The Goose and the Swan

July 6 marks the anniversary of John Hus’ execution at the Council of Constance.

John Hus was an early reformer who opposed corruption in the clergy and called for a reexamination of several basic Christian doctrines. He is often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, since he preceded Luther by a century. One of his most famous stories involves a pun on his name, since Hus means goose in Czech. He is quoted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as saying at his death,“You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.”

Luther’s family crest included a swan, so Foxe adds,

If he were prophetic, he must have meant Martin Luther, who shone about a hundred years after.

Foxe’s book was written in the 1550s, a few years after Luther’s death. The goose is obviously Hus himself, and the swan is supposed to be Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg in 1517, almost exactly a century after Hus was killed.

Was Hus really prophetic? Below are three other sources advanced for the tale. I think we can conclude that even if the quote in question is removed, Hus sensed that the Reformation would not be quenched.

Poggio Bracciolini?

The quote is also included in a sensational retelling of Hus’ trial and death, allegedly written by humanist scholar Poggio Bracciolini in 1415, but researchers believe this document to be inauthentic. It was first published in English in 1930 as Hus the Heretic, and even in German the earliest edition was in 1845, four centuries after Hus’ death. The account includes numerous anachronisms, and the publisher was known to invent legendary histories. (More here.) If anything, this document might tell how widely influential Foxe’s account was.

The Letters of John Hus: The Truth Will Send Others

D’Aubigne cites several prophetic precursors to the Reformation, including one from Hus.

[Hus] was … the John Baptist of the Reformation. …

Prophetic words came forth from the depth of his dungeon. He had a presentiment, that the true Reformation of the Church was at hand.

(History of the Reformation, ch. 6)

Then D’Aubigne quotes The Letters of John Hus. He does make a statement similar to the one quoted by Fox. Here is a newer translation:

At first they spread their nets of citations and excommunications for Hus [or goose], and have already caught many. But because goose is a lazy bird, domestic, not flying high, their net has begun to tear; likewise many other birds who fly high to God by their [writings] and their lives will tear their nets. … 

For the truth they wanted to suppress has the property that the more they attempted to obscure it, the more it shone forth, and the more they pressed it down, although it sometimes falls, then rises the higher.

(tr. Spinka, pp. 82-83)

This quote, from 1412, is of course quite different from the one about the swan. The letter quoted does carry the basic thrust, though, which is that the Reformation was a work of God that would not be stopped. “Many other birds” shared Hus’ goal; Hus seemed to expect that he would die, but that the Reformation would live. He draws further parallels along this line:

Bishops, priests, masters, and scribes, Herod and Pilate, the citizens of Jerusalem and the community, condemned the Truth, put Him to death and buried Him in the grave. But He rose again and conquered them all. In place of one preacher, that is Himself, He gave them twelve and more. That same Truth in place of one faint-hearted goose, gave Prague many eagles and falcons [i.e., his contemporaries], who have keen sight, soar high by grace … 

Here Hus implies that eagles and falcons, his contemporaries in Prague, are well equipped to continue where he left off.

Martin Luther: Hus Prophesied of Me
Luther had been compared to Hus and accused of being a Hussite. Luther’s response was “Oh! that my name were worthy to be associated with such a man.” The legendary quote about the goose and the swan was even known in Luther’s lifetime. Read his comments about it:

In God’s name and call I shall walk on the lion and the adder, and tread on the young lion and dragon with my feet. And this which has been begun during my lifetime will be completed after my death. St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will have to endure.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills. (Dr. Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Edict Promulgated in the Year 1531 After the Imperial Diet of the Year 1530, qtd. in Lutherʹs Works (Vol. 34, Page 103-104).

Luther says that Hus wrote this in prison, so each of the accounts of the prophetic words vary substantially. The legend of the goose and the swan may be true history, or it may have grown from Hus’ writings, which did affirm that God was changing the game, and Hus was just one piece. A master chess player may sacrifice one valuable piece to gain the upper hand in time; perhaps it is the roasted goose that gave the world the singing swan. After all, when you see the cries of the oppressed, the prayers of the faithful, and the movement of God on their behalf, you don’t have to be a prophet to know that God will finish his work.

Whoever dies for Christ conquers … I do not flinch from yielding my miserable life for God’s truth in danger or death.

(Letters of John Hus, tr. Spinka, pp. 83-84)

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