By Hareth Al Bustani
Before Martin Luther, there was Jan Hus, a Czech firebrand whose death at the stake sparked off a fire that five Crusades could not extinguish.
In the fourteenth century, creaking beneath plague, economic decline, and war, Europe’s two greatest superpowers, the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, were in turmoil. Tensions within the Church were stirred up by the Oxford professor, John Wycliffe (d.1384), a radical reformer who expressed concern over growing corruption in the Church hierarchy. Wycliffe argued that the Church and its rituals were beginning to take precedence over spiritual worship and that this separates people from God.
In 1378, the Papal Schism split Christendom in two, as rival popes each claimed legitimacy – a move that sent the Church’s costs soaring. These needs were met by demanding special tithes and dispensations, while selling off Church offices. Perhaps most egregious was the widespread sale of indulgences – which promised to absolve worshipers of their sins for a monetary price.
Before long, the Church’s financial burden, on commoner and noble alike, had become crushing. As the secular leader of Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire had a duty to support the Church. However, in the Empire’s Kingdom of Bohemia, the Czech-speaking majority had begun to grow fed up with being suppressed by a German-speaking nobility and the Church they represented. This was a serious problem – with an abundance of silver mines and a strategic position north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, Bohemia was growing into one of Europe’s most powerful realms. Its capital of Prague was home to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV (1316–1378), himself.
Much of the trouble stemmed back to 1363, when Charles allowed the Austrian reformist preacher Augustinian Konrad Waldhauser (1326–1369) to visit Prague. Augustinian’s remarkable new ideas inspired the Czech reformer Jan Milíč (d.1374) to leave his post as the king’s chancellor for a life of poverty and preaching. Milíč’s disciple Matej Janov carried on the flame, arguing against the redundancy of religious rituals and going so far as to describe the pope as the antichrist.
Meanwhile, a Moravian noble named Tomáš Štítný (1333–1409) translated scores of theological works into Czech, making them accessible to the masses. In 1393, the reformation movement set up Bethlehem Chapel, a 3,000-person- capacity church devoted to preaching in the vernacular, which found common ground with the nationalist intellectuals of Prague University. Finally, in 1402, a natural Czech reformation leader emerged, in the form of Prague University’s rector, the firebrand Jan Hus.
‘The Lord’s Fat Ones’: Jan Hus vs the Church
As he rose to the pulpit, he addressed his audience by occupation: “Beloved in Christ, my fellow tailors, clerks, shoemakers, bootmakers.” He avoided speaking in technical, archaic Czech and instead adapted his Biblical texts to colloquial speech. To a captive audience, Hus argued that in its pursuit of worldly power, the Church had perverted the gospel and dragged it away from its truth. Salvation could not be obtained purely through ritual or sacrament, but through the disposition of one’s heart and soul. Hus railed against the excesses of the Church with newfound vigour, and his reformist views quickly burned their way across the city – bringing him into conflict with the newly elected archbishop of Prague.
While Hus, and King Wenceslas IV (1361–1419) himself, supported the newly elected pope Alexander V, the archbishop sided with Rome’s Gregory XII. As Wenceslas continued to cater to Czech nationalists, German scholars and students fled from what they saw as a hotbed of Wycliffite reformists. Amidst growing hostility, Pope Alexander ordered Hus to stop preaching, but he refused:
I am not willing to obey either the pope or the archbishop in their prohibition of my preaching, for it is contrary to God and to my salvation.
However, when he criticised the archbishop for burning Wycliff’s “heretical” books, Hus went a step too far, and the latter had him excommunicated. Emboldened, as Antipope John XXIII announced plans to finance his war against Gregory’s backer, King Ladislaus of Naples, by selling indulgences, Hus condemned the move in grand fashion. After Wenceslas, in 1412, consented to the move, Hus denounced it as simony, or selling of Church positions – branding the perpetrators “the Lord’s fat ones.”
That October, determined to destroy Bethlehem Chapel – which he described as a “nest of heretics” – John renewed Hus’ excommunication and threatened to place Prague under interdict, which would strip the city of its sacraments. Instead, Hus fled for the sanctitude of his supporters in southern Bohemia. There, he penned his treatise, De ecclesia, and found fertile ground beyond the realm of academia, with the noblemen and commoners drawn from as far as Moravia to his message. Hus continued to preach to whoever would listen, whether at the market, outside the castle, or inside a barn.
“I Am Willing to Die Gladly Today”
In 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor, Wenceslas’ brother Sigismund (1368–1437), called for a council at the imperial city of Constance to resolve the schism and the issues in Bohemia. He invited Hus to attend the council and even promised him safe passage. However, as soon as Hus arrived, he was arrested and put on trial for heresy. The next year, having repeatedly denied the charges, he was burned at the stake; his final words were: “In the true Gospel that I have written, taught, and preached from the words and teachings of the holy doctors, I am willing to die gladly today.”
If tensions were already simmering, Hus’ treacherous death lit the powder keg. His followers adopted the image of the chalice – symbolic of Hus’ belief that all members of the congregation should partake of the wine during communion. When the Council of Constance made it illegal for the laity to receive full communion in 1417, Prague University issued a decree reinforcing its orthodoxy. Hussite nobles began to pack their parish churches with Hussite preachers, to which Hussite peasants flocked.
The Council at Constance finally culminated in 1419 with the competing popes stepping down and electing a single pope, Martin. Facing increasing pressure from his younger brother Sigismund, Wenceslas began handing Prague’s churches to Roman clergy. Now delivering sermons on hilltops, the Hussites only grew more radical, reaching a crescendo at the summit of Tábor, where Hussites flocked from across Bohemia and Moravia in July 1419.
That month, the spark was lit when radical preacher Jan Želivský (1380–1422) led a mob to the town hall, where they hurled anti-Hussite councillors out of windows. The stress of the events supposedly sent Wenceslas to his grave just weeks later, placing the Bohemian crown on the head of his brother, Sigismund. The conflict rapidly developed into a full-blown war, with the Catholic church hurling its full weight behind Sigismund.
The Mighty Wagonburg
Outnumbered and out-armed, the Hussites turned to the one-eyed general Jan Žižka (1360–1424), who had formerly served as captain of Wenceslas’ palace guard and fought as a mercenary against the Teutonic Knights. During the winter of 1419, while Žižka was laying a bitter siege to Nekmer Castle, he was attacked by an overwhelmingly large royalist army. Facing total annihilation, he did something rather ingenious. Laying out his army between two lakes, he chained seven wagons – basic supply carts – together and reinforced them with large guns. After stopping the enemy cavalry in its tracks, the Hussites unleashed a barrage of gunfire on them, decimating them and sending them fleeing.
Always fighting against the odds, Žižka continued to innovate, pioneering the use of “pipe guns” – short iron tubes fixed to long wooden shafts, which the Czechs called pistols. The Hussites continued to use bigger and bigger guns, eventually building towards the houfnice, or howitzer – a short, wide barrel fixed to an axle and wheels, used to utterly tear apart enemy troops. In 1421, when Sigismund’s men once again surrounded Žižka at the city of Kutná Hora, the Hussite commander took things a step further, fixing guns atop his seven wagons and using them to puncture a hole in the enemy lines. The strategy was so successful, the Hussites would eventually field 180 wagons, bolstered by 35 large guns. With so many peasants in his ranks, Žižka had no problem procuring farm carts, and he soon developed them into a systematic killing machine – a moving fortress and the medieval world’s very own tank. Archers and crossbowmen hid within, guarded by heavy infantry. After neutralising the enemy’s cavalry charge, the Hussites would unleash their own, for a decisive shocking blow.
Žižka’s Wagenburg developed such a fearsome reputation, Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, described the Hussite army as a “many-armed monster which unexpectedly and quickly seizes its prey, squeezes it to death and swallows up its pieces.” This invention helped the Hussites defend themselves against five successive crusades, before in-fighting between the moderate Utraquist and Taborite factions led to their downfall. During the final Utraquist–Taborite battle of the war, the Utraquists drew in their enemy under a cloud of artillery smoke, before trapping the Taborites within their wagon fort and hacking them down one by one.
While the Taborites were crushed and Bohemia was brought back into the Catholic fold after seventeen years of violence, the Utraquists succeeded in securing the right to establish the world’s first independent national church – one that was later championed by the Utraquist Bohemian King George of Kunštát and Poděbrady. It would be two more centuries before the Utraquists were finally defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, but by now, the Catholic Church had far bigger fish to fry: the Protestant Reformation.
Hareth Al Bustani is a journalist, specialising in Japanese, British, and Roman history. Follow him on Twitter @harethb
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: 16th century portrait of Jan Hus / Wikimedia Commons