A third of Christendom, it was estimated, had perished of the plague.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
We are now in the aftermath of this catastrophe. It was not the only shock to Christendom, but it certainly also cannot be assumed to be separate from the other shocks.
The Byzantines, having finally freed themselves from the blow of the Crusaders in 1261, were facing the new threat of the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople was in sight; even the defenses of Hungary were already probed.
And then there was the papal schism. After a council of bishops declared both rival popes deposed in 1409 and then crowning a new candidate of their own, they ended up with not two popes, but three. Scandal built upon scandal. Instead of holding the keys to the kingdom, was the papacy, instead, an agent of hell?
John Wycliffe would denounce both factions in the schism as demonic, and stated that the papacy was lacking in divine foundation. But it was in Prague where the most explosive reaction would be felt. The resentment of wealth – especially the wealth of the monasteries; the reforms of Gregory VII, instead of redeeming the Church, sent it on a path of corruption; the papacy seduced by the power of earthly glory.
Only Antichrist could have wrought such a fateful, such a hellish abomination. And so it was, in the streets of Prague, that is had become a common thing to paint the pope as the beast foretold by Saint John….
Jan Hus would serve as the lightning rod for this movement. He attracted not only the peasants, but the Czech noblemen as well (being freed from the divided authority made possible by the Church was desired by many such nobles). In 1414, in the imperial city of Constance, the heresy of Prague’s most celebrated preacher would be put on trial.
Hus would travel to Constance under safe conduct guaranteed by emperor-elect Sigismund. Arriving on 3 November, he would be placed under arrest three weeks later then burned at the stake with his ashes dumped in the Rhine River.
These events did not calm the storm of the Hussite subversion. In the wake of the execution, denunciations in Prague of the pope as Antichrist only increased, and were made openly. Sigismund was not immune to denunciation – due to his treachery regarding the lack of safe conduct.
As an aside, I have read elsewhere the claim (excuse?) that the safe conduct was technically only offered for the journey to Constance – one-way. Why Hus would have then taken the journey is difficult to fathom.
In 1419, conservatives attempted a crackdown in Prague. It backfired. Hussites stormed city hall, flinging their opponents out of its windows. They seized control of churches throughout the city. Through this, the Taborites, under the leadership of Jan Žižka, would launch a surprise attack on Sigismund, who was attempting to besiege Prague to submission. Sigismund was forced to withdraw. By 1424, all of Bohemia was brought under Žižka’s rule.
Not a paradise. Having elected a bishop, they would charge the most extreme among them with heresy and banish them from their ranks.
Žižka, displaying a brusque lack of concern for legal process that no inquisitor would ever have contemplated emulating, had rounded up fifty of them and burnt the lot.
By 1434, the Taborites would be defeated by a more moderate force of Hussites. These would negotiate a concordat directly with the papacy.
Eventually, this would all lead to Martin Luther. I have covered this story enough in several posts; here I will just offer one quote, from Luther: ‘For the pope is not above but under the word of God.’
Fair enough. But where this would lead – to a personal and individual interpretation of the Bible – was not yet understood by Luther. By the end of his life, he wondered at the number of divisions which sprang forth from this view.
Bartolomé de las Casas, in 1514 and while in the West Indies, would have a heart-stopping insight: he devoted his life to defending the Indians from tyranny. He never doubted that his convictions derived from the mainstream of Christian teaching.
Thomas Cajetan – the same one that would confront Luther – would do the same. In shock that a Christian ruler would justify such savagery in the name of Christ, he demanded of a visitor from Spain to Rome: “Do you doubt that your king is in hell?”
Tenochtitlan, wealthy and beautiful, was a monument to the formidable prowess of the conquerors who had built it: the Mexica.
Their priests would smash knives into the chest of prisoners, the sacrifice of ‘precious water’ from the still-beating heart could serve to feed the gods. Franciscans were revolted by such demands of sacrifice to these gods.
To the Spaniards, the spectacle of dried gore on the steps of Tenochtitlan’s pyramids, of skulls grinning out from racks, was literally hellish.
Cortés would raze the temples to the ground.