Written by: R.L.H. Watson
“A creative act of rebellion that gained cultural significance among Medieval and Early Modern Bohemians.” - Me, 2020.
This all started in the year 1419 when a group of Czech Hussites, followers of Jan Hus, paraded through Prague as a mob, in the effort of convincing the local government to release imprisoned Hussites. The town council refused to release these “heretics”, and when a literal stone was thrown at Hussite priest Jan Želivský, the enraged mob retaliated by successfully storming the town hall. This insurrection resulted in the judge, the burgomaster, and several officials being thrown from one of the building’s windows to their death. To appropriate an old adage, I suppose those in big government houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Conflict between the Hussites and the town administration was a result of peasants and commoners alike becoming discontent with the church’s reinforcement of inequality between the Roman Catholic nobility and the growing palette of ordinary folk. It is not too far of a stretch to say that Jan Hus was really a medieval Karl Marx, who targeted the corrupt and oppressive nature of the Catholic Church. This is important in our view of studying the trend of defenestration in becoming traditionally significant for acts against religious and government oppression.
The event became known as the First Defenestration of Prague (yes, there were more). This act also became a symbol of unshackling chains and of pride for the non-Catholic population of Prague. So much so that it has become a subject of art, with the First Defenestration being represented through paintings and even re-enactments.
(Representation of the Act, Prague Tours, left)
(Reenactment of the 1419 Defenestration, 2009, right)
From this we can see that the First Defenestration of Prague struck true with the people as an important happenstance in local history. They even did it again in 1483! Although this one is lesser known and comically referred to as the 1½ Defenestration of Prague. This is mainly due to the fact that this defenestration was less focussed on religious branches in conflict, and attributed to the fear of local government action. This smaller event saw local officials, yet again, get chucked out of office, further enforcing the symbolic nature of defenestration as rejecting unpopular authority - very important for a medieval society without democracy.
Finally we have the Second Defenestration of Prague, (referred to as the Third Defenestration in the Czech Republic), that took place in 1618, being an event significant as an act against oppression, and as a prelude to the Thirty Years’ War.
On the left here is a 1635 woodcut of the Third Defenestration. Published in Frankfurt, a Protestant stronghold, by Swiss artist and patrician, Matthäus Merian. Exactly three years earlier Merian painted a portrait of Swedish king, and father of modern warfare, Gustavus Adolphus. Both works were completed during the Thirty Years’ War, the woodcut presenting the trans-national and contemporary significance of the 1618 defenestration, and the portrait nodding to Merian’s sympathy and support for the protestant combatants of the conflict.
On May 23rd, 1618, four Catholic Lord's Regents arrived at the Bohemian Chancellery, to face inquiry from Protestant lords and officials, as to why construction of a local protestant church had been ordered to cease, and the lives of the protestants forfeit. When asked if they had swayed on the order, the Catholic Lords tried to leave, but the inquiry weeded out their role in the scheme. Count von Thurn, the Protestant who led the inquiry spoke to two of the Catholic Lords:
“You are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects... and have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills or have had them expelled for this reason,"
He turned to the crowd of Protestants and continued:
“...were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion... for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them."
These two regents and a secretary were then cast out of the window by the Protestant mob, surprisingly, they survived the 70-foot drop from the third floor. To which the Catholic Lords claimed to have been lifted down by angels. In response to this a Protestant pamphleteer started propagating that they were saved by landing in a dung heap and not by divine intervention. A cool golden nugget of a source tells us that the Catholic secretary who survived the fall was later granted the title Baron von Hohenfall, which literally means Baron of Highfall.
This act of rebellion rang as an echo of the past, where the protestant population stood their ground and position, denying their oppressors of the stairs, and throwing them out of a three story building. In response the Catholic Habsburgs started gathering allies for war, and so too did the Protestant estates, which resulted in the very bloody Thirty Years’ War that saw 8 million casualties from warfare, famine, and disease.
(The Defenestration 1618, by Václav Brozik, painted circa 1889-1890. Picture: Courtesy National Gallery of Victoria.)