Look Out Below: The Bloody History Of Defenestration

Published February 16, 2016
Updated September 3, 2021

The Bloody Origins Of Defenestration

Defenestration Of Prague New Town Hall

Left: A painting of the Defenestration of Prague by Adolf Liebscher. Right: The Town Hall in the present day. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origin of the term defenestration — the Latin word ‘de’ meaning ‘out of’ and ‘fenestra’ meaning ‘window’ — comes from an incident in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), in 1419. A group of anti-Catholic rebels (the Hussites) marched upon the New Town Hall in Charles Square, demanding the release of some of the Hussite prisoners.

When the request was refused and a stone was hurled at their leader, Jan Zelivsky, the Hussites angrily stormed the hall and started tossing the council members out of the windows.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the incensed mob gathered below the windows held up spears for the men to fall upon. Those that weren’t killed by the fall were hastily despatched with the spears.

200 years later, it happened all over again. Fittingly titled The Second Defenestration of Prague, the 1618 act was fuelled by the religious altercation between the protestant Bohemian aristocracy and the ruling catholic Hapsburgs, whereupon members of the former threw two Hapsburg regents out of the windows of Wenceslaus Hall in Prague Castle. Amazingly, however, they survived the 70-foot drop.

The Hapsburgs instantly claimed divine intervention, insisting the men had been miraculously caught by the hands of the Virgin Mary. The generally accepted explanation is far less holy — namely, that the men survived because they landed on a large pile of dung, conveniently situated beneath the window.

So where exactly did the inspiration to start throwing people out of windows come from? According to Czech historian Ota Konrad, from Charles University, “The inspiration for defenestration comes from the Bible, in the story about Jezebel, who was thrown from the window by her people. Defenestration was a very symbolic execution: It is about falling from high to low, symbolising a fall from grace.”