600 years ago, an angry crowd stormed Prague’s New Town Hall and threw its councillors out of the window. The event, which has since become known as the First Defenestration of Prague, is often seen as the starting point of the Hussite Wars. A brutal religous conflict which saw Bohemia ravaged by civil war, but also created many of the nation’s most memorable victories and characters, which are remembered today in monuments, art and film. To better understand the role of the defenestration and how it came to be, I spoke with Dr. Pavel Soukup, an expert on medieval history from the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The First Defenestration of Prague on July 30th 1419 is often seen as the starting point of the Hussite Wars, but it took place four years after the burning of the influential Czech reformist priest and university lecturer Jan Hus at Constance. What was Hus preaching that made the Church react so harshly?
“Hus preached many things that were not so much in contrast with what the medieval Church and especially the reform-minded members of the church were saying themselves. It was a time of a Church crisis that almost everybody perceived and wanted to solve. Both Hus and his judges,who condemned this eventually had the same aim – to reform the Church.
“The way that reform was different however, was that Hus included some Doctrinal points that were not acceptable for the church hierarchy and for the Council of Constance. Especially the concept of the Church as such, because Hus denied that the true Church is a visible institution on earth, represented by priests and bishops, cardinals and the pope. He said that the true Church is a community of those elected for salvation.”
Was the teaching of Hus a sort of anti-institutional type of Christianity?
“It was certainly against hierarchy. Hus did not deny or question priesthood as an institution, but it seems that his ideal would have been small communities lead by a priest, or bishop if he was good. The Roman Church was governing the medieval Church like a monarchy, which was something he wanted to abandon.”
How was Hus’s death received in the immediate aftermath of his burning? And what followed the news?
“The people in Bohemia, especially Hussite followers, were outraged of course. Already when he left Bohemia for Constance, he had a considerable number of followers. There were also many political players, members of the aristocracy, who were not necessarily radical Hussites, but did not like to see a subject of the Kingdom of Bohemia burnt by a Church council somewhere in Germany.”
So was his burning also kind of a rallying point for the wider population. You said that there wasn’t only outrage because he was burned for his teachings, but also that a Bohemian citizen was sentenced in such a way in Germany. Did that help bring more people on his side, or not?
“It probably helped to bring some members of the nobility on his side, but a large part of the success of Hussitism was that Hus and his colleagues were able to gain followers in all parts of society. They had many partisans among commoners, who were not necessarily so much interested in politics and the Kingdom of Bohemia as a political entity. Clerics, who were former students of Hus and his colleagues, then spread the teachings to the countryside after they graduated from university.”
Why was it in Bohemia, of all places in Europe, that the dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church peaked during this period?
“We probably cannot say that the crisis – economic, demographic or political was worse in Bohemia, than anywhere else. But the group of people that started the reform efforts, could be considered special.
“They were concentrated in Prague, around the Bethlehem Chapel, which can be seen as a centre of mass media at the time, before the printing press. It was also connected to the university, which was the intellectual centre.
“Prague was an important political centre of the country. Since the reign of Charles IV, it was the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of the Romans at the time was Wenceslas IV. This made it an ideal environment, as the intellectuals who developed these religious ideas had an easy way of spreading them outside of Prague's accademic circle.
“Another factor was that both the secular and ecclesiastical powers in Bohemia were neihter strong enough, nor willing to oppress this movement. The archbishop of Prague, who was responsible for overseeing orthodoxy in his province, was not able and later not even willing to step in and put an end to this event, because he was a were partisan’s of King Wenceslas. Meanwhile, the king was not prepared to end this movement, because he pursued a kind of dual politics, trying to find a middle path.”
Let us now move to the actual defenestration and what exactly happened that day on July 30th 1419. I understand it started with a fiery sermon by one of the charismatic leaders of the Hussite movement Jan Želivský? Was this speech the spark that set off the event, or had it been a prepared action?
“Some appeared at the sermon with weapons hidden under their clothes. There are also more hints that suggest it was prepared and pre-negotiated with members of the more radical Hussite wing in both the New and the Old Town of Prague.
"One thing worth mentioning is that we don’t know exactly what Jan Želivský preached. We have written sermons, but they are sketches in Latin and don’t correspond entirely to what he said in Czech to the people. He certainly improvised and enriched the text we have. We can assume that it was a brilliant ceremony that brought in more participants to the defenestration. Nevertheless, the core of those who performed the action were likely prepared and aware of what they were going to do. After all, it is not usual to go to a sermon with a sword.
“The angry procession then moved on to the New Town Hall, which still stands on today’s Karlovo Náměstí and started demanding that Hussite prisoners held in the building be released.”
What happened then? I understand that Jan Žižka, the future commander of the radical Hussite wing, took charge?
“Those, along with other people present in the room, were thrown out of the window. The New Town Hall is in the first, or second floor, so it’s not high enough to die immediately as a consequence of falling. Those who survived were beaten to death on the ground.”
Was there anything symbolic in the act of defenestration, in other words, throwing the councillors out of the window?
“There is no direct reference to this symbolism, but there might have been a biblical story that served as inspiration. Then there was of course some symbolism simply in the act of falling down and landing in the streets from an elevated position. Medieval people thought in hierarchies. For example, a wide-spread metaphor was the wheel of fortune, where someone who is up will invevitably then go down as the wheel turns.
“For the councillors this meant the higher you rose, the worse your downfall.”
“It was an important part of a chain of events. Another very important factor, which isn’t connected to the defenestration, was the death of king Wenceslas IV.
“The chronological coincidence is significant, because the heir to the throne was Sigismund, the brother of Wenceslas. He was the one blamed for the death of Jan Hus, because he was the secular protector at the council which condemned him to death. He had the political responsibility. What is more, he issued Hus a letter of protection. Sigismund was thus blamed for his burning and it is quite clear that he was not in favour of Hussite teachings.
“Furthermore, it was also important that the Prague towns were mostly Hussite. The event of the defenestration contributed to this, because it was a revolt against the king. It was the king’s prerogative to decide who will be the counsellor of the New Town. Through the defenestration it was made clear to everyone that the Hussites were ready to use force in defending their demands and that led to the first crusade against Bohemia in the Spring of 1420.”