Christ’s communists: the radical religious sect that challenged the Holy Roman Empire

Six centuries ago in Bohemia, a dissenter army led by a one-eyed warrior waged war on the Holy Roman Empire. Tom Holland tells the story of the Taborites, whose creed was to reject money, property… and the Antichrist

Jan Žižka, the general whose peasant army defied the Holy Roman Empire in the 1420s.

There had never been anywhere quite like it. The castle, perched on a spit of rock above the Lužnice river, had been abandoned decades before, and the blackened ruins of the settlement that had once surrounded it were choked by weeds. The rubble had to be cleared, and a new town built from scratch. There was an urgent need of fortifications. The nights were bitterly cold. Yet still the refugees came. All through March 1420, they made the trek, drawn from every class of society, from every corner of Bohemia (a kingdom that’s now part of the Czech Republic). By the end of the month, camped out amid tents and half-built perimeter walls, there were women with their children, in flight from burning villages; tavern-keepers from Prague and peasants armed with flails; knights, clerics, labourers and vagrants. All shared in the common danger – and all shared a common status. Every man was called brother, and every woman sister. There were no hierarchies, no wages, no taxes. New arrivals were obliged to hand over their possessions, which were shared out according to need. Private property was illegal. All debts were forgiven. The poor, it seemed, had inherited the earth.

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The town, the first ever to be founded on quasi-communist principles, was called Tabor by its inhabitants. The name broadcast a defiant message to its enemies. In the Bible, it was recorded that Jesus had climbed a mountain to pray. “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” The site of this miracle had long been identified by scholars with a mountain in Galilee: Tabor. The radiance of the divine had suffused its summit, and heaven had been joined with earth. Now it was happening again. As lords laboured alongside peasants, toiling to provide Tabor with an impregnable screen of fortifications, they were not just constructing a stronghold, but aiming to set the entire world on fresh foundations.

Tabor had no hierarchies, no wages, no taxes. Private property was illegal. All debts were forgiven. The poor, it seemed, had inherited the earth

For centuries, the immense edifice of the Catholic church, too, had stood as a monument to this ambition. It had been raised in defiance of earthly monarchs, and fashioned to serve the needs of all the Christian people. But now the lava of its radicalism had begun to calcify; the papal order had become the status quo.

Nothing, perhaps, was more debilitating to the claims of the Roman church to be the bride of Christ than one enduring abomination: a papal schism. Back in 1378, two rival popes had been elected. The schism proved impossible to heal. In 1409, a council of bishops and university masters, meeting in Pisa, declared both rival popes deposed, and crowned a new candidate – but this, far from delivering Christendom a single pope, had merely left it stuck with three. Small wonder, confronted by such a scandal, that a few bold souls, pushing at the very limits of what it was acceptable to think, began to contemplate a nightmarish possibility: that the papacy, far from holding the keys to the gates of heaven, might in truth be an agent of hell.

The Prague preacher Jan Hus is burned at the stake.
The Prague preacher Jan Hus is burned at the stake. (Image by Bridgeman)

Seduced by earthly glory

It was in Prague that these sparks of subversion had ignited the most explosive reaction. The city had long been a tinder box. The Bohemian nobility chafed at being subject to Holy Roman Emperors who hailed from Germany. Czech-speaking scholars at the university, similarly disadvantaged, nurtured their own mood of resentment.

Meanwhile, out in the slums, the resentment was of the rich. The most popular preachers were those who condemned the wealth of monasteries adorned with gold and sumptuous fittings, and demanded a return to the stern simplicity of the early days of the church. The Christian people, they warned, had taken a desperately wrong turn. The papacy, seduced by the temptations of earthly glory, had forgotten that the gospels spoke most loudly to the poor, to the humble, to the suffering. Only the Antichrist could have wrought such a fateful, such a hellish abomination. So it was, in the streets of Prague, that it had become a common thing to paint the pope wearing the papal crown, but with the feet of a monstrous bird of prey.

One man more than any other served as a lightning rod for the gathering storm. In 1414, when church leaders from across Christendom met in the imperial city of Constance, on the edge of the Swiss Alps, their agenda was peculiarly demanding. As well as the running sore of the papal schism, a second challenge confronted them: the defiant heresy of Prague’s most celebrated preacher. Jan Hus, a scholar of immense charisma, intellectual brilliance and personal integrity, had emerged from the rarefied confines of the city’s university to become the toast of Bohemia. Denouncing both Prague’s church hierarchy and the German-speaking elites who had long been profiting from imperial favour, he helped to bring an already febrile mood to boiling point. The more rapturously his teachings were greeted, the more radical they became. Hus openly scorned the claim of the papacy to a primacy sanctioned by God. It was not only in papal circles that this prompted panic.

The Taborites employed rings of armoured wagons to defend themselves against cavalry attacks, as this c1450 book illustration shows. (Image by AKG Images)
The Taborites employed rings of armoured wagons to defend themselves against cavalry attacks, as this c1450 book illustration shows. (Image by AKG Images)

Particularly alarmed was Sigismund, a ginger-haired veteran of war against the Turks, and a prince of the royal blood, who in 1411 had been proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor-elect. Desperate to secure a compromise that all the various factions in Bohemia could accept, he invited Hus to travel to Constance, and to negotiate directly with the delegates to the council. Hus accepted the invitation. Leaving the castle in Bohemia where he had been sheltering from papal agents, Hus travelled under a safe conduct personally guaranteed by Sigismund. On 3 November 1414, he arrived in Constance. Three weeks later, he was arrested. Put on trial, Hus refused to recant. Sentenced to death as a heretic, he was burned at the stake in July 1415.

Festering resentments

“The time of greatest suffering, prophesied by Christ in his scriptures, the apostles in their letters, the prophets, and Saint John in the Apocalypse, is now at hand; it has begun; it stands at the gates!” wrote one polemicist in 1420. Five years on from the burning of Hus, the Taborites gathered in their rocky stronghold confident that they would soon be seeing him again – and all the risen saints of God. Far from extinguishing the flames of subversion, the Council of Constance had served only to stoke them further. Not even the council’s success in once again installing a single pope on the throne of Saint Peter had been able to redeem its reputation in Bohemia. In the wake of the execution of Hus, denunciations of the papacy as the Antichrist began to be made openly across Prague. Of Sigismund as well – for it was presumed that it was as a result of his treachery that Hus had been delivered up to the flames. Then, in 1419, an attempted crackdown by conservatives precipitated revolt. Hussites, named for the executed preacher, stormed the city hall, flung their opponents out of its windows, and seized control of churches across Prague.

It was out on the mountains, though, that the true revolution was coming to a head. There, when the faithful assembled in flight from their homes, it was in the conviction that Prague was Babylon, an evil and debauched city. Nowhere was this more evident than behind the rising walls of Tabor. Labouring in the mud, mixing mortar, hauling stone, those who had flocked there knew what was approaching. Christ was destined to return within months. All sinners would perish. The reign of the saints would begin. “Only God’s elect were to remain on earth – those who had fled to the mountains.”

A scene from the Hussite Wars
A scene from the Hussite Wars, in which Žižka’s Taborites enjoyed extraordinary success. (Image by Alamy)

The Taborites were hardly the first Christians to believe themselves living in the shadow of Apocalypse. The novelty lay rather in the scale of the crisis that had prompted their imaginings: one in which all the traditional underpinnings of society, all the established frameworks of authority, appeared fatally compromised. Confronted by a church that was the swollen body of the Antichrist, and an emperor guilty of blatant treachery, the Taborites pledged themselves to revolution. It was not enough, though, merely to return to the ideals of the early church: to live equally as brothers and sisters, to share everything in common. The filth of the world beyond Tabor, where those who had chosen not to flee to the mountains still wallowed in corruption, had to be swept away. It was not only emperors and popes whom the Taborites aspired to eliminate. All those who had scorned to redeem themselves from the fallen world were sinners. “Each of the faithful ought to wash his hands in the blood of Christ’s foes,” wrote one chronicler.

Many Hussites, confronted by this brutal refusal to turn the other cheek, were appalled. “Heresy and tyrannical cruelty,” one of them termed it. The summer of 1420, though, was no time for the moderates to stand on their principles. The peril was too great. In May, at the head of a great army of crusaders summoned from across Christendom, Sigismund advanced on Hussite Prague. The Taborites, leaving behind only a skeleton garrison, marched to the city’s relief. At their head rode a general of genius: Jan Žižka, one-eyed and 44 years old. That July, looking to break the besiegers’ attempt to starve Prague into submission, he launched a surprise attack on the crusaders so devastating that Sigismund had no choice but to withdraw.

Blinded by success

Further victories quickly followed. Žižka proved irresistible. Not even the loss in 1421 of his one good eye to an arrow served to handicap him. Innovative and brutal in equal measure, Žižka was the living embodiment of the Taborite revolution. Noblemen on their armoured chargers he met with rings of armoured wagons, hauled from muddy farmyards and manned by peasants equipped with early hand-held firearms; monks he would order burned at the stake, or else personally club to death. Never once did the general meet with defeat. By 1424, when he finally fell sick and died, all of Bohemia was under Taborite rule.

On his sickbed, so his enemies reported, Žižka had ordered the Taborites to flay his corpse, feed his flesh to carrion beasts, and fashion a drum out of his skin. “Then, with this drum in the lead, they should go to war. Their enemies would turn to flight as soon as they heard its voice.” The anecdote was tribute both to Žižka’s fearsome reputation, and to the continuing success of his followers on the battlefield after his death.

Žižka ordered the Taborites to flay his corpse, feed his flesh to carrion beasts, and fashion a drum out of his skin

Yet in truth, the Taborite drum had begun to sound a muffled beat even while Žižka was alive. In the summer of 1420, in the wake of the great victory over Sigismund, it was still possible for the Taborites to believe that Christ’s return was imminent. Readying Prague for this arrival, they systematically targeted symbols of privilege. Monasteries were levelled; the bushy moustaches much favoured by the Bohemian elite forcibly shaved off; the bones of a recently deceased king dug up, and crowned with straw.

As the months and then the years passed, though, and still Christ failed to appear, so the radicalism of the Taborites began to fade. They elected a bishop; negotiated to secure a king; charged the most extreme in their ranks with heresy, and expelled them from Tabor. Well before the abrupt and crushing defeat of the Taborites by a force of more moderate Hussites in 1434, the fire in their movement had been guttering. Christ had not returned. The world had not been purged of kings. Tabor had not, after all, been crowned the New Jerusalem. In 1436, when Hussite ambassadors, achieving a startling first for a supposedly heretical sect, negotiated a concordat directly with the papacy, the Taborites had little choice but to accept it.

Yet even though the fall of Tabor itself in 1452 signalled the final extinction of their movement, the yearnings that had inspired them lived on. The Taborites were certainly not the last to call for the poor to inherit the earth. Three and a half centuries after the Taborites had mockingly crowned the skull of a king with straw, French revolutionaries consigned the corpse of another king, Louis XVI, to a pauper’s grave in Paris. “Woe to you who are rich.” Christ’s words might almost have been the manifesto as well of those who, in 1917, overthrew the Russian government and laboured to establish a paradise on earth.

Marxists, just as the Taborites had done, believed that history was proceeding on an implacable course, and that the hour of salvation was at hand. Contemptuous of religion though Jacobins and Bolsheviks might have been, they were ultimately no less Christian in their inspiration for all that. The spirit of Tabor, long extinguished though it might appear to have been, was in truth very far from dead.

Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, is published by Little, Brown. He will be discussing the influence of Christianity at our 2019 History Weekends in Chester and Winchester.

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This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine