BECK index

Chaucer, Wyclif, Hus, and Chelcicky

Chaucer's "Tale of Melibeus"
Gower's Poetry
Wyclif and the English Bible
Jan Hus
Chelcicky's Nonviolence

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

For Solomon says that
when the condition of a man
is pleasant and to God's liking,
He changes the hearts of that man's enemies
and constrains them to seek peace of him, and grace.
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales "Tale of Melibeus"

Outwardly, the greedy lords deal in the blessings of peace,
but inwardly, wars will stand first with them.
As long as it can store up more loot
through war than through peace,
avarice does not know how
to love the good things of peace.
And envy does not permit you
to conduct yourself peaceably toward me,
for my tears are laughter in your ear.
It is nothing to you
if the downtrodden people bewail their sufferings,
provided that the general misfortune
brings in money to you.
Gower, Vox clamantis 7:31-40

The Bible is for the government of the people,
by the people, and for the people.
Wyclif, Preface to his translation of The Bible

Whoever is not of God cannot truly enjoy
or hold anything belonging to God,
except as the man of violence unlawfully
enjoys and holds what is not his own.
Peter Chelcicky

Chaucer's "Tale of Melibeus"

The poet Geoffrey Chaucer served occasionally as a diplomat. When he was about twenty, he was taken prisoner in France and ransomed by King Edward III. Chaucer then acted as a diplomatic courier in the negotiations that brought about the Peace of Calais in 1360. He married a lady of the English court and for ten years went on many diplomatic missions to France and the Low Countries "on the King's secret affairs." Chaucer was a close friend of John of Gaunt and was aided by him in court life. In 1372 he traveled to Florence and probably heard Boccaccio's lectures on Dante, and in 1378 he went to Milan, where Petrarch had spent his last twenty years. In 1385 Chaucer became justice of the peace for Kent, and the next year he was elected to parliament. He was given appointments by Richard II and was also favored by Henry IV before he died in 1400.

Chaucer is justly famous for his great work The Canterbury Tales. These stories told by various characters while on their pilgrimage to Thomas Becket's tomb illustrate many points of view on life from ribald accounts of lust to high moral fables. Each tale reveals the personality of the storyteller. In the parson's tale Chaucer warned that anger can lose an old friend; but when it leads to war, every kind of wrong is committed. Significantly, after he is cut off in his tale of a knight named Sir Thopas, the story that Chaucer puts into his own mouth is an enlightened account of peacemaking and diplomatic counseling called "The Tale of Melibeus."

Melibeus is a powerful and rich young man who has a wife named Prudence and a daughter Sophie. One day when Melibeus is out playing in the fields, three of his old enemies break into his house, beat his wife, and wound his daughter in five places. Melibeus becomes greatly upset and weeps profusely as Prudence attempts to console him. Melibeus decides to call in all the people he knows in order to get advice about what to do. Melibeus sadly describes his trouble and angrily speaks of vengeance and his eagerness for war. First the physicians help the wounded and declare their policy of never doing harm to anyone; however, they add that as diseases are cured by their opposite, so war might be cured by vengeance. Many flatterers praise the wealth and might of Melibeus and his friends while disparaging the strength of his enemies. The older and wiser recommend that he guard his person and his house, but that he wait before deciding on war. Then the young people rise up and begin to cry, "War, war!" An old man advises caution, but the young heckle him until he sits down.

Melibeus is ready to go along with war when his wife Prudence asks him to listen to her counsel. Melibeus says he would be a fool to give over his sovereignty to a woman, women being evil and unable to keep secrets. Prudence declares that he ought to change if previous counsel has been foolish, that listening to advice is not giving up one's power to decide, and that all women are not necessarily bad and untrustworthy. Melibeus agrees to listen to Prudence.

First, she says, one ought to begin by praying to God for guidance. Then one must remove the three impediments to good counsel from the heart-anger, covetousness, and hastiness. After having taken counsel within oneself it is best to keep it secret so as to receive unprejudiced and objective counsel from the advisors. Melibeus had betrayed his desire, and all the flatterers had agreed with his passion. Prudence suggests that it is best to ask advice from friends that are old, faithful, discreet, and wise; he must beware of former enemies and those who are afraid of him.

Prudence teaches Melibeus that in counsel he ought to be truthful about the situation and examine the probable results of the advice and the various causes. Then Prudence takes up the specific issues. She points out that vengeance is not the opposite of wickedness as the physicians thought; but it is wrong for wrong. Peace is the opposite of war. As to guarding his person and garrisoning his house, Prudence declares that friends are the best defense. War would be foolish, because his enemies have more relatives than he and surely would revenge his acts of vengeance. Only a judge with the proper jurisdiction should punish. The consequences of war would be injuries, deaths, and the waste of wealth. Spiritually the ultimate cause of everything is God. Therefore if God has allowed this to happen to his family, it must be chastisement for previous sins. Allegorically the three enemies of mankind are the world, the flesh, and the devil, and the five wounds symbolize the five senses through which the sins have entered the heart. He should leave vengeance to the sovereign Judge, for "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord." Besides Melibeus does not have the power to avenge himself. Chaucer and Prudence discourage fighting under any circumstances.

It is madness in a man to strive with one
who is stronger than himself;
and to strive with a man of even strength is dangerous;
but to strive with a weaker man is foolish.
And for this reason a man should avoid all strife,
in so far as he may.1

Melibeus figures that he can count upon his wealth, but Prudence warns that no amount of wealth is sufficient to maintain war, and a great man is as easily killed in a war as a poor one. Prudence counsels Melibeus to make peace with God and become reconciled to His grace, and God will change the hearts of his enemies so that they also will seek peace. Prudence then tells the adversaries privately that they ought to repent for the injury and wrong they had done to Melibeus, herself, and her daughter. They are surprised by her gracious words and acknowledge the wrong they have done. She convinces them to trust themselves to Melibeus and her for a reconciliation. She then gathers their true friends, and they being correctly informed give counsel for peace. When the adversaries submit, Melibeus still wants to punish them by confiscating all their property and banishing them; but Prudence warns him against gaining a reputation for covetousness and then advises mercy. Finally Melibeus forgives them for all the offenses, injuries, and wrongs done against his family so that God will forgive him the sins he has done in the world. Thus through Prudence Chaucer showed us how to alleviate the mood for war and bring reconciliation.

Gower's Poetry

Another English poet, William Langland (c. 1332-c. 1400), in Piers the Plowman described the suffering from the long war and criticized the Pope for sending men to kill those he should be saving. The poet blamed Edward III for the ruinous campaign in France that followed his failing to keep the peace treaty of Brétigny. In the first version of his poem Langland had hope that the Black Prince would become a good king; but after Richard II became king, his vision changed to hoping for the reign of Christ in which all weapons would be transformed into farm tools; the penalty for trying to make a weapon would be death.

The poet John Gower (c. 1330-1408) was a friend of Chaucer. Although Gower supported Edward III's claims in France, in 1369 he joined a group of prelates in opposing more taxes because a truce with France had been broken. In his early French poem, The Mirror of Man, Gower reminded knights that God looks into your heart, and that even in a just cause one must do no wrong. Love, pity, and charity keep war far away. In his English poem Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Shrift) and in his Latin poem Vox Clamantis (Voice of Crying) Gower condemned bloodshed. The latter was stimulated by the Jack Straw Rebellion of 1381. Gower criticized the warrior clerics who practice war when they should restore peace, and he castigated the lords who gain loot from war and laugh at those who suffer or complain. Disillusioned by the Norwich Crusade of 1383, Gower compared the peaceful preaching of Peter to the current Pope's fighting and killing with armies for riches. Gower believed that knights should serve the common good, defend orphans and widows, and protect the church; but he lamented that avarice often leads them astray.

Gower came to believe that Edward's claims in France were not justified, and thus the war was wrong. Gower agreed with the criticisms that accused Richard II of eight violations of his duty to keep the peace toward the clergy and his people. Thus Gower supported Henry IV in his taking of the throne in 1399, and in a poem addressed to him he urged the new king to make peace with France. Yet he warned Henry IV that some appeal to peace for their own ends. The test of peace is if one's motive is love.

In the book on wrath in his English poem Gower asks the Confessor if it is lawful to kill a man. At first the Confessor indicates that exceptions can be made by a judge for robbery, murder, and treason according to the laws, and one may defend oneself in war. However, when Gower asks about deadly war for a worldly cause, the Confessor says,

If charity be held in awe,
Then deadly wars offend its law:
Such wars make war on Nature too;
Peace is the end her laws pursue ­
Peace, the chief gem in Adam's wealth;
Peace which is all his life and health.
But in the gangs of war there go
Poverty, pestilence, and woe,
And famine, and all other pain
Whereof we mortal men complain,
Whom war shall trample down until
Our only succor is God's will.
For it is war that brings us naught,
On Earth, all good that God has wrought:
The church is burnt, the priest is slain;
Virgin and wife, vile rapes constrain;
Law pines away, God is not served:
Now tell me, what has he deserved,
The man who brings such warfare in?
First, if he stirred up war to win
Advantage, count his heavy cost,
With all the people who are lost:
By any worldly reckoning,
The man has not won anything.
Then, if he acts in hope of grace
From heaven, it is not my place
To speak of such rewards; but still,
Both love and peace were Our Lord's will;
And he who works their opposite
Must reap an ill reward from it.
Since in their nature, as we find,
Battles and wars of every kind
Are so displeasing to Our Lord,
And since their temporal reward
Is woe, it mystifies the mind
To guess at what can ail mankind
That they agree no armistice:
Sin, I think, is what makes us miss;
And sin is paid with death. I know
Not how such matters truly go;
But as for us, who are of one
Belief, in my opinion
Peace were a better thing to choose
Than ways by which we doubly lose.2

The confessor finds the real cause of war in coveting. He tells a story of a pirate who justifies himself to the great Alexander by arguing he only does on a small scale what Alexander does with his empire. Yet even Alexander met a tragic end. The confessor concludes that only in a just cause is slaughter justified. Gower then asks if it is lawful for men to go across the sea to slay Saracens, but the Confessor says this is contrary to the examples of the Christ and those he sent out to preach to the world. If they had killed, the faith would be uncertain. Thus all killing is evil, because murder makes men worse than beasts.

Wyclif and the English Bible

John Wyclif was born about 1328 and was educated at Oxford, gaining his master of arts at Balliol about 1358. He became vicar of Fillingham in 1363 and of Ludgershall in 1368, but he got permission to be absent while he studied at Oxford for several more years. Wyclif earned his doctor of divinity in 1372. The previous year papal nuncio Arnold Garnier had arrived in England to recover all property bequeathed for the deliverance of the Holy Land. However, in February 1372 Garnier was forced by King Edward III to swear before Chancellor Thorpe and others that he would not act contrary to the interests of the realm nor take any treasure out of England for the pope or cardinals. Wyclif may have been present; but even if he was not, he was impressed by this. In 1374 Edward III sent Wyclif on a commission to Bruges to negotiate peace with France and resolve differences over appointments in England with papal agents.

Wyclif wrote treatises on civil and divine dominion, suggesting that a church in sin should give up its possessions. Three principles he emphasized were that the clergy and especially the pope should be humble and ready to serve, that they must remove themselves from secular affairs according to the apostolic example, and that thus the Church should be relieved of its excessive endowments. Under the influence of John of Gaunt, Wyclif preached in favor of moderate disendowment. Wyclif agreed with the Franciscan Spirituals that possessions not only by monks and friars but also by the Church itself were evil, because poverty was the way of the true Church. Thus he repudiated all costly churches, especially those of friars. In his sermons Wyclif urged that the goods of the friars be seized and given to the poor. In 1377 Pope Gregory XI issued five Bulls against Wyclif and called for his arrest. Before these documents arrived, Wyclif urged the first Parliament under Richard II to detain money from the Pope. His treatise on the truth of sacred scripture was published the next year, and in this he argued that all lying is sinful; a good intention does not justify falsehood, even for the pope. After Gaunt's men killed a squire taking refuge in Westminster Abbey, Wyclif argued that royal servants had the right to bring criminals to justice even from sanctuaries.

Wyclif studied the original teachings of Jesus and objected to church rituals; he could not agree with the doctrine of the Eucharist transubstantiation that the spiritual presence of the Christ also made the physical bread his body. He argued that Jesus conferred spiritual powers on Peter, not metal keys, and that all saints that come to heaven have these spiritual keys. He bitterly criticized and satirized the pope's practice of getting money by tribute and taxation, comparing such priests to those who clip coins and cut purses. Wyclif lamented that Bible study was excluded from the religious life and that officials were reluctant to spread this knowledge among the people. He called the scriptures "God's Law," and he believed that every person should know and obey the law of God directly. In 1380 he began translating the Bible so that an order of Poor Preachers could take its message to the people. Wyclif believed it was a fundamental sin to withhold the scriptures from the laity, and he held that the first duty of a priest is to make them known in the mother-tongue of the people.

The next year Wyclif sympathized with the Peasants' Revolt that arose after a flat tax of half a mark was laid on the head of all clergy; poor vicars had to pay as much as rich prelates; deacons, acolytes, and other inferiors had to pay one shilling. People were upset by government corruption, rampaging soldiers, and because Parliament had forced all adults to work for their present lord at the same pay as was current before the Black Death even though Edward III had depreciated the silver coinage in 1351. During the uprising the propertied and clergy such as Spenser of Norwich helped the state by hanging hundreds of peasants. Shortly after the revolt Wyclif in his de Blasphemia urged patience and clemency to avoid hatred and division in the realm, and he blamed the people's excesses for the murder of Canterbury archbishop Simon of Sudbury; yet he did assert that Sudbury died in sin, because he also held the office of chancellor. His successor William Courtenay condemned the works of Wyclif in 1382, and Oxford banned his writings. A synod at Blackfriars arrested many of his followers but left Wyclif himself alone, perhaps because he suffered a stroke that year.

Wyclif was also disgusted by the crusade Norwich bishop Henry de Spenser was preparing for Urban VI against the Avignon Pope Clement VII in 1383 and wrote tracts condemning the clerics, curates, prelates, priests, and monks who are enemies of peace and maintainers of war in order to perpetuate their possessions and rob poor tenants. If they loved peace, they would give up their lordships in charity; but they maintain armed men to kill Christians in the thousands. Using biblical scholarship Wyclif challenged the Church's authority to sanctify war. In his Trialogus Wyclif elucidated the principles that if the Bible and the Church do not agree, one should follow the Bible, and when conscience and human authority conflict, one should obey conscience. Wyclif was summoned to Rome by Pope Urban VI, but he refused to go and sent him a letter explaining his views. Wyclif noted that Jesus had refused to let the people make him king, and he urged the Pope also to renounce all worldly lordship. Wyclif died on the last day of 1384.

Before Wyclif's death, probably in 1382, his followers, called the Lollards, were the first to publish a complete English translation of the entire Bible. The treatise On the Seven Deadly Sins has been attributed to Wyclif; but it was written in a western dialect he did not use, and it was published by his follower Nicholas Hereford about 1384. It noted that anger is the opposite of fellowship and charity and can lead to war; but Christ taught that men should not fight. Those called Lollards referred to themselves as "true men" or "Christian men" and went even further than Wyclif in denouncing war and promoting English translations of the scriptures. Nicholas Hereford said that Jesus Christ taught them the law of patience and not to fight bodily.

In a sermon in 1382 Hereford urged King Richard II to lessen the tax burden on the laity by reforming the clergy. William Swynderby was charged by the bishops of Hereford and Lincoln in 1390 and went into hiding. Swynderby sent a letter to the Bishop of Hereford, pointing out that Jesus taught loving our enemies, but the pope's law permits hating and killing them for money. Two Cambridge professors replied that a just war against infidels was holy; but Walter Brut supported Swynderby's view and criticized the Roman pontiff for promoting wars not only against infidels but against Christians too for earthly goods. In 1395 the Lollards presented Twelve Conclusions to Parliament, and the tenth point was that war and killing are contrary to the teaching of Christ. The bishops responded with sixteen charges against the heretics, condemning the belief that it is not lawful to kill any person.

In 1401 Parliament passed England's first act for burning heretics, and the statute specifically cited the Lollards for having wrong thoughts about the sacraments and for usurping the office of preaching. The law forbade people to preach, teach in schools, and publish books. Most of the Lollards abjured, but a few were burned. That year William Sawtré was burned for denying the material presence of Christ's body in the bread, for condemning adoration of the cross, and for teaching that preaching is the priest's most important duty. When Lollards were charged with heresy in courts in the 15th century, they were often also accused of opposing killing or fighting.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus was born about 1370 at Husinec in southern Bohemia to poor Czech parents, but he managed to study at the university in Prague by working as a choir boy and began lecturing there in 1396. Hus studied and taught Wyclif's realism philosophy, but in 1401 Jerome of Prague brought Wyclif's Dialogus, Trialogus, and De eucharistia. Hus preached in Czech at the large Bethlehem chapel in Prague. In 1403 university authorities condemned 24 articles that had been banned by a London council in 1382, and then they forbade the teaching or preaching of 45 articles. After several German professors left Prague in 1409, the remaining Czechs elected Hus rector of the university. That year a church council at Pisa deposed Pope Gregory XII and "anti-pope" Benedict XIII, and in electing Alexander V, Europe now had three popes. When Alexander prohibited preaching in chapels and ordered Wyclif's writings seized and burned, Hus and others appealed to Pope John XXIII (r. 1410-1415); but the reformer's books that included nontheological works were thrown into the flames. Two days later Hus was excommunicated but continued to preach and declined a summons to Rome.

In 1411 Pope John XXIII was driven out of Rome and declared a crusade against King Ladislas of Naples for supporting the deposed Gregory. Those who promised to take up the sword were promised remission of their sins, and Pope John also ordered the sale of indulgences to finance the military campaign. Hus denounced the war and condemned the Pope's granting of indulgences. In Prague people protested the papal bulls with a mock burning. Czech King Vaclav IV (r. 1378-1419) had three men beheaded, because they opposed the sale of indulgences and had cried out in church that the papal bulls were lies as Hus had proved; they were mourned as martyrs. The city was put under interdict, but Hus preached that the Pope's prerogatives were from the devil. Hus was persuaded to withdraw from Prague and spent two years in exile, enabling him to write his most important treatise on the Church, De ecclesia. In this work he argued that the Roman bishop should be equal to other bishops but had usurped authority since Constantine. Alexander's bull prohibiting preaching was against what Jesus told his apostles to do, and Hus denied that the Pope had a right to go to war or to appeal to secular force. Hus took many of his arguments from the writings of Wyclif.

Hungarian king Sigismund was elected king of Germany in 1411, and three years later he invited Jan Hus to a council at Constance, promising him safe conduct. After a month Hus was imprisoned in the dungeon of a Dominican convent in December 1414. During the spring of 1415 Hus was held in chains at the Gottlieben castle until he was moved to a Franciscan friary when his public hearings began on June 5. Shouting did not allow Hus to be heard. When his statement that no heretic should be put to death was read, those attending shouted in mockery. To his argument that kings in mortal sin have no authority, King Sigismund replied that no one lives without sin. Hus declared that he would revoke any statement that could be proved untrue by the scriptures and good arguments; but this was not done, and he did not recant on any article. Finally thirty articles were pronounced heretical and seditious, and Hus was condemned for being a disciple of Wyclif. It was later reported that when Hus reminded the king of his safe conduct, Sigismund turned red but said nothing. The council turned Hus over to Sigismund as a heretic, and on July 6, 1415 he was burned at the stake as he prayed and sang hymns.

Jerome of Prague was burned the next year, and Bohemia's leading citizens gradually organized a revolt, which grew into open rebellion against the royal government in 1419. The next year the Hussites summarized their main concerns in the Four Articles in which they called for preaching the Word of God without interference, communion in two kinds to all believers (allowing the laity the cup), confiscation of secular possessions held by priests and monks, and punishment of mortal sins violating divine law (including simony). Conservative Utraquists were led by Jan of Pribram. Radical Taborites were expecting the second coming of Christ in February 1420 and were led by Jan Zelivsky (d. 1422). When their hopes were disappointed, they rebelled and murdered Catholic magistrates. When Vaclav IV died of a heart attack in a fit of rage, the Bohemian crown went to his brother Sigismund. The radical Taborites gained a military leader in Jan Zizka (d. 1424); after Pope Martin V proclaimed a crusade against the Hussites in Bohemia on March 1, 1420, Zizka's troops defended Prague twice from attacks by the imperial forces of Sigismund. The Taborites' leading theologian Jakoubek of Stribro argued that a war could be just and cited Wyclif for this belief.

Chelcicky's Nonviolence

Peter Chelcicky was born about 1380 in southern Bohemia and was either a peasant or chose to live like one. He read the Bible in Czech. Chelcicky disagreed with Jakoubek and continued to renounce all violence, referring to the New Testament and complaining that Jakoubek had given up his conscience to shed blood. Like the Waldenses, Chelcicky cited the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), that both should be allowed to live until the harvest. Thus it is wrong to kill, even the sinful. Christians should refuse to perform military service and accept the consequences. If many refused, the lords would have no one to go to war with them. Chelcicky taught that those who think they can arm themselves with weapons to destroy the Devil are deluded, because when they use their war machines to smash the walls and destroy the evil people, the Devil goes out from those walls and into them, dwelling in their cruel hearts. Thus no physical power can destroy evil.

During the war Utraquist Hussites made compacts with the Catholics in 1433; but when the Taborites rejected the Four Articles, their socialist experiment was overthrown the next year. The Bohemians accepted Sigismund as their king in 1436, but he died the following year. Hussite leader George of Podebrady organized an army, captured Prague in 1448, made Utraquist Jan Rokycans archbishop, and became governor of Bohemia in 1452. Pope Nicholas V declined to recognize Rokycans, and the Hussites thought of joining the Greek Orthodox Church; but the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the year the Taborites were finally wiped out by the campaigns of Podebrady, who was elected king of Bohemia in 1458.

Chelcicky left Prague in 1420 and resided for the rest of his life in his native village of Chelcice. His friends and disciples became the nucleus for the Unity of Brethren that eventually was formed into a church in 1467 by those who held to nonviolence and followed the teachings of Christ as interpreted by Chelcicky. As educated men from the university in Prague joined the new sect, those holding to the original ideas of Chelcicky came to be called the Old Brethren. In the 1490s the majority followed Lukas, who favored accepting state offices and did not object to military service. In the first half of the 15th century the Old Brethren died out, and the Unity of Brethren was no longer a pacifist church.

In probably his first and most important work, On Spiritual Warfare, Chelcicky argued that the Taborites had been deceived by the devil into participating in violence through lust for the world's glamorous rewards. He criticized the absurd prophecies of the chiliasts, who tried to terrify people into believing strange things. Chelcicky opposed all warfare, even that which claimed to be defensive, because he believed in the example of Jesus and the Gospel of peace. Chelcicky noted that the Taborites abolished their common treasury and equal distribution of wealth after they adopted violence, and then they retracted their democratic methods and reimposed rents and dues on the peasants. Chelcicky criticized the obligations of debts and trade which gave some power over others, castigating those who bind with rents and fees on those

... for whom they show no mercy in their burdens,
but extort from them the most they can,
exacting by the day or the year
to earn their money by such rates,
never valuing their strength of life,
but only their increase in profits.3

Chelcicky complained that they no longer served their flock like a shepherd but used people to "serve their bellies and elevate their pride." Chelcicky believed they had no Christian prerogative to either subject people or to tax them.

Chelcicky believed that Christians in following the law of love should be removed from the compulsion of state authority as had been the case with the early church before Constantine. The way to convert people is by loving God and one's neighbor, and conversion must come from free will and not from any compulsion. If persecution comes, Christians should suffer without retaliating. One may obey authorities only so long as that is not contrary to God's law. Chelcicky was concerned about anarchy in which the wicked try to reign over the honest and take the fruits of others' labor, but still he did not believe that a Christian should rule as a king. He wrote that God did not set up magistrates, and he argued that violent punishments are wrong and that no Christian could apply them; he was particularly critical of capital punishment and cruel mutilations. Chelcicky wrote "The executioner who kills is as much a wrong-doer as the criminal who is killed."4 He suggested that Christians could expel evil ones from their company.

The sixteen years of war he witnessed convinced Chelcicky that his views about violence being wrong were correct as he saw people robbed, imprisoned, and killed with want and fear on every side. Working people were stripped of everything as they were taxed by both sides, and their living was eaten up by armies. Jesus commanded his followers not to take life, and he did not even defend himself; but all people are to be brothers and sisters. Chelcicky complained that in war the nobles did not do the fighting themselves but sent the peasants to fight for them like sheep to the slaughter. When princes and prelates command such evil things, they should not be obeyed. He said that it is our Christian duty to help with love anyone in need, whether they be a Jew or a heathen or a heretic or an enemy. He objected to tithes which were based on robbery and violence. Chelcicky condemned their refined luxuries, sophisticated pride, loose morals, contempt for work, and oppression of workers. He advised people to avoid profit-making occupations so as not to harm their souls. He encouraged people to understand the Bible for themselves, and the first complete Bible in Czech was published.

In his book On the Triple Division of Society Chelcicky criticized the nobility, clergy, and the middle class, believing that only the poor were genuine Christians. He wrote that they consider themselves better members of the body of Christ than the common people whom they subject and ride as if they were beasts. Late in life Chelcicky wrote Net of Faith. In this work he noted that the apostles treated each other and people as equals, and they considered Christ as the head. Chelcicky found that the teaching of the Christ does not coerce in any way nor does it recommend any kind of vengeance against the wicked; but they should be improved only through brotherly goodwill so that they can be led to penitence. Chelcicky aimed his diatribes at the religious orders of monks and friars, the priests, the nobility, the cliques of university professors, and the growing business class. He argued that these evils resulted from the two great whales that burst the net of faith, namely the emperor and the pope. He complained that to see the Church in a material way led to concepts of the priests as eyes, nobles as arms, and peasants as legs such that in this body the first is to pray, the second is to fight, and the third is to work, resulting in two insatiable gluttons riding around on the peasants living in debauchery from their sweat and misery. This he concluded was the Antichrist's explanation of the body of Christ.


1. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales "Tale of Melibeus" 44 tr. J. U. Nicolson.
2. Gower, John, Confessio Amantis 2261-2304 tr. Terence Tiller.
3. Chelcicky, Petr, Drobné spisy tr. Eduard Petru 75/1690 quoted in Wagner, Murray L., Petr Chelcicky, p. 89.
4. Chelcicky, Petr, Postilla I, p. 131-2 quoted in Brock, Peter, Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren, p. 55.

Copyright © 2003 by Sanderson Beck

next chapter: Erasmus and Anabaptists

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index