It is easy to be misled by the melodramas of revolution. Although it is true that history moves by leaps through critical points when quantity changes into quality, as water turns into steam, one does not have to be a conservative to realize that fundamental economic change takes place over a very long time and against the resistance of massive inertia. The English Peasants’ Rebellion with its clear demand for the abolition of a feudal economy took place in 1381. It was just three hundred years later, with the accession of William of Orange to the throne, a relatively quiet event which the English rightly call the Great Revolution, that the most important elements of a feudal economy were finally done away with. Even so, feudal rituals and unimportant relics linger to this day.
Nevertheless, all over Europe the profound economic, political, and religious crisis at the end of the fourteenth century meant that feudalism as an intact and total, workable system, identical with society itself, had broken down. This is most apparent in the crisis of the Church. Economic relations between laymen were already changing, but those of the Church were purely feudal and its property lay like a great obstructive mass of frozen capital in the way of the development of a new economy. The Church had ceased to be simply the religious expression of society itself, and heresy, which had previously been — with the exception of the Cathari in Provence — confined to obscure tiny bands of eccentric enthusiasts, was springing up everywhere. Half-conscious revulsion, shared by almost everyone, with the inadequacy and corruption of the Church was becoming conscious and turning into mass movements.
Nowhere was this more true than in Bohemia. In modern times, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then as Czechoslovakia, Bohemia has not played a central role in European history. This was not true at the end of the Middle Ages. The king of Bohemia ranked as the first of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire. King Wenceslaus IV was Holy Roman Emperor and his family were in key positions and ranked as one of the two or three most important ruling houses of all Europe. His brother Sigismund was King of Hungary. The University of Prague, founded in 1348, was still the only university in the empire, and its influence spread throughout all of Central Europe and the borderlands to the east.
From the mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in 862 in Moravia until the early years of the tenth century Bohemia was Greek Orthodox in religion and was taken into the Roman Catholic Church by King Vaclav (St. Wenceslaus). In the fourteenth century Bohemia included Moravia, Silesia, and Upper and Lower Lusatia and was the dominant power of central Europe. The bulk of the population was Slavic — the modern Czechs and Slovaks — but the ruling class was mostly German. There were German settlements scattered throughout the country and the northern borderlands were almost entirely German. The Church was one of the wealthiest and most corrupt in Europe. Over half the land belonged to the hierarchy and the religious orders. The bishops and great abbots led the luxurious lives of lay lords. Most of them were German, while the lower clergy were largely Slavic; and often the two classes did not speak each other’s language.
Due to the fact it was the seat of the empire, Bohemia was ridden with the political intrigues and corruption resulting from the conflict of emperor and pope. The upper class was extremely wealthy. Prior to the discovery of America the mines of Bohemia were the principal European source of silver. To a lesser degree the country produced lead, gold, and copper. This wealth was most unequally distributed, concentrated at the top of the upper classes, while below them the ordinary people lived in a Slavic peasant economy and were only a little better off than their fellows in Poland and White Russia.
Wenceslaus IV was involved in a struggle with the electors and the great lords of the empire and was finally deposed. He refused to accept the election of Rupert, Elector Palatine, but finally consented to that of his brother, Sigismund, King of Hungary, and then devoted himself to dissipation and conflict with both the lay and ecclesiastical lords of Bohemia. The papacy had just returned from Avignon to Rome and almost immediately gone into schism, with the French and Spanish supporting Clement VII who went back to Avignon; England and the empire, including Bohemia and northern and central Italy, Urban VI. Their royal patrons did not prove very generous with money and both papacies became almost bankrupt and were forced to use every method, especially the sale of indulgences, to raise money. A powerful movement amongst the theologians of Europe, led by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, and Pierre Cardinal d’Ailly, and including eventually even most of the cardinals, began to agitate for a solution of the problem by way of a general council of the whole Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Pisa in 1409 elected Alexander V, but Benedict XIII in Avignon and Gregory XII in Rome refused to resign, so there were three popes. When Alexander died after ten months, Baldassare Cossa, a layman and retired pirate, was crowned John XXIII (after hasty ordination as a priest the night before) and, under the protection of the Emperor Sigismund, immediately became involved in almost continuous warfare in Italy, with the resulting drive for a new sale of indulgences to finance his crusades.
At this point the long maturing and explosive situation in Bohemia came to a head. The Emperor Charles IV and Wenceslaus had encouraged a measure of religious freedom and anti-papalism in Bohemia. The Inquisition was kept out of the country and a number of Wycliffite and Lollard preachers from England and Waldenses from Lombardy, the Jura, and the Alps migrated to Bohemia. The king established in Prague a chapel for popular preaching, dependent upon his patronage directly, and independent of the archbishop or any monastic order. This was the Bethlehem Chapel, where sermons were given in both Czech and Latin, and where, at the time with which we are concerned, King Wenceslaus and Queen Sophia usually attended services in preference to those in the cathedral. There had been a succession of reformist preachers for over a generation, largely under the influence of Wycliffe, and popular dissent in Bohemia had moved far to the left. Rejection of the papal claims, transubstantiation, infant baptism, communion in one kind for the laity, and the denunciation of the simony, nepotism, and luxury of the Church were common.
In 1402 John Hus was appointed rector of the University of Prague. Before then he had been dean of the philosophical faculty and a well-known preacher in Czech at the Bethlehem Chapel. In terms of the religious struggle which was maturing in Bohemia he was not even a middle-of-the-road man, but a conservative. He had defended Wycliffe’s teachings, but not in themselves in most cases, simply the right of the Wycliffites to be heard, although he had translated Wycliffe’s Trialogus. Wycliffe was a scholar and theologian, Hus a preacher and pastor. His own writings were, considering the theological turmoil and the profound crisis in the Church, surprisingly orthodox. Yet in the next five years he was in almost continuous trouble with the ecclesiastical establishment, not because of any theological heresies (such ideas were far over the head of the archbishop, who had been a soldier before he was appointed to the post), but for his denunciations of the manifest abuses in the Church.
During the preparations for an ecumenical council to heal the great schism, elect only one pope, and reform the Church, King Wenceslaus, Hus, and the Czech clergy and people remained neutral, but the German hierarchy sided with Gregory XII. In the ensuing conflict the king issued an edict giving three votes to the Bohemians and only one to the Bavarians, Saxons, and Poles combined, a reversal of the previous order of the governing board of the university. The archbishop immediately moved to the attack and secured the condemnation of Lollardry and all of Wycliffe’s books by Pope Alexander V and another papal bull prohibiting preaching in all independent chapels.
Hus continued to preach and was excommunicated by the archbishop, whereupon he appealed to the new pope, John XXIII, who was soon to prove himself one of the most corrupt and depraved in the history of the papacy. Pope John XXIII not only upheld the archbishop but laid the city of Prague under interdict as long as Hus continued to preach. At the same time the pope flooded Bohemia with peddlers of indulgences to finance his crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples. Hus and the more radical reformers denounced the sale of indulgences. Hus’s situation in Prague eventually became untenable and he went into exile in the countryside very near to where the revolutionary commune of Tabor was later established. There he spent two years writing, and published his principal work, De Ecclesia.
In 1414 the newly convoked Council of Constance invited Hus to come and defend himself from the charges of heresy which had been lodged against him by the archbishop’s faction. The Emperor Sigismund gave him safe-conduct, promising that whatever judgment was given by the Council, he would be allowed to return safely to Bohemia, where, if he were to be found guilty of heresy, his case would be at the disposal of King Wenceslaus. This was a subterfuge to entice him to Constance. Shortly after he arrived John XXIII appointed a commission to examine the charges. The safe-conduct was withdrawn by the emperor. Hus was imprisoned. Then began the agonizing process of theological whipsawing.
Hus was first accused of holding a long list of Wycliffite and Waldensian doctrines, most of which he denied. The list was changed; and although he again denied that he had held most of these tenets he was required to abjure them all. He refused to abjure doctrines which he had never held. Finally a new list, taken largely from De Ecclesia, was submitted to him. Most of these he was able to interpret in an orthodox manner, but his interpretations were rejected. The important items were those in which he condemned the corruption, abuses, and despotism of the Church and denied the authority of both evil popes and evil secular rulers.
His principal prosecutors were Jean Gerson and Pierre d’Ailly, who were merciless in their attacks upon him, but who themselves, while the Council was still in session, had just helped to depose John XXIII for simony, heresy, fornication, and pederasty. The trial was marked by incredible disorder and shouted abuse on the part of the holy fathers in council assembled. Most of the time Hus could not be heard and submitted his answers to the charges in writing after the sessions. At his final condemnation he seemed unable to believe the outrageous injustice of the proceedings and was still pleading for permission to defend himself when he was condemned, stripped ceremonially of his priestly vestments, turned over to the civil power, his betrayer, the emperor, and taken away to be burned.
Hus was without doubt the noblest, as he was the first, of all the great reformers. He was also the most conservative. It never entered his mind to found a sect. He only desired to reform the Church without basically altering either its structure or its theology. The ideas which he really held, and even many of which he was falsely accused, differed little from the doctrines and reforms proposed for the first Vatican Council which had been expected by many to rehabilitate the Church, but which, due to pressure from the papal Curia, refused even to consider the matter.
Hus also differed very little from Gerson and d’Ailly, but that little was important. Hus stood by his conscience. He refused to deny what he believed to be the truth, to affirm untruths, or to denounce himself for ideas which he had never held. Gerson and d’Ailly stood for authority. They wanted his submission to judgment regardless. Obedience for them was more important than truth. What this means of course is that they believed that the Church was founded on obedience and the truth came afterwards. In a sense they were right. George Bernard Shaw’s argument in his preface to Saint Joan is correct, although more applicable to Hus than to Jeanne d’Arc. Although the greatest moral theologians of the Roman Catholic Church have always said that conscience was primary, this has never been true in practice. St. Joan, John Hus, St. Thomas More, all died for their consciences even though More’s conscience bade him prefer the authority of the pope to that of King Henry. A completely authoritarian structure demands obedience, not as a choice of the individual will following the dictates of conscience, but simply obedience regardless. If the sanctity of the individual soul and the primacy of its willing were made the foundation of moral action, all authoritarian structures would eventually be eroded away.
Hus was a man of the center, hardly a radical, far indeed from being a communist, but as he was being maneuvered to his death in Constance, Bohemia was rising in revolt, at first against the betrayal of the emperor and the injustice of the Council and eventually against the Church, the empire, and medieval civilization itself. The death of this conscientious man precipitated the first national revolution in Western history.
When the news of Hus’s execution reached Prague, reform and unrest turned into revolution. Nobles, king, queen, and people, Slavs and many of the Germans, were united in condemnation of the act of the Council and the treachery of Emperor Sigismund. The nobles had written earlier demanding Hus’s release, and after his execution four hundred and fifty-two nobles from all parts of Bohemia and Moravia assembled in an emergency congress and answered the Council’s condemnation of Hus and of the Bohemian practice of giving communion to the laity in both kinds, bread and wine, with the sternest condemnation of their own. They refused to recognize any of the Council’s decrees and refused to obey the new pope unless he were a moral man and acted according to the will of God, a refusal they extended to the entire hierarchy. Theological decisions they vested in the University of Prague and they agreed to allow free preaching on their own estates. The Council answered by burning Hus’s associate Jerome, who had first abjured and then, moved by Hus’s martyrdom, recanted his abjuration; and by summoning all the signers of the nobles’ manifesto and implicitly the king and queen and the heads of the university to Constance to stand trial for heresy.
With the blessing of the Council, Sigismund gathered an army to invade Bohemia. The Council disbanded in April 1418 without resolving the deadlock except by wholesale excommunications and interdicts. In 1419 King Wenceslaus attempted a restoration of followers of the Council to office in the Church and university and packed the town council with anti-Hussites. As the protesting populace demonstrated outside the town hall their opponents pelted them with rocks. Under the leadership of Jan Zizka, the Hussites invaded the town hall, threw the burgomaster and several councilors out the window, and tore them to pieces in the streets. When the news was brought to King Wenceslaus he was seized with an apoplectic fit and died a few days later.
This first Defenestration of Prague marked the beginning of open warfare. Germans and conciliarists, usually the same, were expelled from their estates and offices all over Bohemia. For a short time there was fighting in Prague between the small army of foreign mercenaries loyal to the queen and the Hussites led by Zizka who captured the castle Vysehrad which dominated the city. The nobles arranged a truce. The citizens restored the castle and Zizka and the army of the more radical reformers left Prague for Pilsen, the center of German power in its area. They were unable to hold Pilsen and went from there, fighting their way south, to form a new settlement to which the name of Tabor, the hill of the Transfiguration of Christ, was given. Armies of the papal Crusade were invading Bohemia and Moravia from several directions and on June 30, 1420, they united in the siege of Prague. All parties of the Hussites met in council and presented the pope with four demands known henceforth as the Articles of Prague, a minimum program which remained non-negotiable throughout the Hussite Wars and the settlement fifteen years later:
I. The word of God shall be preached and proclaimed freely throughout the kingdom of Bohemia by the priests of the Lord.
II. The sacrament of the most holy Eucharist shall be freely administered in both kinds, bread and wine, to all faithful believers not in mortal sin as it was instituted by the word of Our Saviour.
III. The secular power over riches and worldly goods which the clergy possesses contrary to Christ’s teachings, to the prejudice of its office, and to the detriment of the secular arm, shall be taken from them and they shall be reduced to the evangelical rule and apostolic life of Christ and his disciples.
IV. All mortal sin and especially all public ones and others contrary to God’s law shall in every rank in life be properly and reasonably prohibited and destroyed by those whose office it is. These include fornication, murder, lying, theft, usury, superfluous evil, and superstitious arts among the people, and among the clergy all simoniacal charges for priestly services and all immorality, profane behavior, and contentiousness.
This was not only a minimum program on which everyone could agree, except for that as yet small number who did not believe in the sacrament of the Eucharist at all; it was also a program which went back to the earliest movements of dissent in Western Europe and was common to practically all of them. It became the entire program of the right wing of the Bohemian reformers, who laid special emphasis on the right of the laity to communion in both kinds and who were henceforth known as Utraquists (or “both-ists”) or Calixtines (for chalice). The great importance of this demand was an inheritance from the early days of Christianity in Bohemia when it had been evangelized by Greek Orthodox missionaries, and the Orthodox practice of communion of both kinds may well have never completely died out. There was nothing in these demands which was not theologically compatible with the strictest Roman Catholic orthodoxy. But the third and fourth were totally incompatible with its practice, or for that matter with that of any established church. Implicit too was the heretical doctrine that obedience is not owed to immoral clergy and their sacraments were invalid; but nowhere was this conviction spelled out.
The emissaries of the pope and the emperor refused even to discuss the Articles of Prague and continued the siege. Zizka defeated and utterly routed their army in a great battle. From then on papal and imperial forces invaded the country again and again, every time to be defeated with great slaughter, except on those occasions when their armies turned and ran without fighting.
It has often been said that the French Revolution invented the national army, the levée en masse of a whole people. Its true inventor was Jan Zizka. Although the Taborites formed the nucleus of a permanent fighting force, each crusade of the emperor and pope united the great majority of the Czech people. Zizka introduced remarkably modern methods of highly drilled combat, and the Taborite army was the first to use artillery systematically as a major tactical arm. The invasion attempts were answered by raids deep into enemy territory, and in the early days loot was an important part of the income of Tabor. Zizka was never able to gain complete control of the German-owned mines or the city of Pilsen which remained a Romanist redoubt. Initially the majority of the workers who were Slavs rose in revolt but they were put down by German mercenaries and at Kutna Hora sixteen thousand Taborite priests and their followers were killed by being thrown into the mines.
Zizka began his career blind in one eye and an arrow eventually blinded the other. His last battles were fought when he was totally blind. He died in 1424 of the plague on the eve of a planned conquest of Moravia and Silesia and his place was taken by Procopius who defeated the Germans in two great battles in 1427 and who spread the counterattack of the Bohemian armies to Austria, Hungary, Silesia, Saxony, Brandenburg, the Palatine, and Franconia.
The Taborite armies ceased simply to raid enemy territory and began to conquer it, that is, to leave garrisons in the towns and castles which capitulated. Revolutionary Bohemia threatened to control all of Middle Europe. Pope Martin V called a general council at Basel in 1431 to launch yet another Crusade, which again went down in overwhelming defeat. Emissaries of the pope, the emperor, and the Council began secret negotiations with the Utraquists, who were in no sense economic or social revolutionaries and who were only in the most uneasy alliances with communist Tabor. The Taborites themselves had been unable to win over the peasantry and had first introduced forced requisition of food for the army and the cities and then their own form of semi-feudal exactions. More than fifteen years of continuous victories had gone by and the army itself was degenerating and filling up with adventurers from all over Europe. Eventually the Taborites were isolated and defeated on May 30, 1434, near Lipany in Bohemia when thirteen thousand out of an army of eighteen thousand were killed, and both Procopius the Great and his chief lieutenant, Procopius the Little, fell in battle.
The Utraquists, Pope Alexander VI, and the Emperor Sigismund agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Articles of Prague and in 1436 they were accepted by all parties in a modified and ambiguous form which permitted optional use of the Roman rite in the mass. The Bohemian National Church lasted as a kind of Uniat church, like those of the Orthodox rite in communion with Rome, until after the battle at White Mountain in 1620 in the Thirty Years War. It was then suppressed and the complete Roman obedience re-established. The Utraquists themselves captured Tabor in 1452 and the militant Taborites were forced into an underground existence to re-emerge as the Anabaptists and the other radical sects of the Reformation begun by Luther. The pacifist and more purely religious communists began the Unitas Fratrum, also known as the Czech Brethren, Moravian Brethren, or United Brethren, who endure to this day. The Hutterites also trace their ancestry back to Tabor.
The continuous imperial and papal crusades forced a broad united front upon the disparate groups of the Bohemian reformation and revolution. Whenever the outside pressure relaxed, this unity broke down in factionalism which sometimes reached the point of armed conflict. These divisions were along clearly defined ethnic and class lines.
Most of the German nobles and wealthy merchants and mine owners were Romanists. Many of them left the country. Others managed to hold out in small enclaves which were never incorporated into the revolutionary Bohemian state. The reason was that there was no revolutionary Bohemian state, no single, unified political entity coterminous with Czech lands. The Czech nobles and magnates and some Germans formed the right wing of the Utraquist party along with the archbishop and Queen Sophia. For them the Articles of Prague were not a minimum but a maximum program. Once they had secularized the property of the Church they became socially conservative, quite content with their feudal privileges modified by monopolies and franchises not unlike the English upper class in Henry VIII’s time.
At the beginning of the revolution, with the first siege of Prague, political power passed largely into the hands of the artisan class. Except for certain crafts, like the goldsmiths, these people were almost entirely Czech and allied with them were petty Czech nobles like Jan Zizka and most of the not very sizable lower middle class. They were militant Utraquists. For them the Articles of Prague were a minimum program. This loose alliance was anti-papalist and had no desire to see a restored Roman Catholicism, but envisaged a free Catholic Church in which the pope would be only the bishop of Rome, the first amongst equals. They rejected the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and most of their clergy held to the Wycliffite doctrine of remanence, namely, that the bread and wine remained unchanged after the consecration and that Christ’s body and blood were present only spiritually, “as in a mirror.” They also rejected the idea that the Mass was a sacrifice and interpreted it as essentially a spiritual communion, a congregational act. They rejected the feudal economic and social structure; but since developed capitalism, even in its mercantile form, still lay in the future, they were indefinite about what to put in its place. Politically they were democrats, although leaders like Jan Zizka slowly reintroduced the leadership of an educated elite of clergy, petty nobles, and well-to-do educated citizens.
The fifteenth century was a time of inflation and economic instability, most especially in Bohemia, and there had grown up in Prague a large unemployed class, as well as a semi-criminal underworld. They, along with the working poor, formed a Lumpen proletariat which was always ready for riot and which acted as a steady drag toward the extreme left.
As time went on, and news of the revolution in Bohemia spread across Europe, sectarians and heretics migrated to Prague — at first from nearby Bavaria, the Tyrol, and the Rhineland, and eventually from as far away as Lithuania, England, and even Spain. One of the leaders of the Oreb brotherhood was an English Lollard, Peter Payne. After the establishment of the communes of Tabor and Oreb, this migration became a flood. Every eccentric and religious psychotic in Europe seems to have headed for Bohemia. In 1418 forty refugees from Lisle and Tournai arrived in Prague fleeing from the violent persecution in their homeland. These were the first of the Picards, Pikarti as they were called, who gave their name to the most extreme forms of the revolt.
The Bohemian revolution produced a reaction in the rest of Europe not unlike the red hunts and white terrors of the twentieth century. Everywhere heretics and schismatics who had been tolerated or ignored as inconsequential by the State were hunted out and burned, or lynched by mobs. Those who could fled to Bohemia where they believed the earthly paradise was in the process of realization. All these different elements went to form the class of those who have nothing to lose. It should not be thought, however, that they were anything but the rank and file of the extreme left. Their leaders and spokesmen were renegade monks, former secular clergy, literate lower middle-class people.
After its early days, the Bohemian revolution was not only not a peasant-based movement, but came to lose the enthusiastic support of peasant followers, whose attitude became one of passive consent, if not active opposition. The peasants were interested in the abolition of feudal exactions, the redistribution of land, and the suppression of incipient trends toward serfdom which would reach their height after Luther’s Reformation. Once they had gained these objectives, the peasants lost interest in revolution and became conservatives of their own gains. Since neither Prague nor Tabor was ever able to work out effective new economic forms of production, the revolution in the cities was forced to feed upon the peasantry, and in the economic chaos was unable to make adequate return for value received. The restoration of pope and emperor meant the return to feudalism. The continuance of their new masters in power meant new exactions. The peasants remained passive.
The economy of Tabor has been called by later historians a communism of consumption, not production, but it is difficult to see how, over so long a period, the two could have been kept separate. There are recent studies of the degree of socialization of production in Tabor but they are as yet all in Czech. Tabor controlled some of the principal gold mines of the day in Europe and their production seems to have been on a completely communist basis. When the community was set up and when daughter communes were established elsewhere, large tanks were placed in the center of the town, the people sold all their property and put the money and their jewels, if any, in the tank, and from then on put their wages there too, which they earned apparently by working at their old jobs or trades in their previous fashion. The wealth so accumulated was then distributed equally to all the citizens of the commune. As the Hussite wars went on, this was augmented by loot, and loot rather than conversion was the reason for the first raids in German territory. It is difficult to see how this could have worked. As presented by later historians opposed to communism it bears a great resemblance to what is called “brigand communism” of the type that grew up in the heretical Muslim communities of the Near East. The general evidence, on the other hand, would indicate that life in Tabor, Oreb, and the other communes settled down to a fairly normal, productive communism, and that, considering the difficulties, it was by no means parasitic, or certainly no more than the decadent feudalism it replaced. Those who believed in a purely parasitic communism were expelled from the city.
Such were the famous Adamites whose life is supposed to be portrayed in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Earthly Paradise. They have been celebrated in our own day by Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch; and all over America misguided young people crowd the highways, hitchhiking to an Adamite promised land called Big Sur, which they discover consists of a range of mountain cliffs above the sea, thinly populated by hostile natives who seem to know only two words of English: “Move on.”
The majority of the Taborites and the Brotherhood at Oreb and their allies in Prague’s New Town reached a general consensus early in the revolution. They accepted the Bible in a combination of Wycliffite, Waldensian, and Free Spirit doctrines. The Bible was the sole authority for both faith and practice; the creeds and translations of the Church were only corruptions, as were its rites and ceremonies, the sacrifice of the Mass, indulgences and prayers for the dead, prayers to the saints, auricular confession, extreme unction, baptism of infants, and its accessories of chrism and blessings and holy water, Mass vestments, images, saint’s days, and the traditional chants for Mass and prayer offices. All were denials of the life of the apostolic Church. These people believed with the Waldenses that the ministrations and authority of a sinful priest were invalid. Not only that, but if necessary any layman could celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions.
They were extreme millenarians, the most militant so far in the history of dissent. They believed that Christ’s Second Coming (disguised as a brigand) and the universal destruction of the evil world would occur almost immediately, at first in 1420; and when that date passed, it was never postponed more than a few years. In preparation for the coming of the kingdom it was the duty of the brotherhood of the saints to drench their swords in the blood of evildoers, indeed to wash their hands in it. After wholesale destruction, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ would appear on a mountain top and celebrate the coming of the kingdom with a great messianic banquet of all the faithful.
Meanwhile the Taborites anticipated this communion of the saints by holding great gatherings on nearby hills and mountaintops in which the Eucharist became a mass agapê or love feast presided over by the military and religious leaders as did the priestly and kingly messiahs of Qumran. In the kingdom all sacraments and rites would be done away with and replaced by the actual presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit and all laws would be abolished, the elect would never die, and women would bear children painlessly and without prior sexual intercourse. In 1420 the Taborites broke all connection with the Catholic Church by the lay election and ordination of a bishop and priests.
The majority of the Taborites were extreme puritans in their personal conduct, but a minority, influenced by the Free Spirit doctrines of the Pikarti, believed that the millennium had already arrived. They were the kingdom of the elect, and for them all laws had been abolished. Four hundred were expelled from Tabor in 1421 and wandered through the woods naked, singing and dancing, claiming to be in the state of innocence of Adam and Eve before the fall. Acting on Christ’s remark about harlots and publicans, they considered chastity a sin and seem to have spent their time in a continuous sexual orgy.
Jan Zizka, who had already withdrawn from the Brotherhood of Tabor itself and gone over to the somewhat less extreme community of Oreb, spent the rest of the year hunting them down. Several hundred escaped and fortified an island in a river in southern Bohemia, from which they raided all the surrounding neighborhood, burning churches and slaughtering priests and all others who resisted them. After a brief siege Zizka overran the island and exterminated all but one prisoner who, after he had written a complete confession of their doctrine, was burned and his ashes thrown in the river.
So ended the ecstatic, orgiastic commune of the Adamites. Accusations of sexual irregularities and outrageous ceremonies, as well as murder and robbery, are common in the long history of heresy and are usually presumed to be fantasies of the neurotic minds of celibate inquisitors. But the story of the Adamites does not come from inquisitors, but from men who were themselves revolutionary heretics and who had known the Adamites intimately and who had no reason to accuse them falsely. Their beliefs and conduct differ from what we know of various Free Spirit groups in the rest of Europe only in the comparative freedom of action briefly afforded the Adamites in a revolutionary situation.
Besides the secessions from Tabor by Zizka to the right, and the Adamites to the left, those who objected to the preaching of unrestrained violence withdrew under the leadership of Peter Chelsicky to rural Bohemia and founded a community of pacifists who rejected all use of force. For Chelsicky political power and the State existed only as a necessary evil, the result of original sin, to keep order in the world outside the community of true Christians, where all relationships should be ruled by peace and love. The community he founded had no outward organization; the only bond was love and the following of the life of Christ and his apostles. These extreme pacifists survived all the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the Bohemian reformation to become the Unitas Fratrum, the Czech Brethren.
Life in Tabor must have had a special glory, that of a transfigured society, where life was lived at a pitch of exaltation near to madness. Communion was held daily with thousands of people singing in the open fields, and there were other vast religious gatherings on mountain tops, and armies returning from battle, triumph-laden with loot and bearing trophies like the luxurious tent furnishings of cardinals and kings, through crowds dancing in the streets, a hundred thousand enemies fleeing over breaking ice, armies marching to the singing of hymns in unison, and the roar of iron wagons and wheeled cannon, a golden chalice, instead of a flag, on a pole at their head. Tabor was the mountain where Barak and Deborah had gathered the hosts that annihilated Sisera, immortalized in one of the greatest poems in the Bible; but the Taborites believed that Mount Tabor was also the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, the Mount of Olives where he had preached his apocalyptic sermon in Mark 12 before he began his march to his crucifixion; and finally it was the mountain from which he ascended into heaven. All were symbols of the nature of life as lived in Tabor.
Plato, St. Thomas More, Campanella, Harrington, Bacon, all tried to imagine societies in which the opportunity for what the Church called original sin would be severely inhibited, and it would be practically impossible for men to pursue a lesser immediate instead of an ultimate greater good. Tabor in its first years solved the problem of utopia by denying it. The Taborites were the first to attempt to found society on the principle that liberty is the mother, not the daughter of order. They succeeded because of their continuous warfare. They became in fact a military theocracy without noticing it.
If socialism in one country is doomed to become deformed and crippled, communism in one city is impossible for any length of time. Sooner or later the garrison society will weaken, but the outside world does not. It is always there waiting, strongest perhaps in times of peace. Tabor was never able to balance its popular communism of consumption with an organized and planned communism of production, nor the exchange of goods between city communes and peasant communes. At the time it was widely preached and believed that the Czechs, when they settled Bohemia, had been communists and that the Taborites were only restoring the original Slavic community. This was probably true. Functioning agricultural communes which were revivals of the primitive Slavic peasant communities, like the Russian mir which dated back to the neolithic villages, must have existed. When the Counter-Reformation crushed the long degenerated Bohemian Utraquist Church, it was the peasant communism of the Hutterites and Brethren which survived. Serfdom was fastened on Bohemia in 1487 and reached its most extreme form after the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany and Luther’s Reformation.