Bill Long 11/05/04
In Honor of Judge Henry Breithaupt
Very few people get up in the morning, look out the window, and mutter to themselves, "Defenestration." Yet the word, which means to "throw out of a window," has a significant and colorful history. In addition, it can be used today to describe what we might like to do to our opponents (i.e., "defenestration is a fate far too good for X."). Let's examine its history.
The OED associates the word with the Defenestration of Prague, and defines it as follows: "The action of the Bohemian insurgents who, on the 21st of May 1618, broke up a meeting of the Imperial commissioners and deputies of the States, held in the castle of the Hradshin, and threw two of the commissioners and their secretary out of the window; this formed the prelude to the Thirty Years' War." Apart from the fact that the agreed-upon date for the defenestration is May 23, 1618 and that most scholars refer to it as the Hradcany Castle, the OED's definition is basically correct. Yet, its brevity elides a colorful history that can partially be retold here.*
[*A full history of this one event would really take us back to the mid-16th century in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Poland, the Czech lands and other Eastern lands), the bewildering multiplication of small--more than 300--regional governing authorities, the religious diversity brought about by both the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations and the attempt of the Catholic Church to "recatholicize" the East, which was ultimately successful. Maybe I will get to that story someday].
Getting a Window into the Problem
Let's start with the window and the event itself. The window from which the two imperial commissioners, Jaroslav von Martinicz and William Slawata (and their secretary), were heaved was a third-floor corner window, seventy feet above the moat bottom, on one of the wings of the Castle. The Hradcany castle, which also contains St. Vitus Cathedral, is believed to be the largest castle in the world, extending more than 570 meters in length. This defenestration is not really the first one that was done in Bohemia. Indeed, two centuries previously, as a result of unrest following the execution of the proto-Protestant Jan Huss, rector of the University of Prague, seven imperial representatives were cast out of the same window, skewered by Hussite pikes and killed.**
[**I am grateful to reader Roger Bogaert who, in an October 16, 2008 email to me corrected this last fact by saying that the First Defenestration of Prague took place on July 30, 1419 "At the town hall of Nove Mesto which is situated at Karlovo namesti (namesti=square)....[the town was] founded in the 14th century under the reign of emperor Charles IV Luxemburg (reigned 1346-1378)." Thanks, Roger!]
Some scholars even refer to defenestration as the mode by which Czech's get rid of their undesired imperial pretenders or representatives. [So would it be proper to call the guillotine the French defenestration--only much more effective?] In this case the three defenestrated men (are they to be known as the defenestrees?) escaped with minor injuries, which story I tell below. Be that as it may, we now know the window, the men and their fate. But why would anyone want to throw three guys out of a window in Prague in 1618?
The Letter of Majesty
Bohemia was a divided land religiously, with the majority of the population being Protestants. Recognizing this political reality, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576-1612) issued a Letter of Majesty at the behest of the Protestant nobles of Bohemia in June 1609 in which he promised religious toleration and freedom to all groups in Bohemia. Yet the Letter had a "Royal Estates" clause that would be problematic to interpret, especially in the next decade. In a nutshell, this "Royal Estate" clause permitted any group to build a chapel or church on a "Royal Estate," though not defining clearly what a "Royal Estate" was.
Thus, for example, it was unclear whether it was permissible for Protestants to build churches on lands leased (or subinfeudated) from the Emperor himself to Catholic institutions or individuals. Protestants, who read the clause aggressively, as tax lawyers often so read the Internal Revenue Code, decided that this clause enabled them to build churches on such land. Since the Protestants had a healthy majority in Bohemia, they were seemingly on good grounds not only for this interpretation but for the actual building of new churches.
Rudolf never really meant to give the Protestants license to pursue an aggressive church-building campaign through the Letter. By 1611 he wanted to restrict this building and, as a result, the Protestant nobles (called the Bohemian Estates) appealed to Rudolf's brother Mathias, making him King of Bohemia in 1611 after extracting promises from him to support them. Rudolf died in 1612 and Mathias became Holy Roman Emperor. Yet, Mathias was a committed Catholic and when he wanted to name as his successor the vigorous anti-Protestant Ferdinand of Styria in 1617, the Bohemian Estates were in a quandary. On the one hand they were distraught that Ferdinand, who was known for his vigorous persecution of Protestants in Styria, would be so named; on the other hand, they had thrown in their lot with Mathias several years previously to protect them against Rudolf. So, with great reluctance, the Estates supported the future naming of Ferdinand as King of Bohemia, a move that was also supported by the Hapsburgs to the South. Ferdinand actually would not become King until 1618.
Then, still in 1617, all hell broke loose. As so often happens, big issues develop out of little issues, and the little issues here were the construction of two Protestant chapels/churches on Catholic-controlled lands in Klostergrab and Brunau. The Klostergrab land belonged to the Catholic Archbishop of Prague while the Brunau land was under the control of the Abbot of Brunau. Yet, the Protestants felt that under the Letter of Majesty they should be able to build there. These were, in their interpretation, "Royal Estates." Yet, at Brunau the Abbot closed the church and, at Klostsergrab the church was destroyed as it was being built, with the wood used as firewood. Matthias, still King, sided with the Catholics.
The next essay will tell the rest of the story.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long