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“Lost Hussite Roots: Petr Chelčický, Pacifism, and the Unity of the Brethren”

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Jan Hus / Jan Zizka

It is a commonplace to say that Jan Žižka and Jan Hus represent the two seemingly oppositional pillars of Czech national identity forged during the Hussite Revolution of the early fifteenth century. Together, both men — soldier and philosopher — dominate the Czech pantheon of cultural heroes, each esteemed today for his vision, rectitude and courage, each in his own realm.

Jan Hus at the stake, Council of Constance, 6 July 1415

While it is difficult to overstate Žižka’s importance to the Hussite Revolution, Hus, whose martyrdom galvanized the movement that took his name, is generally regarded as its guiding spirit. His national stature endures in the Czech language itself, which was dramatically shaped by his influence: Hus is credited with refining and codifying the system of diacriticals whereby each sound in the Czech language can be represented by one letter of its alphabet.

Chelcicky memorial plaque, Vodnany, Czech Republic

Nonetheless, a widely held consensus holds that the most significant thinker and writer of the Hussite era was Petr Chelčický (pronounced Khel-cheet-skee), a prolific writer whose disciples were deeply influenced by his thought when they established the Church of the Brethren, the Unitas Fratrum. Historian Kamil Krofta held that Chelčický’s works “rank among the most precious manifestations of the Czech spirit.” Matthew Spinka opined that “… from certain points of view [Chelčický is] … more important, certainly more original, than … Hus.” Czech church historian Amedeo Molnár called him the most distinctive thinker in all of Hussite Bohemia.

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