Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Jerome of Prague

In Theodor Hirsch et al., edd., Scriptores Rerum Prussicarum: Die Gesichtsquellen der preussischen Vorzeit bis zum Untergange der Ordensherrschaft, 4. Bd. (Leipzig, 1870), p. 239 = Aeneas Sylvius (Pope Pius II), Historia de Europa (Basel, 1551), c. XXVI, f. 417, there is the following account of missionary work in Lithuania by Jerome of Prague, who lived from 1379 to 1416:
Then he came to other peoples who worshipped forests sacred to devils and who considered one particular forest to be more worthy of worship than others. For several days, revealing the sacraments of our faith, he preached to this folk, and at last he ordered them to cut down the forest. Although people were present with axes, there was no one who dared to touch the holy wood with iron. Therefore Jerome, taking the lead, grabbed a two-headed axe and felled a certain tall tree. Then the crowd followed in eager emulation; some were cutting down the forest with saws, some with picks, some with axes. They reached the middle of the grove, where they thought that a very old oak, holy above all the others, was in particular the dwelling place of gods. For some time no one dared strike; finally one man, bolder than the others, upbraiding his comrades for being afraid to strike the wood (an inanimate thing), raised his axe and was planning to chop the tree, when he struck his thigh and fell down in a faint.

The surrounding crowd was astonished — they wept, lamented, and accused Jerome of persuading them to violate the sacred home of the god. There was no longer anyone who dared to ply the axe. Thereupon Jerome, claiming that these were demonic illusions designed to bamboozle the eyes of the deceived crowd, ordered the man (whom I said fell down wounded) to get up, and he showed that the man wasn't harmed at all. Soon, with the aid of the crowd, he drove the axe against the tree, felled the huge mass with a loud crash, and cut down the entire grove.

In that region there were several other forests, considered holy by reason of the same superstition. While Jerome was hastening to them in order to cut them down, a large crowd of women approached Witold with weeping and wailing. They complained that their sacred grove had been cut down and the home of their god taken away, in which they had been accustomed to seek divine aid, and whence they had obtained rain and sun. They no longer knew where to seek the god, because Jerome and his followers had taken away the god's dwelling. There were other, smaller groves, in which gods were accustomed to be worshipped, but Jerome wanted to destroy these, too — he was introducing certain strange rites to uproot their ancestral customs. The women therefore asked and beseeched Witold not to allow the places of their ancestral rites and their ceremonies to be abolished. Men also followed the women and claimed they could not endure the new religion; they said they would rather leave their land and their ancestral hearths than abandon the religion they had received from their forefathers. Moved by this circumstance and fearing a popular uprising, Witold wished Christ, rather than himself, to be without followers. He recalled the letters in which he had told the chiefs of his provinces to obey Jerome, and ordered Jerome to depart from the territory.
The preceding rough translation is my own, because I couldn't find one by anyone else. Here is the Latin, divided into paragraphs by me:
Postremo alios populos adiit, qui sylvas daemonibus consecratas venerabantur et inter alias unam cultu digniorem putavere. Praedicavit huic genti pluribus diebus fidei nostrae aperiens sacramenta, denique ut sylvam succideret imperavit; ubi populus cum securibus affuit, nemo erat, qui sacrum lignum ferro contingere auderet. Prior itaque Hieronymus assumpta bipenni excellentem quandam arborem detruncavit. Tum secuta multitudo alacri certamine; alii serris alii dolabris alii securibus sylvam deiiciebant. Ventura erat ad medium nemoris, ubi quercum vetustissimam et ante omnes arbores religione sacram et quam potissime sedem [Deorum?] esse putabant. Percutere aliquamdiu nullus praesumpsit; postremo ut est alter altero audacior increpans quidam socios, qui lignum rem insensatam percutere formidarent, elevata bipenni magno ictu cum arborem caedere arbitraretur, tibiam suam percussit atque in terram semianimis cecidit.

Attonita circum turba flere, conqueri, Hieronymum accusare, qui sacram Dei domum violari suasisset, neque jam quisquam erat, qui ferrum exercere auderet. Tum Hieronymus illusiones daemonum esse affirmans, quae deceptae plebis oculos fascinarent, surgere quem cecidisse vulneratum diximus imperavit et nulla in parte laesum ostendit et mox ad arborem adacto ferro adiuvante multitudine ingens onus cum magno fragore prostravit totumque nemus succidit.

Erant in ea regione plures sylvae pari religione sacrae, ad quas dum Hieronymus amputandas pergit mulierum ingens numerus plorans atque eiulans Vitoldum adit, sacrum lucum succisum queritur et domum Dei ademptam, in qua divinam opem petere consuessent, inde pluvias inde soles obtinuisse; nescire iam quo in loco Deum quaerant, cui domicilium abstulerint; esse aliquos minores lucos, in queis Dii coli soleant, eos quoque delere Hieronymum velle, qui nova quaedam sacra introducens patrium morem extirpet; rogare igitur atque obtestari, ne maiorum religionum loca et caeremonias auferri sinat. Sequuntur et viri mulieres nec se ferre posse novum cuitum asserunt, relinquere potius terram et patrios lares quam religionem a maioribus acceptam dicunt. Motus ea re Vitoldus veritusque populorum tumultum Christo potius quam sibi deesse plebem voluit. Revocatisque literis, quas praesidibus provinciarum declarat jubens parere Hieronymo, hominem ex provincia decedere iussit.
Jerome of Prague's missionary work ultimately didn't redeem him in the eyes of church authorities. He was burned at the stake as a heretic.


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