B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S



From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century


4. Eckhart, Brethren of the Free Spirit

5. John Wycliffe, The English Peasants’ Rebellion

6. Hus, The Hussite Wars, Tabor


4. Eckhart, Brethren of the Free Spirit

St. Francis is not only the most attractive of all the Christian saints, he is the most attractive of Christians, admired by Buddhists, atheists, completely secular, modern people, Communists, to whom the figure of Christ himself is at best unattractive. Partly this is due to the sentimentalization of the legend of his life and that of his companions in the early days of the order. Many people today who put his statue in their gardens know nothing about him except that he preached a sermon to the birds, wrote a hymn to the sun, and called the donkey his brother. These bits of information are important because they are signs of a revolution of the sensibility — which incidentally was a metaphysical revolution of which certainly St. Francis himself was quite unaware. They stand for a mystical and emotional immediate realization of the unity of being, a notion foreign, in fact antagonistic, to the main Judeo-Christian tradition.

“I am that I am” — the God of Judaism is the only self-sufficient being. All the reality that we can know is contingent, created out of nothing, and hence of an inferior order of reality. Faced with the “utterly other,” the contingent soul can finally only respond with fear and trembling.

If God is immanent in the world and if the unknowable Trinity has in its Second Person become the comrade of man, the world is charged through and through with joy. “And honde by honde then shulle us take / And joy and bliss shulle we mak / For the Devil of Hell man haght forsak / And Christ Our Lord is made our mate,” as it says in the Middle English poem by some anonymous Franciscan. This is not a matter of doctrine. The Alexandrian and the scholastic philosophers of the Church had worked out a sensible relationship of the deity to the world. It is a matter of religious sensibility.

Many others before him had called for a return to the life of the historical Jesus and his companions, but no one before St. Francis had preached that life, both the life of Christ and the Christ-like life, as one of intense abiding joy. When late in his own life St. Francis, entranced in prayer, was to be marked on the hands and feet and side with the stigmata, the wounds of the crucifixion, it was during a transport of pure joy.

Had St. Francis been a philosopher or preacher, and simply taught the virtues of a life made new, he would have been only another out of so many, and his words would have been subject to dispute, modification, or denial. But he lived the new life, more intensely than anyone else and with an always manifest joy, and he gathered a band of companions who shared and also manifested that life.

It would seem to have been the sheerest accident that the Church accepted him and the pope permitted the foundation of his order. There were other little bands of poor men trying to live the life of the Gospels in the same years but they were condemned. Had Peter Waldo encountered only slightly more sympathetic officials in the hierarchy of the Church he might have superseded St. Francis. Certainly his original message was a much safer one.

The Church permitted the establishment of the Franciscan order because it met an immediate need. Heretical movements were springing up everywhere at the end of the twelfth century; and the old monastic organization, although it had undergone two drastic reforms, could not meet the need of which these movements were a symptom. Not only had Benedictine monasticism become wealthy and its abbots part of the power structure, but its relationship to society had become reversed, centripetal. The secular world existed for it, not it for the world. Franciscanism was dynamically centrifugal, outgoing, to use the contemporary slang, as of course had been the Gospel itself.

Central to the evangelism of St. Francis was his notion of poverty as a virtue. He began his religious career by giving away literally everything he had, clothing himself in a ragged robe and preaching to the poor. Poverty had been a form of ascetic penance like fasting, a disciplining of the soul. To the hermit in the desert the point of poverty was that it was painful. To St. Francis it was a joyful way to live.

To the first great Franciscan theologian and philosopher, St. Bonaventure, the virtue of poverty was secondary, as a means to the primary virtue of charity. To St. Francis poverty was the condition of interior perfection. It was the pure, transparent glass, unclouded by the distractions of possession, through which the soul can see God, not darkly, but face to face. In Giotto’s great mural St. Francis marries Poverty, the handmaid of the Lord. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” The Virgin Mary was the handmaid of the Lord and in the mystical Franciscanism of St. Francis and the later Franciscan Spirituals poverty came to mean the perfect receptivity of the soul to God — “be it done unto me according to thy word.”

This is a very inflammatory evangel to preach to the poor and does anything but make them content with their lot. The powers of State and Church were self-evidently sunk in opulence and luxury and always greedy for more — which could of course come only from the labor of the poor. Although the Christianity of St. Francis might be called immediate Christianity, Christianity without eschatology, without apocalypse, it did in fact internalize the eschatology of the Gospels. The Last Things were now in the immediate relationship of man to man and man to God. So his audience could form a simple, if logically frail conclusion. If the saving remnant were poor, the poor were the saving remnant. Around the unity of being in the joy of revelation, a unity made possible by virtue of poverty, and reinforced by community, would revolve the heretical movements of three hundred years.

When he founded his order St. Francis had envisaged a little band of utterly devoted comrades, a group small enough for perfect communion, agreement of principle, and identity of aim. There were only twelve brothers when Pope Innocent III approved the order and its first rule in 1209. Ten years later it had spread all over Europe and to the Holy Land. The whole body no longer met at the tiny Church of the Portiuncula at Assisi, but were represented by delegates, central administrative officials, and provincial authorities. But the original gospel of St. Francis was incompatible with delegated authority and long before the death of the founder, powerful factions had begun to advocate change in the original principles. The Order of Friars Minor was repeating the history of Christianity itself.

One of the commonest clichés of American politicians and businessmen is “I just model my life on the Sermon on the Mount,” something they obviously have never read. The Sermon on the Mount and the original gospel of St. Francis represent an etherealized and internalized apocalypticism, an eschatological ethic. It has been called an impossibilist ethic, and so it is in the sense that no social order since the invention of organized religion and politics could stand if it were put into practice.

St. Francis was aware of what had happened and as he was dying he wrote a testament insisting on the preservation of the literal principles of the original rule and forbidding any appeal to the pope to change them. But the order had ceased to be a comradeship of poverty and joy, a communion, and had become an institution, spread to the farthest reaches of the Western world and one of the principal bulwarks of the papacy and of the power structure of the Church. He was no sooner dead than the order did appeal to the pope and his testament was set aside and poverty was defined in purely symbolic, legalistic terms. The order was permitted to use property through trustees appointed by the pope. Then began a struggle which would last for two generations within the order, and then be continued outside of it, and finally outside of the Church, to restore the original life of mystical poverty.

The faction that wished to restore obedience to St. Francis’s original rule and testament were known as Zealots or Spirituals. They were probably never more than a sizable minority in the order. The majority were moderates or Conventuals who stood between them and the faction, originally led by Elias of Cortona, who wished to change the order into just another monastic institution with rank, power, and great properties. The struggle would not be resolved until John XXII permitted the formation of the Observants, who were allowed to practice a modified poverty, a poor and scanty use of property. Meanwhile many of the Spirituals were driven deeper and deeper into antagonism to the main body of the order and finally into a separate movement, the Fraticelli, who were condemned as heretics.

Since they were unable to win over a majority of the order, the Spirituals early began to appeal to the laity, and to form third-order groups owing allegiance solely to them. The popular influence of the Spirituals grew as the Conventuals became more and more worldly and finally corrupt. By Chaucer’s time the order of Friars Minor was thought of as being corrupt, as having failed to practice its promise to society, and it had thus become a common butt of satire. The lay followers of the Spirituals seem to have been most common in Provence where they were gathered in small organized communities and where they were first called Béguines. The term was probably derived from the Albigenses, and the memory of the older heresy and the destruction of Provençal culture and the Crusade against it certainly contributed to the growth of the movement.

In the meantime a new and explosive ingredient had entered into the ideology of the Spirituals and their followers. Administratively cornered and hopeless of changing the establishment, they turned to apocalypticism.

In the previous century Joachim of Fiore (c. 1132-1202), a Cistercian abbot, had written a series of expositions of the apocalyptic books of the Bible. He divided the history of humanity into three periods: the age of the Father, under Jewish Law; of the Son, under the Gospel; and the coming age of the Holy Spirit, when all law would pass away, because all men, immersed in contemplation, would act only according to the will of God, a kind of utopia of contemplative monks, the everlasting Gospel of an everlasting Sabbath. This rather simple picture was enormously elaborated by an immense pseudonymous literature attributed to Joachim and written mostly by Spirituals.

The convergence of the Christ-like life of St. Francis and the apocalypticism of Joachim was like the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. Before St. Francis, and in the established Church after him, the historical Jesus played little role in medieval religion. Christ was a ritualized figure only briefly human in the crib at Christmas and on the cross on Good Friday. Spiritual Franciscanism, like all the movements which would descend from it, was intensely evangelical and it was made possible by the growth of literacy, specifically through the reading of the Bible and devotional literature in the vernacular. Poverty was the central issue in the struggle with the order and the papacy. To the Spirituals poverty was not only the life of Christ and his apostles, and the joy and innocence of St. Francis; it was a foretaste of the bliss of the kingdom that would come at the end of apocalypse. St. Francis and later Peter John Olivi, a Franciscan commentator on the Book of Revelation, became actual figures of the apocalypse: St. Francis, the Angel of the Sixth Seal, Oliver the Angel with the Face like the Sun. When the papacy condemned first the doctrine that Christ and the apostles lived in absolute poverty, then that which said poverty was essential to the Franciscan rule, and then the Spirituals as such, the pope became Antichrist.

The Spirituals, the Béguines of Provence, and the Fraticelli did not believe that Christ and the apostles held their goods in common; they believed they held none. The poverty of these mendicant Franciscans thus was absolute. They lived from day to day by begging. Since the injunction to poverty in the rule was obviously the foundation stone of the order, John XXII was patently wrong and so the pope could err. This was one of the most important and enduring results of the controversy.

The use of wealth held from the pope by trustees for the order appointed by him meant he had at his disposal the credit of a reserve fund of immense wealth, and in its exile at Avignon the papacy was continuously borrowing money. In his final bull on the controversy John XXII broke the connection within the Church and the Gospel and promulgated the doctrine of the sanctity of property as such. The Church was ranged on the side of property and power, lordship, explicitly in so many words, as had never been done before. In the course of the argument between John XXII and the philosopher William of Occam, and the expelled head of the order, Michael of Cesena, originally a Conventual, the disputants raised some fundamental questions. If the use but not the ownership of property was permitted, what about money? What about the bag of Judas? The disputants struck close to the meaning of money, property as such in its pure form. Again, if property is evil, whoever holds property and permits its use is to that extent un-Christian. The users are parasitic and guilty of complicity. Therefore a truly Christian society would abolish property altogether. By standing against the creation of a religious order devoted to total poverty and self-sacrifice, evangelism, the growing popularity of mysticism, and the laity’s demand for community life devoted to such objectives, the Church had locked itself into an impasse.

The continuous papal suppressions and the prohibition of the formation of any new religious order by the Fourth Lateran Council had the effect of smashing globules of quicksilver and resulted in the metastasis of mystical communities of laymen free of ecclesiastical control or even knowledge throughout society. Communities and meetings became entirely secret and their beliefs occult. The Béguine communities spread over Europe, but especially along the Rhine and in northern France, where the women were known as Béguines and the men as Béghards. Many of these were communities of lay people who wished to live together and devote their lives to prayer, contemplation, common labor, and begging. Some became simply poorhouses, others conventicles of mystical piety, but all through them, moving like the cells of a new growth, were the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

The doctrines of the Brethren of the Free Spirit go back to the heresies of the first century of Christianity. By mystical contemplation, they taught, man can become united with God, so united he is God, and therefore rises above all laws, churches and rites made by God for common man, and can do whatever he wishes. United with God it is impossible for the mystic to sin, therefore he can do whatever he wants. Theft, lying, especially sexual license, are permitted; prayer and all religious observances are useless. This is a kind of mirror image in a clouded and distorting glass of the morality and ethics of mysticism, and it is not peculiar to Christianity. At the same time, Sufis preaching the same doctrine were being persecuted and crucified in Persia. Hinduism, Buddhism, contemporary American Zen have all produced the same distortion.

It was easy for the Brethren of the Free Spirit to quote texts like St. Augustine’s “Love and do what you will” and St. Paul’s “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 2:17), and the mystical theology of the great Rhenish mystics Meister Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. In addition there was the occult, erotic mysticism of the spiritual alchemists. Arnold of Villanova and other leaders of the new spirituality were alchemists.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit did not set themselves up as an organized movement but functioned as a diffused body of esoterics, content to operate within the Church and the movement of lay mystical communities. They left few records behind except in the charges of their enemies and in testimony elicited under torture in their trials. From the Gnostics to the Mormons, the Church has always accused those she considers heretics of being guilty of orgies of unbridled sexuality. The Brethren of the Free Spirit seem to have actually indulged in such practices; the testimony is unanimous and this aspect is always central. It is impossible to tell whether these orgies were simply pastimes or rites in a cult of erotic mysticism. They seem to have been extremely common.

For a century popes, bishops, and inquisitors were busy condemning them and hunting them down. They managed to exist in the allegedly closed society of the later Middle Ages because in fact it was not all that closed. In the incoherent, unpoliced cities of the Rhineland and the Netherlands it was easy for a community to take over a house and pretend to be a legitimate association of pious laymen devoted to prayer, Scripture-reading, and work. The only danger was from informers, and once an informer was admitted under vows to what the Church considered diabolism he was at least guilty of complicity.

This was the principal problem facing the Church, separating the wheat from the tares. The fifteenth century witnessed a tremendous growth of religious associations and communities outside the regular religious orders. If the Church had not tolerated them, there would have been, as there was eventually, wholesale revolt. As the life and preaching of St. Francis had represented an alteration in the sensibility, so the new communities represented another. This sensibility was given literary and theological form in the writings of the Rhenish mystics, all of whom, at one time or another, came in conflict with the Church and had propositions drawn from their teachings condemned. Nor has any of them ever been granted the title of saint and only two are “blessed”; and though greatly popular, they are even today still only tolerated. The doctor of the new mysticism was Meister Eckhart.

Parallel with the growth of scholastic philosophy the Church had developed orthodox, systematic, mystical theology. Beginning with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090-1153), the relentless opponent of Abélard, continuing through Hugh and Richard of the Paris monastery of St. Victor, to the Franciscan St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), the great mystical doctors of the Church had resisted the steady Aristotelianization, actually secularization, of the scholastic philosophers. Their roots were in the neo-Platonism of St. Augustine, the visionary writings attributed to St. Paul’s disciple Dionysius the Areopagite, and to John Scotus Erigena, the latter’s neo-Platonic disciple and translator, who lived in the time just after Charlemagne.

All had striven to resolve the dilemma posed by the mystical experience. That experience carries with it its own conviction of unquestionable reality. The mystic in his realization of God feels the indisputable power of empiric fact. Christian doctrine says that God created the world out of nothing. Man is utterly contingent, God utterly omnipotent and self-sufficient. How can any experience bridge this gap? In one way or another all the great orthodox mystics dismiss this ultimate problem of knowledge by making the knowledge of God in the soul primary. The knowledge of the reality of the world stems from it. As St. Bonaventure describes the ascent of the soul to God by love through the ladder of creatures, at the end the soul discovers that the last rung was the first, the scintilla animae, the spark of God in the soul which itself is not only the faculty of mystical knowledge but partakes directly of the divine Being. This process is only given a more emotional and intensely devotional tone by the impassioned rhetoric of St. Bonaventure. It is basic and explicit in the epistemology of Richard of St. Victor and more or less implicit in St. Bernard. Of course, it also goes back to Plato himself and is the subject of his dialogue with Phaedo. It is knowledge of God which enables knowledge of ideas. This central tradition of mystical theology was never to have its orthodoxy questioned because it always seemed to operate within the context of developing scholasticism. But the true situation was quite the other way around. Its exponents had a purely Christian tradition, or at least so everyone thought, on their side, whereas the Aristotelianizers had to defend their introduction of pagan and Arabic secular philosophy. So even St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were placed on the defensive.

Behind Meister Eckhart and his descendants lay another tradition peculiar to the Rhineland. Beginning with St. Hildegard of Bingen in the early twelfth century, and Elizabeth of Schönau, Elizabeth of Hungary, Countess of Thuringia in the thirteenth century and Mechthild of Magdeburg, this tradition was carried on by women, and was characterized by visionary experiences, emotionalism, erotic imagery, and passionate criticism of the abuses of the Church and the corruption of the papacy. Most of them wrote in the vernacular and are numbered amongst the most important of the founders of German literature. To judge from the visions from which she made paintings, St. Hildegard suffered from migraine and saw the intense light patterns which are symptomatic of that affliction. As her descendants, all these women give special prominence to the light mysticism which goes back through St. Bonaventure at least to the first-century Jewish neo-Platonist Philo, and which well may be based on constantly recurring visions of light which are the aura of the mystical experience itself. St. Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead is one of the most beautiful works in the German language. Saturated with light mysticism and erotic symbolism, her poems, with only slight alteration, could be turned into songs of the most extreme romantic love.

The older mystical theology had grown up in the monasteries amongst learned and contemplative men. Rhenish mysticism flourished in the Béguinages and other semi-monastic communities of devout women associated in poverty, work, prayer, and meditation. Its teachers were just over the edge of orthodoxy from the least heretical of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The testimony of the often patently insane and unfortunate enthusiasts trapped and tortured by the Inquisition is, to put it mildly, highly suspect. Even in the records of trials we have only one case in which a house of Béguines was given over to sexual orgies, that of the so-called Sisters of Schweydnitz. It was probably true, but it reads like the assembly-belt productions of modern pornography. Often the inquisitors seem to have been engaged in a war against women. One of the Béguines’ constantly reiterated “crimes” is the performance of the rites of the Church in their chapels and confession to each other, practices forbidden to women.

There is, in fact, only one questionable document of the entire movement of Béguine mysticism, presumably influenced by the heresy of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Margaret of Parete was tried and burned in Paris in 1311 and accused of teaching that when the soul was consumed with the love of God it partook of God’s being and could do anything that the sensual body desired. In recent years the manuscript of her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, has been discovered and printed. As would be true of Meister Eckhart and his successors the interpretation by the Inquisition is based on an equivocation. She taught that at the seventh stage of the illumination, the culmination of a process of seven stages which goes back in mystical literature to the very earliest time and is described in perfectly orthodox fashion, the soul becomes united with God. By His grace it is freed from sin. It realizes the whole Trinity and loses its own identity, and so it ceases to be able to sin. It lives from then on entirely in the love of God as one of the seraphim. It needs no Church, priesthood, or book. Its knowledge is direct participation in God’s knowledge. It cannot sin because its will is God’s will; poverty, prayer, sacraments, asceticism, penances, fasts, become of no importance to the soul, lost in God, where deprivations and symbols can have no existence. The soul uses them only to pay an indifferent tribute to nature, to the world, and to the religious community.

It is easy to see how just the slightest shift of emphasis could change this teaching to a justification of the immoralism attributed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, or of the hysteria which was later to break loose in the revolutionary commune of the Münster Anabaptists. But in Margaret of Parete the emphasis lies the other way, as it does wherever we have bona fide documentation by the heretical mystics themselves. Of course from the point of view of the Catholic Church she is heretical enough.

Margaret of Parete was burned and soon forgotten. But the influence of Meister Eckhart is stronger today than it has been in hundreds of years. Eckhart met the problems of contingency and omnipotence, creator-and-creature-from-nothing by making God the only reality and the presence or imprint of God upon nothing, the source of reality in the creature. Reality in other words was a hierarchically structured participation of the creature in the creator. From the point of view of the creature this process could be reversed. If creatureliness is real, God becomes the Divine Nothing. God is not, as in scholasticism, the final subject of all predicates. He is being as unpredicable. The existence of the creature, in so far as it exists, is the existence of God, and the creature’s experience of God is therefore in the final analysis equally unpredicable. Neither can even be described; both can only be indicated. We can only point at reality, our own or God’s. The soul comes to the realization of God by knowledge, not as in the older Christian mysticism by love. Love is the garment of knowledge. The soul first trains itself by systematic unknowing until at last it confronts the only reality, the only knowledge, God manifest in itself. The soul can say nothing about this experience in the sense of defining it. It can only reveal it to others.

This is the neo-platonic way of negation taught by St. Augustine. But the neo-platonic deity lies beyond reality and cannot be said to exist in the same sense. Eckhart, so often accused of dualism, is actually an extreme monist, yet there is a subtle difference between his theory of being and the pantheism of someone like Spinoza. Since reality for Eckhart is dense, there is no gap between the internal process of God, the Trinity, and the world of his creation. The Godhead engenders the Son at the same time or in the same moment of eternity as the creation of the world. So far with a little training Eckhart’s teaching can be adjusted to orthodoxy, but the co-eternity of the Son and the world, his critics were quick to point out, is heresy.

“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John, “and all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made.” The begetting of the Word is a dual process — internal and external — God’s knowledge of himself and the creation by Knowledge, the Logos, of the world. Creation is the garment of the uncreate.

Although in his Latin treatises Eckhart is rigorously intellectualistic — the soul ascends to God by knowledge, or rather, realizes God in the inmost recesses of self, and being, both absolute and contingent, is equated with knowing — in his popular sermons in German, preached mostly to Dominican nuns and congregations of Béguines, he adopts the long familiar language of the theology of the heart. “The soul,” he said, “to become the bride of God, must become in all things womanly, a virgin wife, free of all attachment, so that it can conceive Jesus in the soul and bring forth fruit.” The union of love is total and has its end only in itself. Love is not desire striving to satisfy a want; but it is the fullness of being shared by the soul in God. Prayer, good works, alms, are worthless unless they flow from a will completely consumed with the love of God and totally submissive to his will. Where Eckhart thought it was appropriate to his audience that he discuss his theology in terms of willing rather than knowing he was perfectly willing to do so. It is from his popular sermons that much of the later passionate mysticism of his descendants stems, to culminate in the spiritual nuptials of Ruysbroeck.

What is the primary datum of Eckhart’s knowledge of existence? It is the unpredictable, indescribable religious experience itself, a transcendental Cogito ergo sum, the Jehovah that said his name was “I am that I am.” As has been pointed out in recent years, if the word “God” with all its excess baggage, and what Whitehead called “metaphysical complements,” is abandoned as misleading, Eckhart’s mysticism is practically indistinguishable from the pure religious empiricism of Buddhism; and philosophically from the soul, the Atman, as perspective participation in Brahman, the ground of being, of the Upanishads and Vedanta; and from the Sufism of ibn-Arabi.

Each soul is in its final recesses a spark of the Uncreated Light, the source, the spring, from which all reality flows and which it can reach by contemplation. Here is the beginning of a doctrine of the Inner Light which would be characteristic of the mystical sects from this time on, and which is central to the theology of Quakerism. From Eckhart also descends the practical aspect — Quietism. The religious experience is one of ever-increasing stillness. “Stand in awe and sin not; commune within your own heart in your chamber and be still.”

Eckhart’s mysticism sounds like a very lonely business — one would think that it would dissolve not only the Church and its cult, but all communal religious experience altogether. On the contrary, it set in train a widespread development of the community life. The Friends of God, the Brotherhood of the Common Life, and similar groups of both priests and laymen spread rapidly over the Rhineland, the Low Countries, Western Germany, and Bohemia. It was as though the Church were developing antibodies as orthodox as prolific to combat the infection of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Of course the teaching of Eckhart was not orthodox at all. It was only adjusted to orthodoxy where possible.

Toward the end of his life the archbishop of Cologne took proceedings against him. He appealed to Pope John XXII and in 1329, two years after his death, twenty-eight of his propositions were condemned. Once again we find John XXII, the worst of the popes, standing against the demands of the most devout of the Christian communities for a richer spiritual life than could be provided by the decadent medieval establishment.


5. John Wycliffe, The English Peasants’ Rebellion

Each of Eckhart’s descendants, Johann Tauler, Henry Suso, Jan van Ruysbroeck, strove to adjust his mystical theology to strict orthodoxy but none of them succeeded. Even Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, the most popular devotional manual ever written in the West, and the only universally known exposition of the religious sensibility of the Brethren of the Common Life, is to this day not accepted without qualification by Roman Catholics. Tauler was to have a great influence on Luther, who was to popularize the Theologica Germanica, a collection written or edited by an unknown disciple of Tauler’s. By the time we get to Nicholas of Cusa the tradition has become completely divorced from and antagonistic to medieval philosophy. Nicholas of Cusa’s Of Learned Ignorance is Eckhart reinterpreted in Renaissance terms. With Jakob Boehme’s (1575-1624) complex theosophy we have moved into a world entirely foreign to Catholicism and Lutheranism.

To this day, Quakers and Mennonites and similar groups insist that they are neither Catholic nor Protestant, but belong to an older church that goes back to the life of the apostles and that emerges again in history in the two centuries before Luther. This is true. We should think of this great wave of spirituality in Northern Europe not as something new, but as the rediscovery of something old; not as a body of doctrinal, mystical theology, and least of all in terms of the sensational episodes of the history of its struggle with the pope and the Church, but as a way of life. In every city there were little groups of people meeting together in one another’s homes, or in large rooms barren of decorations and images, living together in communes in town houses or in seclusion in the country. Most of them still went to Mass on Sundays and to confession at Easter. But their religious life was centered on their own meetings, where they sat quietly listening to the readings of the Scriptures and their exposition, praying together spontaneously or sitting quietly waiting for the Inner Light, the movement of the Spirit. Behind all the conflicts and controversies, persecutions, trials, burnings, and wars, this way of life would go on. The apocalyptic men and the apocalyptic events would rise up, flourish in the melodramas of history, and then pass away, to be absorbed in the quiet life of the apostolic communities.

By the middle of the fourteenth century the tensions generated by the profound economic and social changes of the ending of the Middle Ages were becoming unbearable, yet the shell of the old way of life grew ever tighter and harder. The objective situation grew steadily worse. England was convulsed with the War of Roses, an internecine struggle of the aristocracy over the control of the wool trade. There were peasant revolts everywhere. The papacy was in captivity in Avignon to the French king. Eventually there would be two popes, each claiming the throne, and finally three. Rome was left to decay and Italy was overrun with warring armies of Guelphs and Ghibellines, papalists and imperialists. In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death struck Europe and killed off a third or more of the population. The resulting economic and social dislocation, especially the rise in prices and the scarcity of labor, accelerated the breakdown of the feudal system. Meanwhile the new empire of the Ottoman Turks was spreading steadily up the Balkan peninsula until at last it would reach the walls of Vienna, control the Mediterranean Sea, and threaten to overwhelm Christendom. From the Black Death to the end of the Thirty-Years War, three hundred years, Western Europe would be in continuous turmoil.

The first explosion occurred in Bohemia, with the preaching of John Hus (c. 1369-1415), his burning by the Council of Constance, the growth of a schismatic Bohemian Church, and the Hussite Wars. Except for the Albigensian crusade, religious conflict had been local, even individual. In Bohemia it became a national movement involving large-scale military conflicts, and here for the first time religious communism ceased to be a matter of small, often clandestine, intentional communities and came to involve whole towns and territories.

Since John Hus was charged by the Council of Constance with preaching doctrines of the English heretic John Wycliffe, we should first go back and discuss Wycliffe, even though the accusations of the Council were unjust. John Wycliffe (c. 1329-1384) was the first of the Reformation leaders rather than the last of the medieval heretics. He spoke to the entire English nation, not to an obscure clandestine sect. Although he began as a philosopher and theologian, his concerns finally became largely political. He was not a personal leader but a preacher and writer. He claimed no special revelation and preached no apocalypse. His revolutionary ideas were developed rationally from the accepted terms of scholastic realism. Most of his active life was spent as master of Balliol College at Oxford and after he was expelled, or rather, after he retired to his parish at Lutterworth, he continued to write and publish and died in full communion with the Church. He was by no means a spokesman for social revolution, although his followers and popularizers of his ideas, the Lollards, were blamed for the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381. He was himself the spokesman, not of the poor or the working class, but of the great magnates, the lords, the king, and the State power against the Church. Although many of his ideas became part of the creed of Protestantism, they have little to do with the apocalyptic and communal movements that challenged the power of both State and Church and strove to establish a society modeled on the community of the apostles.

For Wycliffe the Bible was the sole authority in all matters religious or secular. He held a peculiar notion, derived from his extreme scholastic realism, of the Bible as the earthly embodiment of the uncreated word of God, an eternal Bible in heaven which reflected as in a mirror the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Word. This is a Muslim idea, the uncreated Koran, and appears in Wycliffe for the first time in the West. Although it ceased to be held in so extreme a form, this notion does go far to explain the bibliolatry of English Protestantism. Wycliffe too was responsible for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Its effect was such that the Church forbade unauthorized bibles in English and eventually, for a time, the private possession of vernacular bibles of any sort.

Wycliffe believed that the Church should be completely subject to the State and should be disendowed by force of the temporal power and should then have no temporal, or even religious, possessions, much less temporal power. The religious orders should be abolished. All ministers and priests should preach. Preaching was more important than Mass. There was no scriptural authority for Mass as a sacrifice in which Christ was present sacramentally. Oral confession was unnecessary. The sacraments were invalid if administered by a priest in mortal sin, and so too was the authority of the hierarchy. No sinful pope should be obeyed. Since according to Wycliffe the clergy generally were in mortal sin by definition, the entire structure of the Church fell to the ground.

Wycliffe’s preaching of disendowment took a strictly practical turn. In a petition to Parliament his followers pointed out that if the Church were deprived of its property and reduced to evangelical poverty it would be possible to finance fifteen new earldoms, fifteen thousand knighthoods, fifteen universities, one hundred almshouses, and fifteen thousand new ministers of the Gospel, with twenty thousand pounds left over for the royal treasury. This was a theology ready to the hand of Henry VIII. It was hardly a movement of folk mysticism or spirituality, but the beginning of a struggle for power between the two ruling classes of the Middle Ages.

Wycliffe by no means condemned secular wealth. “Secular men may have worldly goods enough without number . . . so that they get them truly, and spend them to God’s honor, and the furthering of truth, and help of their Christian brethren, and that they suffer not Antichrist’s clerks to destroy secular lordships, and rob their tenants feigned jurisdiction of Antichrist.” The property of the king, the great lords, and the wool barons and merchants has become holy, and the pope, archbishops, and abbots Antichrist. Directly over the question of the new form of property Wycliffe was historically correct — England would owe its great leap forward in the development of capitalism to Henry VIII’s secularization of the wealth of the Church.

Wycliffe was too early on the scene, however. The State and the great lords were not prepared to embark on so revolutionary a program. The Holy Inquisition had been banned from England and the English Church was more independent of the pope than most, especially during the Avignon papacy when the pope seemed to most Englishmen a vassal of the French king. After the Peasants’ Rebellion and Wycliffe’s death, his followers, the Lollards, were increasingly persecuted. The State eventually established its own inquisition. As literacy in the movement declined, popular Lollardry came to appeal more and more to a decision by force, postponed of course until a time when the Lollards themselves had sufficient power. And so they became directly subversive, not because they were apocalyptics, struggling for the millennial kingdom, but because they demanded a political revolution in the relations of Church and State. This is the first pre-Reformation movement of which this is true, and it in part accounts for the political character assumed immediately by the Hussite revolt in Bohemia. Lollardry went on all through the Wars of the Roses, always providing the throne with a ready-made justification for economic attacks upon the Church.

Amongst the Lollards, as is the case with any such movement, there were more extreme radicals. It is true that once in all his writings Wycliffe had briefly justified a communist society. He had said first in his De Civili Dominio: “All good things of God ought to be in common. The proof is as follows: every man ought to be in a state of grace. If he is in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all it contains. Therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But because of the multitudes of men this will not happen unless they hold all things in common.” But this is in Latin and in a learned treatise, and Wycliffe immediately went on to say that history since the sin of Adam had led to authority and the unequal distribution of wealth in which all good Christians should acquiesce, as long as it is in the hands of laymen. This is the standard orthodox treatment. If all men were in a state of grace, wealth and poverty would not exist.

The English Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 began as a spontaneous eruption in Essex, a mass protest of yeomen against increasingly heavy taxes, and what today would be called deflationary measures with which the State was attempting to overcome the high wages and inflation which had resulted from the Black Death a generation before. The peasants were revolting against the attempts of the nobles to destroy the feudal status of the yeoman and reduce him to a serf. The rebels elected Wat Tyler as their leader and he appointed Jack Straw his chief lieutenant. As the revolt spread they captured towns and castles in Essex and Kent and eventually took over London. It was not until they sacked the archbishop’s palace and liberated the prisoners in the episcopal prison that they liberated John Ball, called a Lollard, but more likely a millenarian heretic of the old style. William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball has made Ball famous and given him a greater role in the revolt than in fact he actually had.

The official demands of the peasants presented to the king were simple and practical enough. In essence they were demanding the abolition of feudal dues and obligations and the substitution of wage labor and the drastic reduction of taxes. That they were not inspired by Wycliffites is shown by their sacking and burning of the great palace in Savoy of John of Gaunt, long the patron of Wycliffe.

John Ball on the other hand is famous for his distich, “When Adam dalf and Eve span, Who was then a gentilman?” The historian Jean Froissart quotes what he says was a typical sermon of John Ball’s, delivered before the insurrection and for which he had been put in prison:

Ah, yes good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villages nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right. Let us go to the king, he is young, and shew him what servage we be in, and shew him how we will have it otherwise, or else we will provide us of some remedy; and if we go together, all manner of people that be now in any bondage will follow us to the intent to be made free; and when the king seeth us, we shall have some remedy, either by fairness or otherwise.

Thomas Walsingham in his Chronicle quotes a sermon of Ball’s — in indirect discourse:

In the beginning all human beings were created free and equal. Evil men by an unjust oppression first introduced serfdom against the will of God. Now is the time given by God when the common people could, if they only would, cast off the yoke they have borne so long and win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the scriptures who gathered the wheat into his barn, and uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for the harvest time was come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers. They must all be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community of the future. Then, once the great ones had been cut off, men would all enjoy equal freedom, rank, and power, and share all things in common.

This is all that we really know of Ball. At the height of the revolt the young king met with Tyler and Jack Straw twice and eventually granted the abolition of serfdom, all feudal services, the removal of all restrictions on freedom of labor and trade, and a general amnesty for the rebels. At the second meeting the rebels were dispersed. Wat Tyler was killed and the rebellion suppressed. John Ball, Jack Straw, and one hundred and ten others were executed. The promises of the king were revoked. The last rebels were hunted down in East Anglia and the revolt died away with no immediate effect.

The Peasants’ Rebellion was much more articulate and apparently led by better educated men than similar uprisings in France and Flanders. In it we can see the beginning of a pattern that was to be repeated many times. There is a popular uprising against the economically moribund feudal relationships. It takes the form of the demand for free labor and free markets of capitalism. The revolt gets out of hand and turns into a general uprising against the rich. In its course it throws into prominence ex-priests and others who preach the advent of a religious revolution, the coming of the apocalypse and the millennium. They are not part of the main body of the revolt but parasitic upon it and when the revolt is suppressed, and even more if it is successful, they are executed. However, there is a certain continuity. Since the apocalypticists are the most passionate preachers and propagandists, their words are remembered and passed on and provide fuel for the next revolt.


6. Hus, The Hussite Wars, Tabor

It is easy to be misled by the melodramas of revolution. Although it is true that history moves by leaps through critical points when quantity changes into quality, as water turns into steam, one does not have to be a conservative to realize that fundamental economic change takes place over a very long time and against the resistance of massive inertia. The English Peasants’ Rebellion with its clear demand for the abolition of a feudal economy took place in 1381. It was just three hundred years later, with the accession of William of Orange to the throne, a relatively quiet event which the English rightly call the Great Revolution, that the most important elements of a feudal economy were finally done away with. Even so, feudal rituals and unimportant relics linger to this day.

Nevertheless, all over Europe the profound economic, political, and religious crisis at the end of the fourteenth century meant that feudalism as an intact and total, workable system, identical with society itself, had broken down. This is most apparent in the crisis of the Church. Economic relations between laymen were already changing, but those of the Church were purely feudal and its property lay like a great obstructive mass of frozen capital in the way of the development of a new economy. The Church had ceased to be simply the religious expression of society itself, and heresy, which had previously been — with the exception of the Cathari in Provence — confined to obscure tiny bands of eccentric enthusiasts, was springing up everywhere. Half-conscious revulsion, shared by almost everyone, with the inadequacy and corruption of the Church was becoming conscious and turning into mass movements.

Nowhere was this more true than in Bohemia. In modern times, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then as Czechoslovakia, Bohemia has not played a central role in European history. This was not true at the end of the Middle Ages. The king of Bohemia ranked as the first of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire. King Wenceslaus IV was Holy Roman Emperor and his family were in key positions and ranked as one of the two or three most important ruling houses of all Europe. His brother Sigismund was King of Hungary. The University of Prague, founded in 1348, was still the only university in the empire, and its influence spread throughout all of Central Europe and the borderlands to the east.

From the mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in 862 in Moravia until the early years of the tenth century Bohemia was Greek Orthodox in religion and was taken into the Roman Catholic Church by King Vaclav (St. Wenceslaus). In the fourteenth century Bohemia included Moravia, Silesia, and Upper and Lower Lusatia and was the dominant power of central Europe. The bulk of the population was Slavic — the modern Czechs and Slovaks — but the ruling class was mostly German. There were German settlements scattered throughout the country and the northern borderlands were almost entirely German. The Church was one of the wealthiest and most corrupt in Europe. Over half the land belonged to the hierarchy and the religious orders. The bishops and great abbots led the luxurious lives of lay lords. Most of them were German, while the lower clergy were largely Slavic; and often the two classes did not speak each other’s language.

Due to the fact it was the seat of the empire, Bohemia was ridden with the political intrigues and corruption resulting from the conflict of emperor and pope. The upper class was extremely wealthy. Prior to the discovery of America the mines of Bohemia were the principal European source of silver. To a lesser degree the country produced lead, gold, and copper. This wealth was most unequally distributed, concentrated at the top of the upper classes, while below them the ordinary people lived in a Slavic peasant economy and were only a little better off than their fellows in Poland and White Russia.

Wenceslaus IV was involved in a struggle with the electors and the great lords of the empire and was finally deposed. He refused to accept the election of Rupert, Elector Palatine, but finally consented to that of his brother, Sigismund, King of Hungary, and then devoted himself to dissipation and conflict with both the lay and ecclesiastical lords of Bohemia. The papacy had just returned from Avignon to Rome and almost immediately gone into schism, with the French and Spanish supporting Clement VII who went back to Avignon; England and the empire, including Bohemia and northern and central Italy, Urban VI. Their royal patrons did not prove very generous with money and both papacies became almost bankrupt and were forced to use every method, especially the sale of indulgences, to raise money. A powerful movement amongst the theologians of Europe, led by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, and Pierre Cardinal d’Ailly, and including eventually even most of the cardinals, began to agitate for a solution of the problem by way of a general council of the whole Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Pisa in 1409 elected Alexander V, but Benedict XIII in Avignon and Gregory XII in Rome refused to resign, so there were three popes. When Alexander died after ten months, Baldassare Cossa, a layman and retired pirate, was crowned John XXIII (after hasty ordination as a priest the night before) and, under the protection of the Emperor Sigismund, immediately became involved in almost continuous warfare in Italy, with the resulting drive for a new sale of indulgences to finance his crusades.

At this point the long maturing and explosive situation in Bohemia came to a head. The Emperor Charles IV and Wenceslaus had encouraged a measure of religious freedom and anti-papalism in Bohemia. The Inquisition was kept out of the country and a number of Wycliffite and Lollard preachers from England and Waldenses from Lombardy, the Jura, and the Alps migrated to Bohemia. The king established in Prague a chapel for popular preaching, dependent upon his patronage directly, and independent of the archbishop or any monastic order. This was the Bethlehem Chapel, where sermons were given in both Czech and Latin, and where, at the time with which we are concerned, King Wenceslaus and Queen Sophia usually attended services in preference to those in the cathedral. There had been a succession of reformist preachers for over a generation, largely under the influence of Wycliffe, and popular dissent in Bohemia had moved far to the left. Rejection of the papal claims, transubstantiation, infant baptism, communion in one kind for the laity, and the denunciation of the simony, nepotism, and luxury of the Church were common.

In 1402 John Hus was appointed rector of the University of Prague. Before then he had been dean of the philosophical faculty and a well-known preacher in Czech at the Bethlehem Chapel. In terms of the religious struggle which was maturing in Bohemia he was not even a middle-of-the-road man, but a conservative. He had defended Wycliffe’s teachings, but not in themselves in most cases, simply the right of the Wycliffites to be heard, although he had translated Wycliffe’s Trialogus. Wycliffe was a scholar and theologian, Hus a preacher and pastor. His own writings were, considering the theological turmoil and the profound crisis in the Church, surprisingly orthodox. Yet in the next five years he was in almost continuous trouble with the ecclesiastical establishment, not because of any theological heresies (such ideas were far over the head of the archbishop, who had been a soldier before he was appointed to the post), but for his denunciations of the manifest abuses in the Church.

During the preparations for an ecumenical council to heal the great schism, elect only one pope, and reform the Church, King Wenceslaus, Hus, and the Czech clergy and people remained neutral, but the German hierarchy sided with Gregory XII. In the ensuing conflict the king issued an edict giving three votes to the Bohemians and only one to the Bavarians, Saxons, and Poles combined, a reversal of the previous order of the governing board of the university. The archbishop immediately moved to the attack and secured the condemnation of Lollardry and all of Wycliffe’s books by Pope Alexander V and another papal bull prohibiting preaching in all independent chapels.

Hus continued to preach and was excommunicated by the archbishop, whereupon he appealed to the new pope, John XXIII, who was soon to prove himself one of the most corrupt and depraved in the history of the papacy. Pope John XXIII not only upheld the archbishop but laid the city of Prague under interdict as long as Hus continued to preach. At the same time the pope flooded Bohemia with peddlers of indulgences to finance his crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples. Hus and the more radical reformers denounced the sale of indulgences. Hus’s situation in Prague eventually became untenable and he went into exile in the countryside very near to where the revolutionary commune of Tabor was later established. There he spent two years writing, and published his principal work, De Ecclesia.

In 1414 the newly convoked Council of Constance invited Hus to come and defend himself from the charges of heresy which had been lodged against him by the archbishop’s faction. The Emperor Sigismund gave him safe-conduct, promising that whatever judgment was given by the Council, he would be allowed to return safely to Bohemia, where, if he were to be found guilty of heresy, his case would be at the disposal of King Wenceslaus. This was a subterfuge to entice him to Constance. Shortly after he arrived John XXIII appointed a commission to examine the charges. The safe-conduct was withdrawn by the emperor. Hus was imprisoned. Then began the agonizing process of theological whipsawing.

Hus was first accused of holding a long list of Wycliffite and Waldensian doctrines, most of which he denied. The list was changed; and although he again denied that he had held most of these tenets he was required to abjure them all. He refused to abjure doctrines which he had never held. Finally a new list, taken largely from De Ecclesia, was submitted to him. Most of these he was able to interpret in an orthodox manner, but his interpretations were rejected. The important items were those in which he condemned the corruption, abuses, and despotism of the Church and denied the authority of both evil popes and evil secular rulers.

His principal prosecutors were Jean Gerson and Pierre d’Ailly, who were merciless in their attacks upon him, but who themselves, while the Council was still in session, had just helped to depose John XXIII for simony, heresy, fornication, and pederasty. The trial was marked by incredible disorder and shouted abuse on the part of the holy fathers in council assembled. Most of the time Hus could not be heard and submitted his answers to the charges in writing after the sessions. At his final condemnation he seemed unable to believe the outrageous injustice of the proceedings and was still pleading for permission to defend himself when he was condemned, stripped ceremonially of his priestly vestments, turned over to the civil power, his betrayer, the emperor, and taken away to be burned.

Hus was without doubt the noblest, as he was the first, of all the great reformers. He was also the most conservative. It never entered his mind to found a sect. He only desired to reform the Church without basically altering either its structure or its theology. The ideas which he really held, and even many of which he was falsely accused, differed little from the doctrines and reforms proposed for the first Vatican Council which had been expected by many to rehabilitate the Church, but which, due to pressure from the papal Curia, refused even to consider the matter.

Hus also differed very little from Gerson and d’Ailly, but that little was important. Hus stood by his conscience. He refused to deny what he believed to be the truth, to affirm untruths, or to denounce himself for ideas which he had never held. Gerson and d’Ailly stood for authority. They wanted his submission to judgment regardless. Obedience for them was more important than truth. What this means of course is that they believed that the Church was founded on obedience and the truth came afterwards. In a sense they were right. George Bernard Shaw’s argument in his preface to Saint Joan is correct, although more applicable to Hus than to Jeanne d’Arc. Although the greatest moral theologians of the Roman Catholic Church have always said that conscience was primary, this has never been true in practice. St. Joan, John Hus, St. Thomas More, all died for their consciences even though More’s conscience bade him prefer the authority of the pope to that of King Henry. A completely authoritarian structure demands obedience, not as a choice of the individual will following the dictates of conscience, but simply obedience regardless. If the sanctity of the individual soul and the primacy of its willing were made the foundation of moral action, all authoritarian structures would eventually be eroded away.

Hus was a man of the center, hardly a radical, far indeed from being a communist, but as he was being maneuvered to his death in Constance, Bohemia was rising in revolt, at first against the betrayal of the emperor and the injustice of the Council and eventually against the Church, the empire, and medieval civilization itself. The death of this conscientious man precipitated the first national revolution in Western history.

When the news of Hus’s execution reached Prague, reform and unrest turned into revolution. Nobles, king, queen, and people, Slavs and many of the Germans, were united in condemnation of the act of the Council and the treachery of Emperor Sigismund. The nobles had written earlier demanding Hus’s release, and after his execution four hundred and fifty-two nobles from all parts of Bohemia and Moravia assembled in an emergency congress and answered the Council’s condemnation of Hus and of the Bohemian practice of giving communion to the laity in both kinds, bread and wine, with the sternest condemnation of their own. They refused to recognize any of the Council’s decrees and refused to obey the new pope unless he were a moral man and acted according to the will of God, a refusal they extended to the entire hierarchy. Theological decisions they vested in the University of Prague and they agreed to allow free preaching on their own estates. The Council answered by burning Hus’s associate Jerome, who had first abjured and then, moved by Hus’s martyrdom, recanted his abjuration; and by summoning all the signers of the nobles’ manifesto and implicitly the king and queen and the heads of the university to Constance to stand trial for heresy.

With the blessing of the Council, Sigismund gathered an army to invade Bohemia. The Council disbanded in April 1418 without resolving the deadlock except by wholesale excommunications and interdicts. In 1419 King Wenceslaus attempted a restoration of followers of the Council to office in the Church and university and packed the town council with anti-Hussites. As the protesting populace demonstrated outside the town hall their opponents pelted them with rocks. Under the leadership of Jan Zizka, the Hussites invaded the town hall, threw the burgomaster and several councilors out the window, and tore them to pieces in the streets. When the news was brought to King Wenceslaus he was seized with an apoplectic fit and died a few days later.

This first Defenestration of Prague marked the beginning of open warfare. Germans and conciliarists, usually the same, were expelled from their estates and offices all over Bohemia. For a short time there was fighting in Prague between the small army of foreign mercenaries loyal to the queen and the Hussites led by Zizka who captured the castle Vysehrad which dominated the city. The nobles arranged a truce. The citizens restored the castle and Zizka and the army of the more radical reformers left Prague for Pilsen, the center of German power in its area. They were unable to hold Pilsen and went from there, fighting their way south, to form a new settlement to which the name of Tabor, the hill of the Transfiguration of Christ, was given. Armies of the papal Crusade were invading Bohemia and Moravia from several directions and on June 30, 1420, they united in the siege of Prague. All parties of the Hussites met in council and presented the pope with four demands known henceforth as the Articles of Prague, a minimum program which remained non-negotiable throughout the Hussite Wars and the settlement fifteen years later:

I. The word of God shall be preached and proclaimed freely throughout the kingdom of Bohemia by the priests of the Lord.

II. The sacrament of the most holy Eucharist shall be freely administered in both kinds, bread and wine, to all faithful believers not in mortal sin as it was instituted by the word of Our Saviour.

III. The secular power over riches and worldly goods which the clergy possesses contrary to Christ’s teachings, to the prejudice of its office, and to the detriment of the secular arm, shall be taken from them and they shall be reduced to the evangelical rule and apostolic life of Christ and his disciples.

IV. All mortal sin and especially all public ones and others contrary to God’s law shall in every rank in life be properly and reasonably prohibited and destroyed by those whose office it is. These include fornication, murder, lying, theft, usury, superfluous evil, and superstitious arts among the people, and among the clergy all simoniacal charges for priestly services and all immorality, profane behavior, and contentiousness.

This was not only a minimum program on which everyone could agree, except for that as yet small number who did not believe in the sacrament of the Eucharist at all; it was also a program which went back to the earliest movements of dissent in Western Europe and was common to practically all of them. It became the entire program of the right wing of the Bohemian reformers, who laid special emphasis on the right of the laity to communion in both kinds and who were henceforth known as Utraquists (or “both-ists”) or Calixtines (for chalice). The great importance of this demand was an inheritance from the early days of Christianity in Bohemia when it had been evangelized by Greek Orthodox missionaries, and the Orthodox practice of communion of both kinds may well have never completely died out. There was nothing in these demands which was not theologically compatible with the strictest Roman Catholic orthodoxy. But the third and fourth were totally incompatible with its practice, or for that matter with that of any established church. Implicit too was the heretical doctrine that obedience is not owed to immoral clergy and their sacraments were invalid; but nowhere was this conviction spelled out.

The emissaries of the pope and the emperor refused even to discuss the Articles of Prague and continued the siege. Zizka defeated and utterly routed their army in a great battle. From then on papal and imperial forces invaded the country again and again, every time to be defeated with great slaughter, except on those occasions when their armies turned and ran without fighting.

It has often been said that the French Revolution invented the national army, the levée en masse of a whole people. Its true inventor was Jan Zizka. Although the Taborites formed the nucleus of a permanent fighting force, each crusade of the emperor and pope united the great majority of the Czech people. Zizka introduced remarkably modern methods of highly drilled combat, and the Taborite army was the first to use artillery systematically as a major tactical arm. The invasion attempts were answered by raids deep into enemy territory, and in the early days loot was an important part of the income of Tabor. Zizka was never able to gain complete control of the German-owned mines or the city of Pilsen which remained a Romanist redoubt. Initially the majority of the workers who were Slavs rose in revolt but they were put down by German mercenaries and at Kutna Hora sixteen thousand Taborite priests and their followers were killed by being thrown into the mines.

Zizka began his career blind in one eye and an arrow eventually blinded the other. His last battles were fought when he was totally blind. He died in 1424 of the plague on the eve of a planned conquest of Moravia and Silesia and his place was taken by Procopius who defeated the Germans in two great battles in 1427 and who spread the counterattack of the Bohemian armies to Austria, Hungary, Silesia, Saxony, Brandenburg, the Palatine, and Franconia.

The Taborite armies ceased simply to raid enemy territory and began to conquer it, that is, to leave garrisons in the towns and castles which capitulated. Revolutionary Bohemia threatened to control all of Middle Europe. Pope Martin V called a general council at Basel in 1431 to launch yet another Crusade, which again went down in overwhelming defeat. Emissaries of the pope, the emperor, and the Council began secret negotiations with the Utraquists, who were in no sense economic or social revolutionaries and who were only in the most uneasy alliances with communist Tabor. The Taborites themselves had been unable to win over the peasantry and had first introduced forced requisition of food for the army and the cities and then their own form of semi-feudal exactions. More than fifteen years of continuous victories had gone by and the army itself was degenerating and filling up with adventurers from all over Europe. Eventually the Taborites were isolated and defeated on May 30, 1434, near Lipany in Bohemia when thirteen thousand out of an army of eighteen thousand were killed, and both Procopius the Great and his chief lieutenant, Procopius the Little, fell in battle.

The Utraquists, Pope Alexander VI, and the Emperor Sigismund agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Articles of Prague and in 1436 they were accepted by all parties in a modified and ambiguous form which permitted optional use of the Roman rite in the mass. The Bohemian National Church lasted as a kind of Uniat church, like those of the Orthodox rite in communion with Rome, until after the battle at White Mountain in 1620 in the Thirty Years War. It was then suppressed and the complete Roman obedience re-established. The Utraquists themselves captured Tabor in 1452 and the militant Taborites were forced into an underground existence to re-emerge as the Anabaptists and the other radical sects of the Reformation begun by Luther. The pacifist and more purely religious communists began the Unitas Fratrum, also known as the Czech Brethren, Moravian Brethren, or United Brethren, who endure to this day. The Hutterites also trace their ancestry back to Tabor.

The continuous imperial and papal crusades forced a broad united front upon the disparate groups of the Bohemian reformation and revolution. Whenever the outside pressure relaxed, this unity broke down in factionalism which sometimes reached the point of armed conflict. These divisions were along clearly defined ethnic and class lines.

Most of the German nobles and wealthy merchants and mine owners were Romanists. Many of them left the country. Others managed to hold out in small enclaves which were never incorporated into the revolutionary Bohemian state. The reason was that there was no revolutionary Bohemian state, no single, unified political entity coterminous with Czech lands. The Czech nobles and magnates and some Germans formed the right wing of the Utraquist party along with the archbishop and Queen Sophia. For them the Articles of Prague were not a minimum but a maximum program. Once they had secularized the property of the Church they became socially conservative, quite content with their feudal privileges modified by monopolies and franchises not unlike the English upper class in Henry VIII’s time.

At the beginning of the revolution, with the first siege of Prague, political power passed largely into the hands of the artisan class. Except for certain crafts, like the goldsmiths, these people were almost entirely Czech and allied with them were petty Czech nobles like Jan Zizka and most of the not very sizable lower middle class. They were militant Utraquists. For them the Articles of Prague were a minimum program. This loose alliance was anti-papalist and had no desire to see a restored Roman Catholicism, but envisaged a free Catholic Church in which the pope would be only the bishop of Rome, the first amongst equals. They rejected the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and most of their clergy held to the Wycliffite doctrine of remanence, namely, that the bread and wine remained unchanged after the consecration and that Christ’s body and blood were present only spiritually, “as in a mirror.” They also rejected the idea that the Mass was a sacrifice and interpreted it as essentially a spiritual communion, a congregational act. They rejected the feudal economic and social structure; but since developed capitalism, even in its mercantile form, still lay in the future, they were indefinite about what to put in its place. Politically they were democrats, although leaders like Jan Zizka slowly reintroduced the leadership of an educated elite of clergy, petty nobles, and well-to-do educated citizens.

The fifteenth century was a time of inflation and economic instability, most especially in Bohemia, and there had grown up in Prague a large unemployed class, as well as a semi-criminal underworld. They, along with the working poor, formed a Lumpen proletariat which was always ready for riot and which acted as a steady drag toward the extreme left.

As time went on, and news of the revolution in Bohemia spread across Europe, sectarians and heretics migrated to Prague — at first from nearby Bavaria, the Tyrol, and the Rhineland, and eventually from as far away as Lithuania, England, and even Spain. One of the leaders of the Oreb brotherhood was an English Lollard, Peter Payne. After the establishment of the communes of Tabor and Oreb, this migration became a flood. Every eccentric and religious psychotic in Europe seems to have headed for Bohemia. In 1418 forty refugees from Lisle and Tournai arrived in Prague fleeing from the violent persecution in their homeland. These were the first of the Picards, Pikarti as they were called, who gave their name to the most extreme forms of the revolt.

The Bohemian revolution produced a reaction in the rest of Europe not unlike the red hunts and white terrors of the twentieth century. Everywhere heretics and schismatics who had been tolerated or ignored as inconsequential by the State were hunted out and burned, or lynched by mobs. Those who could fled to Bohemia where they believed the earthly paradise was in the process of realization. All these different elements went to form the class of those who have nothing to lose. It should not be thought, however, that they were anything but the rank and file of the extreme left. Their leaders and spokesmen were renegade monks, former secular clergy, literate lower middle-class people.

After its early days, the Bohemian revolution was not only not a peasant-based movement, but came to lose the enthusiastic support of peasant followers, whose attitude became one of passive consent, if not active opposition. The peasants were interested in the abolition of feudal exactions, the redistribution of land, and the suppression of incipient trends toward serfdom which would reach their height after Luther’s Reformation. Once they had gained these objectives, the peasants lost interest in revolution and became conservatives of their own gains. Since neither Prague nor Tabor was ever able to work out effective new economic forms of production, the revolution in the cities was forced to feed upon the peasantry, and in the economic chaos was unable to make adequate return for value received. The restoration of pope and emperor meant the return to feudalism. The continuance of their new masters in power meant new exactions. The peasants remained passive.

The economy of Tabor has been called by later historians a communism of consumption, not production, but it is difficult to see how, over so long a period, the two could have been kept separate. There are recent studies of the degree of socialization of production in Tabor but they are as yet all in Czech. Tabor controlled some of the principal gold mines of the day in Europe and their production seems to have been on a completely communist basis. When the community was set up and when daughter communes were established elsewhere, large tanks were placed in the center of the town, the people sold all their property and put the money and their jewels, if any, in the tank, and from then on put their wages there too, which they earned apparently by working at their old jobs or trades in their previous fashion. The wealth so accumulated was then distributed equally to all the citizens of the commune. As the Hussite wars went on, this was augmented by loot, and loot rather than conversion was the reason for the first raids in German territory. It is difficult to see how this could have worked. As presented by later historians opposed to communism it bears a great resemblance to what is called “brigand communism” of the type that grew up in the heretical Muslim communities of the Near East. The general evidence, on the other hand, would indicate that life in Tabor, Oreb, and the other communes settled down to a fairly normal, productive communism, and that, considering the difficulties, it was by no means parasitic, or certainly no more than the decadent feudalism it replaced. Those who believed in a purely parasitic communism were expelled from the city.

Such were the famous Adamites whose life is supposed to be portrayed in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Earthly Paradise. They have been celebrated in our own day by Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch; and all over America misguided young people crowd the highways, hitchhiking to an Adamite promised land called Big Sur, which they discover consists of a range of mountain cliffs above the sea, thinly populated by hostile natives who seem to know only two words of English: “Move on.”

The majority of the Taborites and the Brotherhood at Oreb and their allies in Prague’s New Town reached a general consensus early in the revolution. They accepted the Bible in a combination of Wycliffite, Waldensian, and Free Spirit doctrines. The Bible was the sole authority for both faith and practice; the creeds and translations of the Church were only corruptions, as were its rites and ceremonies, the sacrifice of the Mass, indulgences and prayers for the dead, prayers to the saints, auricular confession, extreme unction, baptism of infants, and its accessories of chrism and blessings and holy water, Mass vestments, images, saint’s days, and the traditional chants for Mass and prayer offices. All were denials of the life of the apostolic Church. These people believed with the Waldenses that the ministrations and authority of a sinful priest were invalid. Not only that, but if necessary any layman could celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions.

They were extreme millenarians, the most militant so far in the history of dissent. They believed that Christ’s Second Coming (disguised as a brigand) and the universal destruction of the evil world would occur almost immediately, at first in 1420; and when that date passed, it was never postponed more than a few years. In preparation for the coming of the kingdom it was the duty of the brotherhood of the saints to drench their swords in the blood of evildoers, indeed to wash their hands in it. After wholesale destruction, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ would appear on a mountain top and celebrate the coming of the kingdom with a great messianic banquet of all the faithful.

Meanwhile the Taborites anticipated this communion of the saints by holding great gatherings on nearby hills and mountaintops in which the Eucharist became a mass agapê or love feast presided over by the military and religious leaders as did the priestly and kingly messiahs of Qumran. In the kingdom all sacraments and rites would be done away with and replaced by the actual presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit and all laws would be abolished, the elect would never die, and women would bear children painlessly and without prior sexual intercourse. In 1420 the Taborites broke all connection with the Catholic Church by the lay election and ordination of a bishop and priests.

The majority of the Taborites were extreme puritans in their personal conduct, but a minority, influenced by the Free Spirit doctrines of the Pikarti, believed that the millennium had already arrived. They were the kingdom of the elect, and for them all laws had been abolished. Four hundred were expelled from Tabor in 1421 and wandered through the woods naked, singing and dancing, claiming to be in the state of innocence of Adam and Eve before the fall. Acting on Christ’s remark about harlots and publicans, they considered chastity a sin and seem to have spent their time in a continuous sexual orgy.

Jan Zizka, who had already withdrawn from the Brotherhood of Tabor itself and gone over to the somewhat less extreme community of Oreb, spent the rest of the year hunting them down. Several hundred escaped and fortified an island in a river in southern Bohemia, from which they raided all the surrounding neighborhood, burning churches and slaughtering priests and all others who resisted them. After a brief siege Zizka overran the island and exterminated all but one prisoner who, after he had written a complete confession of their doctrine, was burned and his ashes thrown in the river.

So ended the ecstatic, orgiastic commune of the Adamites. Accusations of sexual irregularities and outrageous ceremonies, as well as murder and robbery, are common in the long history of heresy and are usually presumed to be fantasies of the neurotic minds of celibate inquisitors. But the story of the Adamites does not come from inquisitors, but from men who were themselves revolutionary heretics and who had known the Adamites intimately and who had no reason to accuse them falsely. Their beliefs and conduct differ from what we know of various Free Spirit groups in the rest of Europe only in the comparative freedom of action briefly afforded the Adamites in a revolutionary situation.

Besides the secessions from Tabor by Zizka to the right, and the Adamites to the left, those who objected to the preaching of unrestrained violence withdrew under the leadership of Peter Chelsicky to rural Bohemia and founded a community of pacifists who rejected all use of force. For Chelsicky political power and the State existed only as a necessary evil, the result of original sin, to keep order in the world outside the community of true Christians, where all relationships should be ruled by peace and love. The community he founded had no outward organization; the only bond was love and the following of the life of Christ and his apostles. These extreme pacifists survived all the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the Bohemian reformation to become the Unitas Fratrum, the Czech Brethren.

Life in Tabor must have had a special glory, that of a transfigured society, where life was lived at a pitch of exaltation near to madness. Communion was held daily with thousands of people singing in the open fields, and there were other vast religious gatherings on mountain tops, and armies returning from battle, triumph-laden with loot and bearing trophies like the luxurious tent furnishings of cardinals and kings, through crowds dancing in the streets, a hundred thousand enemies fleeing over breaking ice, armies marching to the singing of hymns in unison, and the roar of iron wagons and wheeled cannon, a golden chalice, instead of a flag, on a pole at their head. Tabor was the mountain where Barak and Deborah had gathered the hosts that annihilated Sisera, immortalized in one of the greatest poems in the Bible; but the Taborites believed that Mount Tabor was also the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, the Mount of Olives where he had preached his apocalyptic sermon in Mark 12 before he began his march to his crucifixion; and finally it was the mountain from which he ascended into heaven. All were symbols of the nature of life as lived in Tabor.

Plato, St. Thomas More, Campanella, Harrington, Bacon, all tried to imagine societies in which the opportunity for what the Church called original sin would be severely inhibited, and it would be practically impossible for men to pursue a lesser immediate instead of an ultimate greater good. Tabor in its first years solved the problem of utopia by denying it. The Taborites were the first to attempt to found society on the principle that liberty is the mother, not the daughter of order. They succeeded because of their continuous warfare. They became in fact a military theocracy without noticing it.

If socialism in one country is doomed to become deformed and crippled, communism in one city is impossible for any length of time. Sooner or later the garrison society will weaken, but the outside world does not. It is always there waiting, strongest perhaps in times of peace. Tabor was never able to balance its popular communism of consumption with an organized and planned communism of production, nor the exchange of goods between city communes and peasant communes. At the time it was widely preached and believed that the Czechs, when they settled Bohemia, had been communists and that the Taborites were only restoring the original Slavic community. This was probably true. Functioning agricultural communes which were revivals of the primitive Slavic peasant communities, like the Russian mir which dated back to the neolithic villages, must have existed. When the Counter-Reformation crushed the long degenerated Bohemian Utraquist Church, it was the peasant communism of the Hutterites and Brethren which survived. Serfdom was fastened on Bohemia in 1487 and reached its most extreme form after the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany and Luther’s Reformation.

Copyright 1974. Reproduced  by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Next chapters]

[Communalism contents and index]



Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org