Wagons, handguns and flails - Tábor Museum shows secrets behind Hussite victories

Hussite Museum in Tábor

It may not have the international renown of its South Bohemian neighbour Český Krumlov, but the city of Tábor is well known across the Czech Republic as the headquarters of legendary Hussite commander Jan Žižka. The city’s Hussite Museum gives visitors the chance to learn more about this crucial period in Czech history and the many innovative yet also gruesome characteristics of Hussite warfare.

Perhaps the best known episode of Czech Medieval history is the period known as the Hussite Wars. Indeed the Czech Republic is strewn with buildings, statues and even entire neighbourghoods commemorating this period of religious conflict which ravaged Bohemia during the fifteenth century and resulted in the kingdom adopting a unique form of Christian worship.

“The most famous characteristic of Hussite warfare is the use of wagons in battle. However, what really was revolutionary was their use of firearms, not just during sieges but in the battle itself.”

The most famous and radical of the several Hussite groups were the so-called Táborites. Led by the famous commander Jan Žižka, they set up their base on the site of an earlier settlement on the river Lužnice in South Bohemia and named it Tábor. The choice of name was possibly inspired by Mount Tabor in Galilee, the Biblical site of a battle between Israelites and Caananites, and, later, of the Transfiguration of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament.

Since then, the word “tábor” has become associated with a military camp in several languages. In Czech it is used to this day as the designation for an encampment. On his way to Prague in 1918, the First Czechoslovak President T. G. Masaryk famously visited the city, proclaiming: “Tábor is our programme”, an allusion to the importance that Hussitism would have in the First Czechoslovak Republic’s symbolism and national ethos.

Hussite Museum in Tábor | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

To this day Tábor remains the most famous Hussite stronghold and a popular tourist site for Czechs traveling through South Bohemia. In the city’s Hussite Museum, visitors can learn more about the religious movement and the footprint it has left on Czech history, Dr Zdeněk Vybíral, who leads the museum’s history department, told Czech Radio’s Kateřina Havlíková.

“We work a lot with visual materials, whether they be historical sources or audio-visual tools. This also makes sense for the period we cover, because the medieval period used a lot of imagery to convey information due to most people being illiterate.”

Several halls of the museum are focused on the unique style of warfare that the Táborites developed under the leadership of Jan Žižka. Dr Vybíral told Czech Radio that this includes an early form of howitzer, used by their warriors.

“It was very rare for armies to use firearms at the beginning of the fifteenth century, especially in battle.”

“Wars during the Hussite period were a very nasty, bloody business and were conducted according to the rules of war of that time. However, the Hussites did bring into this their own flavour. Some scholars refer to this as a revolution in mediaeval warfare. The most famous characteristic of Hussite warfare is the use of wagons in battle. However, what really was revolutionary was their use of firearms, not just during sieges but in the battle itself.”

Hussite Museum in Tábor | Photo: Radio Prague International

Known as one of the first commanders to handle infantry, cavalry, and artillery as one tactical body, Jan Žižka developed a defensive, yet at the same time dynamic, style of warfare. He took a basic component of any Medieval army - the supply wagon - and transformed it into a device capable of forming an ad-hoc mobile fort on the battlefield. Reinforced with armour, usually made of extra wooden planks and occupied by a squad of warriors, wagons made it possible for the Hussites to fight from a tactically advantageous, defensive position during battles.

These capabilities were further strengthened by adding cannons, howitzers and even men armed with crude handguns called Píšťaly onto these platforms, Dr Vybíral told Czech Radio.

Jan Žižka | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

“It was very rare for armies to use firearms at the beginning of the fifteenth century, especially in battle. One cannot overstate their effectiveness. These weapons were, after all, quite primitive and had very limited range. The quality of the materials that they were made of and problems associated with overheating meant that they could only be fired a few times during the battle.

“Nevertheless, their sound and the pinching smell of gunpowder did have a psychological effect on opponents. The physical effect of a cannonball on a group of infantry or horsemen must also have been significant. No armour from that period could withstand such a weapon.”

While cannons and handguns added a hi-tech element to Hussite firepower, Hussite warriors are best known in the Czech Republic for their many improvised close-combat weapons. Among them was the nail-studded flail (okovaný cep), which enabled a peasant to use a farming tool to which he was well accustomed as a deadly weapon that could pierce armour, Dr Vybíral told Czech Radio.

“The flail became the characteristic weapon for Hussite peasant warriors, especially among the radical groups.”

“The characteristic weapons of the Hussites are a result of the social classes from which the Hussites came from. They came from both cities and the rural parts of the country. At the beginning of the Hussite Wars, their armies were predominantly made up from the latter group. It was natural for such people to use weapons adopted from tools that they used in their daily lives.

“The flail became the characteristic weapon for Hussite peasant warriors, especially among the radical groups. It should be noted that these adapted farming tools became very useful weapons against heavily armoured knights if their user was protected against the cavalry charge. This is why wagons were so useful, because they negated the rider’s height advantage and also provided the Hussite infantryman with protection.”

One of the Museum’s halls also features an interactive map depicting the most significant battles of the Hussite Wars and the neighbouring territories into which the Hussites conducted incursions. While the Hussite Wars took place over a period of twenty years, there were relatively few large-scale battles, with combat usually taking place in the form of sieges and skirmishes.

Hussite Museum in Tábor | Photo: Radio Prague International

When it comes to the major battles, there are relatively few accurate sources, Dr Vybíral told Czech Radio.

“This is because the reports about these clashes were usually made by chroniclers who were not eye-witnesses. Furthermore, as is the case for example with the chronicler Vavřinec of Březová, these were scholars who had little or no experience with warfare. There were cases when chroniclers based their accounts on interviews with or reports from individuals who did take part in such a battle and historians can consider themselves lucky when they get hold of such documents.”

What these documents do show, is that Hussite battles tended to be characterised by extremely high casualties, which the historian said was quite unusual for mediaeval warfare. He told Czech Radio that the high death rates were likely caused by the fact that both sides would have fought with significant religious zeal and would therefore not have been prone to taking prisoners.

Founded in 2010, the Hussite Museum in Tábor is located in the city’s Gothic Old Town Hall and offers viewings in multiple languages. Aside from a detailed depiction of Hussite tactics, it also has  exhibition halls dedicated to the Taborite commander Jan Žižka, the city’s history and to the enduring legacy of Hussitism in Czech modern history.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Kateřina Havlíková
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