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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 18 — The Council of Basle

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Negotiations – Council of Basle – Hussites Invited to the Council – Entrance of Hussite Deputies into Basle – Their Four Articles – Debates in the Council – No Agreement – Return of the Deputies to Prague – Resumption of Negotiations – The Compactata – Its Equivocal Character – Sigismund accepted as King

ARMS, which had served the cause of Rome so ill, were now laid aside, and in their room resort was had to wiles. [1] It was now evident that those great armaments, raised and fitted out at an expense so enormous, and one after another launched against Bohemia – a little country, but peopled by heroes – were accomplishing no end at all, save that of fattening with corpses and enriching with booty the land they were meant to subdue. There were other considerations which recommended a change of policy on the part of the imperial and ecclesiastical powers. The victorious Hussites were carrying the war into the enemy's country. They had driven the Austrian soldiers out of Moravia. They had invaded Hungary and other provinces, burning towns and carrying off booty. These proceedings were not without their effect in opening the eyes of the Pope and the emperor to the virtue of conciliation, to which till now they had been blind. In the year 1432, they addressed letters to the Bohemians, couched in the most friendly terms, and evidently designed to open the way to peace, and to give the emperor quiet possession of the kingdom in which, as he said, he was born, and over which his father, brother, and uncle had reigned. Not otherwise than as they had reigned would he reign over them, should they permit him peaceably to enter. So he promised.

A General Council of the Church had been convoked, and was now in session at Basle. On the frontier between Germany and Switzerland, washed by the Rhine, skirted on the east by the hills of the Black Forest, while in the southern horizon appear the summits of the Jura Alps, is situated the pleasant town where the Council was now assembled, and where a century later the seeds of the Reformation found a congenial soil. Letters from the emperor and the legate Julian invited the Bohemians to come to Basle and confer on their points of difference. [2] To induce them to accept this invitation, the Fathers offered them a safe-conduct to and from the Council, and a guarantee for the free celebration of their worship during their stay, adding the further assurance that the Council "would lovingly and gently hear their reasons." [3]

The Hussites were not at all sanguine that the result of the conference would be such as would enable them to sheathe the sword over a satisfactory arrangement of their affairs. They had doubts, too, touching their personal safety. Still the matter was worth a good deal of both labor and risk; and after deliberating, they resolved to give proof of their desire for peace by attending the Council. They chose deputies to represent them at Basle, of whom the chief were Procopius "the Great," William Rosca, Baron of Poscupicz, a valiant knight; John Rochyzana, preacher of Prague; and Nicolas Galecus, pastor of the Taborites. [4] They were accompanied by Peter Payne, an Englishman, "of excellent prompt and pregnant wit," says Fox; and who did good service at Basle. [5] A company of 300 in all set out on horseback for the Council.

The arrival of the Bohemian deputies was looked forward to with much interest in the Swiss town. The prodigies recently enacted upon its soil had made Bohemia a land of wonders, and very extraordinary pictures indeed had been circulated of the men by whom the victories with which all Europe was now ringing had been won. The inhabitants of Basle waited their arrival half in expectation, half in terror, not knowing whether they were heroes or monsters whom they were about to receive into their city. At length their approach was announced. All the inhabitants of Basle turned out to see those men whose tenets were so abominable, and whose arms were so terrible. The streets were lined with spectators; every window and roof had its cluster of eager and anxious sight-seers; and even the venerable Fathers of the Council mingled in the crowd, that they might have an early view of the men whom they were to meet in theological battle. As the cavalcade crossed the long wooden bridge that spans the Rhine, and slowly climbed the opposite bank, which is crowned with the cathedral towers and other buildings of the city, its appearance was very imposing. The spectators missed the "teeth of lions and eyes of demons" with which the Hussites were credited by those who had fled before them on the battle-field; but they saw in them other qualities which, though less rare, were more worthy of admiration. Their tall figures and gallant bearing, their faces scarred with battle, and their eyes lit with courage, were the subject of general comment. Procopius drew all eyes upon him. "This is the man," said they one to another, "who has so often put to flight the armies of the faithful – who has destroyed so many cities – who has massacred so many thousands; the invincible – the valiant." [6]

The deputies had received their instructions before leaving Prague. They were to insist on the four following points (which, as already mentioned, formed the pre-arranged basis on which alone the question of a satisfactory adjustment of affairs could be considered) as the indispensable conditions of peace: – I. The free preaching of the Word. II. The right of the laity to the Cup, and the use of the vernacular tongue in all parts of Divine worship. III. The ineligibility of the clergy to secular office and rule. IV. The execution of the laws in the case of all crimes, without respect of persons.

[7] Accordingly, when the deputies appeared before the Council, they made the Fathers aware that their deliberations must be confined to these four points; that these were the faith of the Bohemian nation; that that nation had not empowered them to entertain the question of a renunciation of that faith, but only to ascertain how far it might be possible, in conformity with the four articles specified, to arrange a basis of peace with the Church of Rome, and permit a Roman Catholic sovereign to wear the crown of Bohemia, and that they had appeared in the Council not to discuss with it generally the tenets of Huss and Jerome. [8]

These four articles may be said to have formed the new constitution of the kingdom of Bohemia. They struck at the foundation of the Roman hierarchy, and implied a large measure of reformation. The eventual consolidation of the nation's civil and religious liberties would have been their inevitable result. The supreme authority of the Scriptures, which the Hussites maintained, implied the emancipation of the conscience, the beginning of all liberty. The preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of public worship in the language of the people, implied the purification of the nation's morals and the enlightenment of the national intellect. Communion in both kinds was a practical repudiation of the doctrine of the mass; for to insist on the Cup as essential to the Sacrament is tacitly to maintain that the bread is simply bread, and not the literal flesh of Christ. And the articles which disqualified priests from civil rule, displaced them from the state offices which they filled, and subjected them to the laws in common with others. This article struck at the idea that the priesthood forms a distinct and theocratic kingdom. The four articles as they stand, it will be observed, lie within the sphere of administration; they do not include any one principle fundamentally subversive of the whole scheme of Romanism. In this respect, they fall short of Wicliffe's programme, which preceded them, as well as of Luther's which came after. In Bohemia, the spiritual and intellectual forces are less powerfully developed; the patriotic and the military are in the ascendant. Still, it is to be borne in mind that the Bohemians had acknowledged the great principle that the Bible is the only infallible authority, and where this principle is maintained and practically carried out, there the fabric of Romanism is undermined. Put the priest out of court as an infallible oracle, and the Bible comes in his room; and the moment the Word of God enters, the shackles of human authority and tradition fall off.

Cardinal Julian, the Papal legate, opened the proceedings with a long and eloquent oration of a conciliatory character. He exhorted the delegates from Bohemia, says Fox, to unity and peace, saying that "the Church was the spouse of Jesus Christ, and the mother of all the faithful; that it hath the keys of binding and loosing, and also that it is white and fair, and without spot or wrinkle, and that it cannot err in those points necessary to salvation. He exhorted them also to receive the decrees of the Council, and to give no less credit unto the Council than unto the Gospel, by whose authority the Scriptures themselves are received and allowed. Also, that the Bohemians, who call themselves the children of the Church, ought to hear the voice of their mother, who is never unmindful of her children ... that in the time of Noah's flood as many as were without the ark perished; that the Lord's passover was to be eaten in one house; that there is no salvation to be sought for out of the Church, and that this is the famous garden and fountain of water, whereof whosoever shall drink shall not thirst everlastingly; that the Bohemians have done as they ought, in that they have sought the fountains of this water at the Council, and have now at length determined to give ear unto their mother." [9]

The Bohemians made a brief reply, saying that they neither believed nor taught anything that was not founded on the Word of God; that they had come to the Council to vindicate their innocence in open audience, and ended by laying on the table the four articles they had been instructed to insist on as the basis of peace. [10]

Each of these four articles became in its turn the subject of discussion. Certain of the members of Council were selected to impugn, and certain of the Bohemian delegates were appointed to defend them. [11] The Fathers strove, not without success, to draw the deputies into a discussion on the wide subject of Catholicism. They anticipated, it may be, an easy victory over men whose lives had been passed on the battle-field; for if the Hussites were foiled in the general argument, they might be expected to yield more easily on the four points specially in debate. But neither on the wider field of Catholicism or on the narrower ground of the four articles did the Bohemians show any inclination to yield. Wherever they had learned their theology, they proved themselves as obstinate combatants in the council-chamber as they had done on the field of battle; they could marshal arguments and proofs as well as soldiers, and the Fathers soon found that Rome was likely to win as little fame in this spiritual contest as she had done in her military campaigns. The debates dragged on through three tedious months; and at the close of that period the Council was as far from yielding the Hussite articles, and the delegates were as far from being convinced that they ought to refrain from urging them, as they had been on the first day of the debate. This was not a little mortifying to the Fathers; all the more so that it was the reverse of what they had confidently

anticipated. The Hussites, they thought, might cling to their errors in the darkness that brooded over the Bohemian soil; but at Basle, in the presence of the polemical giants of Rome, and amidst the blaze of an Ecumenical Council, that they should continue to maintain them was not less a marvel than a mortification to the Council. Procopius especially bore himself gallantly in this debate. A scholar and a theologian, as well as a warrior, the Fathers saw with mingled admiration and chagrin that he could wield his logic with not less dexterity than his sword, and could strike as heavy a blow on the ecclesiastical arena as on the military. "You hold a great many heresies," said the Papal legate to him one day. "For example, you believe that the Mendicant orders are an invention of the devil." If Procopius grant this, doubtless thought the legate, he will mortally offend the Council; and if he deny it, he will scandalize his own nation. The legate waited to see on which horn the leader of the Taborites would do penance. "Can you show," replied Procopius, "that the Mendicants were instituted by either the patriarchs or the prophets under the Old Testament, or Jesus Christ and the apostles under the New? If not, I ask you, by whom were they instituted?" We do not read that the legate pressed the charge further. [12]

After three months' fruitless debates, the Bohemian delegates left Basle and returned to their own country. The Council would come to no terms unless the Bohemians would engage to surrender the faith of Huss, and submit unconditionally to Rome. Although the Hussites, vanquished and in fetters, had been prostrate at the feet of the Council, it could have proposed nothing more humiliating. The Council forgot that the Bohemians were victorious, and that it was it that was suing for peace. In this light, it would seem, did the matter appear to the members when the deputies were gone, for they sent after them a proposal to renew at Prague the negotiations which had been broken off at Basle. [13]

Shrinking from the dire necessity of again unsheathing the sword, and anxious to spare their country the calamities that attend even victorious warfare, the Bohemian chiefs returned answer to the Council bidding them send forward their delegates to Prague. Many an armed embassy had come to Prague, or as near to it as the valor of its heroic sons would permit; now messengers of peace were traveling toward the land of John Huss. Let us, said the Bohemians, display as great courtesy and respect on this occasion as we have shown bravery and defiance on former ones. The citizens put on their best clothes, the bells were tolled, flags were suspended from the steeples and ramparts and gates, and every expression of public welcome greeted the arrival of the delegates of the Council.

The Diet of Bohemia was convoked (1434) [14] with reference to the question which was about to be reopened. The negotiations proceeded more smoothly on the banks of the Moldau than they had done on those of the Rhine. The negotiations ended in a compromise. It was agreed that the four articles of the Hussites should be accepted, but that the right of explaining them, that is of determining their precise import, should belong to the Council – in other words, to the Pope and the emperor. Such was the treaty now formed between the Roman Catholics and the Hussites; its basis was the four articles, explained by the Council – obviously an arrangement which promised a plentiful crop of misunderstandings and quarrels in the future. To this agreement was given the name of the Compactata. As with the Bible so with the four Hussite articles – Rome accepted them, but reserved to herself the right of determining their true sense. It might have been foreseen that the Interpretation and not the Articles would henceforth be the rule. So was the matter understood by AEneas Sylvins, an excellent judge of what the Council meant. "This formula of the Council," said he, "is short, but there is more in its meaning than in its words. It banishes all such opinions and ceremonies as are alien to the faith, and it takes the Bohemians bound to believe and to maintain all that the Church Catholic believes and maintains." [15] This was said with special reference to the Council's explication of the Hussite article of Communion in both kinds. The administrator was to teach the recipient of the Eucharist, according to the decree of the Council in its thirtieth session, that a whole Christ was in the cup as well as in the bread. This was a covert reintroduction of transubstantiation.

The Compactata, then, was but a feeble guarantee of the Bohemian faith and liberties; in fact, it was a surrender of both; and thus the Pope and the emperor, defeated on so many bloody fields, triumphed at last on that of diplomacy. Many of the Bohemians, and more especially the party termed the Calixtines, now returned to their obedience to the Roman See, the cup being guaranteed to them, and the Emperor Sigismund was now acknowledged as legitimate sovereign of Bohemia. [16]

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