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Hussitism and the heritage of Jan Hus

photo:  (kudyznudy.cz)

The Czech lands were affected by an economic depression under the reign of Wenceslas IV, the son of Charles IV. Highwaymen and plague epidemics racked the country, while private wars raged. The Church, which was supposed to supervise the observance of God’s commandments, focused on attaining positions of power and accumulating property. Clergymen had long been performing jobs in the royal administration and instead of money they received a church office as settlement. Criticism of the Church grew stronger due to its deviation from its original principles, not just in Bohemia, but all over Europe.

Critics considered a return to the original ideals of the Church to be the remedy to this situation.  They demanded that the Church renounce secular power and extensive property, which of course it didn’t do.

Master Jan Hus, a teacher at Prague University, preached at the Bethlehem Chapel. For him, the Bible was the greatest paradigm for living and the highest authority. He promoted the idea of a poor church. Coming closer to the perfect world of God was supposed to be the purpose of earthly endeavors. According to Hus and his followers, the disintegration of contemporary life throughout the country was indicative of the imminent arrival of the Anti-Christ. The German teachers at Prague University did not agree with Hus’s opinions. They apparently complained to the Pope himself about the alleged Czech heretics.

Angry at the damage done to the reputation of the kingdom abroad, Wenceslas IV took retaliatory measures. By way of the Decree of Kutna Hora in 1409, he placed control of the university into the hands of the Hus faction. He changed the rules of voting so that the Bohemian nation received three votes as opposed to one joint vote for all foreign nations. This resulted in a deep rift leading to the departure of German teachers and students to other imperial universities.

The king initially supported Hus, but Hus’s criticism of the selling of indulgences and the worsening reputation of a kingdom where the king apparently stayed his hand over a heretic changed the situation. The pope declared an interdict (i.e. a ban on church ceremonies – funerals, weddings, christenings, etc.) on Prague for as long as Jan Hus resided there.

Part of the Church tried to resolve problems (primarily consisting of a schism) with the aid of councils. And this was timely, because in the second decade of the century, Europe had no fewer than three popes wrangling among themselves. Jan Hus went to the Council of Constance, which had been called by the king’s brother Sigismund Luxemburg, in order to defend the rightness of the Bohemian remedy for the Church. His efforts were in vain. He did not convince the Church dignitaries, and he refused to renounce his opinions. On July 6, 1415, he was burned to death at Constance. Today, this date is commemorated as a national state holiday in the Czech Republic. The delegates at the council managed to end the papal schism.

Of course, the outcome of the council failed to calm the situation in Bohemia. On the contrary, the unrest grew in magnitude. People were convinced that the end of a corrupted world was nigh. Faithful Christians could only attain salvation in a quintet of Bohemian cities – Žatec, Plzeň, Klatovy, Louny and Slaný – and in the aforementioned mountains.

On July 30, 1419, Prague citizens led by the preacher Jan Želivský threw councilors out of the New Town Hall windows, killing them. The New Town defenestration began the Hussite revolution - a movement that placed Bohemia at the fulcrum of European events for several decades. When it ended, the Catholic Church gave up on preserving the single faith in its sphere of influence.

In the spring of 1420, the Hussites founded their own city, Tábor, where they strove to realize their idea of a socially just and equal society. Sigismund, whose claim to the throne was not recognized, tried to conquer the kingdom through strength of arms. He organized several crusades, all without success. At an assembly in Čáslav in 1421, a collective 20-member body was elected, which governed in place of the deposed Sigismund. This body comprised eight burghers, seven members of the lower nobility and five lords. The Hussite program became the so-called Four Prague Articles: freedom to spread the Word of God, receiving communion of consecrated bread and wine at mass (sub utraque specie), a ban on secular power for priests and the punishment of mortal sins.

The greatest Hussite commander was Jan Žižka of Trocnov, the creator of defensive tactics based on using wagon fortifications. For the type of fighting waged at that time, a wagon fortification was practically an insurmountable obstacle for a knight’s charge.

The Hussite movement had already divided into several factions during Žižka’s lifetime – the Praguers, the Orphans (although they were only called this after Žižka’s death) and the Taborites. The priest Prokop Holý, also called Procopius the Great, became the leading Taborite figure. Under his leadership, the Hussite forces won battles at Ustí nad Labem in 1426 and at Tachov in 1427. The prepared battle at Domažlice in 1431 did not even happen because the crusader troops fled when the Hussite forces roared the chorale “Ktož sú boží bojovníci” (“Ye, Who Are Warriors of God”) in unison before the start of the battle when they were in full view.

During the first phase of the revolution, the Hussites focused on defending themselves against external attacks. In the second phase, they began to launch offensives. They not only headed for the other lands of the Bohemian Crown (which, besides Bohemia, also comprised Moravia and Silesia, as well as Upper and Lower Lusatia) but also went to Slovakia, German areas of the Empire and even reached the Baltics in the service of the Polish king.

The Catholic Church was then happier to stake its hopes on diplomacy rather than brute force. Consequently, it began negotiations with the Hussites at the Council of Basle (1431-1449). The Hussites’ radical wing wanted to make the creed of sub utraque specie an obligation for all inhabitants of the kingdom regardless of the casualties, fatigue and exhaustion ensuing from long wars. In an effort to weaken the Catholics, they laid siege to the Catholic bastion of Plzeň, but the city held firm.

They themselves were defeated by a coalition of moderate Hussites and Czech Catholics at the battle of Lipany in 1434. The cause of the defeat was not the numerical superiority of the coalition attackers, but a military trick: By pretending to flee the battlefield, the coalition tempted the radicals into launching an ill-considered foray out of their wagon fortifications. The subsequent counterattack and the rolling over of the open wagon fortifications resulted in their defeat.

In 1436, the so-called Compactata, an agreement with the Council of Basle, was declared. For the kingdom of Bohemia and the Moravian margraviate, taking the Host from a chalice was permitted and the other three Prague articles were allowed in a diluted form. For the first time in history, the Catholic Church reconciled itself to two faiths on a territory it controlled. Hussitism foreshadowed the European Reformation and was a step forward for religious freedom. It made the Bohemian military art famous, and Czech warriors were in demand in many armies.

At that time, the fortified wagon arranged in an appropriate place could not be vanquished by military means. It was only in danger of being destroyed while being moved, if its crew could not set it up and close it off in time. Its importance didn’t wane until the development of cannons.

Hussitism resulted in major property transfers. The richest class – the German burghers – disappeared from the cities. Assets that had originally been Church assets were stripped by nobles and cities regardless of whether they professed to follow the Utraquist or Catholic faith. The political influence of the Church also declined. It lost its representation in the estates assembly. After many years of waiting, Sigismund eventually became king, but he had to confirm the given situation in order to take charge of government.

In 1452, George of Poděbrady was elected governor of the Bohemian diet. He was a member of a Bohemian aristocratic family and a moderate Hussite who had fought on the winning side at the Battle of Lipany. In 1458 he was elected king by the estates of the nobility following the death of King Ladislaus (Ladislav Pohrobek). He struggled with the label of being the “Hussite heretic” ruler, because he reigned in a kingdom where parity between both the Utraquist and Catholic faiths was embedded. Pope Pius II exploited the fact that the Compactata had been approved by a council and not the pope and so he declared it null and void.

George of Poděbrady faced up to the threat of international isolation and the subsequent restoration of the sole Catholic faith through diplomatic negotiations. He proposed the creation of a peaceful union of European monarchs with its own legislative and judicial bodies (e.g. in a manner similar to today’s United Nations). A mission from the Bohemian king traveled to the courts of European sovereigns in the years 1464–1466, but unfortunately the endeavor was not a success.

Moreover, George of Poděbrady had to deal with a deteriorating domestic situation, as Czech Catholics had allied themselves with the Gruneberg (Zelená Hora) alliance and were rising up against him. The state faced an external threat from the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus, who coveted the Bohemian throne. In this situation, George of Poděbrady concluded a succession agreement toward the end of his life with the Jagiellon family of Polish kings.

Added: 10.12.2009

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