Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 2
The Taborites (cont’d)

V. The Communists in Tabor

In Bohemia, as elsewhere, the development of industry and trade necessarily produced a growth of communistic ideas. The inception and dissemination of these ideas must have been specially encouraged by the extension in the fourteenth century of woollen manufacture, which in Bohemia began in the towns of Prague, Iglau, and Pilsen. [5]

The close connection of the woollen trade with communistic ideas is a remarkable fact which can be traced through the course of the Middle Ages. The woollen craft in the towns of that time was the one in which the features of capitalism were first and most sharply developed, while in many places in Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Germany it expanded into an export industry. Capital was needed to carry it on, and hence the woollen worker became either a sweated workman, receiving the raw material from the dealer and delivering to him the manufactured article, or a cloth producer turned capitalist himself, and employing a large number of journeymen.

It is a remarkable coincidence that the same industry became the very hearthstone of the social revolutionary struggle of the Reformation period; that in every conflict with the then existing municipal and State powers the weavers fought in the front ranks, and that they were inclined to welcome any new departure which proclaimed war against the whole reigning order of society. “Not without good reason,” says Schmoller, “has language, identifying the weaver and conspirator, drawn from the warp of a loom (Zettel) the idea of the way in which disturbances are plotted or warped (angezettelt).” [6]

“In the eyes of many contemporaries,” says Professor Hildebrand, “the guild of clothmakers occupied a position similar to that which some parties in 1848 sought to confer on the privileged (!) class of working men:” [7]

The oldest heretical sect of the Middle Ages brought into unison with communistic tendencies was, as has already been said, that of the Waldenses. About the year 1250 one of their enemies, “pseudo Refiner,” a Roman Inquisitor, gave a description of the Waldenses in the book, De Catharis et Leonistis. To make them appear contemptible, he emphasises the fact that their leaders were workmen in crafts, such as shoemakers and weavers. Weavers were also frequently mentioned elsewhere as members of the sect. [8]

In Northern France the Apostolicans (a sect allied to the Waldenses) also had communistic tendencies, or at least primitive Christian principles, which among proletarians amounted to the same thing. Their aim was to reestablish the apostolic manner of life. “They were already well known in the twelfth century, in the time of St. Bernard, who sharply refuted them in two of his discourses on the Song of Solomon ... They worked hard and gained their bread by the labour of their hands. They were craftworkers, chiefly weavers, as can be seen from St. Bernard.” [9]

In the Netherlands and in Germany, communistic ideas were developed among the Beghards. Their association was composed chiefly of weavers, and acquired such importance in some towns that the master-weavers waged war against the “weaver-brothers”. Mosheim [10] informs us that in consequence of the pressure brought to bear upon them by the guilds of weavers, the authorities at Ghent and other towns were often forced to “check the industry of the Beghards.”

In England, mediaeval, sectarian communism found its representatives among the Lollards. It has already occurred to Thorold Rogers that Norfolk, the centre of the woollen industry, was also the centre of Lollardism. Weavers were the protectors and the trustiest adherents of the poor priests.

We think it, therefore, no mere accident that weavers were also found in the front rank of the communistic movement in Bohemia.

In addition to the economic condition of Bohemia itself, there were external influences that helped the spread of communistic ideas. Beghards made their appearance in the land, where they were called Picards. The immigration of German craftsman, so much encouraged by the kings of Bohemia, was also not without its effect on the penetration of Beghardism to that country.

Waldenses are said to have fled from Southern France to Bohemia at the time of the first persecution, and to have found an asylum, keeping themselves hidden and propagating their doctrines secretly. [11]

While the antagonism between the Bohemians and the Church was gaining strength, and the opponents of the latter were not only tolerated, but received encouragement, the communistic heresy naturally reared its head, and proscribed communists from adjacent countries sought safety in Bohemia. Communism could be the more easily developed, as, in its arguments, and even in many of its claims, it was in sympathy with the other heretical movements. They were unanimous in wishing for a return to primitive Christianity, and the restoration of pure Christian doctrine. Disagreements regarding the manner in which this was to be consummated did not begin until later.

The declaration of war by the Church and the German Empire against Bohemia, brought about by the burning of Johannes Huss, led to the overthrow of the traditional rules regulating property and society by the confiscation and robbery of the Church’s possessions. This was the golden moment for the communistic sects, who now openly declared themselves. Hitherto they had dragged on their existence in secrecy and without recognition, and only now and then had the world heard of them through the treachery of some member [12], but the relatively wide extension they had acquired became evident as soon as they were able openly to avow themselves.

The communists in Prague were too weak, or their opponents were too strong, to allow of their free development, whereas in smaller towns they had more scope.

Communist preachers now proclaimed that the Millennium had come. Prague was to be consumed by fire from heaven, but the elect would find protection and safety in other towns. Christ would descend in power, and establish a kingdom in which there should be no masters or servants, no sin or penury, nor any other law than that given by the free Spirit. The survivors of that time, translated to a condition of Paradisaical innocence, should know no more bodily suffering and want, and no longer need the sacraments of the Church for their salvation. [13]

Matters progressed so far that communistic associations were organised which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, were presumably limited to the towns, the most important of these being Pisek, Wodrian, and Tabor; in the last of which the communists succeeded in obtaining complete mastery.

Tabor was founded in the neighbourhood of the small town of Austi, on the Luznic River, famous for its gold washings. The abundance of gold may well have exercised an important influence on the development of trade and industry, as well as on the antagonisms connected with these. It is certain that from the year 1415 communist agitators found protection and shelter in Tabor, principally, as the story goes, through the agency of Pytel, a rich cloth manufacturer and merchant, and the employer of a large number of journeymen weavers. According to a letter of Æneas Sylvius, the later inhabitants of the town were for the greater part weavers. During the few reactionary attempts made by Wenzel in 1419, these communist agitators were driven out of Austi, where there was a strong Catholic party. They established themselves in the neighbourhood, on a broad hill overlooking the Luznic River and forming a peninsula with steep declivities, which was connected with the bank by a very narrow neck of land. Here they made their stronghold, and named it Tabor, in the style of the Old Testament, for which, like the later Anabaptists and Puritans, they showed a great predilection.

Communists streamed there from all sides in order to hold their meetings undisturbed. On July 22, 1419, no less than 42,000 persons from Bohemia and Moravia took part in one of these assemblages. This indicated a remarkable dissemination of communistic ideas.

“The whole incident was depicted even by their opponents as a great popular festival of a religio-idyllic character, elevating both to the soul and heart. Perfect quiet and order reigned throughout. The throngs of pilgrims marching thitherwards in procession with banners flying, and preceded by the Holy Sacrament, were quite as festally welcomed by those living on the spot, who received them with jubilations, and directed them to their proper places on the hill. Every one who came was ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ as all social distinctions were unrecognised. The priests shared the work among themselves; some preaching in designated places (men and women being kept apart), others hearing confessions, while a third part communicated in both kinds. Thus it went on till noon. Then came the consumption in common of the food brought by the guests, which was divided among them, the want of one being made good by the superabundance of another; for the brothers and sisters of Mount Tabor knew no difference between mine and thine. As the emotions of the entire assembly were of a religious character, there was no violation of the strictest modesty and propriety; all music, dancing, and play being unthought of.” [14]

Eight days after this gathering, the riot broke out in Prague which put an end to the Catholic reaction, caused Wenzel’s death, and led to the Hussite War. It was no longer a question of mere demonstrations and communist picnics.

The fundamental principles of the Taborites are comprehensively set forth in a document drawn up by the Prague University. After the fashion of the day, a disputation was held December 10, 1420, when it was hoped that the antagonism between the Praguers and that sect would be smoothed away. To this end the professors had made a schedule of not less than seventy-six points, in which, according to their opinions, Taborite doctrines were either heretical or, at least, erroneous. In conformity with the tastes of the professors and the tone of thought of the age, the majority of these points were of a theological nature; but two of them contained the germs of republicanism and communism. The Taborites taught –

“In these days there shall be no king, ruler, or subject on the earth, and all imposts and taxes shall cease; no one shall force another to do anything, for all shall be equal brothers and sisters.

“As in the town of Tabor there is no mine or thine, but all is held in common, so shall everything be common to all, and no one own anything for himself alone. Whoever does so commits a deadly sin.”

As a consequence of these propositions, the Taborites concluded that it was no longer seemly to have a king, but that God Himself should be king over mankind, and the government be put into the hands of the people. All princes, nobles, and knights were to be uprooted as weeds and utterly exterminated. Imposts, taxes, and payments were to cease, and all laws of princes, nations, towns, and peasants be abrogated as inventions of men and not of God.

The purely ecclesiastical points relate, among other things, to a summons to the razing of all the churches, the prohibition of Divine worship in a church, and making or reverencing sacred pictures, &c. The Taborites also inveighed against erudition (or perhaps science). “Nothing shall be believed or held concerning Christ but that which is expressly said or written in the Bible; and besides the Bible no writings of doctors of divinity, professors, or learned men of any kind shall ever be read, taught, or propagated. Whosoever, therefore, shall devote himself to the study of the seven sciences, or accept, or cause himself to be appointed to a professorship in them, resembles the heathen; he is a vainglorious person, and commits a deadly sin.” This doctrine must have been especially obnoxious to the professors of Prague. The opposition among Christian communities to science has been treated of in a former chapter (p.19 sqq.).

It was natural that in its realisation communism should assume the forms handed down by tradition from primitive Christianity, and that it should accord with the existing conditions of production.

Each community had a common box called “coop,” to which every one brought what he called his own. There were three such boxes, one in each of the towns of Pisek, Tabor, and Wonian. The brothers and sisters sold all their possessions and laid them at the feet of the comptrollers of these coops.

Pibram writes in his work against the sect (1429): “The Taborites contrived another monstrous trick, in that they enjoined and commanded all the people of Pisek, who had betaken themselves to the hill, to bring each one all that he possessed, and thus almost completely filled one or two coops which they had set up. The comptroller of these coops was the dishonest Mathias Lauda of Pisek, and he, with the other managers as well as the priests, suffered no loss from this arrangement. This dastardly proceeding shows how disgracefully the people were robbed of their possessions and earnings, and how the managers enriched and fattened themselves.” [15]

Palacky was himself forced to admit that this was a despicable calumniation.

Meanwhile, however honest and unselfish the comptrollers of the coops might be, this kind of communism could not be carried on for any considerable length of time. Labour would become impossible if every one were to sell his means of production and carry the proceeds to the common coop, in order that articles of consumption might be bought with money from the common treasury. We do not believe that this procedure was at any time universal among the Taborite communists. It is certain, at all events, that it was soon abandoned. Practically, communism fashioned itself as follows – Each family worked for itself in its own private house and private field, with its own means of production, and kept for itself all that was necessary for its own wants. The superfluity alone belonged to the community.

This change was not brought about without earnest protest from the more zealous and pronounced faction. Under existing circumstances communism merely in articles of consumption was realisable only in the form just mentioned. For this reason the extremists demanded the introduction of pure communism and the abolition of the family. This is possible in two ways: through celibacy, or through the suspension of strict monogamy, i.e., by the so-called community in wives. Ultra-communists among the Taborites chose the latter form, being induced to do so partly by their determined opposition to the Catholic Church and monasticism, which led to a condemnation of priests’ celibacy.

The efforts of the stricter party found their clearest and most decided expression in the sect of the brothers and sisters of the Free-Spirit. They had found entrance into Bohemia, and when in that country Picards (Beghards) were spoken of, it was always understood that reference was made to this community. The Hussitic variety of the brothers and sisters of the Free-Spirit were also called Nicolaitans, after the peasant Nicholas, who was the chief expounder of their doctrines; but they were best known under the name of Adamites, because they regarded the Adamitic state (the state of nature as it was called in the eighteenth century), as the only one of sinless innocence. In their places of assembly, which they named Paradises, they are said to have gone about naked, but we are unable to determine whether this statement is based on rumour only, or on malevolent calumny.

Æneas Sylvius tells us that the Adamites lived on an island in the River Luznic, and went about in a state of nudity. “They held their wives in common (connubia eis promiscua fuere); but no one could have a wife without the consent of their chief elder, Adam. When, seized with ardent desire, a brother burned for a sister, he took her by the hand and went with her to the chief elder, to whom he said: ‘My soul is aflame with love for her.’ Thereupon the elder answered him: ‘Go, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.’” [16]

This kind of avoidance of marriage was too much opposed to the moral views of a period when monogamy and the separate family life (institutions handed down from antiquity, and deeply rooted in the popular feeling) were most imperatively demanded both by the needs of society and of the existing methods of production. The abolition of marriage was, it is true, a logical consequence of the communism of the time, but this very fact shows that this communism was not in accordance with the wants of a society in which monogamy was a necessity, and itself proves that the communism of the day was condemned to be confined to small associations and communities. The bulk of the Taborites offered a most determined resistance to the efforts of the extreme party.

In the spring of 1421 an open conflict broke out between the two factions. Priest Martinck Hauska, one of the head elders of the more advanced enthusiasts, had been taken prisoner by a knight, but at the intercession of many friends he was released. He afterwards preached his doctrines with all the more zeal, and his partisans became so threatening that the Taborite bishop, Nicholas, appealed for help to Prague, where communistic heresy had gained a foothold. The Town Council immediately recommended severe measures and, in accordance with the pleasant custom of that period, two burgesses were condemned to death and burnt. Simultaneously, an open rupture took place between the two parties at Tabor; the ultra-communists were driven out, and, to the number of three hundred, sought safety in the woods bordering on the Luznic (March, 1421).

Priest Martinck soon broke loose from them and renounced his “heresies”; but his associates remained firm. Ziska, who was at heart inclined towards the Praguers, and to whom the “Picard heresy” must have been an abomination, marched out against the refugees, surprised them in the forest, and took a number of prisoners, of whom fifty were burnt at the stake by his orders as they absolutely refused to recant.

No longer feeling at ease among the Taborites, Martinck resolved to betake himself to Moravia. On his way thither he was taken prisoner at Chrudim, together with his companion, Prolop the one-eyed, and handed over to Archbishop Conrad in Raudnitz. Ziska demanded of the Praguers that they should have these dangerous persons brought to Prague, and there burnt alive as an example; but the Town Council feared the lower classes, among whom Martinck’s views were strongly advocated, and accordingly sent an executioner to Raudnitz, by whom the prisoners were so long tortured that they betrayed the names of some of their associates in Prague. Thereupon they were placed in barrels and burnt (August 21, 1421).

But the Picard heresy was not yet wholly suppressed. A band of Adamites had established themselves on an island in the River Nezarka, an affluent of the Luznia, against whom Ziska sent four hundred armed men, with orders for their complete extermination. Although taken by surprise, the heretics defended themselves with desperation, and slew a large number of their enemies, but finally had to yield to superior force. Those whom the sword had spared, the fire consumed (October 21, 1421).

The more advanced faction of communism was now completely crushed, and the small fighting power necessary to subdue it shows that its tenets had not been widely adopted. In fact, only a few particularly bold, or particularly one-sided men, prejudiced in favour of communism, dared at that time to so far overstep the limitations of their age. They are interesting to the history of communistic thought, but acquired no importance to general history.

The Adamites were crushed and rendered powerless, but Ziska, who persecuted them with singular animosity, did not succeed in wholly destroying them, as remnants of the sect continued to drag on an existence among the Taborites. In the last decade of the fifteenth century they reappeared, and endeavoured to amalgamate with the Bohemian Brethren, of whom we shall treat further on.

After the overthrow of the Adamites, there was no other noteworthy effort to establish the more radical form of communism; but the milder kind (communistic more in intention than in reality) maintained itself in Tabor for nearly a generation.

What use, it may be asked, was made of the revenues of the common coops (or rather storehouses, since the contributions were chiefly in kind)?

In the early Christian community, the superfluity of one served to lessen the deficiencies of another. There was no occasion for this in Tabor, where a nearly complete equality in the conditions of life existed among all members of the community. This equality was easily brought about by spoils from the Church and from the properties of opposing nobles and towns, which proved sufficient to enable each person to establish himself comfortably.

The Taborites did not need to expend anything for the care of the poor; but the wants of the clergy had to be supplied, as they had no priestly aristocracy with its own possessions. Any layman might become a priest. The members of that order were chosen from the community, and they in turn elected the bishops; but they were financially dependent on the community. Their functions, like those of the medieval priesthood in general, were in the main similar to those of the present state and municipal officials and teachers in Germany. Their duties were to organise and manage the various institutions of the Brotherhood, and regulate the connection between the several communities, as well as the relations of these with the outer world. One of their chief vocations was the instruction of children. The Taborites set great store by a general and good popular education. This was one of their most striking characteristics, and was to be found nowhere else at that time. In this respect they resembled the Brothers-of-the-Life-in-Common more than any other sect; but the monastic and Catholic tendencies of the latter fraternity gave quite a different character to their activity. Education among the Taborites must, of course, be measured by the standard prevailing at the time, and was chiefly theological in tone.

Æneas Sylvius says in one place: “The Italian priests may well be ashamed of themselves, for it is certain that not one among them has even once read the New Testament. Among the Taborites, on the contrary, you will find hardly one young woman who is not versed in both the Old and New Testament.” He remarks elsewhere: “That malignant race has only one good trait, viz., their love of education” (literas).

This solicitude with regard to popular education was in apparent, though only apparent, contradiction to the repugnance of the Taborites to erudition, which they evidenced not only by the previously mentioned injunction, but by forcing all learned men who joined them to take up some handicraft. The learning which they opposed was that from which the lower population was cut off, and which was inimical to their community; i.e., the culture which had become a privilege of the upper classes, but which, from the existing standpoint of production, was incompatible with universal equality. The methods of production among the handicrafts and small farmers laid too great demands on the strength and time of their workmen to allow these to acquire a higher education without stepping out of their class. On the other hand, however, the tenet of equality imposed the obligation of making every authorised means of self-culture [17] available to all.

Their war system was, however, of far more importance to them than their educational arrangements. This tiny community, which declared war so boldly against the whole existing order of society, could maintain its existence only so long as it remained unconquered in the field; and it enjoyed no peace nor even a single truce, for it was in direct antagonism to the interests of the ruling powers. On the other hand, the community was never able to gain a single decisive victory. It could defeat its enemies but not overthrow them; for the opinions of these enemies were in harmony with the existing conditions of production, while the communism of the Taborites was an artificial growth grafted on those conditions, and could never become the universal form of society of the age.

But if the perpetual war, in which the Taborites were engaged, redounded to their glory, it also led to their doom.

Their entire organisation was modelled for the purposes of war. They divided themselves into two groups, of which one remained at home and laboured for the other whose functions were exclusively military, and who were always under arms. With wife and child they marched out against the foe, like the ancient Germans; whom they also emulated in savage fierceness and impetuosity. The two groups apparently alternated in their duties, the returning warriors taking up the handicrafts, while those who had been engaged in the latter went forth to fight. This is only conjectural, for on this, as on other points relating, to the Taborites, we are unfortunately reduced to surmise, and however copious the information concerning their deeds of war, but little can be ascertained about their internal affairs.

From a military point of view the organisation of this war-community is of great historical moment. It is customary to trace the origin of standing armies in the declining years of the Middle Ages to Charles VII. of France, who, in the middle of the fifteenth century, kept up a permanent military force of fifteen companies of mercenaries. As a matter of fact, the first standing army was formed by the Taborites, who, moreover, had an advantage over the French in that they relied on a universal liability to war service, and not on paid levies. It was to this organisation that they owed their great military superiority over their enemies.

Discipline and skill in manoeuvres were wholly wanting in the armies of that period; for whence were these qualities to come in those disorderly crowds of vassals and mercenaries who to-day were summoned together and to-morrow were again dispersed if the war chest was empty, or anything else aroused their displeasure?

The Taborite army was the first since the downfall of ancient Rome, which was regularly organised, and did not consist of a mere mass of untrained warriors. It was divided into differently armed bodies, which were well drilled in scientific manoeuvres, all systematically controlled from a centre and harmonising with each other. The Taborites were also the first to employ artillery to good purpose in the field, and, finally, to perfect the science of marching, their forced marches alone gaining them many a victory over the unwieldy armies of their opponents.

In all these points they show themselves to have been the creators of a more modern army system so far as the Middle Ages were concerned.

It may perhaps be with truth asserted that in the military, as in other spheres, all great advances have been brought about by social revolutions, and that the most successful military leaders of the last five centuries have been those who best knew how to recognise these advances and use them for their own advantage, e.g., Ziska, Cromwell, and Napoleon.

The military strength of the Taborites was enhanced by their enthusiasm and scorn of death. For them there was no compromise – no halting in the path once taken; they had only one choice – victory or death. Thus they became the most dreaded warriors of Europe, and through their military terrorism saved the Hussite revolution; as, in 1793, the sans-culottes, by their terrorism, saved the bourgeois revolution of 1789.



VI. The Downfall of Tabor

After the death of Wenzel, the Calixtines, i.e., the nobility and Praguers, entered into negotiations with Sigismund. They were not altogether pleased by the thought that they were about to take up the cudgels against Emperor and Pope, and, in fact, against all Europe; hence the dangerous strength already acquired by the Taborites urged them to a compromise. Had it only been a question of the lay chalice, this compromise might easily have been effected, but it was more; it was a question of the lands and money of the Church, and upon that point no agreement could be reached. The Church, however, and her servant Sigismund, showed themselves quite as implacable as the Taborites, and the rupture resulted in a fight to the death, in which the Calixtines, the robbers of the Church, driven by necessity, fought on the side of the Taborites, but only half-heartedly.

This is not the place for a history of the Hussite wars. Suffice it to say that after Pope Martin V., in his Bull Omnium plasmatoris Domini of March 1, 1420, had summoned united Christendom against the Hussites, one plunder-loving army of the Cross after another was formed to stamp out the heresy; that in every one of the five Crusades, between 1420 and 1431, the army of the Crusaders was woefully defeated; that the fame of the invincibility of the Taborite hosts continued to increase, until finally (as in the fourth Crusade at Mies, 1427, and in the fifth at Tauss, 1430 large armies scattered merely at the news of the approach of the Hussites, flying in a panic without even having seen the enemy. Neither can we follow the internal conflicts between Calixtines and Taborites, which were fought out in the intervals between the wars against the crusading armies.

After the great day at Tauss, there no longer seemed to be an enemy capable of resisting the Taborites. No foreign army dared again attack them, while at home the power of their opponents (the nobility and a few towns) was vanishing faster and faster, and was threatened with complete destruction by the continuance of the Taborite reign of terror.

It now became evident, however, how little military victories avail, if the aims of the conquerors are in contradiction to those of economic development.

A complete military overthrow of the Taborites would naturally have been followed by their extinction. But even their victories gave rise to elements which led to their ruin. Their greatest triumph was immediately followed by their fall.

The greater the success of the Taborites, the more intolerable became the position of their foes in Bohemia (the Calixtines), to say nothing of the Catholics. The nobility were reduced to a condition of absolute insignificance, and would long before have willingly made peace with the Church, if they, the robbers of the Church, had not feared its greed and thirst for revenge. After the victory at Tauss, they showed themselves to be more amenable than ever.

Meanwhile the Pope and Emperor, together with their adherents among the spiritual and secular princes, had been made more pliant by the Hussite victories. Their intrigues and conspiracies with the Calixtines had never totally ceased, and after the triumph at Tauss were carried on more energetically than ever. An agreement was finally arrived at, by which the Papal Church, in the persons of delegates from the Council of Bâle, even consented to wink at the possession of Church property, and, instead of taking anything from the Bohemians, actually gave them something. It sent agents to Bohemia well supplied with money to enable its new allies, the Calixtines, to regain their power of withstanding the Taborites. When the nobility, who “had for many years disappeared from the scene” (Palacky), felt themselves backed up by the Emperor, and especially by the wealth and power of the Church, they began to pluck up heart for a war, for convening assemblies and organising themselves, in order to recover their lost power with the secular aid of the Praguers and the ecclesiastical, but exceedingly worldly, methods of Catholicism.

The situation is well described by Æneas Sylvius in his History of Bohemia; but it must be remarked that the rôle ascribed by him to Prokop (the most important of the Taborite leaders after Ziska’s death) is entirely unsubstantiated by facts, for Prokop never possessed the unlimited power assigned to him by Sylvius. Wherever, in what follows, Prokop’s reign of terror is spoken of, it would be more correct to substitute the Taborite reign of terror. Æneas tells us that: “The Bohemian barons often met together and admitted the error they had committed and the danger they had incurred in casting off the dominion of their king, only to wear the heavy yoke of Prokop. They pondered facts; and these told them that Prokop alone was master; that he ruled and governed the land as best pleased him, levying tolls, imposing taxes and contributions, dragging the people to war, leading the troops whithersoever he liked, robbing and murdering, tolerating no opposition to his commands, and treating the highest as well as the lowest like slaves and servants. They saw that the Bohemians were the most unhappy people under heaven; that they were always in the field, living summer and winter in tents, lying on the hard ground, and forced to constant military service. The people were worn out with home and foreign wars, which kept them for ever either fighting or anxiously awaiting a fight. The barons at length realised that it was time to shake off the cruel tyrant’s yoke under which, after overcoming other nations, they now groaned. They resolved to summon all barons, knights, and towns to a general Landtag, which should take into its consideration a suitable organisation of the whole kingdom. When this Landtag had assembled, Herr Meinhard drew a picture of the happiness of that kingdom which was neither addicted to sloth nor worn out by war. He set forth that Bohemia, on the contrary, had hitherto enjoyed no rest, and that their country, if not cared for in time, must, wasted by unceasing war, soon crumble into dust; that the untilled fields were lying fallow, while men and beasts were in some places dying from starvation,” &c., &c.; all of which evils could, of course, be brought to an end only by a re-instatement of the nobility in their ancient power.

While the different opponents of the Taborites were thus ignoring their individual interests in presence of the common antagonism to Taboritism, and uniting in a coalition against it, changes were in progress among the Taborites themselves which were much more threatening than the intrigues and conspiracies of their enemies.

The communists of Tabor had always formed only a fraction of the democratic party bearing the name of Taborites, although they constituted the most energetic, implacable, and in every way most advanced portion, and were by far the most capable in military affairs. The bulk of the adherents of that party were petty citizens of towns and peasants to whom the communistic programme was rather a matter of indifference, but whose sufferings were being continually increased by the prolongation of the war.

Although victorious, the Bohemians were for a long time too weak to keep the enemy far from their lands. At the outset, they confined themselves to the defensive, and it was only at a comparatively late date (1427) that they were able to devastate foreign countries in the manner prescribed by the mode of war at that time, its essential features being plunder and destruction – approximately the same as attend the spread of European civilisation in Africa to-day. But war on the offensive in no way secured Bohemia from being ravaged by neighbouring foreign enemies. Meanwhile the civil war continued, and the country became yearly more exhausted; commerce, as well as agriculture and the handicrafts, suffered, and the nobility and wealthy Praguers, together with the humbler citizens and peasants from all parts, were sinking into ruin. All classes of society experienced a profound weariness of war and a yearning for peace; and in proportion as the implacable Taborites figured as the sole obstacle to peace, the number of their adherents dwindled away, and the voice of the people cried out against them. In order to maintain its power in the land the little band of Taborites was driven, therefore, to measures of increased severity. The antagonism between them and the masses of the people grew more and more bitter, until at length the nobility were usually supported by the populace in their rising against the sect.

Moreover, in the strict sense of the word, the Taborites were no longer the Taborites of old.

The fate of Tabor is of the greatest interest; for it shows what would have been the outcome of the Münzer movement in Mühlhausen, and of the Anabaptist movement in Munster, if they had remained unconquered by military force.

Taborite communism was based upon the needs of the poor, and not on those of production. The social democracy of to-day relies for its hope of success on the fact that the requirements of production and those of the proletariat lie in the same direction. It was otherwise in the fifteenth century. While the needs of the poor engendered the struggle for communism, those of production demanded the existence of private proprietorship. Hence communism could never become the universal form of society in those days, as the necessity for it among the poor must have ceased the moment they had established it, i.e., as soon as they ceased to be poor, especially if the only means by which its long continuance could be ensured were abandoned – at any rate for small communities – namely, the abolition of the separate family and of separate marriage. As we have seen, the Taborites did relinquish this. They practically exterminated the Adamites, and in so doing again opened the path for the re-establishment of private proprietorship in the community. The rapid growth of competence and even wealth in their midst, due to the spoils they acquired, soon caused greed and envy to supplant the modes of thought essential to communism and brotherhood. Equality in the conditions of existence began to cease; there began to be richer and poorer brothers in Tabor, and the former became constantly less willing to relinquish their overplus for the benefit of the latter.

The downfall of the Taborites was also hastened by the incursion of foreign elements. The man who has so wholly given himself up to an idea that he is willing to risk his life in its defence will not readily prove untrue to it, even if he comes under conditions which tend to weaken its power over him. The original Taborities would have held fast to the faith for whose cause they had endured so many persecutions and dangers.

But the many years of war of which the burden lay especially heavy on this community, must have fearfully thinned their ranks. From a military point of view, this was not noticeable, for the loss was quickly made good from among the communist enthusiasts from far and wide to whom Tabor had become a Mecca. Even the most distant nations, e.g., England, were represented in the town. No great difficulty seems to have been made about admission to the brotherhood. Æneas Sylvius, who visited the place, was surprised at the number of different sects living together in peace. “They are not all of one faith,” he tells us, “for every one in Tabor may believe as best pleases him. Nicolaitans, Arians, Manicheists, Arminians, Nestorians, Berengarians, and Poor of Lyons are all to be found among them. The most highly esteemed, however, are the Waldenses, those arch-enemies of the Roman See.”

Another increase which Tabor received was much more doubtful in its influence. The success of its armies had attracted thither a large number of adventure-loving folk, to whom the Taborite ideal was a matter of indifference, but who longed for fame and still more for booty.

The armies of the Taborites would not at first have materially suffered in a military sense from this cause, though the elements of enthusiasm, devotion, and voluntary discipline must necessarily have gradually disappeared. They must, however, have largely lost in trustworthiness. The bankrupt nobility had placed themselves in the service of this community for the same reason as the mercenaries, for the landlords had been able, in a measure, to maintain themselves only by becoming to a certain extent the vassals of the Taborites, to whom they paid imposts, and by whose side they were compelled to fight. (Compare on this point the complaint of the Bohemian barons concerning Prokop’s tyranny, recounted by Æneas Sylvius.)

As soon as the nobility rose against the sect and began to enlist mercenaries, to whom (thanks to the wealth of the Catholic Church) it was able to offer momentarily better conditions, treachery became rife in all nooks and corners of the Taborite armies.

Hence it is comprehensible that when civil war once more broke out, and Calixtines and Taborites measured their strength in desperate conflict, the latter, deserted by peasants and townsmen, and betrayed by a part of their own troop, should succumb to their enemies, who, setting aside their own internal animosities, had formed an overpowering alliance against the remnant of the democratic party still true to the one remaining communistic brotherhood, more in obedience to necessity than to their own impulses.

On May 30, 1434, a decisive battle was fought at the village of Lipau, near Brod, in Bohemia. The forces of the nobility outnumbered those of the Taborites, the former having 25,000 men, while the latter had about 18,000. For a long time the fight wavered doubtfully hither and thither, but at last victory inclined to the side of the nobility. This was much less due to their skill and bravery than to the treachery of the Taborite general, Johann Capek, commanding the cavalry, who, in the midst of the battle, instead of cutting his way into the ranks of the enemy, took to flight. A frightful slaughter ensued, no quarter being given. Out of 18,000 Taborite soldiers, 13,000 were cut down and killed! This fearful defeat broke for ever the strength of the Taborites.

Tabor ceased to rule Bohemia. Democracy was overthrown, and the nobility, in union with the upper classes of trade, thereupon set about re-arranging for the exploitation of the country. After endless negotiations between the king and his “true subjects,” among whom each faction feared (and rightly) that the other was only thinking out a way of betraying it, Sigismund was at last acknowledged king in 1536. He had previously consented to a universal amnesty; and as regards the property of the Church which had been stolen, had conceded to all nobles and communes the right to dispose of it as they might think best.

The power of the Taborites, however, was not completely annihilated at the battle of Lipau. They continued the struggle a short time longer, but ever more feebly and ineffectually, until, in 1436, they were glad to obtain an agreement from Sigismund assuring them at least of the independence of their town.

Tabor remained in this condition until after the beginning of the fifth decade of the fifteenth century. At that time Æneas Sylvius visited the place and reported on it in a letter to Cardinal Carvajal. This is one of the few extant communications from an eye-witness concerning the internal affairs of the sect. A few significant passages may be reproduced, as they give a very good characterisation of life in a Taborite community. According to Æneas, the houses in Tabor were built of wood or clay, and were placed without any regard to order. “This people possess abundant and costly household effects and extraordinary wealth, as they have gathered into one place the spoils from many nations. They wished at one time to live in all things in conformity with the primitive Church, and held all their possessions in common; each called the other brother, and what one lacked he received from the others. Now, however, each lives for himself alone, and some hunger while others revel [alius quidem esurit, alius autem ebrius est]. Shortlived was the fire of neighbourly love, short the imitation [of the Apostolic community] ... The Taborites robbed strangers of their possessions, and what they had acquired by violence became common property [haec tantum in commune dederunt]. But they could not maintain this state of things. Nature gained the upper hand; already they are all given over to greed; and, as they can no longer rob as of yore, being enervated and in fear of their neighbours, they snatch what they can from the profits of trade [lucris inhiant mercaturae], and give themselves up to the lowest pursuits. There are 4,000 men in the town capable of bearing arms, but they have become craftsmen, and for the most part gain their living by the weaving of wool [lana ac tela ex magna parte victum quaerentes], so that they are valueless in war.” [18]

It is worthy of remark that the majority of Taborites were wool-weavers.

Æneas Sylvius visited Tabor in 1451. According to his description, the military strength of the town had completely vanished, as well as its communism. But even the ruins of its revolutionary past appeared to the rulers of Bohemia to be still dangerous. One year after the above-mentioned visit, Georg von Podiebrad, then administrator of Bohemia, appeared before the place, and demanded the surrender of the whole body of Taborite priests. After a delay of only three days the town yielded, and gave them up, those not “converted” being thrown in prison till their death. Thus the peculiar position of republican Tabor and every form of its independence came to an end.

This pitiful termination of a once haughty communistic commonwealth, before which half Europe had trembled, makes it hardly possible to suppress the wish that, like Munster, Tabor had fallen in the brilliancy of its communistic youth, and had not languished in the wretchedness of bourgeois senility.

With the overthrow of Tabor the last asylum of democracy in Bohemia was destroyed.

The fate of the Taborites, exhibiting as it does many analogies with that of the Jacobins, resembles the latter also in the circumstance that it was they who by their reckless heroism saved the revolution – not for themselves, but for the exploiters of that revolution. In France, these were the great capitalists and knights of industry; in Bohemia they were the upper nobility, who acquired an almost unlimited mastery both in State and society. The petty nobility gained nothing by the Hussite wars, which accelerated rather than checked their downfall, as the upper nobles, to whom the lion’s share of the Church’s possessions fell, enriched themselves also at the cost of the lower ranks of their class by buying up their properties.

The peasants and petty townsmen were, however, the chief sufferers by the wars. The exhaustion of the country and the diminution of the population, reducing as they did the power of resistance among the peasants and small townsmen to the lowest point, became inducements to the lords of the soil to increase very largely their demands on the petty rent-paying citizens, and also the burdens imposed on the peasants. These burdens became heavier and heavier. The feeble attempts at resistance and revolt, here and there ventured on by the ill-used peasantry, were easily overcome. Where, however, in spite of the increase of forced labour, the supply of labour was insufficient, the landlord recouped himself by substituting for agriculture a branch of business requiring only a small number of labourers. In some instances the extension of this new industry not only counterbalanced the want of peasants, but even drove peasants away from their situations. In England, the want of labour (originating, it is true, from causes different from those active in Bohemia) gave an important impetus to the development of sheep-raising. This pursuit was finally so general in that country, that it became the chief means of expropriating the peasantry and creating a proletariat. A similar, though less influential part was played in many districts of Bohemia by the fishponds constructed by the landlords. If, as Thomas More said, the sheep ate up the peasants of England, those of Bohemia were equally devoured by carp.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century serfdom had almost completely disappeared in Bohemia. At the close of that century it was already again the universal condition of the peasantry.

It is absurd to hold the Hussite Wars responsible for this. Whether social development be brought about by peaceful means or by violent struggles, is immaterial to the direction it takes, that being necessarily determined by the progress and needs of production. When the results of violent revolutionary conflicts are not in accordance with the intentions of the revolutionists, it is a proof that these intentions are in contradiction to the requirements of production. Violent revolutions can never give direction to social development; they can, under definite conditions, only hasten it, at the same time, however, intensifying the evil for the defeated. This was one of the results of the Hussite Wars. From the fifteenth century onwards a deterioration in the condition of the peasantry set in throughout Europe, though later in some countries than in others. That Bohemia, notwithstanding its backward economic position, was one of the first lands in which this deterioration appeared, and that it there made the most rapid progress, were consequences of the Hussite Wars. But for these the decisive change might not perhaps have occurred until a century later, after the German Peasant Wars.




5. As early as 1337 we find workmen in cloths who manufactured them entirely unaided. There must therefore have existed larger manufacturers employing journeymen as houseworkers. (Hildebrand, Zur Geschichte der deutschen Wollenindustrie, Hildebrand’s Jahrbücher, vii. p.104.)

6. Schmoller, Die Strassburger Tucher- und Weberzunft, Strassburg 1879, p.460. The word “warp” had the same meaning in Old English as in German. Thomas Sternhold (died 1549) wrote in his Psalmes, 7, “While he doth mischief warp.” Psa. 52, “Such wicked wiles to warp.

7. op. cit., p.115.

8. Compare L. Keller, Die Reformation and die älteren Reform-Parteien, Leipzig 1885, pp.18, 33, 120.

9. Mosheim, Ketzergeschichte, p.380.

10. De Beghardis et Beguinabus Commentaries, Leipzig 1790, p.182.

11. F. Bender, Geschichte der Waldenser, Ulm 1850, p.46 sqq.

12. At the close of the fourteenth century two preachers came to visit the Waldenses of Bohemia from the valleys of Piedmont, where that sect still maintained itself. In his History of the Waldenses, from which we derive this information, Bender gives no definite date; but it was certainly during the reign of Charles I. of Bohemia. The two Italians proved traitors, for they disclosed to the Catholic clergy the spot where the Waldenses used to assemble, and thereby caused a rigorous persecution of their fellow-associates.

13. Compare Palacky, op. cit., iii. 2, p.81. The chief source from which Palacky draws his information concerning the communism of the Taborites is J. Pribram’s Proti knezim Taborskym, a disputation against the Taborite priests, unfortunately existing only in manuscript.

14. Palacky, op. cit., iii. i, p.417 sqq.

15. Quoted by Palacky, op. cit., iii. 2, p.297.

16. Æneas Sylvius, De ortu et historia Bohemorum. Opera omnia, p.109.

17. It is worthy of remark that the Waldenses were also famed for their, zeal in the cause of popular education. The Roman Inquisitor known under the name of Reiner, says of them: “All this people, without exception, men as well as women, are unceasingly engaged in teaching and learning. The labourer who works by day learns and teaches by night; and as they study much, they pray but little. They teach without books ... He who has been learning for seven days looks out for a pupil whom he in turn may teach.” The last statement indicates that they had invented a peculiar method of instruction.

18. Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini, opera omnia, p.662.


Last updated on 23.12.2003