate Central Europe into a broader European narrative. It is part of my
ambition to work towards a full integration of Central Europe into a broader concept of medieval
European history that provides analysis and agency to what historians too often consider the
mere fringe of the German Empire.

Over the course of my academic career I have been working towards a research project in
Prague. I have won two summer fellowships to study Czech from the US government sponsored
Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Program: one at the University of Indiana and the
other at the Charles University in Prague. I have continued my Czech language studies at the
University of Florida. At the same time, I have done course work in German, Italian, and Latin
and have a functional use of all three. In summer 2008 while on a FLAS fellowship I used the
opportunity to lay the ground work for future research in Prague. I began working within the
archives and libraries and was able to access material relevant to my project. In particular I
visited the National Library and their manuscript reading room. During this time I met an active
circle of Czech and international scholars working on late medieval Bohemia and established a
number of acquaintances with whom I remain in contact on my topic. In the last year I have
began working through available published sources and began accumulating a detailed list of
manuscripts and texts I wish to analyze further. Having laid this foundation for future research
and admitted to doctoral candidacy, I believe that now is the ideal time to conduct significant
research in Prague.