Quote of the Week – Hus a Goose, Luther a Swan

I had read in more than one place about the reformer Jan Hus’s supposed prophecy that a hundred years after his death, a swan would arise who would (fill in the blank with reformatory activity). This of course was always applied to Martin Luther. Consider Johannes Mathesius’ usage of the story:

But the worthy martyr from Bohemia, Master Johann Huss, also prophesied about this doctor a hundred years before the fact, and hit upon the exact year he would arise and finally sing a nice little song to the Roman Church. “Today you all roast a goose,” said Master Goose in 1415, when the Council of Constance was about to burn him, “but more than a hundred years from now,” namely, once the year 1516 was counted off, “a purer swan will come, who will finally sing you a different little song,” which then happened – God be praised! For in 1516 Doctor Luther began to dispute against indulgences.

Similar to Elector Frederick the Wise’s alleged dream about Luther’s 95 Theses the night before he reportedly posted them, I have always wondered about the veracity of this prophecy.

I think I have found the answer, thanks to an article by Dr. Gottfried Herrmann of the ELFK in the Fall 2017 issue (vol. 114, no. 4) of the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. There Dr. Hermmann refers to Luther’s 1531 Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Edict. Luther composed this work in response to Emperor Charles V’s publication on November 19, 1530, of the final resolution of the Diet of Augsburg. In it the emperor “essentially reviv[ed] the Edict of Worms and [gave] the evangelicals a period of grace until April 15, 1531. In order effectively to root out abuses in the church, the emperor intended to persuade the pope and rulers to hold a council within six months. In the meantime the Protestant princedoms and cities should publish nothing further, should cease to proselytize, and should restore monastic and ecclesiastical properties.”

Toward the end of Luther’s Commentary, he himself cites the alleged prophecy (cited in the aforementioned article by Dr. Hermann):

St. John Hus prophesied about me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for Hus means a goose [in Czech]), but in a hundred years they will hear a swan singing that they will have to put up with.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills.

In the Weimar Edition, this quote is footnoted by the editors as follows:

At the beginning of his imprisonment in Constance, at the end of 1414, thus a half-year before his death at the stake, Huss wrote to his friends in Prague the words that sound like a prophecy: “And this same truth has sent to Prague many falcons and eagles, which surpass the other birds in sharpness of vision, in replacement of the one weak and easily eliminated Goose. High above they are flying back and forth in this grace of God and snatching many birds for Christ Jesus, who will make them strong and will establish all his faithful” (Documenta Magistri Iohannis Hus ed. F. Palacky, Prag 1869, Epistolae Nr. 17, p. 40).

Johannes Mathesius, Historien / Von des Ehrwirdigen in Gott Seligen thewren Manns Gottes / Doctoris Martini Luthers / anfang / lehr / leben und sterben [Nuremberg, 1566], fol. 4

Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. Robert R. Heitner (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:63ff, esp. pp. 65,104

Weimarer Ausgabe 30/3:387


Quote of the Week – Rubbing God’s Ears

Philipp Melanchthon traveled to a colloquy in Hagenau after Philip of Hesse’s bigamy became known and was causing a scandal for the Lutherans. (Luther had actually recommended this bigamy for pastoral reasons—definitely not his finest moment.) The sensitive Melanchthon was so troubled by the scandal that by the time he reached Weimar he had already become so sick that he could not continue the trip. He contracted a bad fever and was bedridden.

Luther personally went to see him and arrived in Weimar on June 23, 1540. He found Melanchthon deathly ill, unrecognizable, and unable to hear or speak. Luther later said in one of his table talks that Melanchthon’s eyes had already dimmed like a dead person’s. After Luther expressed his shock, Matthaeus Ratzeberger, court physician for Duke John Frederick I of Saxony and eyewitness to what happened, says that Luther went to the window in the room and prayed an especially bold and earnest prayer. Luther himself seems to have felt the need to explain the boldness of the prayer afterwards either to everyone in the room or privately to Ratzeberger:

Our Lord God had to stand there and take it from me there, for I threw the sack at his door and rubbed his ears with all the promises to hear and answer prayers that I could recount from Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear and answer me if I was going to trust his promises in other matters too.

Luther then took Philipp by the hand and said, “Cheer up, Philipp, you are not going to die.” He then gave him a short address.

Philipp seemed to regain his breath at this. When Luther ran to get him something to eat, Philipp refused it, so Luther threatened him: “Listen here, Philipp, here’s how it is: You are going to eat for me or I am going to put you under the ban.”

Melanchthon gave in, and from then on he began to recover.

Christian Gotthold Neudecker, ed., Die handschriftliche Geschichte Ratzeberger’s über Luther und seine Zeit (Jena: Druck und Verlag von Friedrich Mauke, 1850), pp. 103,104

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 5:129, no. 5407

Luther Sermon Reader, Be Aware

Here’s both a humorous line from one of Martin Luther’s sermons, and an illustration of how it got tweaked and expanded (and distorted) over time.

Luther preached a sermon on Luke 7:11-17 in his home on Trinity 16, September 15, 1532. The second part of his sermon was that we should learn compassion from Jesus’ example. Luther emphasizes that showing compassion does not mean leaving sin unpunished. To underscore his point, he cites his own course of action. Here’s his original line (WA 36:329):

If a maidservant is disobedient, then I bring out the oak version of the butter log and spread a nice piece of buttered bread for her with it.

Veit Dietrich’s edition from his 1545 House Postil (WA 52:482):

So if there are wicked children or servants in the house, it is a payment from God when a person takes an oaken butter log in his hand and smears their hide with it.

Andreas Poach’s edition from his 1559 House Postil (EA2 6:54):

So if there are wicked children or servants in the house, it is also a work of mercy, which God is pleased to reward, when a person takes an oaken butter log in his hand and spreads a nice piece of buttered bread on their hide with it, to soften it up.

Klug’s English edition of Poach’s edition (Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996], p. 27-28):

It is, therefore, an act of mercifulness, chastisement from God, when, in the case of wicked children or household servants, an oaken butter switch is taken in hand and a little bit of pastry is applied to their hide, in order to soften it up a little.

I’ve been reading Klug’s edition for some of my devotions, and it’s certainly edifying. But it’s kind of frustrating when you read a memorable line like this, and you’re reasonably certain that you’re going to find something different when you go back and read the original.