May 23, 2015

It Happened on May 23rd

The Defenestration of Prague, 1618

17th Century woodcut depicting the defenestration
This item caught my attention for a number of reasons. To start with, quite honestly, "defenestration" is one of those words that I think I know the meaning of, but I never can quite remember what it is. I had to follow up on the topic to job my memory.

As it turns out, defenestration is the act of throwing someone out a window. It comes from the Latin: de, out of, with a downward motion implied, and fenestra, window. It's really quite literal. There is also a secondary meaning of a swift dismissal or expulsion, as from office or a political position. If you've been reading my blog on a regular basis, you probably know me well enough to know that I wouldn't be writing this if the action in Prague was a metaphorical type of defenestration.

The second thing that caught my attention is that the 1618 Defenestration is actually the Second Defenestration of Prague. You've just gotta love a city that makes a habit out of throwing people out of windows.

Jan Hus
So, for a bit of background. The First Defenestration of Prague took place in 1419. It was all part of the Protestant-Catholic altercations that were going on all over Europe in those days. One of the most prominent leaders of the Reformation in Bohemia was Jan Hus, Rector at Prague University. He maintained that Jesus Christ, not the Pope, was the head of the Christian Church, and he denounced the lifestyle of the priests. He argued that the Church should be stripped of its property and its political power. He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake, becoming a martyr for the Protestant cause.

Hus's followers were known as the Hussites. On July 30, 1419, a procession led by the priest Jan Zelivsky made its way along the streets of Prague to the Town Hall. Along the way, someone threw a stone at Zelivsky from a window of the Town Hall. This enraged the crowd and the Hussites stormed the building. They threw the judge, the burgermeister, and 13 members of the town council out the window. Those who were not killed in the fall were killed by the mob.

King Wenceslaus
King Wenceslaus died of an apparent heart attack soon after. Some say it was in shock at hearing of the incident, but since he was out hunting at the time of his heart attack, he was apparently coping with his shock quite well. The First Defenestration was the beginning of action and the end of talk in Bohemia. The Hussite Wars began soon afterward and lasted until 1436.

This brings us to the Second Defenestration of Prague. It had been nearly 200 years since the First Defenestration. At this time, the region was still operating under the rules established by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. When the Peace was established, there were 255 German states in the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of each state was allowed to establish the religion of his people (Lutheranism or Catholicism.) As you can imagine, tempers were short.

In 1617, some Catholic officials had ordered a stop to the building of some Protestant churches. The Catholics claimed the land belonged to them. The Lutherans claimed it belonged to the King, who could do with it as he chose. They also feared that it was just the beginning of acts by the Holy Roman Emperor against the Protestants.

On May 23, 1618, a mob of Protestants stormed Prague Castle, where a meeting of the four Regents was taking place. According to several sources, the mob gained admittance by paying bribes, "in the usual manner." [Which brings me to the third reason I love this story: not only does Prague have such a rich history of defenestrations that it has to number them, but there's apparently a protocol to the process.] Two of the Regents were excused, but the other two, Count Vilem Slavata and Count Jarolslaw Martinitz, were at the mercy of the crowd.

Count Slavata: didn't go quietly
The two Regents were flung from the third story window, a distance of about 50 feet. Martinitz went first, screaming "Jesu Maria! Help!" as he fell. Slavata held on longer, also calling on the Blessed Virgin, and clinging with his fingers to the sill. He had to be knocked unconscious before he would let go. The crowd then turned on Philip Fabricius, secretary to the Regents. As they threw him out the window one of the perpetrators mocked, "We will see if your Mary can help you."

Apparently, she did. According to witnesses -- Catholic, of course -- a band of angels intercepted them and bore them safely to the ground. More pragmatic viewers said that they had landed on a pile of manure that had been left behind by gardeners. The men scurried away to safety. Later, Fabricius, the secretary, was made a noble by the Emperor: Baron von Hohenfall, or "Baron of Highfall."

The Second Defenestration was the beginning of the Bohemian Revolt, which in turn led to the Thirty Years War. Initially, it was a war for religious freedom, but quickly escalated into a struggle for power among most of the European powers. By the time it was finished, most of the major powers had been bankrupted, and the population and land of the German states suffered a great deal.

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