Bill Long 11/05/04
In Honor of Judge Henry Breithaupt
Protestants were outraged, naturally, when their churches were pulled down and Emperor Mathias didn't support them. As a result they called together the Protestant Protectors, a group of 24 noblemen provided for in the Letter of Majesty (1609) to deal with crisis issues as they arose. On May 5, 1618 they sent a petition to Mathias protesting the shabby way that they had been treated. He purportedly replied in quick order that the meeting of the Protestant Protectors itself was illegal. On May 22 the Protestants met and concluded that their petition was never really delivered to Mathias and that the two Imperial commissioners, Jaroslav von Martinicz and William Slawata, were behind the disprespectful reply. Thus, on the morning of May 23, after a meeting of the Protectors, a Protestant group led by Henry Thurn, decided to take matters into their own hands.
The Actual Defenestration
I now follow Hutton's classic account in his History of the Moravian Church (Book I, Chapter 14). Thurn, along with his conspirators, arrived at the Royal Castle, and forced his way into the Regent's Chamber where the King's Counselors were meeting. Sitting by the fire were the two men, Martinicz and Slawata, who had done the most to poison the king's mind against them, they believed. Some uncertainty seemed to grip the Protestants. Maybe they should arrest them. But then, one suggested, "out of the window with them, in the good old Bohemian fashion." So, they grabbed Martinicz and "he was flung headlong from the window. He clutched at the window-sill. A blow came down on his hands. He had to leave go, and down he fell, seventy feet, into the moat below."
Here is where history becomes fun. Martinicz was, seemingly miraculously, unhurt. Most scholars attribute this to a pile of something in the moat below. Various accounts of the defenestration call it straw or hay or rubbish or manure. Yet, a Catholic tradition of historiography grew up quickly around the event. One witness said that he saw the Virgin Mary cradle the unfortunate commissioner in her arms, lest he (in the words of the Sermon on the Mount) strike his feet against a stone. In a rage, the Protestants decided to treat Slawata and the secretary the same way, but they also emerged unscathed by the fall. As Hutton has it, "not one was even maimed for life."
As it turned out, Slawata became a singificant figure in Euorpean history, being the ancestor of Kings of Portugal in the 18th and 19th century. He, ever the faithful civil servant, wrote a report of his defenestration, some of which has been translated in Henry F. Schwarz's "The Imperial Privy Council in the 17th Century," in vol. 53 of Harvard Historical Studies. How would YOU write a story of your own defenestration? What would be the tone? Outrage? Incredulity? Quiet Faith? Unadorned telling of the story and letting the reader's indigation grow? I wonder how you would entitle it. "Reflections on Being Thrown Out of a Window"? "Three Seconds over Prague?"
It is a very short leap from this defenestration to an all-out war in Bohemia between Catholic and Protestant forces. The Protestants suffered immediate defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620 as well as long-term defeat. I am sure that when the Protestants saw Martinicz's fingers lose their grip on the sill of the third-floor window of the Hradcany Castle, they thought that Catholic fortunes would likewise slip away but, in this case, they were sadly mistaken. As Hutton says, "The dream of bliss became a nightmare."
I hope you agree by now that defenestration is too good to lose in our speech today. Of course, it has been used in its proper historical sense: "[The Thirty Years' War] Which commencing at the defenestration of Prague, terminated in the peace of Westphalia." And it can be used in a literal sense but shorn from Prague, as when an author said, "So confident was she of not being defenestrated that she rented a [fifth-floor apartment?] at 540 Rue de Lille." But then a figurative use may emerge. "Prague..seemed like a good place, gloomy and defenestrated" (though I don't know how a city can appear defenestrated).
My favorite is the 1974 Publisher's Weekly notice of a book about a certain Anne Ramsdell, a brilliant Oxford mathematics professor, whose private life was more tangled than her professional life. The book tells how she "escapes death by stabbing but is thrown out of her third-floor window (also surviving)...Anne meets and falls in love with the man who had defenestrated her at Oxford." Maybe if it happened in the 1990s she could have been a guest on the Jerry Springer show: "Men who defenestrate women, and the women who love them."
Instead of "bewitched, bothered and bewildered," in the famous tune from the Broadway Play "Pal Joey," some women have been "defenestrated, deflowered and defrauded." With the plethora of English terms beginning with "de" and ending in "ation" (degeneration, defoliation, delectation, deforestation, deliberation, for examples), defenestration ought to have a ready acceptance. I know, however, that I will never say the term again without thinking of the poor Imperial commissioner Martinicz getting his fingers slammed as he tried to hang onto the sill before falling into a life-saving dung heap in 1618.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long