Boats laze on beautiful cold waters, overlooked by the turrets of an ancient walled city. Today Konstanz is primarily known as a tourist destination. It is something of a byway, a diversion from the bustle of other parts of Europe. This was not always so. Behind the calming ripples of the lake and the charming medieval facades lurks a riveting tale.

By the early 15th century, power struggles in Europe had led to an unprecedented crisis in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. At this time there were not two but three claimants to the title of Pope. Each one commanded the loyalty of some of the states of Europe. The pope from Avignon, Benedikt XIII, had been abandoned by France but was still recognized by Aragon, Castile, Sicily, and Scotland. John XXIII was acknowledged as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and numerous Northern Italian city states, including Florence and Venice. Gregory XII was still favored by Poland, Bavaria and parts of Germany.

(The Konzilgebäude in Konstanz, Site of the Council)

A council was convened in 1414 at the imperial city of Konstanz in order to settle this mess once and for all. The subsequent proceedings saw the resignation or deposition of all three popes, and the election of the future Martin V as pope over the reunified western church. Gregory XII seems to have made out the best, being granted a bishopric and status as legate of Acosta, where he lived out his final years in peace. His cardinals were allowed to retain their status, thus satisfying the concerns of his powerful backers.

Benedikt refused to step down and was deposed and excommunicated by the council; He was forced to flee to Pensicola Castle, under the protection of the King of Aragon. There he died in 1423.

In a dramatic move, Pope John XXIII fled Konstanz disguised as a postman. Ultimately he was captured in Freiburg and returned to Konstanz, where he was tried and found guilty for a sordid list of crimes, including piracy, rape, incest, and heresy. His release from imprisonment was only secured after a huge ransom was paid by the Medici family of Florence. He died just a few months later, and was enshrined in one of the most magnificent tombs in Christendom.

In a high water mark for “conciliarism”, the council granted itself primacy over the affairs of the church. The famous decree Haec Sancta Synodus, made the bold claim that the council obtained its authority directly from Jesus Christ. The text can be read here. For a brief moment, an alternative power structure could have emerged in the West, in which popes submitted to a higher authority of councils. This was not to be, as the overreach and increasingly radical direction advocated by the next council in Siena essentially frightened the pope and heads of state. Papal supremacy was reasserted.

Intersecting with this moment in history is an important commemoration for Protestant Christians. It was at this council that John Wycliffe was condemned (posthumously) as a heretic in 1415. His writings were banned and it was ordered that his body should be removed from consecrated ground. Later, in 1428 this order was carried out and his corpse was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

(Engraving of Jan Hus)

More memorably, the reformer John Hus was summoned in person to defend his teachings before the council. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and had arisen as a popular voice for reform in Bohemia. He had enjoyed the support of common people as well as the nobility. The Council condemned him as a heretic and turned him over to be executed. Although he had been promised safe conduct to and from the meeting, he was told afterward that promises made to heretics were non-binding. The stone on which he was burned to death can be seen today.

Poggius Floretini, a Roman Catholic priest, described Hus’s death in a letter to a friend, Leonhard Nikolai:

Then Hus sang in verse, with an elated voice, like the psalmist in the thirty-first psalm, reading from a paper in his hands: “In thee, O Lord, I put my trust, bow down thine ear to me.” With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him into a shirt drenched with pitch. At that moment, one of the electors, Prince Ludwig of the Palatinate, rode up and pleaded with Hus to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away.
(From “the original Bohemian”, blog by Andrew Wilson at ThinkTheology).

It is interesting that “Hus” sounds like the Czech word for “goose”. He launched a movement that succeeded in breaking Bohemia away from Roman Catholic control. He was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and his works influenced Martin Luther almost exactly one century later.

(Note: Images used are in the public domain)

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