Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 2
The Taborites

I. The Great Schism

It was in Bohemia that the earliest successful movement of the Reformation occurred; it was there that heretical communism found the first opportunity of clearly differentiating itself from the other heretical sects. The Bohemian movement was of great importance to the German communism of the Reformation as it was the forerunner of the latter. Hence our attention must be first directed to the Hussites.

How was it that the Reformation movement was first successful in Bohemia?

German historians maintain that only Germanic nations possess the inward fervour, the true sense of religion, necessary to produce an urgent desire for reform.

As a matter of fact, however, we find that the first Reformation movement took place among the Latin nations in Italy and the South of France. We need only mention Arnold of Brescia, and the Albigenses. If these movements were not equally successful with that of Wycliffe, it must be attributed to other circumstances than the lack of religious fervour.

It is not within our province to explain how necessary the Papacy was for a long time to the nations of Christendom, and how many were the important functions which it fulfilled in their political life. These functions, however, became more and more superfluous from the beginning of the twelfth century, while, on the other hand, the Church of Rome was gaining more and more experience as to the ways and means by which it could tax the Christian nations, and render them contributors to its treasury.

The Church had become the largest landowner in all Western Christendom, nearly one third of all the land in Germany, France, and England belonging to her. But she did not derive her revenues from landed property only. She knew how to prey upon the faithful in every way. In proportion to the Church’s growth in wealth, her centralisation and dependence on the Pope had increased. The greater the treasure she amassed, the larger was the portion which found its way to Rome.

But the opposition which raised its head in various Christian countries against the Papacy grew stronger, not only in the ranks of the working-classes producing the treasures the Romish Church attracted to itself, but also among all grades of the ruling classes, who looked covetously at the wealth which they would have liked to pocket themselves. Under these circumstances the desire for Church reform became more pronounced; i.e., the desire for the abolition of Papal domination and the Church’s power of taxation, and also for the secularisation of Church property. But it did not everywhere lead to a violent breach with Rome, or to the foundation of a separate Church. It was not to the interest of the ruling classes in every country to countenance so revolutionary an act against existing powers; a proceeding which might perhaps have endangered their own authority.

In Italy, no opposition to the Church arose. The large sums which the Popes extorted from Christendom flowed into that country, and became a means of advancing its commerce and industry. The Papal power was looked upon as a rampart against the enemies of the nation, preventing its neighbours, France and Germany, from making plundering raids; for these nations eagerly coveted its wealth. Thus the decline of Papal power portended the beginning of foreign rule. How could Italy, therefore, be expected to throw off the Papal yoke?

The kings of France were likewise not interested in such a movement. They had become much more powerful than the Pope himself, and were able to make tools of their former masters. To such an extent did the power of the French monarchs transcend that of the Popes, that in the fourteenth century they were able to force the latter to transfer their residence from Rome to Avignon.

Scarcely, however, had the Papacy fallen under French domination, when France was drawn into the great Hundred Years’ War with England. In the latter country the King and Parliament had about this time become strong enough to resist Papal presumption; and the fact that the Pope allowed himself to be made the tool of her national enemy was another reason which strengthened the anti-papal feelings in England. A fruitful soil was thus prepared for Wycliffe, who was constantly striving for the separation of England from the Roman Church, and for the secularisation of Church property.

Matters, however, did not reach this point, a compromise being effected between the Pope and the English upper classes. These became alarmed at the rising of the peasantry in 1381, and at the gradual strengthening of the Lollard movement, which contained in itself numerous communistic elements. With such a rebellious population threatening them, it appeared rather dangerous to both king and nobility to enter on any revolutionary action with the intention of rendering themselves independent of the Pope, and confiscating Church property. A compromise with the Papal See was all the more easily arrived at, as the latter was just then ceasing to be the tool of French policy; having been warned by the rise of Wycliffeism that a continuance of its present subservience would inevitably jeopardise its position throughout Europe. Hence the longing of the Papal Court for a return to Rome, where it would be further removed from French influence.

The Wycliffe movement also showed the Papal authorities the danger threatening their position as Princes of the Church. It pointed out to them the necessity of seeking a firm support in their secular estates. The continued loss to the Papacy of its dominance and powers of exploitation in England, France, and the provinces of Castile and Aragon, reduced it to greater dependence upon the power and wealth of the Princes. All the more important, therefore, became the control of its own territories in conjunction with its spiritual dominion of the world at large, and all the more imperative the necessity of a return to its native soil.

If the Papal Court had every reason to yearn for Rome, the Italians had equal cause for desiring its return. The “Babylonian Captivity” (as it was called) of the Pope in Avignon had clearly proved how essential to their country was the presence in Rome of the Head of the Church, the city of Rome itself being the chief sufferer.

This passionate desire for the return of the Pope found its grandest exponent in Petrarch. In his letters and poems he paints in vivid colours the misery and filth to which the palaces and altars of the saints in Rome had sunk since the removal of the Holy See, and how the Eternal City was falling to ruin, like a wife abandoned by her spouse. The presence of the righteous ruler would disperse the cloud hanging over the seven hills. It would redound to the everlasting fame of the Papal power, to the prosperity of Rome, and to the peace of Italy, if a Pope had the courage to cut himself loose from the enthralment of France. In Avignon the Papacy must, from the very nature of things, be stifled in luxury and vice, and incur the hatred and contempt of the whole world. No one has more sharply criticised the Papal power than Petrarch; but his object in doing so was not to weaken or destroy it, but to lure it back to Italy. In his opinion the depravity of the Curia did not lie in its shameless spoliation, but in the fact that it spent the proceeds of its cupidity in Avignon instead of Rome. The climate of the former was destructive to the moral health of the Papacy. Once back in Rome its recovery would be immediate.

In addition to the economic reasons which influenced the Italians there were others of a political character.

The awakening of a feeling of nationality is most intimately connected with the development of industry. If industry has attained to the level of capitalisation, its interests, and above all the interests of capitalists, demand a national, centralised government with a monarch at its head; a government which can secure to capitalists the home market and give them sufficient scope and freedom of movement in the markets of the world. This was first clearly shown in the seventeenth century; but the first germs of the modern feelings of nationality can be traced back to the fourteenth century, when it had its rise under peculiar conditions, and did not for a long period acquire the strength of a self-evident instinct.

This feeling first manifested itself in the highly developed nation of Italy, which, in the fourteenth century, had, more than any other nation, the most pressing need of a union of its powers under one government. Such a union was absolutely necessary, if an end was to be put to the ceaseless internecine wars among its petty states, if quiet and order were to be restored, and if the country was not to remain a prey to foreigners, as in fact it had then become and continued to be until the second half of this century.

The only power seemingly in a position to give unity to Italy and to acquire ascendency over its different sovereigns was the Papacy, and hence on the first appearance of Wycliffeism the Pope began seriously to meditate a return to Rome. The time was opportune for such a step, as the war with England had terminated fatally for France, making her opposition appear less dangerous.

The first attempt to fly from Avignon was made by Urban V. In spite of the protest of Charles V. of France and the cardinals (for the most part creatures of the French throne), this Pope embarked at Marseilles and went via Genoa to Rome, where he was received with acclamations. But soon after, in 1370, the French cardinals, who had found more to amuse them in France, again became paramount, and Urban returned to Avignon. (Gibbon maintains that it was chiefly a question of Burgundy wine, which could not be procured in Italy.)

The second attempt was made in 1376, by Gregory XI, who remained in Rome until his death (1378). Fearing that the French cardinals would again elect a Pope friendly to France, the people of Rome rose in arms, surrounded the Conclave, and with a cry “Death, or an Italian Pope!” forced the cardinals to elect an Italian, Urban VI. As soon as they were able, however, the French cardinals withdrew from Rome, declared the election extorted and invalid, and chose another Pope, Clement VII.

This was the origin of the great schism in the Church; and we have dealt thus fully with its causes, on account of its importance both in the history of the Papacy and of the heretical sects.

Two co-existent Popes were not an unheard-of thing, but it was a novelty that each Pope should exhibit a distinct national character. One was supported by France and Spain, the other by Italy, Germany, and England. A third subsequently appeared upon the scene, who was acknowledged almost solely by the Spaniards. Hence the disruption of Catholic Christendom at a later date into separate national Churches, found its prelude in this ecclesiastical schism. This was not a case of dogma, nor of purely personal effort, but of national and political antagonism.

A furious conflict ensued between the several Popes, in which neither of them, nor of their respective adherents, gained the upper hand. The whole Church was out of joint, and society bade fair to share the same fate. Society was indeed menaced by the bitterest antagonisms, as had been shown by the Jacquerie in France and the revolt of the peasantry in England. Hence it became a question of putting an end to this dislocation and of re-organising the Church, or as was said, of “reforming it in its head and in its limbs.” As the Papacy was wholly incapable of such a task, it had to be carried out by other powers. A series of international Congresses were convened – Councils of the Church – at which, however, the delegates of the secular princes had quite as much to say as those of the ecclesiastical organisations.

The Papacy resulting from these Councils stood far below that which had once vanquished the Hohenstaufens. It is true that thenceforward the Popes were less under the influence of an individual nation than those of Avignon, but national churches had been formed virtually subject to the respective sovereigns. The Pope was thereafter compelled to share his rule and spoils, if he would not lose them altogether, and his share was limited and strictly defined by special treaties (concordats or pragmatic sanctions).

This was the condition of things in France, England, and Spain. In Italy the Romish Church was from the outset the national one.

Germany was the only country in which no national Church was formed at the period of the Councils. It was too much disrupted to be able to control and limit the spoliation and government of the German Church by the Pope. From that time Germany became the primary object of the Papal greed for power and wealth.

One member of the German Empire, however, formed an exception – the kingdom of Bohemia.



II. Social Conditions in Bohemia before the Hussite Wars

With the exception of England, perhaps, no country exhibited so rapid an economic development during the fourteenth century as Bohemia. In England this was specially favoured by the wool trade, and by successful predatory incursions into France; in Bohemia by its silver mines, in which that of Kuttenberg ranked foremast. Opened up in 1237, it continued until into the fifteenth century to be by far the richest silver mine of Europe, its annual yield, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, amounting to about 100,000 marks of silver (a mark = ½ lb.).

The rapid development of Bohemia’s power at that time, and the splendour of the reigns of Ottacar II (1253-1278) and Charles I (Charles IV of Germany, 1346-1378) depended chiefly on those mines. Moreover, though they were supported by the Pope, both the latter king and his son Wenzel owed their succession to the imperial throne of Germany principally to the Kuttenberg mines, which supplied them with the means necessary for the purchase of electoral votes – a method often resorted to at that period.

Thanks to Kuttenberg’s capacity of production, trade and industry, as well as the arts and sciences, flourished in Bohemia, and above all in Prague, which at that period had become “golden Prague”, covered with splendid buildings and the seat of the first University of the German Empire (founded 1348). Nor did the Church go empty-handed. Its greed great, its scent keen; it knew where there was anything to get and moreover how to get it. Hence monasteries and churches in Bohemia were exceptionally wealthy, especially under Charles IV.

Æneas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Pius II, who was well informed concerning the possessions of the Church, writes in his History of the Bohemians: “I believe that in our age there was in all Europe no country in which so many and such magnificent and richly adorned places of worship were to be found as in Bohemia. The churches were heaven inspiring; ... their high altars loaded with gold and silver, enclosed the relics of the saints; the priestly vestments richly ornamented and embroidered with pearls, and the vessels of the most costly description; ... it was astonishing not only in the cities and market-towns, but even in the villages.”

But the exceptional opulence of the Church in Bohemia only served to increase its spoliation by the Pope.

Next to the Church and the King and his courtiers, the shareholders of the Kuttenberg mines derived the greatest profits from land. In the fourteenth century these shareholders were no longer simple mine labourers, but merchants of Prague and Kuttenberg, and capitalists who employed labour.

It was natural that the development of manufacture and trade should give rise to the same phenomena in Bohemia as elsewhere. Together with the great antagonism between the papal Church and the bulk of the population, there existed an antagonism between traders and consumers, between masters and journeymen) between capitalists and those engaged in house industries; while that between the large landed proprietors and small tenants was continually becoming more acute. It was not inconsistent with this antagonism that the universal tendency of that period should be towards raising the peasantry from serfdom by commuting labour-rents into money-rents, which existed even in Bohemia.

This phenomenon demands a more detailed examination. To make it comprehensible we must glance at the change in the condition of the peasantry which had been brought about by the development of the municipal system and of industry in Bohemia, as well as throughout Europe.

The growth of cities created a market not only for industrial but also for agricultural products. As towns increased in size, tradesmen and craftsmen became less able to produce all the necessary means of subsistence and raw materials. They purchased from the neighbouring farmers whatever these produced in excess of their own requirements, and in exchange gave their own or imported manufactures, or money. Thus the peasants became possessed of money. The natural result of this was an effort to convert their rents, which had hitherto been paid in produce and labour into money-rents, a change which would make them free men having complete control over their own possessions. The landowners themselves must often have wished for this change, as they also began to be in want of money.

It might be thought that this effort of the two classes towards the same goal would have produced only harmony and contentment.

Nothing can be less true. Under the system of payment in kind, farmers had no great incentive to increase their produce, as it was limited by the personal needs of the landlords and their retainers. The greed for money, on the contrary, is limitless, since it is impossible ever to have too much of it. From that time we find a far stronger impulse among the owners of property to increase the burdens of the peasantry, while a counter pressure sprang up simultaneously on the part of the oppressed. So long as the peasants could not sell the excess of their natural produce, it was a small sacrifice for them to give it up; but when there existed a market for it, the relinquishment of it to the landlord, or the giving up of the proceeds of its sale, meant a renunciation of pleasures which soon became necessaries.

There was another conflicting element between the two classes. Before the development of the town, the peasant had no asylum to which he could flee from an oppressor. Now the town offered a place of refuge of which many a one availed himself. Well-to-do farmers contrived to profit by the pecuniary embarrassment of their landlords, and in this way free themselves completely from their burdens. Thus the number of forced labourers became smaller, and the business of the manorial farms often suffered in consequence. Hence when the peasants, under the aegis of the rising towns, increased their efforts to throw off or diminish their burdens, the landlords simultaneously exerted themselves strenuously to bind their serfs more firmly to the manor, and to augment their compulsory service.

There was still a third element of antagonism. The moment agricultural produce acquired a market value, all land, whether under cultivation at the moment or not, possessed a market value. As soon as the towns had attained to power and importance, the time had gone by when the population was so sparsely scattered that the land was looked upon as practically boundless, and every one wishing to possess it – were he simply peasant, or mighty landlord with his tenants, or an association of monks – could easily obtain as much as he wanted, either from the lord of the manor, or from the Markgenossenschaft (the primitive society of the members of a commune holding land in common). Now, although the stage had not yet been reached at which every tract of arable land had been put under cultivation, yet the population had already become so dense that land no longer seemed inexhaustible. The possession of it began to be a privilege, and indeed a privilege so valuable that the most violent conflicts broke out concerning it. The Markgenossenschaft now proclaimed their collective land to be the private joint property of the families constituting the corporation. Side by side with the members of the Markgenossenschaft a class soon began to form itself, composed of the less privileged inhabitants of the commune.

On the other hand, however, endeavours were made by the lords of the manor, whose power in the commune was indeed preponderant, to seize these lands and convert them into their own private property, at the same time graciously conceding usufructuary rights to the fellows of the Markgenossenschaft.

The greater the strides made in economic development, the more intense became all these antagonisms, and the greater the embitterment between landlords and peasants. Conflicts were more easily excited between these two classes – conflicts which, in the majority of cases, were only local, but which in some cases broke forth simultaneously throughout whole provinces and even whole countries, growing finally into regular wars – peasant wars.

The fortunes of war sometimes favoured one side and sometimes the other. In general, however, it may be said that in spite of isolated defeats, the peasantry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (earlier still in Italy) had permanently bettered their position.

The causes of this improvement may be understood in part from what has already been said. Legal methods, and even physical compulsion, were of little use when the towns lent their protection and shelter to the fugitive peasants. In order to retain for their own benefit the labour power of the peasantry, the lords of the soil were compelled, therefore, to treat them better, and make their existence endurable.

The financial embarrassment of the landlords also frequently aided the peasants. In the twelfth century Christendom had grown sufficiently strong, not only to defend itself against its enemies, but even to assume the offensive against the Orientals, whose wealth and high culture had excited the greed for plunder of the military and priestly castes of the Christian world. The Crusades began with the most vigorous union of the feudal lords of all lands, those adventure-seeking and booty-craving members of the higher classes. But initiated amidst great illusions, these wars ended lamentably, their results bearing no fit ratio to the sacrifices they entailed. They enriched many towns, especially in Italy, but they caused the ruin of a large part of the European nobility, and instilled into the rest of the higher classes those longings for the productions of a higher culture, which in Europe were not to be obtained without great expenditure. It is not surprising, therefore, that the financial embarrassment of the nobility rapidly increased. If in some cases this led to an effort to extort still more from the peasant, it often burdened the landlord also with a load of debt, and forced him to agree to absolve the peasant from his burdens upon the payment of a round sum. The higher nobility suffered comparatively little from these conditions, but the inferior ranks were rapidly ruined, and to all intents and purposes lost their independence.

One more circumstance must finally be noticed. While the population was increasing, the closing of the land-corporations and their absorption by the lords of the manor made it exceedingly difficult to find room for new settlers. The surplus population was, in consequence, compelled to seek a livelihood outside of agricultural pursuits, and especially in urban handicrafts, or in war-service. Together with the ruined lower nobility, sturdy country youths, whose services were not required at home, gave themselves up to the trade of soldiering, and flocked to the well-to-do towns, or to those nobles who paid them well and held out the prospect of rich booty. They sought service under princes, or such fortunate army-leaders as were beginning to make a business of war, and to contract for troops. [1]

Side by side with the army of the feudal caste (the mounted men, or knights), another was now formed consisting of paid peasants, and foot-bands once more assumed a military importance.

But these levied peasants had not as yet become proletarians. They were farmers’ sons who, after completing their war-service, returned home to take part in the labours of the family, or to set up their own firesides. They brought with them the implements and weapons of war, and the veteran’s skill in the use of them. French knights of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries often enough had a taste of the quality of the English bow and the Swiss pike.

At the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries serfdom had in fact ceased in Bohemia as well as in England, but attempts were not wanting among the landlords to re-inaugurate the system; attempts which were a fruitful source of social discontent. [2]

But the greatest discontent must have been among the members of the inferior nobility who, themselves not much above the higher class of peasants, possessed very limited sources of revenue and could not, like the great barons, squeeze anything of importance out of their tenants, but who, unfortunately, had formed their standard of life on the pattern of the great barons and wealthy merchants. At the end of the fourteenth century this class went rapidly to ruin. The royal power was already too strong in Bohemia to permit the formation of a body of robber-knights, although many earnest attempts were made to that end.

As Bohemia was a part of the German Empire, a profitable national war was impossible, hence the members of the Bohemian knighthood were driven almost exclusively to mercenary war-service as a means of retrieving their fortunes.

The development of silver mining was not only a potent factor in the encouragement of manufacture and trade, and, through these, in the growth of the above-mentioned antagonisms, but it produced, as a necessary consequence, a revolution in prices, by which they were especially embittered.

The discovery and working of the rich silver mines of Bohemia must have brought about a rise in the prices of all goods. It must have had the same effect in that country as was caused in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century by the rich yield of the Saxon and Tyrolese mines, and has been produced throughout Europe since the middle of the sixteenth century by the discovery and development of the gold and silver deposits in America. We have not been able to find proofs of this in the various histories of Bohemia, but if in this matter, as in others, the axiom holds good, that under the same conditions like causes produce like effects, there can be no doubt that in the fourteenth century there was a complete revolution of prices in Bohemia.

It was inevitable that the different classes should be affected in various ways by this revolution. Some were injured, others benefited; some were merely touched by it, others completely shattered; but in every circumstance of social intercourse in which a money payment was the medium, the social antagonism comprised in it could not fail to be intensified by this rise in prices. The greatest sufferers must have been those classes who received their incomes in money and did not possess the power to increase those incomes proportionately to its decreased value. In the towns these classes formed the lowest strata of the wage-earning population; in the country they were the petty nobility.

But above all these social antagonisms stood another still more potent – the national. In Bohemia the hatred of Germany was combined with that felt for the Papal Church. In the thirteenth century Bohemia was economically far behind the times. Its Western German neighbours were much in advance of it in social development. After the opening of the Kuttenberg mines, the marvellous progress in industry, trade, art, and science had been made possible in Bohemia only by the fact that its rulers attracted German emigrants thither. The two favourite monarchs of Bohemian patriots, Ottocar II. and Charles I., were the very ones who most encouraged the immigration of German peasants, craftsmen, and merchants, as well as German artists and savants.

Kuttenberg was a purely German town, and quite as much so were the other mining towns, such as Deutschbrod and Iglau. Together with these, however, numerous other towns had been either founded by Germans, or were so largely peopled by them, that the municipal authority fell into their hands, and this the more readily as they represented the well-to-do classes – the merchants and prominent handicraftsmen. The petty craftsmen, the mass of day-labourers, and other of the |ower urban population, were native-born Czechs.

The University was also under the control of the Germans. It was a self-governing institution, modelled after the University of Paris, and divided into four “nations,” each of which had a vote in the management. The Bohemians, however, were always in a hopeless minority, as they were opposed by the Bavarian, Saxon, and Polish “nations”, the last named being composed chiefly of Germans (Silesians, &c.). This is not an insignificant fact. In those times a university was a scientific and political power of the first rank, and had an importance equal to that possessed by the press and universities combined at the present day. Externally, also, it was a mighty organisation. Like those of Paris, the buildings of the University of Prague, together with the residences of the professors and students, formed a distinct quarter of the town, having probably its own surrounding walls [3], and as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century the number of students amounted to many thousands. Æneas Sylvius tells us in his History of the Bohemians that when, in 1409, the German students quitted the town, two thousand left in one day. Three thousand followed a few days later, and founded the University of Leipzig. It can be safely assumed, therefore, that the total number of students at that time in the university was not less than ten thousand.

There were also numerous establishments connected with the university, such as lands and buildings endowed for the use and enjoyment of the professors and poorer students; and all this wealth and power was in the hands of the Germans. Bitterly did the Czech professors complain that they were forced to starve as country schoolmasters, while their German colleagues obtained all the fat appointments in the University; and that whenever the interests of the Czech “nation” clashed with those of the German, the authorities invariably sided with the latter.

To all this was added the fact that the Church had become an institution of spoliation for the benefit of the Germans. The poor livings were, it is true, turned over to the Czechs; but the monasteries were for the most part in the possession of the Germans, as well as the higher appointments of the secular clergy.

Thus the animosity to the Church conspired with the hatred of the Germans in uniting the whole Czech nation in solid phalanx against those two spoilers.

This gave rise to the national feeling which suddenly appeared in Bohemia in the fourteenth century. But in its beginnings this feeling assumed the most diverse forms in different countries, being determined in each case by the special circumstances which called it forth. In Italy and Germany it sprang chiefly from a longing for political unity. Among the patriots of the former country it led to an adulation of the Papacy; in those of Germany to an enthusiasm for a powerful empire. In France and England the most prominent national feeling was a reciprocal hatred between the two countries. In Bohemia, on the contrary, it made its appearance as a special kind of class antagonism.

The peculiar form assumed by this antagonism can be easily understood from what has been said. The Germans expected and received the most lucrative appointments among the secular clergy, in the monasteries and in the University, the latter at that time an essentially theological institution. If the Czechs had every reason for rearing a barrier against the spoliation carried on by the Church, and for craving its possession, the Germans had quite as good grounds for resisting their efforts.

Such was the atmosphere in which the movement against the Pope and the Germans had its birth, a movement which has received the name of the Hussite War from its most prominent literary advocate, Johannes Huss.



III. The Beginning of the Hussite Movement

In its beginnings the Hussite movement borrowed the most weighty of its arguments and claims from Wycliffeism, for as soon as the doctrines of the English reformer reached Bohemia they were eagerly seized upon and propagated. But while Huss adhered closely to Wycliffe’s teachings, it is a gross exaggeration to assert that those teachings produced the Hussite movement. They supplied the Hussites with arguments of the greatest utility, and influenced the formulation of the demands put forward by them; but the cause, strength, and aim of the movement had their roots deep in circumstances which were wholly indigenous to Bohemia. In the reign of Charles 1. they had already found expression in Milic of Kremsier and Mathias of Janow, long before Wycliffeistic writings had penetrated to Bohemia, which did not take place till about 1380, in the last years of the curate of Lutterworth.

Wenzel, son of Charles I, and the fourth Bohemian king of that name (1378-1419), endeavoured as far as possible to suppress existing antagonisms. As he was repugnant to accepting the German crown on account of his powerlessness, it was not necessary for him to be a “parson-king” like his father. Although he endeavoured to subjugate the Church to his own control, and was thus put in touch with the efforts of the Czech patriots and Church reformers, he was forced to recognise the fact that Bohemia’s flourishing economic condition, and with it the greater part of his power, depended on Germans. While favouring the strivings of the Czechs, he did not wish the Germans to be injured thereby. To this highly contradictory situation we must ascribe the vacillating policy of Wenzel, who one day encouraged the Czechs and the friends of reform (e.g., in the question of the University), and the next day endeavoured to repress them – sometimes in vain. Although the Germanic spirit and influence declined in power and importance under his rule, his wavering, contradictory, and frequently capricious policy succeeded almost to the end of his life in preventing any violent encounter between the antagonistic parties.

The explosion came only when Bohemian affairs were interfered with by foreign powers, who, instead of a policy of vacillation and compromise, preferred that of a strong hand, and, by their attempt to stamp out the brand with a firm foot, caused the whole structure to burst into flame.

Johannes Huss (from 1398 professor in Prague University, and from 1402 pastor of Bethlehem Chapel), the most prominent literary representative of the anti-Papal and anti-German movement, enjoyed the favour of Wenzel, who appointed him father-confessor to Queen Sophia. The University, which was at that time in the hands of the Germans, turned at first against Huss and Wycliffe, whose doctrines Huss propagated, and pronounced forty-five of Wycliffe’s Theses to be heretical. The quarrel of the University became more and more a national one, in which the Czechs and the friends of reform were in the minority. Wenzel finally interposed and gave three of the four votes of the University to the Bohemian “nation,” and the remaining one to the other nations combined, whereupon the majority of German professors and students left the country. The University now declared for Huss, and appointed him Rector.

Huss had then to deal with the Archbishop of Prague, and, lastly, with the Pope himself. Fiercer and fiercer grew the struggle, and wider and wider the gulf between Huss and the Church. The conflict became especially sharp when, in 1411, Pope John XXIII, being in want of money, again made preparations for the sale of Indulgences, which took place in Prague in 1412.

Huss raised the most violent opposition to this sale, as well as to the money-seeking Pope, whom he denounced as anti-Christ. It soon culminated in a severe encounter between the Catholic Germans and the Hussite Czechs, the latter of whom burnt the Papal Bull, and even threatened the priesthood.

It seemed, indeed, at that time, as if these bitter antagonisms were about to measure their strength in open conflict; but Wenzel was once again able to preserve peace by a cold-blooded neutrality. In December, 1412, he expelled Huss from Prague, and soon afterwards prepared the same fate for four papistically-minded theologians; he simultaneously destroyed the preponderance of the Germans in Prague by decreeing that in future half of the town-councillors should be Czechs.

In 1414, the great Church Council assembled in Constance. Its mission was to reunite and reorganise the Papal Church – a task which involved not only the setting aside of the three existing Popes and the installation of a new one, but also the suppression of Bohemian heresy. Wenzel had been deprived of the imperial crown by the German Electors in 1400, and his brother Sigismund (who, since 1410, had been Emperor of Germany and was heir presumptive to the throne of Bohemia) had special interest in the suppression of Hussism, as this sect threatened the defection of Bohemia not only from the Church but also from his Empire.

Huss was cited before the Council. Full of confidence, he set out on the journey to Constance, relying, not on the letter of safe-conduct given him by Sigismund, but on his good cause. Like so many idealists before and after him, he saw only differences of opinion and misapprehension where there were actually irreconcilable antagonisms. If he could only clear up these misapprehensions and refute these opinions, the irresistible strength of his ideas would, he thought, be manifest. But he failed to convince the pious fathers, either that Apostolic poverty was enjoined upon the followers of Christ, or of the truth of his dictum that a spiritual or secular ruler, be he Pope or King, ceases to be lawful the moment he incurs the guilt of a deadly sin.

This democratic principle seriously offended Sigismund as well as the Council.

That Bohemia arose in its might in favour of Huss only bore witness to his dangerous power, and was one more reason why the Council should render him harmless. After it had vainly sought by threats and long imprisonment to induce him to recant, it condemned the reformer and his doctrines on July 6, 1415, and handed him over to the secular judges. Sigismund was sufficiently devoid of character to break his word; and, in spite of the letter of safe-conduct, Huss was sentenced to the stake.

This reduced the Bohemians to the alternative of rebellion, or subjection to the Church and the Germans. They chose rebellion.

A few of the more resolute among the followers of Huss had already openly renounced the Church. They upheld the claim previously raised by Mathias of Janow, that the Holy Sacrament should be administered to the people in both kinds. The use of the chalice had hitherto been confined to the priests. It was quite in accordance with their doctrine which had, as one of its aims, the abolition of the privileges of the priesthood, that it should also declaim against the external sign of their privileged condition. The chalice, i.e., the lay chalice, became from that time the symbol of the Hussites. According to the usual popular representation of history, the only question at issue during the gigantic struggles of the Hussite war, was essentially whether or not the Holy Communion ought to be administered in both kinds; and in this connection “enlightened minds” never tire of pointing out, with much self-satisfaction, how narrow-minded the people of that time were, and how luminous, on the contrary, are the free-thinkers of the present day.

This picture of the Hussite movement is about as true and well founded as would be a representation in coming centuries of the revolutionary conflicts of our times, in which it should be made to appear that the people of the nineteenth century were so ignorant as to attribute a superstitious importance to particular colours, so that the bloodiest battles raged over the questions whether the French colours should be white, red white and blue, or red; those of Hungary black and yellow, or red white and green; and that for a long time a wearer of a black red and gold ribbon was punished by severe imprisonment in Germany.

What the various flags are to the nations of to-day, the chalice was to the Hussites. It was their standard, round which they rallied, and which they defended to the last; but it was not an object of strife.

It was precisely the same with the different forms of the Holy Communion which made their appearance in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The casting off of the fetters of the Catholic Church – an act of which the symbol was the acceptance of the lay chalice – became universal after the execution of Johannes Huss. The ice was broken, and the practical consequences of renouncing the Church soon ensued – those consequences which were fundamentally the object of the whole conflict. Masses of the lower population in Prague now began to rise from time to time, not merely in demonstrations, but sometimes to expel the secular clergy and monks, and plunder the churches and monasteries; the greatest gainers by these uprisings being the nobility. Not in vain had they become the most zealous advocates of Hussite doctrines. To revenge the death of Huss, and, of course, out of pure enthusiasm for the faith (?), they now sent challenges to bishops and monasteries, and began, wherever possible, to seize the possessions of the Church.

Wenzel was powerless in the face of the storm. In vain did Sigismund and the Pope endeavour to goad him into energetic measures against the rebels. The Bohemian king deemed it most prudent to act as if he saw nothing. Matters finally went so far that Sigismund threatened his brother with war if he did not interpose in the Hussite revolt. The threat was effective: Wenzel turned against the Hussites, and tried to bring back the exiled clergy. Thereupon a tumult arose in Prague, during which the masses of the lower population, led by Johann Ziska, seized the town on July 30, 1419.

The king had fled before the threatening catastrophe to his stronghold in Wenzelstein, and when the dire news was brought to him fell into the most ungovernable rage. This was the probable cause of the attack of apoplexy which followed and from which he died a few days afterwards.

Bohemia was left without a king, a prey to the Hussite heresy.



IV. The Internal Parties of the Hussite Movement

So long as the heresy in Bohemia was kept under by Church and State, it displayed only its national and ecclesiastical characteristic. For the mass of the people the national enemy and the clerical enemy were one and the same person, and a common hatred had united the different social strata.

Now that the enemy had been repelled, and the “pure Word of God” was triumphant, it soon became evident that this Word, though equally applicable to all, was viewed in the most diverse lights by the various classes, according to their respective interests. Hussism divided itself, in general, into two great parties, each of which had its centre in a town, viz., Prague and Tabor; while Kuttenberg became the head-quarters of the scanty remnant of Catholicism.

Next to Prague, Kuttenberg was at that time the largest and most powerful town in Bohemia, and the German shareholders and labourers in its mines had every reason for remaining Catholic, as no one had more to lose by the success of the Hussites. Nowhere else, therefore, did the Catholics display so much fanaticism. They put to death every Hussite who fell into their power-and their victims were numerous. Indeed, the Bohemians affirmed that the Kuttenbergers had established a prize fund for the capture of Hussites, sixty Prague groschen being paid for an ordinary heretic, and three hundred for a heretic priest.

In addition to Kuttenberg, there were a few small towns in which the Germans had succeeded in maintaining themselves and which remained true to the Catholic cause. In the course of the Hussite wars, however, the greater number of these towns, and even Kuttenberg itself, fell into the hands of the Hussites, and became Bohemianised. After Kuttenberg had been definitely lost to Catholicism, the centre of the party gravitated to Pilsen.

Together with these few towns, a small fraction of the nobility still remained true to the old faith, partly because they hoped to fare better with the monarchical court, and partly through disgust for the democratic tendencies which were developing in Hussism.

The majority of the nobility, however, held fast to the Hussite cause, being induced to do so by the Church possessions which they seized. Their ideal government (especially among the higher ranks) was an aristocratic republic, with a mock king at its head. As Sigismund was not available for that purpose, they sought a substitute in Poland and Lithuania; but no prince of any importance cared to put his head into the wasp’s nest.

The larger portion of the population of Prague sided with the aristocratic party. In a series of revolts in that town, the lower classes had taken the reins of government into their own hands, after having expelled the German priests and aristocrats. In addition to the Council, there now existed the assembly of the entire commune, in which every man had a vote who carried on an independent business. The Councillors were probably chosen from this assembly.

A new municipal aristocracy, however, soon came into existence. Like the nobility, this powerful town naturally profited by the opportunity to seize the property of the Church. Men of a speculative turn of mind found a good instrument for raising themselves above the masses, in such of the confiscated property as was sold, divided, or squandered, and in the spoils of churches and monasteries. After the capture of Kuttenberg, the profits of its mines fell to the lot of the Praguers, and formed a considerable part of their incomes, a circumstance which must also have been favourable to cunning speculators. Thus a new urban aristocracy was formed composed of Czechs, which soon sympathised with the nobility, and most unwillingly submitted to the domination of the “great assembly” of the town.

There was still another reason for the growth of aristocratic sympathies among craftsmen and even among the very lowest classes in Prague. Their industries and trade flourished, so long as the Court and the upper nobility dissipated what they squeezed out of the whole country. The Praguers consequently began to look upon a monarchy and spoliating nobility as the most highly necessary requisites of society. The democratic elements in the community continued to lose strength, while the aristocratic sentiment, as continually, gained in power. Revolts, intrigues, and foreign intervention strengthened first one and then the other of these elements; but Prague as a friend to the democrats was always untrustworthy, while as their enemy it was most determined. In the second half of the Hussite wars it was unceasingly opposed to them.

The Praguers and nobility (especially the upper ranks) united in forming the “moderate party,” apparently so called because their confiscation of Church property was most immoderate. This party went under the name of the Calixtines or Utraquists. [4]

Opposed to these was another movement, which in its composition and general tendencies may well be designated as democratic.

It found its most numerous adherents among the peasantry in Bohemia, and formed by far the largest class of the population.

The Hussite revolution caused a violent outburst of antagonism between the peasantry and the lords of the soil. The confiscated lands of the Church were useless to the nobility without the people of the Church, who supplied rent and forced labour. These toilers, however, had not risen against the Church, merely to exchange one master for another still harsher. They wished to become free peasants and owners of property; and the same desire for freedom prevailed among other classes. The revolution from above necessarily called for a revolution from below. All barriers were swept away which had hitherto in a measure prevented the violent collision between the opposing elements. Custom, which had subjected employer and employed to rigid rules, was cast to the winds, and the throne set aside, which had to some extent controlled the barons and peasants. The latter felt that if they did not succeed in making government by the nobility impossible, and in wholly destroying its power, they would be crushed by its unlimited mastery. They now had to choose between complete freedom and abject servitude.

A part of the petty citizens and proletarians of Prague sided with the peasants; but the number of their partisans was greater in the small towns, in which those classes had succeeded in getting rid of the German “honourables”, who formed the higher ranks of citizens. All these towns were far behind Prague in power. They were not, like the capital, in a position to resist the superior power of the greedy barons single-handed. Like the towns of Germany, whom the weakness of the throne had at an earlier date forced to unite in leagues in order to resist the robber knights, the towns of Bohemia now combined against their enemies, with the exception of the few still remaining Catholic.

The lower nobility at that time occupied an economic position between the peasantry and the higher nobility, similar to that now held by the small tradesmen, who stand between the capitalist class and the proletariat. They were quite as vacillating and untrustworthy as their representatives of the present day. The lower nobles, who were hardly more than large free farmers, had something to lose and something to gain on both sides. The liberation of the peasants threatened them with a further diminution of their income from rent and forced labour; but, on the other hand, the overthrow of the upper nobility would rid them of dangerous competitors and opponents, who were continually pressing them further down. Hence the spoliation of the higher nobility must have been quite as much desired by the knights as by the peasants. Some of the inferior nobility made common cause with the aristocratic party, some with the democratic; while the larger part oscillated hither and thither, inclining in the direction whence at the moment victory and booty appeared most certain.

Among the knights who remained inviolably true to the democratic party, the most prominent was Ziska von Trocnow, who had fought as a mercenary against the Poles and Turks, and in the service of the English against the French. He placed his military experience at the disposal of the democrats, and became their most dreaded and noted leader. But however firmly he may have held to them, he was their partisan only in the capacity of soldier and not of politician. As a soldier, he was the organiser and leader of an army without its equal. As a politician, he stood midway between the democrats and Calixtines, like many other knights and a large part of the humbler citizens of Prague.

After Ziska’s death his special adherents separated themselves from the democrats, and formed a distinct middle party, calling itself “The Orphans,” because its members had lost their father, Ziska.

The democrats, on the contrary, were named Taborites, after their political and military centre, the communist town of Tabor. These communists were the vanguard of the democratic movement.




1. Mercenary armies existed in Italy as early as the thirteenth century. According to Sismondi, the first paid troops consisted of men who had been banished and proscribed; of which the urban party-strifes supplied a large number. (Sismonde de Sismondi, Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen age, Paris 1807, vol.iii. p.260.)

2. Palacky, Geschichte von Böhmen, i. 2 p.34, sqq.; ii. 2 p.30; iii. 2 p.38.

3. Maurer, Städteverfassung, ii. p.37.

4. “Calixtines”, from Calix – the Chalice; “Utraquists,” because they received the Holy Communion in both kinds – sub utraque specie.


Last updated on 23.12.2003