- The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure by Thomas A. Fudge
In The Trial of Jan Hus, Thomas Fudge undertakes to narrate the entire history of the legal proceedings against the Bohemian preacher and heretic, from their inception in Prague to the fiery culmination in Constance. Altogether, these proceedings lasted more than eight years, and the primary venue for their adjudication passed from Prague to Rome and then to Constance. The signal achievement of Fudge’s book is that he manages to piece together a coherent narrative of the trial’s tortuous progression from Hus’s correspondence, legal briefs, curial decrees, polemical texts, sermons, diaries, and narrative accounts of the Council of Constance. These constitute a bewildering array of viewpoints on Hus’s trial, and Fudge does well to rein in the discordant voices and transform them into a unified narrative. In short, as a chronicle of Hus’s trial from start to finish this book has no equal in English. And although its main argument—that the outcome of Hus’s trial was legitimate by medieval standards of judicial practice—is ultimately consonant with that of the Czech scholar Jiří Kejř (a fact that Fudge himself acknowledges), The Trial of Jan Hus attempts to move beyond Kejř’s work by analyzing the development of those standards over the longue durée. [End Page 140]
To do this, Fudge spends the first quarter of the book detailing the accumulation of canon law sources concerning heresy and the development of trial procedures against heretics during the high Middle Ages. He subsequently uses these collective bodies of precedent in the latter half of the book as a benchmark against which the proceedings against Hus can be evaluated, which embeds Hus’s trial within a longer tradition of legal thought and practice. This approach is useful, although the sheer number of legal sources that Fudge deploys throughout his account has the curious effect of flattening them out. In other words, because of Fudge’s exhaustive research, it becomes difficult to judge which canonical precedents were most compelling or foremost in the minds of Hus’s interlocutors as they pursued his conviction for heresy. As such, the canon law framework that Fudge provides for the trial does little to help explain its result.
Rather, what seems most clear from Fudge’s account of the trial is the centrality of the various actors’ personalities and motivations in determining its outcome. This is essentially a character-driven study, with Hus, Jan Jesenice (his lawyer), Jean Gerson, Cardinal Odo Colonna (later Pope Martin V), and Hus’s Czech antagonists Michael de Causis and Štépán Páléc emerging as the dominant figures in the trial. On the one hand, the significance of these men’s actions and animosities as an explanatory factor seriously qualifies the argument that the trial was conducted in accordance with medieval norms; on the other hand, however, Fudge’s emphasis on the choices made by each of these men throughout the proceedings does much to account for the instances where the trial process deviated from those norms and the overall dynamics that led to Hus’s condemnation. It is finally worth noting that Fudge himself becomes one of the central characters in this drama. In both his introduction and conclusion, he uses his own experiences as a scholarly disputant and participant in legal proceedings to foreground his account of Hus’s trial. This strikes me as a dangerous move, as it potentially blurs the boundaries between historical analysis and personal apologetics. Fudge is candid, though, about the personal stakes of this project, which only further emphasizes the continued importance of the human element in Hus’s trial and its interpretation.