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‘Warrior of God’

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Warrior of God: Jan Žižka & the Hussite Revolution

After having articles about the military experiences of Lord Byron and Leo Tolstoy published by Military History magazine, I was casting about for a subject a bit less “literary,” one that might appeal to a broader readership in that area. My friend David Muhlena, library director of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suggested an article about Jan Žižka, a remarkable but little-known Czech general who lived during the late Middle Ages.

Although there has been a recent documentary film made about Žižka, Blind Courage: The Unique Genius of Jan Žižka (Cartesian Coordinates, 2005), very little has been written about Žižka (in English, that is) in fifty years, beyond an April ’07 article in Military History magazine and a 48-page paperback published in ’04. The more I looked at Žižka’s story, the more I became convinced that it merited a full-length book. After shopping this idea around for a while, Pen & Sword, a British publishing firm specializing in military history, contracted with me to write it!

I then spent year and a half researching and writing it, capped by a visit to the Czech Republic in February ’08. Along with attending a couple performances in Prague by my favorite musician/composer, Emil Viklický, the highlight of the trip which was a very productive visit to the Hussite Museum in Tábor, the staff of which did all they could to assist me with my book.

After submitting my final draft in mid-November ’08, I spent another four months with revisions, selection of graphics and map-making (the latter ably performed by Paul Davis, a noted historian and educator at TMI-The Episcopal School of Texas in San Antonio). On April 1, Warrior of God: Jan Žižka and the Hussite Revolution, was released in the U.S. by Frontline Books, a Pen & Sword imprint. It is a rather handsome (I think) 256-page hardcover with five maps and sixteen pages of black & white illustrations (ISBN 978-1-84832-516-6).

At the turn of the 15th century, the twin pillars of medieval society — feudalism and the Catholic Church — were teetering. As the Plague swept across Europe, a new economy based on cash and international trade was creating what came to be known as the “middle class.” Three different men in three different cities were claiming to be the One True Pope. The peasantry were becoming increasingly restive over the vast difference between their hardship-filled lives of toil and the easeful lives of luxury led by their political and religious masters. In the Czech lands, where the wealthy merchants and pampered clergy were overwhelmingly German interlopers, this socio-economic discontent was fueled by another factor — Slavic nationalism.

A growing call for social and religious reform in Prague and throughout Bohemia was fanned by a number of charismatic preachers espousing Bibles and religious ceremonies in the Czech language, as well as a return to the spiritual simplicity and purity of the early Christians. Most notable among these firebrand Czech priest was Jan Hus. Seen as a religious and political subversive by the Vatican and the Holy Roman Empire, Hus was tried for heresy at the Council of Constance and burned at the stake in 1415, sparking a major revolution.

Despite increasingly heavy-handed attempts by the Church and the Empire to suppress them, Hus’s Bohemian followers (who became known as the “Hussites”) were not ready to accept defeat. Žižka (1360-1424), emerged to lead them. Acknowledged as a forward-thinking military genius, he took a handful of peasants, outfitted them with farm implements, and defeated more than 100,000 of the finest knights in the world. He revived military techniques not used since the Romans and developed a forerunner of the modern tank — despite the fact that for much of his later career he was completely blind.

Žižka personifies Medievalism’s first encounter with modernity — particularly in the military sense — and his Hussite movement was arguably the beginning of the end of that era. He was a key figure in the birth of a distinct Czech cultural identity and ultimately a nation-state. Employing numerous innovations taken for granted today (a uniform code of military justice and night maneuvers, to name just two) this hyper-zealous theocratic general cleared a path for Martin Luther a century later. This is surely one of the most incredible — and woefully neglected — episodes of European history, one with profound religious and political effects we’re still feeling today.

At about the same time as the book’s UK release, I was contacted by Steven Stastny of the Omaha Czech Cultural Club. He had learned of my book and graciously offered me a booth with a table at the OCCC’s annual spring festival to publicize it. My first promotional event turned out to be a great experience: I met some very interesting people, ate well (homemade kolache!) and talked myself hoarse discussing Žižka, the Hussites, and Czech history. Although I did not have any books to sell, since they had not yet arrived Stateside, a local Barnes & Noble took orders from those wishing to purchase a copy. Under the guidance of my publicist, Tara Lichterman of Casemate Publishers (which is handling U.S. distribution) it finally started hitting shelves in mid-May. Of course, Warrior of God can now be purchased online – with a nice discount — from Casemate, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

Just as audio-visual presentations (e.g. lectures, documentary films) are limited by time, so too are textual presentations limited by space. My book was, of necessity, focused on military history, to the exclusion of a great deal of religious and political elements surrounding the Hussite Wars. Even so, there still was not room in my book for much of the textual and graphic material I’d amassed pertaining to the military aspects of Žižka and his army. This material included an Appendix I’d envisioned with the text of four key documents, which may be viewed by clicking on their titles:

  • The Four Articles of Prague”: the defining manifesto of the Hussite Revolution, a declaration of core principles underlying the movement.
  • The Statutes and Military Ordinance of Žižka’s New Brotherhood”: the first formal code of military conduct and discipline, revolutionary in that its harsh dictates applied equally to nobility and peasantry alike — until then an unheard-of concept.
  • The Very Pretty Chronicle of Jan Žižka”: This anonymous narrative (ca. 1434-6) is the first written historical account about Žižka. While subsequent contemporary accounts were more sophisticated or detailed, none attempted to place the blind Hussite general in a larger historical context as did this one.
  • Warriors of God”: The Hussite battle song, from which I drew my book’s title. This hymn functioned as a march chant — a steady, compelling reminder of what was expected of each soldier. It also served as a very effective mechanism for what we today call “psychological operations”: the Imperial enemy, often hearing the somber cadences of this song before the Hussites came into view, were frequently so unnerved by it that they turned and ran before the two sides even engaged! This song has been used as a theme by latter-day classical Czech composers such as Bedrich Smetana.

One interesting collection of images for which there was not room in the book were 20 details of a large, three-dimensional diorama at the Hussite Museum depicting a castle siege as typically carried out by Žižka’s troops (click on image at left to view). This exhibit serves to underline the fact that although the most strikingly original element of Žižka’s generalship centered on his battlewagon/infantry tactics, it is often overlooked that he carried out numerous sieges as well, many of them successful. In fact, it was during the siege of a castle at Rabí that Žižka’s one good eye was shot out by an arrow, nearly killing him and rendering him totally blind — which did not stop him from continuing to exercise masterful command of his devoted army: he never lost a single battle or skirmish! When he was finally defeated, it was not by his archenemy Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and his tens of thousands of German and Hungarian knights, but by the bubonic plague.

My book release celebration was held on May 29, 2009 at Beaverdale Books, Des Moines’ premier independent bookstore. Alice Meyer, its owner, is strongly committed to supporting local authors, and I’m very appreciative of all her efforts on my behalf.

Over the next year, I was honored to give presentations about my book at the Czech Centre of New York City and the Czech Consulate of Chicago [click HERE to view photos from the latter event].

In addition, I was invited to speak about it at Orinda Books (Orinda is a suburb of Oakland, CA, just east of Berkeley). I also made a (return) appearance at the 2010 Omaha Czech Cultural Fair, as well as the 2010 Iowa City Book Fair along with book fairs at the Des Moines and Coralville public libraries sponsored by the Iowa Association of Librarians.

It was a busy and gratifying year promoting my first book, and it gave me a taste of what one librarian had told me, to wit: when your book is published, that’s only the start of a whole lot of new work!

In the U.S., Warrior of God can be purchased from Amazon, eBay, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

Read my Amazon reviews here

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