III. THE BOHEMIAN REVOLUTION: 1415–36

The news of Huss’s death, relayed by couriers to Bohemia, aroused a national revolt. An assembly of Bohemian and Moravian nobles sent to the Council of Constance (September 2, 1415) a document signed by 500 leading Czechs; it upheld Huss as a good and upright Catholic, denounced his execution as an insult to his country, and proclaimed that the signatories would fight to the last drop of their blood to defend the doctrines of Christ against man-made decrees. A further declaration pledged the members to obey thereafter only such papal commands as agreed with Scripture; the judges of such agreement were to be the faculty of the University of Prague. The university itself hailed Huss as a martyr, and praised the imprisoned Jerome. The Council summoned the rebellious nobles to appear before it and answer charges of heresy; none came. It ordered the university closed; the majority of masters and students went on with their work.

About 1412 one of Huss’s followers, Jakoubek of Strzibo, had proposed that the early Christian custom of administering the Eucharist in both forms —sub utraque specie—wine as well as bread—should be restored throughout Christendom. When the idea captivated the rank and file of his supporters, Huss gave it his approval. The Council forbade it, and defended the abandonment of the primitive custom on the ground that it risked the spilling of Christ’s blood. After Huss’s death the University of Prague and the nobles, led by Queen Sophia, adopted lay communion in both kinds as a command of Christ, and the chalice became the symbol of the “Utraquist” revolt. The followers of Huss formulated in 1420 the “Four Articles of Prague” as their basic demands: that the Eucharist should be given in wine as well as bread; that ecclesiastical simony should be promptly punished; that the Word of God should be preached without hindrance as the sole standard of religious truth and practice; and that an end should be put to the ownership of extensive material possessions by priests or monks. A radical minority among the rebels rejected the veneration of relics, capital punishment, purgatory, and Masses for the dead. All the elements of the Lutheran Reformation were present in this Hussite revolt.

King Wenceslaus, who had sympathized with the movement, possibly because it promised to transfer church property to the state, now began to fear it as threatening civil as well as ecclesiastical authority. In the “New Town” that he had added to Prague he appointed only anti-Hussites to the council, and these men issued punitive regulations designed to suppress the heresy. On July 30, 1419, a Hussite crowd paraded into New Town, forced its way into the council chamber, and threw the councilors out of the windows into the street, where another crowd finished them off. A popular assembly was organized, which elected Hussite councilors. Wenceslaus confirmed the new council, and then died of a heart attack (1419).

The Bohemian nobles offered to accept Sigismund as their king if he would recognize the Four Articles of Prague. He countered by demanding from all Czechs full obedience to the Church, and burned at the stake a Bohemian who refused to renounce the “lay chalice.” The new pope, Martin V, announced a crusade against the Bohemian heretics, and Sigismund advanced with a large force against Prague (1420). Almost overnight the Hussites organized an army; nearly every town in Bohemia and Moravia sent impassioned recruits; Jan Zižka, a sixty-year-old knight with one eye, trained them, and led them to incredible victories. Twice they defeated Sigismund’s troops. Sigismund raised another army, but when a false report came that Zižka’s men were approaching, this new host fled in disorder without ever sighting an enemy. Inflated with success, Zižka’s Puritans now adopted from their opponents the idea that religious dissent should be suppressed by force; they passed up and down Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia like a devastating storm, pillaging monasteries, massacring monks, and compelling the population to accept the Four Articles of Prague. The Germans in Bohemia, who wished to remain Catholic, became the favorite victims of Hussite arms. Meanwhile, and for seventeen years (1419–36), Bohemia survived without a king.

Diverse and conflicting elements had united to make the Bohemian revolution. The native Bohemians resented the wealth and arrogance of the German settlers, and hoped to drive them from the country. The nobles coveted ecclesiastical properties, and thought them worth an excommunication. The proletariat aspired to free itself from middle-class masters. The middle classes hoped to raise their modest power, as against the nobility, in the Diet that ruled Prague and gave some government to Bohemia. The serfs, especially on church estates, dreamed of dividing those blessed acres, and, at worst, of freeing themselves from villein bonds. Some of the lower clergy, fleeced by the hierarchy, gave the rebellion their tacit support, and provided for it the religious services interdicted by the Church.

When the arms of the Hussites had won them most of Bohemia, the contradictions in their aims broke them into fratricidal factions. After the nobles had seized most of the property owned by orthodox ecclesiastical groups,11 they felt that the revolution should subside and invite the sanctifying effects of time. While the serfs who had tilled these lands for the Church clamored for their division among themselves as freemen, the noble appropriators demanded that the peasants should serve the new masters on the same servile basis as before. Zižka supported the peasants, and for a time besieged the now conservative “Calixtine” or chalice Hussites in Prague. Tiring of the struggle, he accepted a truce, withdrew to eastern Bohemia, and founded a “Horeb Brotherhood” dedicated to the Four Articles and to killing Germans. When he died (1424) he bequeathed his skin to be made into a martial drum.12

In the town of Tabor another party of Hussites formed, who held that real Christianity required a communistic organization of life. Long before Huss there had been in Bohemia little groups of Waldensians, Beghards, and other irrepressible heretics mingling religious with communistic ideals. They had maintained a salutary quiet until Zižka’s troops had overthrown the power of the Church in most of Bohemia; now they came into the open, and captured doctrinal leadership at Tabor. Many of them rejected the Real Presence, purgatory, prayers for the dead, and all sacraments except baptism and communion, and discouraged the veneration of relics, images, and saints, they proposed to restore the simple ritual of the Apostolic Church, and repudiated all ecclesiastical rites and robes that they could not find in early Christianity. They objected to altars, organs, and the splendor of church decoration, and they destroyed such ornaments wherever they could. Like later Protestants, they reduced divine worship to communion, prayer, Scriptural readings, a sermon, and the singing of hymns; and these services were conducted by clergymen indistinguishable from the laity in dress. Most of the Taborites deduced communism from millennarianism: Christ would soon come to establish His Kingdom on earth; in that Kingdom there would be no property, no Church or state, no class distinctions, no human laws, no taxes, no marriage; surely it would please Christ, when he came, to find such a heavenly utopia already established by His worshipers. At Tabor and some other towns these principles were put into practice; there, said a contemporary professor in the University of Prague, “all is held in common, no one owns anything for himself alone; so to own is considered a deadly sin. They hold that all should be equal brothers and sisters.”13

A Bohemian peasant turned philosopher, Peter Chelcicky, went further, and wrote in vigorous Czech a series of Tolstoian tracts advocating a pacifistic anarchism. He attacked the powerful and the rich, denounced war and capital punishment as murder, and demanded a society without lords or serfs, or laws of any kind. He bade his followers take Christianity literally as they found it in the New Testament: to baptize only adults, to turn their backs upon the world and its ways, upon oaths and learning and class distinctions, upon commerce and city life; and to live in voluntary poverty, preferably tilling the land, and completely ignoring “civilization” and the state.14 The Taborites found this pacifism unsuited to their temperament. They divided into moderate and advanced radicals (these preached nudism and a communism of women), and the two factions passed from argument to war. In the course of a few years unequal abilities developed inequalities of power and privilege, finally of goods; and the apostles of peace and freedom were replaced by ruthless lawgivers wielding despotic force.15

Christendom heard with horror of this supposedly communistic Christianity. The baronial and burgher Hussites in Bohemia began to yearn for the Church of Rome as the only organization strong enough to stop the imminent dissolution of the existing social order. They rejoiced when the Council of Basel invited reconciliation. A delegation from the Council, without papal authorization, came to Bohemia, and signed a series of “Compacts” so worded that complaisant Hussites and Catholics could interpret them as accepting and rejecting the Four Articles of Prague (1433). As the Taborites refused to recognize these Compacts, the conservative Hussites joined with the surviving orthodox groups in Bohemia, attacked and defeated the divided Taborites, and put an end to the communistic experiment (1434). The Bohemian Diet made its peace with Sigismund, and accepted him as king (1436).

But Sigismund, accustomed to crowning his victories with futility, died in the following year. During the chaos that ensued, the orthodox party secured the upper hand in Prague. An able provincial leader, George of Poděbrad, organized an army of Hussites, captured Prague, restored the Utraquist Jan Rokycana to he archiepiscopal see, and established himself as governor of Bohemia (1451). When Pope Nicholas V refused to recognize Rokycana the Utraquists meditated a transfer of their allegiance to the Greek Orthodox Church, but the fall of Constantinople to the Turks ended the negotiations. In 1458, seeing that Poděbrad’s excellent administration had restored order and prosperity, the Diet chose him king.

He turned his energies now to reconstituting religious peace. With the approval of the Diet he sent to Pius II (1462) an embassy requesting papal ratification of the Compacts of Prague. The Pope refused, and forbade the laity anywhere to receive the Eucharist in both kinds. On the advice of Gregor Heimburg, a German jurist, Poděbrad in 1464 invited the monarchs of Europe to form a permanent federation of European states, with its own legislature, executive, and army, and a judiciary empowered to settle current and future international disputes.16 The kings did not reply; the reinvigorated papacy was too strong to be defied by a League of Nations. Pope Paul II declared Poděbrad a heretic, freed his subjects from their oaths of obedience, and called upon Christian powers to depose him (1466). Matthias Corvinus of Hungary undertook the task, invaded Bohemia, and was crowned king by a group of Catholic nobles (1469). Poděbrad offered the throne to Ladislas, son of King Casimir IV of Poland. Then, worn out with war and dropsy, he died, aged fifty-one (1471). Bohemia, now Czechoslovakia, honors him as, next to Charles IV, her greatest king.

The Diet accepted Ladislas II, and Matthias retired to Hungary. The nobles took advantage of the youthful weakness of the King to consolidate their economic and political power, to reduce the representation of towns and burghers in the Diet, and to debase into serfdom the peasantry that had just dreamed of utopia. Thousands of Bohemians, during this period of revolution and reaction, fled to other lands.* In 1485 the Catholic and Utraquist parties signed the Treaty of Kutna Hora, pledging themselves to peace for thirty years.

In eastern Bohemia and Moravia the followers of Chelcicky formed (1457) a new Christian sect, the Jednota Bratrska, or Church of the Brotherhood, dedicated to a simple agricultural life on the principles of the New Testament. In 1467 it renounced the authority of the Catholic Church, consecrated its own priests, rejected purgatory and the worship of saints, anticipated Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, and became the first modern church to practice Christianity. By 1500 it claimed 100,000 members. These “Moravian Brethren” were almost exterminated in the fury of the Thirty Years’ War; they survived through the leadership of John Comenius; they still exist, in scattered congregations in Europe, Africa, and America, astonishing a violent and skeptical world with their religious toleration, their unassuming piety, and their peaceful fidelity to the principles they profess.

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