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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 10 — The trial of Jerome

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The Trial of Jerome – Spirit and Eloquence of his Defense – Expresses his Sorrow for his Recantation – Horrors of his Imprisonment – Admiration awakened by his Appearance – Letter of Secretary Poggio – Interview with the Cardinal of Florence

WHEN the accusations were communicated to Jerome, he refused to reply to them in prison; he demanded to be heard in public. With this request his judges deemed it expedient to comply; and on May 23rd, 1416, he was taken to the cathedral church, where the Council had assembled to proceed with his cause. [1]

The Fathers feared exceedingly the effect of the eloquence of their prisoner, and they strove to limit him in his defenses to a simple "Yes" or "No." "What injustice! What cruelty!" exclaimed Jerome. "You have held me shut up three hundred and forty days in a frightful prison, in the midst of filth, noisomeness, stench, and the utmost want of everything. You then bring me out before you, and lending an ear to my mortal enemies, you refuse to hear me. If you be really wise men, and the lights of the world, take care not to sin against justice. As for me, I am only a feeble mortal; my life is but of little importance; and when I exhort you not to deliver an unjust sentence, I speak less for myself than for you."

The uproar that followed these words drowned his further utterance. The furious tempest by which all around him were shaken left him untouched. As stands the rock amid the weltering waves, so stood Jerome in the midst of this sea of passion. His face breathing peace, and lighted up by a noble courage, formed a prominent and pleasant picture amid the darkened and scowling visages that filled the hall. When the storm had subsided it was agreed that he should be fully heard at the sitting of the 26th of May.

On that day he made his defense in an oration worthy of his cause, worthy of the stage on which he pleaded it, and of the death by which he was to seal it. Even his bitterest enemies could not withhold the tribute of their admiration at the subtlety of his logic, the resources of his memory, the force of his argument, and the marvelous powers of his eloquence. With great presence of mind he sifted every accusation preferred against him, admitting what was true and rebutting what was false. He varied his oration, now with a pleasantry so lively as to make the stern faces around him relax into a smile, [2] now with a sarcasm so biting that straightway the smile was changed into rage, and now with a pathos so melting that something like "dewy pity" sat upon the faces of his judges. "Not once," says Poggio of Florence, the secretary, "during the whole time did he express a thought which was unworthy of a man of worth." But it was not for life that he appeared to plead; for life he did not seem to care. All this eloquence was exerted, not to rescue himself from the stake, but to defend and exalt his cause.

Kneeling down in presence of the Council before beginning his defense, he earnestly prayed that his heart and mouth might be so guided as that not one false or unworthy word should fall from him. Then turning to the assembly he reviewed the long roll of men who had stood before unrighteous tribunals, and been condemned, though innocent; the great benefactors of the pagan world, the heroes and patriots of the Old Dispensation, the Prince of martyrs, Jesus Christ, the confessors of the New Dispensation – all had yielded up their life in the cause of righteousness, and by the sentence of mistaken or prejudiced judges. He next recounted his own manner of life from his youth upward; reviewed and examined the charges against him; exposed the prevarications of the witnesses, and, finally, recalled to the minds of his judges how the learned and holy doctors of the primitive Church had differed in their sentiments on certain points, and that these differences had tended to the explication rather than the ruin of the faith.

The Council was not unmoved by this address; it awoke in some breasts a sense of justice – we cannot say pity, for pity Jerome did not ask – and not a few expressed their astonishment that a man who had been shut up for months in a prison, where he could see neither to read nor to write, should yet be able to quote so great a number of authorities and learned testimonies in support of his opinions. [3] The Council forgot that it had been promised,

"When ye are brought before rulers and kings for my sake,... take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost." (Mark 13:9, 11) [4]

Jerome at his former appearance before the Council had subscribed to the justice of Huss's condemnation. He bitterly repented of this wrong, done in a moment of cowardice, to a master whom he venerated, and he cannot close without an effort to atone for it. [5] "I knew him from his childhood," said he, speaking of Huss; "he was a most excellent man, just and holy. He was condemned not-withstanding his innocence. He has ascended to heaven, like Elias, in the midst of flames, and from thence he will summon his judges to the dread tribunal of Christ. I also – I am ready to die. I will not recoil before the torments which are prepared for me by my enemies and false witnesses, who will one day have to render an account of their impostures before the

great God whom nothing can deceive." [6]

The Council was visibly agitated. Some desired to save the life of a man so learned and eloquent. The spectacle truly was a grand one. Pale, enfeebled by long and rigorous confinement, and loaded with fetters, he yet compelled the homage of those before whom he stood, by his intellectual and moral grandeur. He stood in the midst of the Council, greater than it, throwing its assembled magnificence into the shade by his individual glory, and showing himself more illustrious by his virtues and sufferings than they by their stars and miters. Its princes and doctors felt humbled and abashed in presence of their own prisoner.

But in the breast of Jerome there was no feeling of self-exaltation. If he speaks of himself it is to accuse himself.

"Of all the sins," he continued, "that I have committed since my youth, none weighs so heavily on my mind, and causes me such poignant remorse, as that which I committed in this fatal place, when I approved of the iniquitous sentence recorded against Wicliffe, and against the holy martyr John Huss, my master and my friend. Yes, I confess it from my heart, and declare with horror that I disgracefully quailed when, through a dread of death, I condemned their doctrines. I therefore supplicate Almighty God to deign to pardon me my sins, and this one in particular, the most heinous of all. [7] You condemned Wicliffe and Huss, not because they shook the faith, but because they branded with reprobation the scandals of the clergy – their pomp, their pride, and their luxuriousness."

These words were the signal for another tumult in the assembly. The Fathers shook with anger. From all sides came passionate exclamations. "He condemns himself. What need have we of further proof? The most obstinate of heretics is before us."

Lifting up his voice – which, says Poggio, "was touching, clear, and sonorous, and his gesture full of dignity" – Jerome resumed: "What! do you think that I fear to die? You have kept me a whole year in a frightful dungeon, more horrible than death. You have treated me more cruelly than Saracen, Turk, Jew, or Pagan, and my flesh has literally rotted off my bones alive; and yet I make no complaint, for lamentation ill becomes a man of heart and spirit, but I cannot but express my astonishment at such great barbarity towards a Christian."

The clamor burst out anew, and the sitting closed in confusion. Jerome was carried back to his dungeon, where he experienced more rigorous. treatment than ever. His feet, his hands, his arms were loaded with fetters. This severity was not needed for his safe-keeping, and could have been prompted by nothing but a wish to add to his torments. [8]

Admiration of his splendid talents made many of the bishops take an interest in his fate. They visited him in his prison, and conjured him to retract. "Prove to me from the Scriptures," was Jerome's reply to all these importunities, "that I am in error." The Cardinal of Florence, Zabarella, sent for him, [9] and had a lengthened conversation with him. He extolled the choice gifts with which he had been enriched; he dwelt on the great services which these gifts might enable him to render to the Church, and on the brilliant career open to him, would he only reconcile himself to the Council; he said that there was no office of dignity, and no position of influence, to which he might not aspire, and which he was not sure to win, if he would but return to his spiritual obedience; and was it not, he asked, the height of folly to throw away all these splendid opportunities and prospects by immolating himself on the heretic's pile? But Jerome was not moved by the words of the cardinal, nor dazzled by the brilliant offers he made him. He had debated that matter with himself in prison, in tears and agonies, and he had made up his mind once for all. He had chosen the better part. And so he replied to this tempter in purple as he had done to those in lawn, "Prove to me from the Holy Writings that I am in error, and I will abjure it."

"The Holy Writings!" scornfully replied the cardinal; "is everything then to be judged by them? Who can understand them till the Church has interpreted them?"

"What do I heal?" cried Jerome; "are the traditions of men more worthy of faith than the Gospel of our Savior? Paul did not exhort those to whom he wrote to listen to the traditions of men, but said, 'Search the Scriptures.'"

"Heretic," said the cardinal, fixing his eyes upon him and regarding him with looks of anger, "I repent having pleaded so long with you. I see that you are urged on by the devil." [10] Jerome was remanded to his prison.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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