by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 1981, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
In an earlier essay on Bohemia, for reasons of space, I skipped over the period involving the Hussites with a promise to deal with it later. I am redeeming that promise.
The period of the Hussites was a prelude to the Protestant Reformation and nationalism that occurred a century later. The only lasting political effect was the weakening of Bohemia, leading to its absorption into the Hapsburg Empire in the 1600’s. Yet in their time, the Hussites shook Europe to its foundations and presented a warning to the church, which it ignored.
Husssitism had its origins in England, in the writings of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was spurred by both the Hundred Years War and the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy. When the papacy was moved to Avignon in 1305, the popes naturally came under the domination of the French kings and, with the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, the popes supported the French cause. In 1374, Wycliffe was a member of a party that met with ten French and papal representatives to arrange a truce. When he returned to England, he wrote a book “Determinatio de Dominio” which, in essence, declared that the pope had no political hold on England. This struck a chord in the English people and Wycliffe’s popularity soared. In the next few years, he went on to declare that the pope did not have control of the Keys to Heaven, that all Church lands should be seized, and the Church should go back to Apostolic poverty.
This was open heresy and in February of 1377 Wycliffe was summoned to trial. However, his patron, John of Gaunt, and a mob saved him. This drove him to more extreme views; the two most important were the denial of transubstantiation of the Eucharist (involving the question of whether the bread and wine of communion actually become the body and blood of Christ) and denial of the validity of the sacraments by a sinful priest. These two topics dominated the debates of the Middle Ages.
Wycliffe’s disciples organized themselves into a group called the Poor Priests, better known as the Lollards. One of them, John Ball, precipitated the Peasant Revolt of 1381, which discredited Wycliffe at court. Wycliffe retired to work on his translation of the Bible, and died in 1384.
Wycliffe’s teaching reached Bohemia in the following manner. In 1382, Anne of Bohemia married King Richard II of England, bringing a number of priests with her. When she died in 1394, they returned to Bohemia, carrying with them Wycliffe’s writings. These were avidly studied at the University of Prague. One professor of philosophy, John Huss, was greatly impressed by Wycliffe, and translated many of his works into Czech.
Huss never was actually the leader of the movement named after him. He gained prominence in 1409 as a leader of the Czech faction in a dispute over the running of the university, which led to the withdrawal of all German students, who then founded the University of Leipzig. About the same time, Pope Alexander had ordered all of Wycliffe’s writings to be burned. Huss objected and was excommunicated.
King Wenceslas protected Huss, so he continued to preach. In 1412 Pope John XXIII issued indulgences to raise money for his war against Naples, which Huss denounced. A student riot burned the papal bulls announcing the indulgences. When the leaders were executed, Huss said the Mass for martyrs over them. Prague was placed under an interdict. While still supported by the king and the populace, Huss was persuaded by Wenceslas to leave Prague. And so for the next two years, Huss preached out in the countryside and wrote his great work, “De Eclesia.”
Wenceslas’s brother and heir, Sigismund of Hungary, anxious to heal the Great Schism and restore orthodoxy, had persuaded John XXIII to call the Council of Constance in 1414. Sigismund demanded that Huss appear before the Council, offering safe-conduct, which Huss accepted. Once there, he was arrested and imprisoned. Not allowed to adequately defend himself, he was declared a heretic. When he refused to recant, has was executed on July 6, 1415.
The news of Huss’s death resulted in open revolt in Bohemia, supported by Queen Sophia and the nobles. The first set of Articles of Faith was drawn up in 1417, when the rift between the radical and conservative elements first appeared. The pope and Sigismund pressured Wenceslas to suppress the heresy, but the king preferred to do nothing. He died in 1419.
Refusing to acknowledge Sigismund as king, Bohemia became a de facto republic. Led by General Jan Ziska until his death in 1424, then by General Andre was Proscop until 1434, the Hussites were able to repulse five imperial and papal crusades. In 1426, the Hussites took the offense, taking such cities as Leipzig, Nuremberg and Danzig, threatening to overrun all of Central Europe. During these wars, the Hussites introduced several military innovations, including new tactics, mobile artillery, and a sort of “armour tank.” Peace talks started with the reform Council of Basil in 1432. But peace did not come until 1436, two years after the defeat of the Taborites.
The Hussite movement had broken into two branches. The moderate branch was known as the Utraquists (after sub utraque: under both species), or Calixtines (cup-users). The radical branch was known as the Taborites, after the name of the city they founded on the mountain of Tabor.
The Calixtines were basically orthodox, differing from the Catholic Church mainly on the doctrine of the sinful priest and double communion: the giving of both bread and wine to the laity. Primarily comprised of the upper classes, it was strongest around Prague and at the University.
The Taborites, strongest in the countryside, went further and denied the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, rejected penance, the last sacrament, purgatory, intercessory prayers, and the use of images or incense in churches. Ziska and Proscop were both Taborites.
The Compacts of Basel allowed the use of double communion and gave the church in Bohemia a privileged position. It also allowed Sigismund to reoccupy Bohemia, but he died before he could do anything. The crown passed to Sigismund’s son-in-law, Albert of Austria, who died in the course of the civil war that followed. Albert’s son, Ladislas Posthumas, was made ward of the Emperor Frederick III, who kept him from Bohemia until 1457, shortly before Ladislas’s death.
Meanwhile, in the course of intercede fighting in Bohemia, a young nobleman, George Podiebrad, a Calixtine, rose to power. In 1448, he seized Prague and became the head of the Hussites. In 1452 he was recognized as the administrator of Bohemia and began trying to reconcile the Catholics and Hussites. In that same year, he completely suppressed the Taborites with the capture of Tabor.
The year after Ladislas died, George was elected king. Pope Pius II however, tried to revoke the Compacts, which George resisted, and in 1466 was excommunicated. The pope gave the crown to Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who launched a crusade. The military engagements were indecisive and Podiebrad ruled until his death in 1471.
Upon his death, Hussitism ended as a political force. As a religion it continued as the Bohemian Brotherhood and survives today as the Morivian Church. Just why Martin Luther succeeded where the Hussites and Wycliffe before him failed is a complex issue involving economics, politics and personalities. How history would have been changed had the Hussites succeeded, or had the Catholic Church begun it Counter-Reformation in their wake makes for interesting speculation.
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Kinder, Hermann, and Werner Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History Vol. 1. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1974.
LaMonte, John L. The World of the Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc., 1949.
Langer, William L. An Encyclopedia of World History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972.
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