To War for Wine ; The Hussite Rebellion

The Hussite rebellion of the 15th Century is a truly fascinating episode in the history of Europe, a real watershed moment. It has always astonished me how much they were able to achieve, but also how little is known about such a decisive conflict in Central Europe which would have such vast repercussions for much of the Western world.

7387473-vineyards-southern-moravia-czech-republicThe Hussites have their origins deeply routed in the cultural and religious significance of wine. In late Medieval society it had become the norm for the Clergy to take communion ‘in both kinds’, the bread and the wine, whilst the laity were only allowed to take the body of Christ; the bread. The radical preacher, Jan Huss, encouraged his followers to take both the bread and the wine in Communion. The importance of wine was the central motif to the rebellion – with the chalice becoming the emblem of the Hussites.

It’s almost impossible for us to really gage just how important this was to the Bohemians (the Kingdom in which the rebellion took place, modern day Czech Republic). The denial of the blood of Christ would become a catalyst for an incredible series of events, which would see a small Kingdom in central Europe take on the greatest forces of the day and defeat them decisively. Thus beginning a series of events which arguably lead to the radical religious reform across Europe in the following centuries.

The initial victory for the revolution came in 1419 when the Hussites marched through the city of Prague, beginning what would become known as the ‘Bohemian’ or ‘Hussite Wars’. This act of sheer rebellion set the break away heretical nation against the mainstream of Catholic Europe. The moderately small kingdom of Bohemia would fight off the best efforts of the continent to bring them back into line – unequivocally defeating five crusades sent against them over a twenty-five year period. All the time marching under the banners of their beloved chalice. Armies were sent from Italy, Hungary, Germany and Croatia. With the use of radical tactics, such as using carts as vehicles of war and new ‘hand-held cannons’, the rebellious Bohemians repelled them all. The Papacy, blaming the radical thinking on the Englishman Wycliff, even ordered England to deal with them. The army sent by the English instead got sidetracked into conflict with Joan of Arc.

Massacre of Hussites (Bonee chronicle, 1545)

Massacre of Hussites (Bonee chronicle, 1545) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The need for wine in the communion always remained a central ideology to the Hussites, but the movement went on much further – becoming a war of independence of both religion and national identity. Their victories paved the way for the even more potent religious conflicts that would come later, most notably the Reformation and Civil Wars of England. The symbolic importance of wine to all forms of Christianity is clear and this would be far from the last time that people would lay down their lives to keep those core traditions of the Church intact.

The movement would splinter into radical and moderate factions, bringing with it Civil War as well as international conflict. When finally peace was brought in 1439 the agreement accepted by the Church of Rome had as it’s first article as thus;

I. The Holy Sacrament is to be given freely in both kinds to all Christians in Bohemia and Moravia, and to those elsewhere who adhere to the faith of these two countries. ‘.

The Hussites had gained their right to the chalice, and brought the dominant force in Europe to a game-changing compromise.