03.09.01, Smahel, Die Hussitische Revolution

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John Klassen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.001


Smahel, Frantisek, ed.. Die Hussitische Revolution. Series: Monumenta Germaniae Historica Schriften, vol. 43. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2002. Pp. xliv, 2286. ISBN: 3-7752-5443-9.

Reviewed by:
John Klassen
Trinity Western University

Note: I am omitting all diacritics because the Internet does not consistently transcribe Czech letters.

In view of the book's length I am dividing the review into two parts. I begin with an abbreviated summary, which may meet the needs of some readers. I then follow with a more extensive description of Die Hussitische Revolution. The three-volume work (1800 pages of text) under review is an impressive study of the process that formed Europe's first revolution. Smahel, [Pronounced as Shmahel] the foremost scholar on the subject, seeks to explain why a small Slavic ethnic group living in an empire of Germans was the first to experience a revolution with values and characteristics that mark much of Europe's history. These volumes, crammed with interesting detail, recall Edward Carr's 1962 description of the historian's duty to seek out every relevant known and knowable fact relevant to his or her interpretation.

In his search for the process of history, Smahel shows that the actions and experiences of ordinary individuals, as well as seemingly marginal events, often paved the way for the reception and realization of dreams and hopes expressed by the cultural elite. He also points to important questions about the substance of the cooperation between the poor and the powerful in the making of the revolution. Aside from his introductory description of the approaches of previous historians towards the revolution, the book can be divided into three main parts. Part one, consists of 922 pages on the origins and background of the revolution, part two, 685 pages on the revolutionary period itself (1419-1437), and, part three, 326 pages on an epilogue, called, "Results, Reactions and Prospects." Smahel places the end of the revolution, not with the defeat of the radicals by the nobility in 1434, but with the expulsion of King Sigismund in 1437.

According to Smahel, the soil in which the roots of the Hussite revolution began was characterized by a general malaise in which neither the monarchy, nor the church held the respect of the people. The monarchy overspent its income and was forced to increase taxes and levies. At the same time the monarchy offended the nobility, who twice revolted against the king and reduced both his power and the respect he held among the public. At the same time, the church alienated the public with its pursuit of secular power and property; its administrative leadership was inept, and the clergy lived in luxury. In addition, Smahel shows that the epidemics, which struck Bohemia between 1380 and 1415, contributed to the malaise. At the same time, the nobility increased its power in the kingdom and its leaders joined in the alliance with Prague university masters and preachers, including John Hus. Religious reform and national feeling became closely tied together. When Hus was executed by the council of Constance in 1415, Czech national feeling spread throughout society and a confident nobility came to his defense, prepared to confront the European church's prelates as well as their own King Wenceslas, and his heir-apparent, Emperor Sigismund.

In the second part, an analysis of the anatomy of the revolutionary conflict, the author states that the collapse of political authority, which followed the death of King Wenceslas in 1419, came as a surprise and no one had a plan for organizing society. The result was four competing groups; the Catholics, the Hussite nobility, the cities and towns, led by Prague, and the radicals whose center of power was Tabor. The author shows how this very important Hussite centre evolved out of seemingly marginal events near the town of Usti. He also points out that the origins of Tabor, which was supposed to be a new start to life along Chiliast lines of equality, turned out to be very traditional. Smahel next shows how frustration led the military leader, John Zizka, to create a military brotherhood, the model for others to imitate. These permanently armed bodies, which protected the revolution, were also the reason for a general exhaustion by the early 1430s and paved the way for a noble victory and for the Catholic monarch, Sigismund, to take the throne.

The third part describes the effects of the revolution on various social groups. Smahel begins with the victims; Catholics and Germans suffered extensive property losses in places such as Prague. Daily life did not change all that much for the common men and women, who had placed their lives at the disposal of the revolution. The revolution did achieve one of its central tenets, a propertyless church, of which the nobility was the main beneficiary. Bohemia gained a degree of toleration in worship, which meant that commoners and aristocrats, women and men had the right to worship as Catholics, Hussites, Taborites and, by the end of the century, as members of the Unity of Brethren. Smahel ends by placing the Hussite revolution at the beginning of European revolutions. He focuses particularly on the way the Czechs anticipated the developments in sixteenth century Germany, including Luther's reformation and the peasant revolts. Therefore, he argues, their similarities point to a conceptual model for reformation and revolution. To sum up, the translation of this book is a valuable contribution to the late medieval history of Europe. It makes available a thorough history of Czech culture and society to those uninterested in learning Czech. It will serve especially those who want to compare a wide range of developments in Europe as well as those who simply want to know what happened in Bohemia between 1350 and 1450.

For those interested, I provide a more detailed analysis in the following space. Smahel's picture of the Hussite Revolution parallels events in his own life. He began his career in the heady days of the late sixties when many hoped that a reformed socialism held greater freedom for the Czech people. These expectations were dashed by military force and the post-invasion regime, which gave leading government and academic positions to men and women, not so much based on qualifications as on the willingness to deny principle for the sake of personal material advancement. I need to stress that there were, of course, women and men who succeeded in retaining integrity even as employees of the Czechoslovak academic community.

Although Smahel completed these volumes after the end of the communist regime, much of his work was done in a Czechoslovakia sobered by the invasion of Warsaw pact troops in1968; in an environment in which the Czech intellectual community found itself increasingly isolated from western Europe. When the Soviets invaded, Smahel was beginning his career as a historian but he was soon dismissed from his position at the Institute of History. Despite the additional challenge of raising two children as a single parent after his first wife died, Smahel undertook a vigorous and strenuous program of work of which these three volumes are his crowning achievement.

To make a living Smahel operated a tram on the streets of Prague for five years. Occasionally he conversed on his research with foreign scholars who tracked down his street car. In an atmosphere which discouraged contacts with westerners, Smahel was determined to maintain contacts with scholars abroad. In the 1980s he was given a low level position at the Museum of Tabor, which allowed him to conduct extensive research on late medieval southern Bohemia. During one particularly repressive period, he went to a conference in another Warsaw Pact country to give a paper when, ironically, his colleagues still employed in the academy were not granted permission to travel abroad. When asked to explain, he answered, "They have already fired me from my academic job, so I'm a free man." His life and work impressed his fellow citizens so that shortly after the November 1989 collapse of communist government, he was appointed as the editor of Cesky Casopis Historicky and named the director of the Historical Institute.

Die Hussitische Revolution is more than an account of the Hussite Revolution. It is a history of Bohemia from 1350 to 1450 describing the political and ecclesiastical structures, religious renewal, and the daily life of the people. Smahel portrays the Czechs' struggle to make a living, to attain political and military power, to avoid being caught in the clutches of the powerful, to define and live out the secrets of religion. The Hussite revolution has been at the heart of Czech historical research since the mid-nineteenth century. Smahel identifies most with the school of Jaroslav Goll (1929). Goll's work was marked by modern critical analysis in which he broadened the understanding of political history, adding cultural activity and spiritual currents. Goll's thorough study of the sources, his critical analysis of historical facts, with a constant reference to general European trends, was continued by his many students in the inter-war period.

Smahel has utilized his own pioneering research in archives as well as the abundant efforts of his colleagues since World War II. Czech academia tends to divide scholarship into their own Czech authors and that of foreigners, as anyone who has visited the university library in Prague will have noticed. Smahel follows this practice and it is evident that few non-Czechs meet his standard of having made formative contributions to Hussite studies. One whom he does recognize is the American scholar, Howard Kaminsky, a testimony to the longevity of Kaminsky's insightful ideas and to his thorough work in Czech sources. Smahel argues that the Hussite reformers searched the Bible for solutions to the general disquiet and expectations that marked Czech society. He adds that they may not have found conclusive solutions, but they did find therapeutic techniques or strategies for people's uneasiness. The reformers' ideology of biblical simplicity became the decisive force driving history during this period. Because it was the overthrow of the "organs of power" that made the revolution, Smahel begins with an extensive analysis of the pre-Revolutionary political administration in which the ruler, the nobility, and the church were the main actors. Both Charles IV and Wenceslas IV pursued policies of centralization at the expense of the nobility and Wenceslas was involved in a messy dispute with his archbishop. Smahel presents an extensive balance sheet of royal incomes and expenses and concludes that while kings lived in luxury, the financial house around them was collapsing. As a result, Wenceslas welcomed every opportunity to raise taxes, collect fines, and take a share of papal tithes and profit from the sale of indulgences.

Equally important was the wealth and secular power of the church. In this regard, Smahel shows that Bohemia was more like its western European neighbors than its eastern ones like Poland and Hungary. Smahel also points out that modern scholarship has not significantly changed John Hus' estimate that the church owned 33 percent of the land in Bohemia. Despite this, the church's inept administration and the financial demands from Rome brought it deeply into debt. An additional irritation was the archbishop's energetic prosecution of people with dissident ideas. Prague people were more likely than other Europeans to meet the disliked clergy in the course of their daily lives. Only Avignon, Florence, Paris and Rome had a larger proportion of clergy. Smahel concludes that at the beginning of the fifteenth century the Church was a colossus on clay feet and that only a spark was needed for the people to start a war. Smahel devotes more space to the nobility than have most previous Hussite studies. He describes the nobility as active in church and secular culture and as proponents of the Czech language, which they used in their relatively well organized archives. When the plague of the 1380s cut into the ranks of both gentry and barons, the king took the opportunity to claim escheat properties. Smahel shows that the number of barons with castles sank from 63 in mid-14th century to 52 by 1419. Czech barons, just as those in England, Valois France and the Spanish-Portuguese peninsula were threatened by royal centralization. They revolted against royal centralization and forced the king to accept a prominent role for them in government. Smahel shows that it was only a minority of the 200 nobles who were active in constitutional politics in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The same is true regarding the defense of Hus and his followers after Hus was imprisoned in Constance in 1414 and 1415. Still it was a committed and active minority that drove events in favor of the Hussites.

Smahel rejects the notion that an impoverished pre-Hussite gentry was looking for a revolution. Their experience was diverse; some benefited by the early death of kin and neighbor during the 1380s plague, because the lands of the deceased became available. Even those with small holdings had other sources of income, such as royal service, which allowed them to rise into the middle ranks. Smahel describes the gentry as self-conscious, confident and active in religious brotherhoods, supporting both the Marian cult, endowing prayers for the dead and chapels for Czech language preachers such as John Hus in 1403. In large numbers, they joined in signing the letter protesting Hus's execution in Constance in 1415. The response in Bohemia to Hus's death sentence points to the importance of the nobility and gentry in the development of Hussite politics. By the beginning of August, Prague people knew of Hus's death sentence issued on 6 July but there is no evidence of any popular response in Prague. The initiative came from the barons who, on 2 September 1415, called a land diet and issued the famous protest letter. In this tract the political and military standard-bearers of Bohemia condemned the religious elite of Europe and praised their own kingdom and fellow patriot, John Hus, as Christian. They also made it clear that they would uphold the right of the preachers to preach the word of God freely with the sword. This promise was realized in 1417 when the leading baron in the land, Cenek of Vartemberk called a synod in south Bohemia and announced that the clergy of all sixty parishes of the Rozmberk lands would henceforth offer wine to the laity with communion. Smahel credits the gentry, not peasant soldiers, with the most important innovations in military craft characteristic of the Hussite revolution. War was their business and craft. They offered the revolutionary masses a military organization and discipline, and training in the use of weapons. Smahel disagrees with earlier Marxist scholars who argued that increased commercialized farming generally hurt the peasants. Smahel shows that the proportion of peasants in poor (33%), middling (61%), and wealthy (5.6%) categories on estates remained static over the forty years preceding the revolution. Even without change, the reality for most families was a whole range of taxes and rents, coupled with limited resources and a primitive technology, which meant that even in years where there was no disaster, they lived a hand to mouth existence. Smahel suggests that the peasant was especially confronted by the ravages of the plague that struck south Bohemia in 1415. To them it seemed like divine punishment for a people whose church was incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities. The mixture of poverty, plague and church corruption provided ready soil for peasants from all ranks who placed their hope in the visions of the Light of the World as depicted by the Chiliasts of Tabor.

Smahel compares Czech pagan aspects of religious life to work done by German and French scholars for their countries. He shows that the church was not only a site dedicated to holy matters, but also a place for flirting and commerce. While Czechs bought prayers for the dead during the periodic onslaughts of the plague from 1357 to 1415 they also held superstitions beliefs and, to the disgust of preachers, turned to conjurers and amulets when sick. All this is true, but it is not clear how superstitions fit into the religion of the radicals who generally repudiated the sacraments of medieval Christianity, such as the use of holy water in worship. More relevant is Smahel's description of the wide range of Czechs who read and exercised independent judgment and who aroused the ire of the church. One example was a servant girl of the Sternberk family, Kacka, who, in 1378, examined before the archbishop's vicar-general, admitted that she discussed sermons and composed prayers. With a Czech Bible available since 1385, the reformed-inclined University masters saw as their task the training of the young in the vernacular for the purpose of disseminating the word of God. According to Smahel, no one seemed to have been prepared for the 1419 uprising in Prague, after King Wenceslas' death. Hence there was no alternative government at hand and the various worldly proposals competed with utopian visions. The leaders were faced with the question as to what to do on a daily basis. The result was several parallel governmental structures each trying to bring the others into their fold. For a short time the Catholic party, supporters of Sigismund, appeared to have control but it soon lost its initiative and after that awaited help from abroad. At the end of Queen Sofia's interim government, the nobility lost its semblance of unity. Of the three newly formed Hussite political entities, the city of Prague and its urban allies took the greatest advantage of traditional political structures. According to Smahel, the main power that offered Czech history a new direction was the Taborites. There were at least two parties vying for control at Tabor: the extreme Chiliasts and the party of order. At the very least their introduction of egalitarian and republican principles qualified them for being the most innovative and forward looking.

Smahel's examination of south Bohemian archives helps him demonstrate the importance of marginal events to the beginnings of Tabor. He shows how changes in ownership of an insignificant castle and the death of a noble woman led to historically important change. First, Anna of Mochova used her patronage to the local church in the town of Usti to bring in radical Hussite priests. In addition two of the wealthiest citizens of the town undertook the material sustenance of eight radical preachers. Later, Anna's death allowed a supporter of the Roman cause to eject her Hussite clients from Usti. They however, returned in anger on the eve of Ash Wednesday, destroyed the town and erected a new settlement on the nearby fortress in the name of Chiliast. It became the main centre to which the masses who expected the return of Christ fled. The new town, called Tabor, created what Smahel calls one of he main pillars of the Hussite domestic and international legacy. The support, which the politically weak radicals received from the powerful nobles and merchants, raises questions about the relationship between the poor and the rich within Smahel's anatomy of revolution. Did the radical preachers, who desired an end to the structures of power and wealth of late medieval Europe, gratefully accept the gifts without further thought? Or did they believe their rich and mighty allies were indeed prepared to go all the way with them into a society of equals in which there were to be no rents collected by the coercive power of lords or magistrates? Or did they think they could use the powerful men and women until the new society was in place and there were no rich? Or did the radicals not believe their own rhetoric and simply deceived their patrons and followers? Although not making an explicit connection, Smahel's construction of the revolution suggests that roots of later disillusionment in the military brotherhood rested on an ethical contradiction present in the founding of Tabor, which only a few contemporaries, such as Peter Chelcicky, recognized.

Smahel's portrait of the anatomy of revolution as it developed in Tabor reveals further how new and other worldly ideals became enmeshed with old familiar attitudes. The notion of fraternal equality and solidarity did not survive long. The people of the destroyed town of Usti were the first arrivals in Tabor and they took the best and biggest plots in the centre of Tabor; the second wave of homesteaders made do with smaller plots and something resembling row housing. Smahel also points to the high profile of women within the movement, providing a list of noble female protectors and defenders of Hussites. He observes that women's activity did not mean their liberation from dependence on males. This was true even in Tabor, where they participated in battle and led the campaign against images and extravagant dress and other forms of bodily ornamentation. Smahel suggests that the participation of women and priests in the Taborite army in defense of Prague in Spring and summer of 1420 marks that campaign as a missionary, even salvific enterprise. A normal campaign would not need women. However, Smahel omits any discussion of women's role in the 13 July victory on Vitkov, perhaps because he is uncertain as to its credibility. According to Laurence of Brezova, a source otherwise used by Smahel, one women's self giving intervention fits Smahel's salvific interpretation as it inspired a Hussite victory. "And when the enemy wanted to ascend the wall made of stone and earth, two women and a virgin with sixteen men, who remained in the fortress, manfully defended it with stones and pikes, because they had neither arrows, catapults or powder. Therefore, one of those women, although unarmed, overcame the strategy of the males. Not wanting to withdraw her feet from where she stood, she said: 'It is not fitting for a faithful Christian to retreat before Antichrist'. And fighting manfully, she was killed and gave up her spirit." Smahel writes history not simply as the story of the victors and how they use political or ideological power. He also provides a look at consequences of revolution and war on the victims and on the daily life of the people. He describes the fear felt among the residents of Old Town Prague on the evening of King Wenceslas's death, which turned out to be justified. At least 317 home owners fled Old Town and 107 fled New Town almost immediately. Altogether some 4000-5000 fled the city. The confiscated property was sold to both rich and poor.

The great military leader, John Zizka, is neither hero nor villain in Smahel's eyes. Zizka was not interested in the discussions on religious ideals, nor worried about whether the use of force was justified, as were some of the Taborite clergy. Smahel shows that Zizka's solution for the survival of radical Hussitism, became, after Zizka's death the cause of its demise. After suppressing the most extreme Chiliasts in Tabor, Zizka lost interest in encouraging ideological agreement in the face of continuing quarrels. Instead he safeguarded the Hussite legacy through armed might. After his departure from Tabor, Zizka turned to eastern Bohemia and within 15 months had formed an elite military brotherhood out of the small group of soldiers. His brotherhood served as the foundation for a ten-year rule by the radical military bands. After his death an alliance of field armies lived off the booty collected in forays abroad from Austria to the Baltic Sea, as well as at home from native Czechs. Smahel treats these bands as the result of a process of evolution in which men and the women who followed them, adapted to a life of war and lived from its fruits. The requisitions from their fellow Czechs and the occasional forays into neighboring lands for plunder seemed totally justified in the cause of religious freedom. By 1434, during a nine-month long siege of Plzen, an exhausted and bitter populace had little energy left to support the military brotherhoods, who were defeated by a coalition of moderate Hussite and Catholic nobles joined by Hussite Prague. Smahel describes the disillusionment with revolution.

Even the historian who is not indifferent to the tragic collapse of Hussite radicalism cannot close his eyes to the fate of the nameless working folk who at the start followed revolutionary events with no small hopes. And one should not forget the numerous Catholic and German settlements who experienced only the very worst side of these military brotherhoods. In the eyes of the bread-winners of society the distinctions between the different banners of those who seized the hard-earned fruits of labor, who abducted the few remaining cattle and stole anything that remained of value, was soon lost. The assertion that all this was done to protect the Four Articles of Prague did not impress anymore and many a dependent peasant mourned the old days where he paid firmly established rents and one way or another survived with what was left. For Smahel, the success or failure of the revolution is to a large extent determined by the experience of the common man, and to some extent woman. The old days of paying the established rents seemed benign to war weary people. It took only one military defeat at the hands of their enemies to suppress the brotherhood armies and put an end to the fighting in 1436.

Smahel's epilogue rounds out the main action of the book and shows that the fate of the common people was mixed. He provides statistics for the growth and decline of the populations of cities and concludes that downward trends after 1419 in Hussite centers were not very different in Catholic towns. In cities and towns, the commons had a brief taste of power but the older patterns of government controlled by new elites soon returned. Hussite peasants experienced temporary improvements. At the beginning, he gained a sense of dignity. No longer was he the "clumsy oaf or blockhead." The individual peasant found some equality in Zizka's army and in the armies of the brotherhoods. Peasants gained a degree of religious toleration, although on the negative side, the endemic shortage of priests among the Hussites meant empty village parishes and a lack of learning or school opportunities for village folk.

The biggest change was the church's loss of property as Hussites achieved their main goal of a property-less church. Smahel illustrates with abundant evidence, that Catholic barons reaped most of the spoils along with Husssite barons and gentry. One study of royal records of 153 confiscated estates shows that 106 or roughly two-thirds, had belonged to the church or to clergy; 13 where confiscated from Prague patricians and the rest are not identified. Smahel points out that the actors in the German reformation, except for Ulrich Hutton, were hardly influenced in substantive ways by the Hussites. In 1517, Luther did not know about the indulgence controversy in 1412 Prague, and he felt Hus was limited to criticizing clerical immorality, while he, Luther was called to revise fundamental theology. Yet Smahel finds a qualitative agreement between the social programs of the two reformations. Both desired a return to the cleansing ideals of the Gospel, the rejection of a secularized church and the revision of official doctrine. This congruence, he argues, warrants the formation of conceptual model. He argues reformations must be studied as constitutive processes in which, not only are anti-clerical streams seen as leading elements, but so are social, class, (estate) and national factors. Religious experience and blind fanaticism must be given a serious role and not simply seen as allegories for material interests.

There may or there may not be value in a conceptual model for the study of reformations or revolutions, as Smahel advocates. The real value of these three volumes is their author's sensitivity and insight into the circumstances in which people in fifteenth century live and the actions they took to improve life. They recognized that a better society meant some form of sharing wealth, which they saw in the life of Jesus not unlike the vision of Francis of Assisi. Their visions were feebly implemented by the Hussites themselves, and ferociously opposed by the medieval church, which enjoyed considerable support. Smahel's Die Hussitische Revolution provides us with a cast of characters stumbling through lives of poverty and epidemics, feeling cruel power, yet living with exhilarating hopes that escaping from despair was possible through an attempt to take control of their own lives.

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Author Biography

John Klassen

Trinity Western University