Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book One - The Church of the Conquerors

The Holy Inquisition

Let us have one glimpse of the conditions in those medieval times, so that we may know what we ourselves have escaped. In the 15th century there was established in Europe the cult of a three- headed god, whose priests had won lordship over a continent. They were enormously wealthy, and unthinkably corrupt; they sold to the rich the license to commit every possible crime, and they held the poor in ignorance and degradation. Among the comparatively intelligent and freedom-loving people of Bohemia there arose a great reformer, John Huss, himself a priest, protesting against the corruptions of his order. They trapped him into their power by means of a "safe-conduct" - which they repudiated because no promise to a heretic could have validity. They found him guilty of having taught the hateful doctrine that a priest who committed crimes could not give absolution for the crimes of others; and they held an auto de fe - which means a "sentence of faith." As we read in Lea's "History of the Inquisition":

The cathedral of Constance was crowded with Sigismund (the Emperor and his nobles, the great officers of the empire with their insignia, the prelates in their splendid robes. While mass was sung, Huss, as an excommunicate, was kept waiting at the door; when brought in he was placed on an elevated bench by a table on which stood a coffer containing priestly vestments. After some preliminaries, including a sermon by the Bishop of Lodi, in which he assured Sigismund that the events of that day would confer on him immortal glory, the articles of which Huss was convicted were recited. In vain he protested that he believed in transubstantiation and in the validity of the sacrament in polluted hands. He was ordered to hold his tongue, and on his persisting the beadles were told to silence him, but in spite of this he continued to utter protests. The sentence was then read in the name of the council, condemning him both for his written errors and those which had been proven by witnesses. He was declared a pertinacious and incorrigible heretic who did not desire to return to the Church; his books were ordered to be barned, and himself to be degraded from the priesthood and abandoned to the secular court. Seven bishops arrayed him in priestly garb and warned him to recant while yet there was time. He turned to the crowd, and with broken voice declared that he could not confess the errors which he never entertained, lest he should lie to God, when the bishops interrupted him, crying that they had waited long enough, for he was obstinate in his herecy. He was degraded in the usual manner, stripped of his sacerdotal vestments, his fingers scraped; but when the tonsure was to be disposed of, an absurd quarrel arose among the bishops as to whether the head should be shaved with a razor or the tonsure be destroyed with scissors. Scissors won the day, and a cross was cut in his hair. Then on his head was placed a conical paper cap, a cubit in height, adorned with painted devils and the inscription, "This is the heresiarch."

The place of execution was a meadow near the river, to which he was conducted by two thousand armed men, with Palsgrave Louis at their head, and a vast crowd, including many nobles, prelates, and cardinals. The route followed was circuitous, in order that he might be carried past the episcopal palace, in front of which his books were burning, whereat he smiled. Pity from man there was none to look for, but he sought comfort on high, repeating to himself, "Christ Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us!" and when he came in sight of the stake he fell on his knees and prayed. He was asked if he wished to confess, and said that he would gladly do so if there were space, A wide circle was formed, and Ulrich Schorand, who, according to custom, had been providently empowered to take advantage of final weakening, came forward, saying, "Dear sir and master, if you will recant your unbelief and heresy, for which you must suffer, I will willingly hear your confession; but if you will not, you know right well that, according to canon law, no one can administer the sacrament to a heretic." To this Huss answered, "It is not necessary: I am not a mortal sinner." His paper crown fell off and he smiled as his guards replaced it. He desired to take leave of his keepers, and when they were brought to him he thanked them for their kindness, saying that they had been to him rather brothers than jailers. Then he commenced to address the crowd in German, telling them that he suffered for errors which he did not hold, and he was cut short. When bound to the stake, two cartloads of fagots and straw were piled up around him, and the palsgrave and vogt for the last time adjured him to abjure. Even yet he could save himself, but only repeated that he had been convicted by false witnesses on errors never entertained by him. They clapped their hands and then withdrew, and the executioners applied the fire. Twice Huss was heard to exclaim, "Christ Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me!" then a wind springing up and blowing the flames and smoke into his face cheeked further utterances, but his head was seen to shake and his lips to move while one might twice or thrice recite a paternoster. The tragedy was over; the sorely-tried soul had escaped from its tormentors, and the bitterest enemies of the reformer could not refuse to him the praise that no philosopher of old had faced death with more composure than he had shown in his dreadful extremity. No faltering of the voice had betrayed an internal struggle. Palsgrave Louis, seeing Huss's mantle on the arm of one of the executioners, ordered it thrown into the flames lest it should be reverenced as a relic, and promised the man to compensate him. With the same view the body was carefully reduced to ashes and thrown into the Rhine, and even the earth around the stake was dug up and carted off; yet the Bohemians long hovered around the spot and carried home fragments of the neighboring clay, which they reverenced as relics of their martyr. The next day thanks were returned to God in a solemn procession in which figured Sigismund and his queen, the princes and nobles, nineteen cardinals, two patriarchs, seventy-seven bishops, and all the clergy of the council. A few days later Sigismund, who had delayed his departure for Spain to see the matter concluded, left Constance, feeling that his work was done.

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