Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 36: The Eastern Reformers: the Hussites and Taborites

Rome discovered in Bohemia a source of considerable riches. Half the land belonged to the clergy, which – exploiting it in the name of Christ – aroused a popular hatred more lively than anywhere else, if that was possible.

In Prague in 1360, the ascetic reformer Jan Milíč denounced the corruption of the Church, the veritable incarnation of the Antichrist, and vainly exhorted the priests to the voluntary poverty characterized as evangelic.

Upon the death of Milíč, his disciple, Matthew of Janov, pursued his reforms. He opposed the “body of the Antichrist,” served up in the form of the Host during the communion of the corrupted Church, with the Eucharist of the Ekklesia, the true Church of the faithful. The commensality of bread and wine, which Janov opposed to the abstract and mechanical ritual of clerical communion, explained the exacerbation of the Eucharistic quarrels in Bohemia during the Hussite, Taborite and Adamitic wars. (Note that the communion that used two items was begun as a symbol that was hostile to Catholicism, in which one communed with a single one.)

Around 1380, the reformist doctrines of Wycliffe – in favor of which the sly hostility of England with respect to Roman power worked – began to spread.

John Huss, an admirer of Wycliffe, suddenly brought to his preaching a universal turn towards critiques that until then had been kept within the limits of nationalist claims. The prestige attached to his function as Rector of the University of Prague conferred upon his voice an import that made it resound everywhere in Europe. He proved it when John XXII summoned to Prague the emissaries charged with preaching a crusade against his personal enemy, the King of Naples, and collected the funds necessary for the enterprise through a promotional sale of indulgences. In the name of the sacred Scriptures, Huss rose up against the cynicism of this Pope and condemned an attitude unworthy of Christian teachings.

Huss was neither a heretic nor a revolutionary. He simply pushed honesty to the point of imprudence when he denounced the economic and financial politics of the Church. His presumption incited him to bet upon King Wenceslas, who was favorable to him, but whose more powerful interests diverted him from Huss’ fate.

Excommunicated and summoned to the Council of Constance in 1414, Huss went there accompanied by his disciple, Jerome of Prague, and fortified by the safe-conduct guaranteed him by Emperor Sigismund. Huss defended his thesis in front of the Council: the Christ was the leader of the Church, not the Pope. The council decided in his favor on one point: it deposed Pope John XXIII for simony, murder, sodomy and fornication – complaints that, all things considered, could have been made against the majority of the pontifical sovereigns.[1] (Note that, in the Twentieth Century, in order to efface the memory of a Pope who did not count among the worst, another one was given the title “John XXIII.”)

On the other hand, the ecclesiastic dignitaries did not let themselves be stripped of their lucrative apostolic functions. Led by the French Cardinal, Pierre d’Ailly (a convinced millenarian who remained attentive to his immediate interests), the Council Fathers excommunicated John and Jerome, and delivered them to the pyre in 1415. Emperor Sigismund, who had counseled Huss to retract his statements, hardly wanted the creation of an independent Bohemia, the demands for which he perceived underneath the theological arguments. This was a bad calculation, because the executions of Huss and Jerome precipitated insurrection.

While King Wenceslas broke with the Hussites on the insistence of Pope Martin V and his brother, Emperor Sigismund, the Church of Bohemia passed to secular control and was snatched up by Roman domination.

In July 1418, when Wenceslas excluded from the government of Prague the representatives of the working-class neighborhood of New Town, weavers, stone carvers, brewers and peasants seized City Hall and defenestrated the new councilors. Under the pretext of hunting down the patrician families hostile to John Huss, the uprising well and truly made itself a part of the tradition of communalist class struggles.

The guilds and artisanal confederations expelled the Catholics, expropriated the monasteries and confiscated the ecclesiastic riches to the profit of insurgent Prague. Very quickly, a gap grew between proletarian radicalism and the notables who had hastily converted to Hussism. A moderate party emerged, which, close to the Catholics, nevertheless distinguished itself by communing through bread and wine, that is to say, with two items. Its members adopted the name Utraquists.

In 1419, the radical wing of the Hussite movement organized itself on a resolutely autonomous basis. Located on a hill near the Castle of Bechyně, a group of partisans renamed the hill by using the appellation that the canonical Gospel attributed to Matthew had brought to eminence by proclaiming that it was the place where Jesus had announced his return before being elevated to heaven: Mount Tabor.

The Taborites accorded to each person the right to interpret the Scriptures. They rejected purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the cults of the saints and the relics. Like the Waldensians, they refused to take oaths and were against the death penalty. Once more there intermixed (in favor of working-class demands) the themes of voluntary poverty, egalitarian millenarianism and, in an antagonistic manner, the thrust of the free spirit and the weight of extremist fanaticism.

In 1420, the news that the fire of God was going to descend upon the towns and villages started a great exodus towards the mountains, where five Taborite cities were erected under divine protection, because “they would not deal with the Antichrist.”[2]

To justify the massacre of sinners, the preacher Jan Capek based himself on citations from the Old Testament: “Cursed is the man who restrains his sword from spilling the blood of the enemies of the Christ. Each believer must wash his hands in blood.”[3] Some people, such as Petr Chelčický, faithful to the principle of pacificism, reacted against the hysteria of such remarks and denounced the ruse of Satan, who was clever to suggest to the furious that they were angels tasked with purifying the world.

In March 1420, the truce between Sigismund and the moderate Hussites gave way to a merciless war in which the personality of the Chief Taborite, Jan Žižka, imposed itself. By crushing the German and Hungarian troops, whose swords [supposedly] had the benediction of Rome, Žižka haloed himself with a prophetic glory. It fell to him to instaurate the millennium and to prepare, through the kingdom of the saints, the return of Christ to earth. The social program had hardly changed: “All men will live together like brothers, none will be subjected to another.”[4] “All the lords, all the nobles and all the knights will be executed and exterminated in the forests as outlaws.”[5] As often happened, the first victims of the purge were not exterior enemies but the radical wing of the Taborites, the “Pikarti,” who were decimated by Žižka in the name of holy morality.

The collectivization of subsistence instaurated in the Taborite communities did not bother with organizing the production of goods, and so the Taborites were soon reduced to pillaging and raids for their supplies. The plundering of the nobility and the clergy was followed by the exploitation of the peasants, who found themselves in a worse situation than they did under the regime of the lords.

In April 1421, Žižka annihilated the libertarian communities formed by the Pikarti and the Adamites. Nevertheless, their protests for egalitarianism did not cease to spread, and fomented peasant revolts in Bourgogne and Germany, where the peasants’ war became endemic.

In 1430, the Taborite armies attacked Leipzig, Bamberg and Nuremburg. Their victories provoked uprisings against the patricians in Mainz, Constance, Weimar and Stettin. Nevertheless, the moderate wing – the Utraquists – seceded and soon passed over to the enemy. In 1434, at Liban, the Ultraquists of Bohemia defeated the Taborites. This was the beginning of a slow debacle that came to an end with the seizure of Mount Tabor in 1452. The majority of the survivors of the general massacre returned to peaceful ways and founded the community of the Moravian Brothers. For all that, the Taborite doctrine did not cease to propagate itself and continued to keep alive, in the towns and countryside, the flame of freedom that found a decrepit world to set on fire.

Around 1460, when Bohemia had just emerged from a long civil war, two nobles demonstrated the point at which the expectation of the millennium remained alive. Besides the usual chronological calculations of the parousia [the Second Coming], Janko and Livin von Wirsberg expounded an original conception of God’s relations with the world that he created. Through his imminent return, the Son of Man prepared to save not only humanity but God himself, crippled since the beginning of time by the sins of mankind. It was to be delivered from his own suffering that God appealed to the Savior. The idea of a divinity that is nothing without the men who created him thus pursued its course.

How was this new reign, destined to restore God to his power, to begin? With the extermination of the armed forces of the Antichrist: the pope and his ministers, followed by all adversaries. Only 14,000 people would survive to found the Spiritual Church. The “sword” of this crusade would be formed by the former Taborites, generally regrouped into bands of brigands. After the disaster at Munster, Jan van Batenburg did not act otherwise.

Centered in Eger, this movement even exercised influence on the Fraticelles of Italy. The year 1467, predicted as the return of the Christ in bloody majesty, incited the legatee of the Pope to act with determination. Janko escaped the repression; Livin abjured in order to escape the pyre and died in the prison of the archbishop, in Ratisbonne.

[1] N. Cohn, p. 226. [Translator: here Vaneigem refers to the French translation of Norman Cohn’s In Pursuit of the Millennium, (New York, 1957), p. 219.]

[2] Ibid., p. 232. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 225.]

[3] Ibid.

[4] H. Kaminisky The Free Spirit in the Hussite Revolution, The Hague, 1962, p. 47.

[5] Ibid., p. 48.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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