Look Out Below!

View from Prague Castle

At least the view is nice on the way down.

It’s impossible to do, but wouldn’t the word “defenestration” be an awesome play in Scrabble?  Pronounced dee-FEN-eh-STRAY-shun, it means “the act of throwing a person or thing out of a window”.  Historically defenestration was the favored method of assassination in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic).

Down through the centuries there have been several such acts; scholars debate how many, although not quite to the point of throwing each other out of windows.  There are two about which there is no dispute.  One is the First Defenestration of Prague, which occurred on July 30, 1419.  The grievances that led up to it had been simmering for a number of years.

Church reformer Jan Hus and his followers were at bitter odds with the Catholic hierarchy.  Hus was excommunicated, but eventually was summoned to a council, the goal of which was supposedly some kind of reconciliation.  Hus may have thought, “At last we’re getting somewhere”, but the council resulted in Hus getting burned at the stake (1415).

This enflamed Hus’s followers, you might say, and skirmishes with various kings and popes and cardinals ensued.  Some Hussites were rounded up and imprisoned.  Trying to free their comrades, other Hussites burst into the New Town Hall in Prague, laid hands on seven council members and flung them out the nearest window.  An angry mob happened to be below that window, so most of the councilors had their descent abruptly stopped by pikes.  Those who missed the pikes and landed on the pavement were beaten to death, in a rather free interpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies”.  The king of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV, was so enraged that he had an apoplectic fit and died.  It should be noted that this was not the Good King Wenceslas of Christmas-carol fame.

The so-called Second Defenestration of Prague (which may have actually been the third or fourth) happened a couple of hundred years later, on May 23, 1618.  The underlying provocation was the closing of Protestant chapels and churches in Bohemia; this, it was felt by some, violated guarantees of religious liberty that had been spelled out in a document grandly known as the Letter of Majesty.

Bohemian nobles (Protestants) held an assembly; a couple of imperial regents were tried and, after several seconds of deliberation, found guilty of violating the Letter of Majesty.  The regents, Martinic and Slawata, along with their secretary Fabricius, were launched out a window of Prazský hrad (Prague Castle).  I have stood at that very window, and would estimate that the regents and Fabricius had a fifty-foot fall.

Remarkably, they didn’t die.  The Jesuits attributed their miraculous survival to the mercy of benevolent angels; the Protestants pointed out that the three men had landed in a ditch that was full of manure.  In any case, Martinic, Slawata, and Fabricius escaped with their lives.

As mentioned before, there have been other defenestrations as well, although that colorful tradition hasn’t been practiced for some decades now.  Prague is a beautiful city to visit, and I’d encourage you to do so.  But if you do go, try to book a hotel room on the ground floor.  Just in case.

4 responses to “Look Out Below!

  1. Spit-take: Those who missed the pikes and landed on the pavement were beaten to death, in a rather free interpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies”.


  2. Wow, what a story! It make me want to revisit my Czech history lesson notes.
    I have accidentally thrown my cat out of the window once (she survived by the way), but I promise you we are a very friendly and welcoming nation.

  3. Even though it was an accident, I imagine the cat kept its distance from you for quite a while after that “flight”!

  4. 🙂 I came across your picture while looking for some great pictures of Prague. Looks great! I’m leaving to go in November. I hope I can grab some good pictures like you did.

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