Ziska Defeated Armies, but Plague Beat Him
JAN ZISKA, Europe’s greatest military genius during the Middle Ages, was born in Bohemia around 1360. As a young man he served as a page but, disgusted with the frivolity of court, left to join the English who were fighting in France. Next he enlisted with Bohemian forces in Eastern Europe and was present at the battle of Tannenberg, which broke the power of the Teutonic Knights. He was credited with rallying forces to save the day for the Poles. When peace came, he rejoined the English, short an eye that he had lost in battle. Soon afterward, he returned to Bohemia, where his military services were in high demand.
Bohemia was the land of Jan Hus, a notable reformer. Hus opposed the sale of indulgences, taught that Christians should confess directly to God, and preached against corrupt priests. King Sigismund invited him to a council at Constance with a promise of safety, but the bishops insisted on burning him. Outraged Bohemians rebelled against both the church and the King.
Ziska was about sixty when he took charge of these peasant rebels, who called themselves “Warriors of God.” He quickly trained them into a formidable force. Through bold moves, innovative weapons, and swift exploitation of military advantages, he won twelve major battles, some against the best fighters in Europe. He allowed peasants to use farm implements as weapons, knowing they were skilled with such tools, and he introduced armored wagons as a platform to hold light cannon. In attacks these helped smash enemy lines; circled for defense they could not easily be overrun. Even after losing his second eye, his genius was not impaired. He had his aides describe the battlefield for him. His name inspired such dread that enemies sometimes fled without a fight at his approach.
Ziska was cruel to monks and allegedly burned priests in barrels of pitch. Years earlier, according to rumor, a monk had seduced and abandoned one of his sisters, and Ziska never forgot. Despite this cruel streak, when his soldiers violated a pledge and butchered the people of a city after it surrendered, Jan ordered them to do penance and issued the west’s first-known written code of military conduct. During lulls in the war, he pressed hard to spread the reforms Hus had preached.
On this day 11 October 1424, Jan Ziska died of bubonic plague. His victories ensured that Bohemia’s reformers were able to negotiate political and religious concessions. The followers of Hus were a political force for two hundred years and fathered the Moravian church.
Blind Courage is a documentary examining the career and faith of Jan Ziska.
(Blind Courage can also be streamed at RedeemTV)
For the background of the Hussites, see Christian History #68 Jan Hus: The Incendiary Preacher of Prague