What the Heck is Defenestration?

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A Brief History

On July 30, 1419, The First Defenestration of Prague took place, which of course, means there was a second Defenestration!  Prague, the capital in what was then called Bohemia and today the capital of the Czech Republic, is a vibrant city as the seat of government today, just as it was back in 1419.  Why would such a beautiful city be the scene of violence?

Digging Deeper

First of all, we must let you know what “defenestration” means.  Not a word you hear every day although the action described by it is not all that unusual.  (Drum roll, please….)  Simply put, it means throwing someone or some thing out of a window.  Have you ever actually used this word in a sentence?  To be honest, neither did this author until writing this article!  Why do we even need a special word for such action, when we could just say, “threw him out the window?”  Should a police officer writing a littering citation state that the offender “defenestrated a fast food wrapper from his car onto the roadside?”  If I had been familiar with this term while serving as a police officer, you better believe I would have found a way to use the word!

The defenestration of the Biblical Queen Jezebel at Jezreel, by Gustave Doré

Getting back to Prague, the events of 1419 that led to 9 people being chucked out the upper floor windows of City Hall (known as New Town Hall) to their deaths were related to the arrests and confinement of Hussites, members of a religious sect founded by Czech Pre-Protestant theologian Jan Hus (sometimes anglicized to “Huss”).  Those in charge, typically not wanting to upset the status quo provided by the Catholic Church, did not take kindly to these followers of Hus with their contrary ideas.  When the town council refused to release the prisoners, a mass protest took place with Hussites marching on City Hall, led by Jan Želivský, a Hussite friendly Catholic priest.  Some person allegedly defenestrated a rock from an upper floor window at City Hall, supposedly striking Father Jan.  His congregation became incensed and stormed City Hall, whence they chucked 7 members of the City Council along with a judge and the burgomeister (mayor) out the windows, killing those men.  King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia was said to be so upset by the event that his health failed, and he died shortly afterwards.  (Note: This is not the “Good King Wenceslaus” of Christmas song, that was Wenceslaus I.)

Fueled by discontent about the inequality of the distribution of wealth, with the peasants and lower classes being denied the spoils enjoyed by the nobility and the Church prelates, the Hussite movement was galvanized by the First Defenestration of Prague and the Hussite Wars (also known as the Bohemian Wars or Bohemian Revolution or Hussite Revolution) broke out, lasting until 1436, the end result being one faction of Hussites defeating another faction of Hussites and making peace with the national government. (A greatly simplified account, to be sure…)

Evolution of the Hussite movement in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown from 1419 to 1620, superimposed on modern borders.  Map by Ernio48.

After the infamy of having the leaders of the city thrown out the windows, Prague experienced yet another Defenestration, this time known as (drum roll please…) The Second Defenestration of Prague!  This particular time, May 23, 1618, the occasion was a meeting at the Bohemian Chancellory between 4 Catholic Lords Regent with 3 of the main Protestant Lords that represented the 3 main Protestant Estates over a dispute concerning the Protestants being maltreated by the Holy Roman Emperor’s representatives (the Catholic Regents), denied their proper positions, rights and the dissolution of the Protestant Assembly.  The meeting, kind of a trial of the Catholic Regents, became heated, and the Protestants, led by Count von Thurn, told 2 of the Catholic Regents, Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum and Count Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice that,  “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.”  Explaining to the crowd of Protestants in the area that to allow these Catholic oppressors to live would be a mistake (words to the effect), the Protestants proceeded to throw the 2 Catholic Regents and their secretary out the window!  Positioned a whopping 70 feet above the pavement below (other sources claim more like 90 feet), one would expect a fatal outcome, but this time all 3 victims survived their harrowing experience.  The secretary, or scribe, Phillip Fabricius, was later enobled by the Emperor and given the title “von Hohenfall” (literally meaning “of Highfall”)!

The surprising survival of the Catholic victims was hailed by Catholics as proof of Divine intervention on their behalf, perhaps by the Virgin Mary.  Protestants reported the survival was due to the victims falling into a large heap of dung.  No matter what the reason these victims survived, the incident was a precipitating factor in starting the 30 Years War.

A later woodcut of the defenestration in 1618.  Woodcut by Johann Philipp Abelinus.

Apparently, Prague has experienced other incidents of people being thrown from windows, but only these 2 major incidents are commemorated by being called “The Defenestrations of Prague.”  For some reason other cities that have had folks thrown from windows have not been given the distinction of having their own “Defenestration” named in their “honor.”  Surely there must be numerous incidents of people being thrown out windows! At least now you know what to call it.

Question for students (and subscribers): What incident of someone being thrown from a window would you consider historically important or infamous?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Giorgio Vasari’s impression of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Howe, Susan. Defenestration of Prague.  Kulchur Foundation, 1983.

Quik eBooks. Historic Events : The Defenestration of Prague – Religion and rebellion. QUIK eBooks, 2011.

Wilson, Peter. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. Belknap Press, 2011.

The featured image in this article, the Defenestration of Prague on a contemporary flyer in 1618, from Peter Milger, Gegen Land und Leut, Der Dreißigjährige Krieg (Niedernhausen, 2001), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.