Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Defenestration of Prague

The word of the day is defenestrate:
de·fen·es·trate (dē-ˌfe-nə-ˈstrāt), verb

definition: to throw a person or thing out of a window

Origin: de- + Latin fenestra (window)

Used in a sentence: I couldn't help but defenestrate my little sister after she put lipstick on my G.I. Joes!
Fig.1: "This is the last time we book the conference 
room on the top floor!"
What does this have to do with history, you ask? Well, would you believe me if I told you that a major war actually started in Europe because some guys got defenestrated? It's true, I swear it! In 1618, the growing conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic) actually led to a situation where local noblemen threw their king's representatives out of a third-story window (fig.1). This allowed the bubbling religious pot to boil over, and Europe would be at war for the next thirty years during the Thirty Years War. The Defenestration of Prague is great not only because it's an awesome historical event, but it gives us the opportunity to learn some vocabulary as well! Please don't throw me out of a window for that!

Now as odd as it sounds, when someone brings up the Defenestration of Prague at the watercooler, you might actually need to ask, "Which one?" That's because there was an appetizer Defenestration of Prague that took place 199 years before the main course! In the 1400s, many Catholics were getting sick of the church lauding political power over them, allowing the rich to purchase "indulgences" which absolved them of their sins, and the pope's lavish collection of gold-embroidered bathrobes. An advocate for reform in Bohemia was a priest named Jan Hus, whose teachings greatly influenced the people there even though the church tried to shut his yap by burning it (and the rest of his body) at the stake. During a Hussite procession through Prague in 1419, someone from inside the town hall threw a rock at them, most likely after betting his friend twenty gulden that he could knock the priest's hat off. The Hussites got a little angry, stormed the town hall, and, as normal angry people do, proceeded to defenestrate everyone in the room. Fifteen members of the Prague council were killed, and the event sparked a rebellion (of only seventeen years) known as the Hussite Wars. This set the tone for using defenestration as a logical way for Bohemians to vent about their religious problems.

Fig.2: Ferdinand always kept a helmet
ready in case of defenestrations.
After folks like Luther, Calvin, and the dictionary-bottomfeeder Zwingli got the Protestant Reformation going in the 16th century, the majority of Bohemia came under their fold and opposed the Catholic hierarchy. Though the King of Bohemia also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor, who was often the most Catholic person outside the Vatican and Thursday Night Bingo, he often allowed his Protestant subjects to do their own thing as long as they kept the noise down. This was put in writing in 1609 by King Rudolf II in his Letter of Majesty, which promised religious toleration in return for continued loyalty, and was followed up by Rudolf's brother and successor, Matthias, who promised religious toleration in return for continued use of the wi-fi password. The honeymoon was over with the ascension of Ferdinand II (fig.2) to the throne in 1617, who hated Protestants more than Scooby-Doo villains hated those meddling kids. He ordered for the closure of Protestant churches on royal lands, and when the assembly complained about it, he ordered for the closure of that as well. It was safe to say the windows were coming unlatched.

In the morning of May 23, 1618, four of the king's Catholic regents, including Count Borzita and Count Slavata, as well as their scribe/sandwich-getter, Filip Fabricius, got together for a regular meeting at the Bohemian Chancellory. Soon, they were ambushed by members of the dissolved Protestant assembly, led by Count Thurn, who demanded to know who advised the king and emperor to do all these hateful things. Two of the regents subtly pointed at Borzita and Slavata and coughed, "They did it," and so they were deemed innocent and permitted to step out for coffee. Thurn then charged the remaining regents with being "enemies of us and of our religion," and went on a tangent about all the things the Catholics have done wrong throughout the centuries. Borzita and Slavata, only half-listening since they've heard this sort of thing a lot, assumed they would be arrested and held in a cell until their faithful king pulled some strings to get them free. Obviously they didn't hear the squeaking of the hinges as a little more light shot into the room...

Thurn turned to this Protestant buddies and said, "were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion," and promptly sentenced them to death. Before the Catholic regents could say, "Wait, what?" they were grabbed and shuffled off towards the wide open window. Borzita was thrown clear out and fell 70 feet to the hard ground below. When Slavata was pushed over, he desperately hung onto the window ledge like every action movie protagonist ever; he lost his grip when one of the assemblymen struck his fingers with a sword, and lost cool points when he hit his head on a sill on the way down. Not even the scribe Fabricius was safe, as back then it was customary to blame the messenger as well. Miraculously, all three defenestratees survived, with Fabricius even landing on his feet like a cat (which, by the way, is the second choice on Google when you search for "Defenestration of..."). Catholics claimed this was due to the intercession of the Virgin Mary who cushioned their fall; Protestants would later counter they only survived by landing in a pile of dung. Personally I find these explanations to be figuratively and literally bullcrap.

Fig.3: I see a lot of OSHA violations here...
The regents returned to Vienna and told Ferdinand what transpired (after the necessary vocabulary lesson of what defenestrate meant, of course). Bohemia was officially in revolt, and proclaimed a Protestant prince named Frederick to be the rightful king. German troops were sent to quell the rebellion, which they did at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, and 28 accused defenestraters were executed in the not-as-cool method of beheading (yawn). However, this convinced Protestant nations, such as England, Sweden, and the Nether-regions to support the efforts against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire (as well as their Catholic friends, Spain and Poland), precipitating one of the longest, bloodiest conflicts in Europe's long, bloody history; estimates range up to 8 million soldiers and civilians losing their lives, which is a proportionally larger total for Europe than either of World Wars of the 20th century (Hitler included!). At the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, which coincidentally was thirty years after the Defenestration of Prague, the political and religious map of the entire continent was altered and settled, and many historians claim that the idea of sovereign countries actually emerged from this conflict. And all this because three dudes got thrown out of a window!

In the Czech Republic and its capital of Prague, people have rather mixed feelings regarding the Defenestration. On the one hand, it started a war that hampered their national and cultural development, as Bohemia would be under the control of the Emperor in Vienna all the way until 1918, and they didn't get around to writing their Rhapsody until 1975. Nonetheless, the building in which the Defenestration occurred is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city (right after the Prague Beer Museum), and defenestration has become the cool thing to do throughout its history, with evidence of criminals, political dissidents, and inaccurate weathermen being hurled out of a window as punishment for their wrongdoings. In the end, countless people have died and the European map was redrawn thanks to the Defenestration of Prague, but it's all worth it now that high schoolers have another vocabulary word they can answer correctly on their SATs. That's a check for the Czechs!

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