Tábor museum follows the changing faces of Žižka and the Hussites

Jan Žižka

Jan Žižka the Renaissance knight, Jan Žižka the heathen bully – both these faces of the Hussite military genius and much more is on display at the Hussite Museum in Tabor, South Bohemia, which hosts a permanent exhibition dedicated to the 15th century movement.

Jan Žižka,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
The museum is entered through an imposing Gothic hall dominated by a statue of Žižka on horseback. Then the visitor is drawn into the atmosphere of the late Middle Ages with an award-winning film that covers the outbreak of the Hussite wars. The story of the Hussite movement then plays out through the ten halls of the museum. It is a story that continues to develop and change, as the museums’ Klara Smolíková tells us:

"Not only does interpretation and emphasis change, but the clarity with which we see the Hussite movement changes as well. The creators of the new exhibit, namely the museum’s historian Dr Vybíral, approach the topic with a kind of relativism: it could have been like this or like that – we don’t know. That can be a bit of a problem when it comes to our child visitors, because children need to know how things were. But downstairs we have a space where they can dress up like Hussites, put together a puzzle in the shape of Hussite shields, build a war wagon and then they feel like they have a grasp of something."

Children can discover the key concepts of the Hussite movement through comic book panels. There are tasks for them to accomplish hidden away in the secret corners, and peepholes offering them many an odd spectacle. They can also try out what it’s like to sit on a king’s throne or wear a chainmail shirt that weighs 12 kilos. The unguided tour won the Gloria musaealis award last year for museum exhibition of the year, even in spite of a conspicuous lack of what one generally expects from an exhibit: original artefacts.

"We don’t actually have many artefacts. Nothing has survived. People are often asking us, ‘Where do you keep the originals’? They just don’t exist. We have the remnants of a flute and a sword, that’s how it is. And so we work a lot with sound and with emotion. Right here you see an area where I recommend you go and listen to the words of the reform preachers, and consider the impression it left on people before there was the internet, television and newspapers, and they visited the house of god and listened to the reformers."

Hussite Museum in Tábor | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International
In the story of the Protestant Reformation, the Hussites are often forgotten, despite their indelible impact. But in terms of military history their legacy is very strong indeed. In the days of knights in shining armour, the rebel peasants changed the rules of warfare. They were famous for turning farming implements, like the flail, into weapons of war. A primitive form of tank is attributed to them, as is a unique kind of crane that took advantage of the tremendous weight of the armour that the crusading knights wore, and dismounted them.

"The Hussites had to change the rules of the game, whereby armoured knights would just rush each other, because they did not have enough horses or equipment. So they used war wagons. The wagons allowed them to be at the same height as the knights. And to that they added that element that was most significant for Hussite warfare – firearms. Cannons and early mortars and píšťaly, among the first portable firearms. The whole world knows the Czech word píšťala, as it is the root of the word pistol. Until that time, the knights had been absolutely invincible, and now they had become a pile of iron that would fall off its horse and couldn’t get up again, especially if they found themselves in an emptied pond, as was the case in the Battle of Sudoměř."

The pistol, or píšťala, which in turn comes from the Czech word for “pipe”, is a very primitive weapon by our standards that was the height of modernity at the time. It had a wooden handle with an iron barrel on the end, into which the gunpowder and ball were stuffed. Moreover, it was nearly impossible to aim the weapon, but that was not the most important thing – most importantly, it caused utter chaos on the enemy side.

Jan Žižka | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International
“We actually wanted to put the gunpowder on display here at the museum, and they told us ‘you’re insane, it will blow up’. So what we have here are the separate elements of gunpowder: sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre. The early rifles and pistols were lit with a match, the cannons and mortars used a branding iron…"

“The war wagons then were extremely important strategic weapons. They were essentially normal wagons that were used to transport pigs, hay, wheat and so on, and they were modified for use in battle. We know from the chronicles that they would chain the wagons together wheel-to-wheel. Like most of the weapons here in the museum, these are replicas made in the 19th century when the Hussite movement was rediscovered in Tábor. Back then, they had started holding re-enactments of Žižka’s campaigns and created period weapons for the purpose."

A large part of the museum is, naturally, devoted Jan Žižka himself. There is little doubt that Žižka was one of the greatest military commanders in the history of human warfare. He was a revolutionary thinker in a time of revolution, and he is probably one of a handful of generals in history who never lost a battle. Other than that, the facts about his life and person are very shaky – particularly the question of what he actually looked like.

Hussite Museum in Tábor | Photo: Radio Prague International
"This is Josef Václav Myslbek’s statue of Žižka from 1877, which used to stand on the square. The pedestal is still there, but not the statue. Some miserly South Bohemian apparently decided that he would save money by having the bronze statue cast in one of the cheapest workshops, and after one year it fell to pieces. Myslbek was so traumatised by the experience that when he made the famous statue of St Wenceslaus on Prague’s Wenceslaus Square, he didn’t sleep and wouldn’t leave the statue until it had been cast. We have also been trying to figure out which eye Žižka wore his patch on. We don’t know. He apparently did have a problem with his eye, because the name Žižka, or Šiška, was a nickname for someone with an eye problem. He could have been cross-eyed. Often he is displayed with a cloth over both eyes. When we were children we used to discuss how he could have led an army in battle when he couldn’t see. Well, one of the interpretations is that he was blinded by faith, that it had nothing to do with eye patches. For Myslbek though, art was more important than credibility."

An aged warrior of sixty, with a wedded daughter, two homes, and a lofty position as head of the castle guards, one could wonder why Žižka wanted to continue fighting when the Hussite wars broke out. One camp of historians believes Žižka was simply a bloodthirsty ruffian, and there are portraits in the museum that reflect that idea. More likely though is that he was compelled to fight for his nation and its religious beliefs when both were under attack from virtually the whole outside world. And so there are portraits of Žižka the Renaissance knight as well, and even Žižka resembling John the Baptist. But it isn’t portraits of Žižka that sell best at the museum shop, says Klara Smolíková:

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
“The most popular souvenir is the eye patch. We thought that the children would enjoy it, but it sells best among adults. And then there are the comics, which introduce a lot of new things to the children. The comics don’t have a story, they’re a dictionary of words you have to know in order to understand the Hussite movement. Even a word like “pope” can cause great, heated debate among children, and after ten minutes you find out they think a pope is something very strange indeed. But the comics have been so successful that we have arranged to publish them as a book this autumn.”