December 6th, 2019
We talked with author Pavel Soukup about his book with Purdue University Press, Jan Hus: The Life and Death of a Preacher.
The book records the life of medieval Czech university master and popular preacher Jan Hus, who was one of medieval Europe’s most prominent reformers.
Q: Who was Jan Hus?
Pavel Soukup: Jan Hus was a late medieval Czech university master and popular preacher in Prague, an adherent of the teachings of the English thinker John Wyclif, and a proponent of Church reform. Through his dedicated pursuit of what he understood as his mission, this medieval intellectual generated conflict, and eventually brought execution upon himself. In 1415, he was condemned at the Council of Constance and burned at the stake as a heretic. Thanks to his contemporary influence and his posthumous fame in the Hussite movement and beyond, Hus has become one of the best known figures of the Czech past, and one of the most prominent reformers of medieval Europe as a whole.
Q: It must provide a challenge to write about someone with the notoriety of Hus. Was there anything new you intended on adding to the conversation around him?
Soukup: The new facts I was able to add Hus’s biography are rather detailed findings that matter mostly to specialists. More important was my ambition to provide a comparative perspective on Hus. I did not want to see him as a titan with no peer, but rather as a member of a large group of reform-minded medieval intellectuals. What puzzles us is the fact that many of these reformers belonged to Hus’s opponents and some most prominent of them were among the judges who sent him to death. It is only through comparing their grounds, aims and approaches, that we can understand the religious split and the emergence of the Hussite dissent. While much work remains to be done, my book identifies the key areas in which this comparison should be done, and provides answers to the question of why an ecclesiastical reformer was condemned by a reform church council.
Q: Why did you choose to write about Jan Hus now?
Soukup: The book was written upon request by the German publisher of the original version. Otherwise, I would not think of writing about a person of such prominence in Czech historical research and public debate. Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation immediately. I understood it as both a chance and a challenge. Writing about Hus, one finds himself part of a long and venerable tradition. Czech patriotic discourse always spoke about Hus in impassioned, affected language. Today, big words like ‘truth’ and ‘martyrdom’ make us somewhat bashful. While literature on Hus certainly needs more sober language, the central themes of Hus’s story remain topical. Hus had to make hard choices facing repressive institutions, and the former Czech president Václav Havel had a point when he emphasized the principal of individual responsibility that cannot be delegated to anyone else.
Q: You say that the central themes of Hus’s life remain topical. What are some of these main themes?
Soukup: Jan Hus is often seen as someone who chose death instead of betraying the truth. This stance might be questioned by pointing to the subjectivity of personal convictions, especially when they are rooted in religious beliefs. Yet it is precisely these days, in the age of disinformation, that we need to care again about truth and reliability. Another theme crucial for grasping Hus is his public activity which led to the emergence of a group of determined followers who, not much later, started a religious revolution. I devoted the key chapters of the book to communication, media, and propaganda, as well as to preaching and political networking of Hus. Given the importance of communication networks and social media in today’s world, I believe that the social impact of communicative behavior represents a highly relevant topic of cultural-historical studies.
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