1618 Defenestration of Prague
On 23 May 1618, 405 years ago today, the 1618 Defenestration of Prague occurred. What is, or what was, the 1618 Defenestration of Prague? “Defenestration” means to throw someone out of the window, and there have been several famous defenestrations in Prague. However, the 1618 Defenestration of Prague is especially famous as the trigger that set off the Thirty Years War. Here is how the defenestration is described by Geoffrey Parker:
“There was particular concern about the grant of crown lands (protected by the Letter of Majesty) to Catholic prelates (who were apparently not bound by the Letter) . Since 132 ‘royal’ parishes had been transferred to the archbishop of Prague alone since 1611, the status of such lands under the Letter of Majesty was a question of some significance. The Prague assembly accordingly sent an urgent petition to the emperor asking for a change of policy. Matthias refused, and instead called on the delegates to disperse. Although they did so, it was agreed that a further meeting should be held in two months to consider developments. On 23 May, after only two days of debate, the assembly was again ordered to disperse at once. Since the command, which appeared to be unconstitutional (such meetings were certainly permitted by the royal concessions of 1609 and 1611), emanated from the council of regents which sat in the Hradschin, the incensed delegates marched to the palace, entered the council chamber, and (in conscious imitation of the events that began the Hussite revolution in 1418) hurled two of the most outspoken Catholic regents, and their secretary, out of the window. Next, the delegates appointed a provisional government of thirty-six Directors and authorized the levy of a small army, as had been done in 1611. For the third time in ten years, the Bohemians were in revolt.”
If you go to Prague Castle today, you can see the window where the 1618 Defenestration of Prague took place. When I was there, I looked out the window. It looked like a long way down, but, in fact, all three of the men thrown out the window that day survived the fall. So it sounds like a rather trivial trigger for such a horrendous war, but Europe was a powder keg that was ready to blow.
There had already been a hundred years of religious wars since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but these conflicts were mere prelude. The first hundred years of the Reformation provided time for the Protestants to at least partially consolidate their power after separating themselves from Rome and, by implication, from the Holy Roman Emperor. The Thirty Years War was the most gruesome bloodletting of Europe’s religious wars, and the 1618 Defenestration of Prague is usually identified as the starting point of the war.
Above I called the 1618 Defenestration a “trigger” for the Thirty Years War. This terminology is commonly employed when it looks like an historical event or process is inevitable, and lacks only a trigger to set events in motion. Was the Thirty Years War inevitable? To say so is to imply that, in the case of the counterfactual that the 1618 Defenestration of Prague did not happen, some other trigger would have eventually happened that would have started the war.
Another famous example of an apparent trigger for an apparently inevitable war was the assassination of the Archduke Frank Ferdinand by Gavrilo Pincip in Sarajevo, which is credited with starting the First World War. Again, Europe was ready for a war at this time, had been planning war for at least a generation. Otto von Bismarck had even said in 1888 that, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” In fact, it did. But was the First World War inevitable?
Let us say that some kind of war was inevitable in the seventeenth century, and that, if a great war between Catholics and Protestants hadn’t started due to the 1618 Defenestration of Prague, that another event would have happened to trigger a war. So far so good. But if a war had been triggerd in 1617 or 1619, would it have been the Thirty Years War? That is to say, we can acknowledge the inevitability of war within a given political system without thereby committing ourselves to the inevitability of a particular war, and certainly not committing ourselves to a thorough-going historical determinism.
Further, I would argue that, the closer the parameters of a counterfactual war to a actual war, like the Thirty Years War, the more any alternative war would resemble the Thirty Years War. By the “parameters” of a counterfactual war, I mean those rough measures like the date of its onset, the region of its onset, its total geographical extent, and its total duration in time, so that if the 1618 Defenestration of Prague had not triggered the Thirty Years War, but some other war began a month earlier or a month later, and also in Bohemia, and then consumed most of Europe for thirty years, this counterfactual war would have been nearly indistinguishable from the actual war.
The further the parameters of a counterfactual war vary from an actual war, the less the counterfactual war would have resembled the actual war. Thus if the big war that was taking shape between Catholics and Protestants had started ten years earlier (1608), or ten years later (1628), it would have been a rather different war, as different individuals would have been in charge of governments and armies. The Thirty Years War without Tilly, without Pappenheim, without Ferdinand II, without Gustavus Adolphus, and so on, wouldn’t have been the Thirty Years War as we know it today. Further, if the conflict had been triggered, say, by the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), thus starting in the Low Countries instead of in Bohemia, with no Battle of White Mountain, again, it would not have been the Thirty Years War as we know it. Indeed, even the history of philosophy could have been changed if there had been no Battle of White Mountain, since it was when Descartes was in winter quarters in Bohemia that he conducted his famous meditations, and realigned philosophy to make epistemology the central concern.
But once one starts tampering with contingency, it is difficult to say where to stop. If Descartes hadn’t been in winter quarters in Bohemia, maybe he would have conducted his meditations in the Netherlands, and modern philosophy would more or less have gotten started as it did. This is as much as saying that the Cartesian moment in philosophy could be taken to be as inevitable as the Thirty Years War. Again, we can apply the same standard here as I applied above in regard to the 1618 Defenestration of Prague: say that some realignment of European philosophy toward epistemology was more-or-less inevitable in the early modern period. Even given this inevitability, the more we alter the parameters of this revolution in philosophy, the more a counterfactual history of philosophy might have looked different, diverging from the history that we know: it might have been in the Low Countries instead of Bohemia; it might have been ten years earlier or ten year later; it might have been some philosopher other than Descartes. Maybe Descartes wouldn’t have gone to Sweden to tutor Queen Christina, and wouldn’t have died at a relatively early age.
The custom for experiments in empirical science, which should also be the custom with thought experiments, is to focus on one variable, and to keep all other surrounding circumstances as unchanged as possible. We could do this with the Thirty Years War or Cartesianism, teasing out all the details that could be definitely ascertained as having changed due to some one variable changing. Thinking in this way leads us to focus on single key events, which in turn suggests something like chaos theory and the butterfly effect, which in turn leads to a trivializing of great events which are seen as the (inevitable) result of some trivial trigger. Such things are possible, but the romance of the idea leads one astray: the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change history, but most of the time it probably doesn’t matter whether or not a butterfly flaps its wings — the butterfly has the liberty of indifference and need not be implicated in bloody conflicts.
And so too with other presumptive triggers of great events. A defenestration might trigger a war, but it also might not. The defenestrations of 1419 and 1483 did not trigger wars, though it could be argued that the 1419 defenestration was a slow trigger for the Hussite wars.
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