Posted on:Thursday 7th May, 2020
In the September 2019 I spent a blissful two-week holiday cycling in the Czech Republic. In my pannier I carried my holiday reading matter, ‘A History of the Hussite Revolution’ by Howard Kaminsky, which was first published in 1967. On the face of it this hefty tome, about the ideological and theological schism that resulted in devastating sectarian warfare across the Czech lands between 1410-1450, would seem to have little to say of contemporary relevance, but that assumption would be quite wrong…
It is puzzling to me that the Hussite revolution is not more widely known about and discussed as a formative moment in European history. This is particularly true because the seeds of that revolution were sown in Oxford in the 1380s by the religious reformer John Wycliffe (1320s?-1384). Perhaps partly as a result of living through the Black Death in Oxford in the 1350s and seeing the consequences of that most terrible pandemic, Wycliffe began to challenge some of the practices and beliefs of the Roman church. His challenges to Papal authority, his objections to ecclesiastical corruption such as the selling of pardons and prayers for the dead, and his call for a new unmediated relationship between individual Christians and the biblical texts translated into the vernacular made Wycliffe the most important precursor of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. However, his most immediate impact came in the full dress-rehearsal for the Reformation which was the Hussite revolution in 1415.
Many of the same ingredients were present: an inspiring leader in Jan Hus (1369-1415), openly citing John Wycliffe as his main inspiration; a new urban bourgeoisie interested in a more unmediated form of Christian faith; a middling nobility in the Czech lands radicalised by the Reform movement in Prague, inclined to lend their military might to the cause, combining new religious convictions with the confiscation of attractive church lands; and an obstinate and uncompromising Papacy which failed to grant any concessions until it was too late. Luring Jan Hus to Geneva in 1415 to discuss his ideas, the church instead seized him and burnt him at the stake for heresy, triggering an immediate uprising in Prague and provoking a frenzy of anti-papal radicalism in Bohemia and parts of Germany.
For whatever reasons, the vicious conflicts which followed were ultimately confined within the Czech lands, and the Hussite revolution eventually burnt itself out in a messy compromise in 1435 between militant Catholic forces and the more moderate sections of the Hussite movement, represented by the Masters of Theology at Charles University in Prague. Extraordinarily the more moderate proto-protestant church, who refused to accept the Catholic eucharist, continued to enjoy a sanctioned existence within the Roman church right up until the Protestant Reformation. In the meantime, events in Bohemia fully anticipated the puritans, anabaptists and millenarian sects of a century later.
Kaminsky’s book does not concern itself directly with the endless campaigns, military tactics and bloody massacres of the Hussite revolution. Instead his focus is on the ideas, the theological disputes, and the way in which the mishandling of the crisis served to radicalise the people. This led, most notably, to the creation of the Taborites, a revolutionary new society centred on the city of Tabor in southern Bohemia, and to the temporary ascendancy of this movement’s uncompromising and violent millenarian form of Christianity. Over two decades Tabor defeated all the armies sent against it by the Catholic powers, and laid waste much of the region in devastating and almost apocalyptic campaigns of reprisal.
What could all this possibly have to do with Europe and its challenges at the start of the 21st century? About half-way through the book it suddenly occurred to me that the Hussite revolution provides a startling insight into the tortuous and divisive politics of BREXIT. In both cases an unexpected event (the martyrdom of Jan Hus, the Referendum result) triggered a dramatic reaction. In both cases the prolonged nature of the crisis, and the failure to reach a consensus, led to deeper and deeper divisions, and to radicalisation on both sides. Thwarted in their attempts to reform the Roman church from within, the Hussites became increasingly sectarian, moving ever further away from positions which might have encouraged compromise. And the onset of war and social breakdown across the Czech lands gave birth to the violent and uncompromising extremism of Tabor. Soon the religious innovations of the Taborites were horrifying many of their fellow Hussites. Indeed, it was this religious experimentation and revolutionary violence that eventually allowed the Prague Masters and the Catholics to make common cause against Tabor and destroy the revolutionary movement after 1435. Against this backdrop I could see how the three years of partisanship and indecision after 2016 arguably served to polarise and radicalise both Leavers and Remainers, leaving the UK even more deeply divided.
More recently, another more troubling parallel has occurred to me. Amongst other things the Taborites were a millenarian sect: they created their new communistic society in anticipation of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. The brutality of the religious wars that followed merely reinforced their belief that Armageddon was upon them. This belief was used to unleash levels of violence and inhumanity perhaps not seen again in Europe until the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. Despite appearances, however, the Taborites were not living at the end of the world, and the failure of the promised second coming to materialise perhaps played a part in the ultimate failure of their movement. Recent events in our own time, the crushing of liberal hopes across the western world together with polarisation and radicalism, perhaps provokes the question of whether the next generation of idealists, disappointed in moderate politics, will even attempt the route of compromise and accommodation with the existing structures of power. It could also be argued that man-made climate change and the world-wide pandemic now represent genuine threats to the continuation of the human species, and fertile ground for a new kind of millenarianism. If they are disappointed in their hopes for peaceful change, there is surely a danger that the next generation will also reject compromise and set out on the road to Tabor?