Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 3
The Bohemian Brethern

TABOR had fallen, but it did not disappear without leaving a trace of its existence. This communistic military town had been so brilliant in its achievements, and its operations had been so intimately connected with the wants of some classes of the lower population, that the principles on which it was based necessarily survived, though under changed conditions and in more suitable forms.

The successors of the Taborites were the Bohemian Brethren.

We have already remarked that the communists of the Middle Ages loved peace and abhorred violence; Sentiments which were quite as much in harmony with the helplessness of the poor in that age as with the traditions of primitive Christianity. At the beginning of the Hussite revolution, when the time-honoured authorities were overthrown and the lower classes arose in victorious insurrection, the mass of communists were hurled along with it; and once it had gained momentum, the logic of facts necessarily forced to the summit of power those who were its most advanced and warlike partisans.

But the peace-loving fraction of communists, who condemned all war, violence, and force, did not wholly cease to exist even during the brilliant triumph of the Taborite power. Their foremost representative was Peter of Chelcic - Peter Chelcicky. Born about the year 1390, and, as it would appear, an impoverished knight, he lived in quiet retirement in the village of Chelcic, near Wodnian, one of the Taborite towns, and there produced a series of writings which aroused universal attention. As early as 1420 he had maintained that no violence should be employed in religious matters; and this conviction was strengthened during the wars of the revolution. He branded war as the most horrible of all evil, while in his opinion soldiers were not a hair better than murderers.

Chelcicky was a communist in the primitive Christian sense. But not through war and not by State compulsion should equality be forced upon society; it should be realised as it were behind the back of State and society. The true believer must have no part in the State, for this is sinful and heathenish. Social inequalities such as wealth, standing, and rank were created by the State, and can only disappear with it. The sole Christian method of destroying the State, however, is to ignore it; hence the true believer is forbidden not only to accept a government office, but also to invoke the power of the State. For him police and judges are non-existent. The Christian strives after goodness of his own free will, and must not force others to be good, for God demands that goodness should be voluntary, and all compulsion is an outcome of evil.

For the true Christian there is no place in the State and in society outside of the lowest social strata, who are allowed to obey and serve, but not to command and rule. As the Christian must not rule, so also he is forbidden to accumulate wealth, and for this reason is prohibited from engaging in trade, since this is allied with fraud. Towns, the seats of trade, are a product of evil devised by Cain. He it was who transformed the primitive simplicity of life into deceit, by devising measures and weights, people having previously bartered without measuring or weighing. Chelcicky’s greatest rage, however, was directed against the nobility. [1]

This anarchistic though peaceable communism gained in adherents in proportion to the increase of the general weariness with war, and the defection of the lower classes from the Taborite régime.

After the fall of Tabor the Chelcicky Brethren became the most important of all the sects existing in Bohemia, which were in part composed of the scattered Taboristic elements.

Among the partisans of Peter Chelcicky the most prominent was Brother Gregory, who, although a nobleman, was so impoverished that he was forced to support himself as a journeyman tailor. When some of the old Taborites established a colony in the village of Kunwald, near Seftenberg (a district in which Taboristic views had maintained themselves), they elected Gregory as their head and organiser (1457), to whom it was due that the colonists adopted Chelcicky’s principles, and lived up to them in all respects.

The nature of the first organisation of the Bohemian Brethren is not at all clear, as the later Brothers were ashamed of their communistic origin, and endeavoured to conceal it in every possible way. If, however, we examine the organisation of the later Brotherhood (made clearer by that of the well-known Herrnhuters, which is of cognate character), and if we take into consideration the internal conflicts from which that organisation resulted, we shall obtain the following facts. [2]

Every member of the Brotherhood was, of course, most strictly forbidden to participate in the State Government through the acceptance of any post either in the general or communal departments, or in military service, as well as by any appeal or complaint to the Government.

Complete equality was to prevail in the community; there were to be no poor and no rich. Before being admitted to the community every wealthy person, or member of a privileged class, must relinquish his property and his privileges. No “Brother” was to engage in trade, lend money on interest, or keep an inn. On the other hand, the rules of the fraternity made it obligatory on each member to assist any Brother who might be in want.

Private proprietorship and the separate family were not prohibited. As regards family life, communism displayed itself chiefly in the accentuation of brotherly feeling, the joyous participation in all things by the members, and in efforts to maintain equality so that no one should rise above, or sink below the others. If the right to private property were to be preserved, this state of things would be possible only in conjunction with the prevalence of the strictest discipline, permeating the whole life of the community. Hence, even the most intimate circumstances of family life were not exempt from this discipline.

In marked contrast to the anarchistic theories of Peter Chelcicky which repudiated every act of compulsion as un-Christian and heathenish, the priests and elders exercised a disciplinary power which in modern times would seem intolerable, and the more so as among the Bohemian Brethren there was a particularly prominent exhibition of that gloomy and sullen frame of mind, already pointed out by us as a universal peculiarity of medieval communism. This feature was a natural consequence of the unspeakable misery and wretchedness resulting from the Hussite Wars.

Every kind of amusement and dance was forbidden as a snare laid for believers by the devil. To live, work, and suffer in silence were the sole duties imposed upon the pious Christian. In its observance of the Sabbath, the community was strictly puritanical.

Although private proprietorship and the separate family were not prohibited, celibacy was regarded as a higher and holier state than that of marriage, while poverty and celibacy were required of the clergy. The unmarried members lived in brother-houses and sister-houses (the sexes being kept apart), where they worked and lived in common. We may assume that these establishments were organised similarly to the Beghard houses.

Like the Taborites, the Bohemian Brethren would not tolerate erudition, and regarded learned men as a privileged class. Up to the time of his death in 1473, Brother Gregory cautioned the community against men of learning. On the other hand, the Brethren, like the Taborites, laid great stress on a solid popular education, and moreover devoted themselves enthusiastically to the democratic art of printing from its inception. “Very rarely,” says Gindely (op. cit., i.p.39), “has a Christian sect sent into the world so many writings in its defence.” The number of their works, from their foundation to their almost complete extinction, after the death of Comenius in 1670, is much larger than that of all other contemporary literature combined. They boast of being the first to have the Bible printed in the mother tongue (in Venice), so that in this respect the Bohemians took precedence of all other nations. [3] At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were five printing establishments in Bohemia - one Catholic in Pilsen, one Utraquist in Prague, and three belonging to the Bohemian Brethren in Jungbunzlau, Leitomischl, and Weisswasser respectively. Even these three could not always meet the demands made on them, and occasionally had their books printed in Nurenberg.

Peculiar, but strictly in accord with their severe discipline, was the regulation that no member should write and publish a book without the consent of the community. “No one with us,” says their Church ordinance, “has permission to publish books unless they are previously examined by the other members of the community, and authorised by their unanimous approval.” [4]

Johannes Lasitzki, a Pole, who visited the Brotherhood in 1571, writes as follows in his work, De origine et rebus jestis fratrum Bohemorum: “No book appears without a previous examination by several elders and Church officials, chosen and appointed for the purpose ... It is also the custom not to allow any work to be published in one member’s name only (except under special conditions), but in the name of the whole Brotherhood. Thus each member of the spiritual body gets quite as much honour from the work as any other, and every opportunity is removed for the indulgence of the vain thirst for fame which as a rule titilates the minds of authors, while the writings themselves acquire so much the greater weight and esteem.” [5]

In spite of these regulations what a colossal productivity they exhibited!

It is not surprising that the new community, which included so many former Taboristic elements, should, in spite of its peaceable and submissive character, seem highly suspicious and dangerous to the reigning powers. As early as 1461 a violent persecution broke out against them under Georg von Podiebrad, already known to us as the destroyer of the independence of Tabor. Still administrator of the country in 1452, he was elected King of Bohemia in 1458, after the death of King Ladislaus. One of the first acts of his reign was the persecution of the Bohemian Brethren, which began with the imprisonment of Brother Gregory and other members of the sect. The community in Kunwald was afterwards broken up, and its members driven out, all assemblages being at the same time prohibited.

Comenius tells us that, “through this rigorous inquisition, which was everywhere directed against the Brethren, it came about that most of them, and especially the leaders, were scattered through the woods and mountains, where they were forced to live in caves, which, however, by no means secured them from danger. From this living in caves they were called by their enemies jamnici, or cave-dwellers.” [6]

It is possible that the appellation of jamnici may have originated previous to this persecution. As early as the fourteenth century the Beghard sectaries of Western Germany bore the nickname of “Nookers” (Winkler), on account of the secrecy of their meetings; while in East Germany they were called “Hole-dwellers” (Grubenheimer). The word jamnici (from the Bohemian jama, a hole or cave) is a translation of the German Grubenheimer, and perhaps indicates that the Beghard tradition was active among the Bohemian Brethren. Common people called them Picards as well as jamnici.

With the death of Podiebrad the first persecution came to an end.

The Brethren underwent occasional subsequent persecutions, from which, however, they did not on the whole suffer much. The power of the government was still weak in Bohemia, and the Brethren found influential protectors in individual nobles in towns; for persons of intelligence soon perceived that there was no harm in the enmity to government advocated by this sect, and in their efforts in the direction of equality, but at the same time they recognised how easy it would be to exploit a people who preached the obligation of industry, renunciation, and toleration.

It was in no small measure due to this protection that the community rapidly increased in numbers even during the first severe persecution. Their proselytism was also favoured by the circumstance that, like the Taborites, they proclaimed the greatest tolerance in matters of belief, impossible in other Church organisations which had been instituted for the purpose of dominating the people. At the very first congress of the Brethren, held among the hills of Reichenau, in 1464, to which delegates were sent not only from Bohemia, but even from Moravia, it was decreed that the question of social organisation should take precedence of all others, and that matters of belief should occupy a secondary position.

Thanks to this tolerance, they succeeded in attracting many kindred communities. It made them, however, all the more rigid where differences of a practical nature existed. At the second congress, in Lhota, 1467, which gave the community a definite organisation, just as that at Reichenau had (to use a modern expression) given it a programme, certain delegates from the remnants of the Adamites presented themselves with proposals for a union with the Brotherhood. These proposals were rejected. The communism of the Adamites was too far-reaching; hence only a few members of that sect were admitted, after having abjured their “errors”.

The negotiations for a union with the Waldenses were also broken off, that community having become too opportunist and bourgeois in character. In his tract upon the attitude which should be maintained towards the Romish Church, Brother Gregory writes as follows: - “Certain Waldenses admitted that they had strayed from the paths of their predecessors, and that there existed among them the iniquity of taking money away from the people, amassing wealth, and neglecting the poor; whereas it is certainly opposed to Christian belief that a priest should heap up treasure, since he should employ his own worldly possessions, and even those inherited from his parents, in the giving of alms, and not leave the poor in their necessity,” &c. [7]

But the Bohemian Brethren were destined soon to meet the same fate as the Waldenses.

The puritanism, by means of which the fraternity protested against existing society, and which was the cause of its separation from that society, was, as a matter of fact, an excellent aid to social advancement. We have already pointed out (p.22) how, in spite of many external resemblances, this puritanism differed from the asceticism of primitive Christianity. Although both proclaimed the vanity, nay, the wickedness of life’s pleasures of every kind, yet primitive Christian asceticism was allied with stupid indolence, while, on the contrary, the puritanism of the Reformation was united in its professors with indefatigable and cautious industry. At that time, when capitalised industry on a large scale was not yet developed, and capitalism was only budding, this industrious puritanism was an exceedingly effective means of turning small traders into capitalists. This means became more effective the more the masses of the people yielded to the instinct of a native joy in life connected with the primitive modes of production, which had for their object not sale, but personal consumption; not accumulation, but enjoyment. In addition to the aid derived from their puritanism, the Brethren must have been much favoured from a business point of view by their good popular education,. and especially by the firm cohesion - the solidarity – resulting from their communistic tendencies. This solidarity must have been as great a help to them in business as it has sometimes been to the Jews.

If among the Taborites the spoils of war had produced a condition of opulence (which their communism put an end to), wealth also soon became common among the Bohemian Brethren, as a consequence of their industry, frugality, and thrift, together with their intelligence and the assistance they rendered each other. Actuated by very worldly motives and attracted by their wealth, large numbers from all classes now joined their ranks.

With the increase of opulence, however, many of the older members began to feel fettered by the severe discipline which was enforced. In the interests of equality this discipline allowed no member to be richer than the others, and also forbade the investment of accumulated money in any trade or at interest. Moreover, with the increase of wealth, conflicts sometimes arose regarding property; lawsuits became necessary, and the power of State was needed for the protection of the surplus belonging to individual members.

Thus a more moderate party was gradually formed among the Brethren, which dared not disavow the original precepts of the fraternity, but strove to have those precepts interpreted as merely embodying the ideal of a higher and altogether exceptional sanctity, and not as universally binding principles.

The split between the two parties first showed itself at the end of the seventh decade of the fifteenth century, when two barons and several knights applied for admission to the Brotherhood. The stricter party consented to receive them only on the condition of their relinquishing their property and rank, while the moderate section wished to dispense with this renunciation. The extremists gained the victory, and those alone of the candidates were admitted who acquiesced in all the demands of the community.

Evidence of the influence of the moderate party was furnished in 1480, when admission was granted to a savant named Lukas, to be followed by others. If the acceptance of these members was a success to the moderates, the erudite element in return contributed to the strength of that party. In vain did the strict faction, with the weaver Gregory of Wotic at their head, combat the lukewarmness which was gaining the upper hand. In the synod which was held at Brandeis, on the Adler, in 1491, the moderates gained the day; for it was resolved that, in future, persons of wealth and high standing might be admitted without giving up their riches and rank. They were only to be reminded how easily, without this renunciation, they might forfeit the salvation of their souls. Thus the demand for equality, if not quite cast aside, was now confined merely to holy aspirations.

The pious Brethren also discovered the way to a participation in State government. At the same congress it was agreed: “If through worldly power it should fall to the lot of any Brother to be a judge, juryman, or guildmaster, or to go to the wars; or if he, in combination with others, should have to give his consent to the torture or execution of a criminal, we now declare that these be things to which a repentant person should not hasten of his own good free-will, but rather flee from and avoid. But if he cannot evade them, either by persistent entreaty or by any other means, then shall he yield to the powers that be.” The Brethren, moreover, were not only allowed to take part in criminal prosecutions by the Government, to accept office or fight in the wars if compelled to do so, but they might in future even appeal to the compulsory powers of the State or to the judges; nay, it was permissible to carry on any profitable business, such as inn-keeping or any trade - of course, only in case of necessity.

The stricter party were infuriated by this decree, which cast to the winds the equality, freedom, and brotherhood hitherto existing in the community. They raised an energetic counter-agitation, and succeeded in winning over their Bishop Mathias, of Kunwald, and in intimidating the waverers or urging them onwards. On their compulsion, Mathias soon convened another synod, which annulled the Brandeis decrees and pronounced for an unconditional return to old and fundamental principles.

But the. delight of victory was of short duration. The extremists had won the day, not by internal strength, but by a surprise. At the synod of Reichenau, in 1494, they were again in the minority, and finally recognised that they had lost all prospect of vindicating their views in the community. A division in the Brotherhood was the natural consequence, and the attempt at re-union, in 1496, only led to reciprocal reproaches and to the intensification of the antagonism.

The rigorous section was called the “Smaller Party”. It was inferior in numbers and composed of uneducated peasants and handicraftsmen, and being in antagonism with the needs of social development, languished away. After several of its members had been burnt at the stake in Prague (1527), it vanished from public ken.

The moderate section, on the contrary, strengthened by rich and powerful adherents, with liberty to take part in the State government and utilise it for their own purposes, having, moreover, an organisation in harmony with the requirements of social progress, advanced rapidly in prosperity. In 1500, they already possessed two hundred churches, and, during the sixteenth century they became an important factor in politics and economics. How largely the nobility was represented among them, may be gathered from a petition, presented in 1575 to the Emperor by the nobles of the Brotherhood, and signed by seventeen barons and one hundred and forty-one knights.

Every trace of a communistic origin disappeared, and, as has already been remarked, all communistic traditions were carefully expunged from their literature. Moreover, although they had admitted persons of wealth into their ranks, they now on the other hand went so far as to tolerate mendicity. “As far as possible,” says their Church ordinance of 1609, “we secure our people against beggary”; hence there was no longer an unconditional obligation among the Brethren to help each other.

Gindely says (op. cit., ii. p.312): - “The Bohemian Puritans, nay, even the fanatics who adhered to Peter Chelcicky more than to Huss, and in conformity with Pauline doctrines favoured celibacy, accepted no office, allowed themselves no luxury, tolerated no wealth, put no money out at interest, and abhorred war - these men produced very wealthy capitalists, very honourable husbands, very decorous burgomasters and jurymen, as well as very skilful generals and statesmen.”

Success attended the Brotherhood until the Thirty Years’ War, and the Battle of White Mountain in 1631. This battle, which decided the long struggle between the intractable Bohemian nobility and Hapsburg absolutism, and led to the extinction of the former, the confiscation of their properties and the distribution of these among the Jesuits and sycophants of the Court also brought about the downfall of the Bohemian Brethren, the scanty remnant dragged on a painful existence, until they finally founded an asylum on the Saxon estates of the pietist, Count Zinzendorf (1722).

But neither the communistic enthusiasm of the extremists, nor the worldly wisdom of the moderates long survived among the Herrnhuters. Poor, miserable peasants and handicraftsmen, who had escaped the persecution only by living in the most isolated and uncivilised corners of the land, they had lost all traces of an identity with the original Brotherhood.

In the sixteenth century the Bohemian Brethren ceased to play a part in the history of socialism. In the seventeenth century, they also lost their importance to general history.




1. Compare on this point Jaroslab Goll, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder, II. Peter Chelcicky und seiner Lehre, Prague 1882.

2. A good insight into the later organisation of the Bohemian Brethren can be obtained from the work by J.U. Comenius on the Church history of the Brotherhood, from their Church ordinance of 1609, and from the confession of faith which they presented to King Ferdinand in 1535. These are all contained in the German edition of Kurzgefassten Kirchen-Historie der Böhmischen Brüder, Comenius, Schwabach 1739.

3. Comenius, op. cit., p.57.

4. Comenius, op. cit., p.296.

5. Cited by Comenius, op. cit., p.328.

6. Comenius, op. cit., pp.45, 46.

7. An extract from the Czech original, with German translation, is to be found in Goll’s Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder, Ch.1. Der Verkehr der Brüder mit den Waldensern, Prague 1878, p.98.


Last updated on 23.12.2003