History is full of dark, tragic, shocking moments. It can be deeply depressing and soul-sucking. However, it is equally full of moments that contain lashings of sheer ridiculousness. Every so often, I’d like to share one of those ridiculous moments with you.
So, let’s get started with one that’s been a favorite of mine ever since high school: The Defenestration of Prague.
Two minor caveats before we get to the story: first off, I don’t want to explain the word “defenestration” yet. It’s a great word, and not one that you hear too often these days, unless you know a lot of people who like to show off their vocabularies, but if I tell you what it means now, it’ll spoil the story. Trust me. And secondly, when I refer to the Defenestration of Prague, I am actually referring to the Second Defenestration of Prague, which occurred in 1618, while the First Defenestration of Prague happened in 1419.
Let’s set the scene in Prague, a city in what is now the Czech Republic, but was then in Bohemia, a province in the Habsburgs’ Austrian Empire. Protestantism had existed for just over a century in 1618, and Protestants and Catholics weren’t getting along terribly well, which obviously came as a great surprise to Irishmen everywhere. Up until 1617, however, the Habsburgs, who were Catholic, had allowed the Czechs, who were mostly Protestant, to worship freely and exercise a degree of self-rule. The Letter of Majesty (1609), signed – albeit reluctantly – by the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, Rudolph II, promised religious tolerance to both Catholics and Protestants living in Bohemia. Pretty impressive for that time in history, all things considered.
In 1617, Matthias, the childless head of the Habsburg family, chose his cousin, Ferdinand of Styria, to succeed him and elected him king – in what was clearly a hotly contested election. Now, Ferdinand was a huge proponent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, so he had a few issues with the idea of allowing the Protestants in Bohemia to openly worship without molestation. He saw no reason to appease the Protestants under his rule, and promptly ordered that construction be ceased on Protestant chapels being built in the cities of Broumov and Hrob, claiming that they stood upon ground that belonged to the Catholic church. Protestant nobles in Bohemia protested vociferously that he was violating their religious freedom as had been promised by the Letter of Majesty. In response, Ferdinand dissolved the assembly of Bohemian estates, thus forever endearing himself to generations of children in sandboxes screaming, “NO, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT, IT’S MINE!”
On May 23, 1618, Protestant nobles gathered at Prague Castle to hold an impromptu trial, judging the four Catholic Lords Regent present to find whether one (or more) of them was responsible for persuading the king to order a halt to the chapels’ construction. Two of the Catholics (William Slavata and Jaroslav Martinic) were found guilty of violating the Letter of Majesty and, along with their scribe, were promptly thrown out of the window, plummeting a great distance to the ground below.* Estimates of that distance vary, but all accounts agree that it was a sheer drop of well over 50 feet.
No need to cry for these victims of kangaroo justice, however; all three men survived the fall without any serious injury. Catholics explained this seeming miracle by claiming that these three men were caught by angels and lowered gently to the ground. Protestants were far blunter and flatly stated that the men had survived the fall because they fell straight into a pile of manure. (It seems that no one asked clergy of either denomination what kind of an angel would drop men into manure.)
As much fun as it is to picture a couple of guys in fancy Renaissance clothing falling into a big dung heap, the real historical significance of the Defenestration of Prague is that it was the catalyst for the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was one of the longest wars in Europe’s history (second to the Hundred Years’ War, which actually lasted for 116 years) and held far-reaching consequences for the entire continent.
The Defenestration of Prague: proving that, no matter how original you thought you were being when you said that you wanted to throw a Congressman out of a window, it’s all been done before.
*See? I told you it would be more interesting if I didn’t define the word for you up front. Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of the window.
If you find yourself wanting to learn more, here is a bit of further reading on the Defenestration and the Thirty Years' War to get you started:
The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood and Anthony Grafton
The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618-1648 by Ronald Asch
The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy by Peter Wilson