Tábor museum follows the changing faces of Žižka and the Hussites
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.
"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."
"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."
"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.
“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.
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: