The Hussite Town Tábor

Even though a society based on human dignity, ensuring a fair share of wealth and participation for everyone on matters concerning community has not yet been achieved, this Southern Bohemian town, founded 600 years ago, became an interesting example of the complexity and tenacity of this struggle.

Tábor represents inside of the broad Hussite movements attempt of the most consistent implementation of societal changes, which went far beyond the possibilities and life conditions of the time. In a way, Tábors’s  dreams go beyond our horizon even today. At the same time, as it happens with any other reformers, the Hussites also strived for returning to their roots, to the unspoiled beginnings of the original Christianity.
Early Christianity radicalized and universalized the emancipatory movements of the Jewish religion, including its emphasis on a good practice of an individual and a community. In the concrete life of the early Christian communities, it showed itself in various ways. Women and slaves, members of discriminate classes, have achieved a dignified position. There were institutions established, where they cared for widows and orphans. Those two groups were the two most materially endangered groups in society at the time. Christian communities practiced mutual support – the rich ones organized collections for the poor ones. People there daily shared their food and property. It is sometimes referred to as Christian Communism. The willingness to radically change one’s life was partially influenced by the anticipation of the second coming of Christ – the end of the world. This belief – in the end of the world, which was full of injustice and suffering, when practiced in real solidarity, really created a new world. All in accordance with Jesus’ statement: "God’s Kingdom (ie, The new world) is among yourselves." In Hussite Tábor we can find similarities in motivation for radical movements, and also with similar results.

When Roman Empire adopted Christianity, religion that was persecuted until now, as its state religion, the gradually growing contradiction between daily faith and the ecclesiastical institution, which defines faith by dogma and creates a hierarchy of decision-making instead of charismatic leadership, escalated. The subversive "religion of women and slaves,", as it was ridiculed by Hellenistic intellectuals, became the state-forming religion of dignitaries and the rich. The apparent contradiction between the teachings and practice has been dealt with in different ways.

The growing contradictions between the biblical norm and the real practice of the church, which settled well in secular conditions, provoked repeated attempts of reform. Some movements such as the Franciscans were integrated into the ecclesiastical institution, others, more critical of ecclesiastical and secular conditions, such as the Waldensiens, were severely persecuted. Coincidentally, due to some historical circumstances the first break in the power and ideological monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Christianity broke out in the Czech Kingdom.
The overall atmosphere of the beginning of the fifteenth century in Bohemia was influenced by a number of critical events such as recurrent epidemics of plague, or lack of crops. Ecclesiastical institution started to loose authority as a result of the papal schism and, for a time, the triple papacy. New taxes and levies imposed on people by the Church and the secular authority exacerbated social disparities. In Prague, the clergy, which needed to be well nourished, was about ten percent of the population, and the church was the largest landowner in the country owning about one third of all land.
The knowledge that some reformation was needed was also obvious in the church itself. Some important reform preachers worked in Prague since the middle of the 14th century. The University of Prague became an important center of critical thinking, especially since 1398, when Jan Hus began teaching there. Hus followed teachings of Oxford theologian John Wiclyff. Just like him, he radically criticized the papacy, the wealth of the church, the trade with indulgences, and the moral desolation of the priests. Hus based his critique on the Scripture and also on freedom of conscience. He was able to name accurately the ailments of the time and convince his listeners that, with God’s help, it is possible to change the situation. He saw reformation in the inner transformation of sinners and in a social change. He was particularly convinced that the church should be poor and that no one should be left without resources. While most debates on campus about the rectification of the church and society at the time were conducted in Latin, he addressed common people in his message of hope for change in their language. He did not yet have a press, as Luther had done a hundred years later, so instead he tirelessly preached – first in the Chapel of Bethlehem, which was able to accommodate up to three thousand people, and later, when he had to leave Prague, he started preaching in the open air in the countryside. 

Conflict between himself and the church hierarchy was inevitable. When Hus lost support of King Wenceslas IV due to international pressure, it was decided by the Council of Constance that he would be sentenced to death without the opportunity to defend his teaching. Hus was burned as a heretic on July 6, 1415.  This event caused revolution, because his death outraged, and for a time united, various social classes – all of Hus’s listeners: the like-minded priests, the rural poor, parts of the nobility, and the citizens of Prague.
In 1419, there was the First Defenstiation in Prague, which became a signal for the revolution. During this Defenestration some of New Town councilors died due to disputes over indulgences. Tábor, which was founded as a symbol of new era in 1420, became, along with Prague and some other cities, one of the foundations of the Revolution, and at the same time a laboratory of new social order, where new forms of piety, church practices, and democracy were born. Tábor’s founders also organized life according to their understanding of God’s will. Four Prague Articles represented a joint programme with the Prague Hussites and were abidden in Tábor: free preaching; communion under both kinds expressed by the chalice, which became a symbol of the movement; the prohibition of the secular reign of the clergy, and the punishment of mortal sins, which expressed the equality of all before the law. The town management was in charge of four elected governors.

In the first months of Tábor’s existence people shared property. It became known as the "Hussite communism". The town of Tábor solved decreasing supply of new donations in this model of consumer communism by occupying church land or even by purchasing agricultural land, that was later used for farming.
Tábor became the most important military fortress. Strict military rules required discipline and submission to religious principles from ordinary soldiers as well as the noble ones. The Hussite ability to defeat enemies who were by far stronger opponents by numbers and weapons was legendary. Members of the Hussite troops, including women and youth, were convinced that they were fighting for the right thing and also had a share in decision-making. Their motivation was deeper than that of mercenary troops they fought against. Hussite women also had a very special position during this time: they had full education, they took part in decision making process in the community, and even Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, wrote that rural Hussite women know Bible better than lots of Roman priests.
Political changes were also remarkable. During assembly in Čáslav in 1421, the Hussites proclaimed the Four Articles as a provincial law for Czech Lands and, after rejecting Emperor Sigismund’s claim, established a twenty-member interim government consisting of eight city representatives, seven members of lower nobility and five representatives of  high nobility, with no representation of the church. It was practically equivalent to a creation of a Parliament, a thing unheard of in continental Europe at the time.

Tensions between radical popular currents represented by Tábor gradually grew, as well as between moderate city officials and the nobility, who had already achieved their goals; especially the reduction of the church’s power and the confiscation of part of its property; and sought to end battles and to negotiate with the Roman Church. The disputes culminated in the Battle of Lipany in 1434, when moderate Hussites defeated the radical Hussites. It was not the end of the radical current, but the opportunity to significantly influence further development was lost. The war-torn country was consolidated and a successful agreement with the Council of Basel and King Sigismund has been reached. In 1436, the Compactat was adopted – an agreement on freedom of communion under both kind, which meant recognition of the fact that there are two churches freely side by side in Czech Lands: the Roman Catholic and the Hussite Utraquist.
Even though there have been some compromises in the Hussite movement and the radical Tábor model did not survive, it is clear that without Tábor, the Hussites would not have survived in any form the crusades of old order supporters. However, the people living in Czech Kingdom enjoyed more freedom and equality than in most countries of Europe at the time. For two centuries, Bohemia became a place where new models of church and political life were established.

Later there were some other remarkable events: the elected King George of Poděbrady and his European peace initiative; the Unity of Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) with elected bishops and Jan Amos Komenský – the most famous of them; the Czech Confession – Ecumenical Confession of Faith of 1575, which united Utraquists, Czech Brethren, and Lutherans.
The Czech School of Church History (Amedeo Molnár, etc.) talks about this time as of the "First Reformation", which preceded the world Reformation in a hundred years.

Shortly after the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which was triggered by the second (or third) Prague defenestration in May 1618, a severe re-Catholicization began. It is estimated that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, 80-90% of the Czech Lands inhabitants were non-Catholics. A small part of Czech citizens left their homeland for religious reasons, but others were simply forced to deny their religion. This is the beginning of what we can see now that the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world.

The Hussites did not create a radically new theology, however, they criticized social conditions more relentlessly than later reformers. From those second-wave reformers, Thomas Müntzer was the closest to the radical Hussite movement.  And like him, also Martin Luther saw himself as a successor of the Hussites. Theologians of the Unitas Fratrum were in close contact with reformers from Switzerland. 

Later, the workers’ and communist movement see the radical Hussites as their predecessors. It was mentioned in writings of Engels and Kautsky, and Czech Socialists. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, also declared during establishing the new state that "Tábor is our programme".