1422: Jan Zelivsky, Hussite defenestrator

Add comment March 9th, 2015 Headsman

Radical Hussite Jan Želivský was beheaded on this date in 1422.


1952 memorial plaque of Zelivsky in Prague

Zelivsky (English Wikipedia entry | Czech), a priest, emerges in the 1410s as a fiery populist orator at Prague’s Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

After the treacherous capture and execution of Jan Hus, the Hussite movement split between radical and moderate factions. The firebrand Zelivsky became the chief voice of the lower-class, radical Hussites and led the dramatic Defenestration of Prague wherein a Hussite mob pitched several Catholic city ministers out the window of the Prague town hall — triggering a revolution and 15 years of war.

Over the ensuing year, Zelivsky came to dominate politics in Prague. But he had to struggle for his power against both the external threat of Hapsburg armies, and the internal rivalry of moderate Hussites — and these factions did not scruple to deploy the executioner for mastery of Prague.

Zelivsky in the summer of 1421 mounted a coup against moderate Hussites who were negotiating with the Catholic nobility, and even executed some of those movement apostates. But power was wrested away from him in the ensuing months and he was arrested by surprise at a town meeting and secretly put to death.

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1421: The last Viennese Jews

1 comment March 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.

Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.

The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*

That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)

To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.

On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.

Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**

Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.

“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.

Jews were not permitted to return to Austria for centuries.

* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”

** The synagogue’s foundations have been only recently rediscovered, as part of the excavation for a Museum Judenplatz at the site. That museum has not necessarily been welcomed by the Viennese Jewish community it’s supposed to represent.

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1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language

4 comments July 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake at Konstanz for heresy.

This statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town is a tourist magnet. image (cc) autumnal fire

Hus might be the most consequential pre-Lutheran Christian religious reformer, and the Hussite faith he founded still persists to this day.

In his own time, Hus expounded a reformist theology inspired by John Wycliffe, and putting Holy Writ into the vernacular was essential to his program. His religious movement found common cause with a Bohemian political interest in exploiting western Christendom’s clown carful of rival popes to stake out greater national independence.

He eventually met his martyrdom by agreeing to come to the Council of Konstanz (Constance) under a guarantee of safe conduct, where prelates were going to sort out their rival popes and do the periodic Church reform thing.

Instead, Hus was seized and imprisoned — you don’t have to keep promises to heretics, see; it’s all a part of this noble era’s expediently plastic sense of honor — and tried and condemned and implored to recant and finally burned alive.*

But the disobedient movements Hus had kindled in life were not so easily reduced to ash.

In the aftermath of the great ecclesiastic’s execution, a significant conflict erupted in Bohemia. For a generation or so of the Hussite Wars, the man’s followers repelled Catholic incursions before they too finally succumbed.

Even then, it wasn’t over (and still isn’t). Though it wasn’t all specifically about the guy named Jan Hus — these things never are — the Catholic powers that be were still fighting and propagandizing against Hus centuries later, into the Counter-Reformation.

Today, the statue of Jan Hus that everyone flocks to see in Prague’s Old Town Square is flanked by a Catholic church on one side … and a Catholic church that’s become a Hussite church on another.


Since all of the above and a great deal more about Hus and Hussites is readily available at the search engine of your choice, we thought — after the above introduction — to redirect our conversation to a dimension of Jan Hus less widely recognized: his foundational role in the development of the modern written Czech language, and especially its use of diacritics. Hus is generally credited as the creator of the haček or caron.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for helping ferret out this excerpt, from the chapter on Czech by Robert Auty in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander M. Schenker and Edward Stankiewicz, Yale: 1980.

The religious reform movement associated with the name of Jan Hus (1371-1415) had important consequences for the Czech literary language. Knowledge of the Bible was an important element in the reform program of Hus and his followers: the Bible was to be made available to the people in their own language and priests had to be able to expound it in a clear and straightforward manner … The establishment and continuous polishing and revision of the scriptural text played a great part in the development of the written Czech vernacular. Moreover the Czech translation profoundly influenced the earliest Polish versions of the Bible.

Hus’s own views on the language emerge not only from his practice but also from various theoretical utteranes on the subject. It has been shown that in morphology and vocabulary he tried to modernize the language in accordance with the development of natural speech. In phonology however he took up a more conservative position … Hus was also critical of another element of contemporary Prague speech, the proliferation of Germanisms in the vocabulary. In this he took up a position similar to that of many of his countrymen four or five centuries later and castigated those who said handtuch (Ger. Handtuch) for ubrusec ‘towel,’ šorc (Ger. Schurz) for zástěrka ‘apron,’ trepky (Ger. Treppen) for chódy ‘steps,’ knedlík (Ger. Knödel) for šiška ‘dumpling’ and the like. It is interesting to note that many of the Germanisms to which Hus objected have in fact disappeared from the language; yet others have resisted; knedlík, for example, has become fully domesticated.


A Czech knedlík by any other name would still taste as chutný. (cc) image from Michal Sänger.

It is in all probability to Hus that we must ascribe the establishment of the orthography of modern Czech, for this is essentially based on the diacritic system expounded in the treatise known as De orthographia bohemica. Written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the tract, though it cannot with absolute certainty be ascribed to Hus, is nevertheless held by the great majority of scholars to be his work. …

The revolutionary innovation advocated in De orthographia bohemica was the introduction of the diacritic system, that is to say the extension of the repertory of graphemes by the user of superscript marks. For the consonants the principle adopted was to use the unmarked Latin letters for sounds which (in the contemporary pronunciation) were identical in Latin and Czech, but to indicate specifically Czech sounds by means of a superscript dot over the letter concerned. Thus … č, š, ž, ř … [which] indicated not palatal articulation but non-Latin-ness. …

It seems most probably that he was influenced by the Hebrew practice of indicating by a dot (dageš) variant phonetic realizations of the same grapheme. We know that Hus learned some Hebrew, and this would seem the most obvious source of this orthographic device. …

The diacritic orthography was not immediately accepted, despite the fact that a handful of early fifteenth-century manuscripts employed it. It gained ground in the later fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth century and became adopted as the standard. With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century the Gothic (black-letter) form of the Latin alphabet was used for Czech books as it was for German. When the forms of the letters were standardized Hus’s lozenge-shaped dot was changed to the ‘hook’ (haček) which lives on as the reversed circumflex of the present-day Czech alphabet. The indication of vowel length, originally similar to a comma, was systematized as an acute accent (referred to in Czech as &#269árka) …

By the time the Hussite wars ended in the 1430’s the Czech language was in use in most spheres of national life. It was established as a medium of administrative and legal documents, and it was increasingly used for learned and technical writings … When we consider that the relative uniformity of the phonological and morphological structure of the language remained unimpaired, and that its orthography was in the process of consolidation, we can establish the mid-fifteenth century as the period of origin of the Czech literary language as a normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom.

Czechs and their normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom get a public holiday and all the hačeks they can drink in Jan Hus’s honor today.

* Just to make sure everyone got the point, this same council ordered the remains of the long-deceased Wycliffe exhumed and posthumously “executed”.

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1437: Jan Rohác z Dubé, Hussite marshal

1 comment September 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1437, Hussite marshal Jan Rohác z Dubé was hanged in Prague.

The Bohemian commander had upheld throughout the Hussite Wars the cause of its namesake heretical priest. (There’s a Czech biography of Rohac here.)

The Hussites had a nice run in the 1420s — no less a personage than Joan of Arc took time out from French battlefields to dictate an anti-Hussite jeremiad threatening to “remove your madness and foul superstition, taking away either your heresy or your lives” — but eventually succumbed to repeated papal onslaughts.

They were decisively crushed at the 1434 Battle of Lipany … but Rohac survived it, and “emerg[ed] from the ashes” like “a phoenix”, the last champion of the forbidden sect.

Rohac rallied the remnants of his partisans to a fortress named Sion* near Kutna Hora, where they were besieged and ultimately overwhelmed.

Days later, he was demonstratively executed in Prague, where all this Hussite trouble had started.

The people of Prague, as an act of intimidation directed at dissenters, were forced … to watch the gruesome display. Clad in his red baronial robes, with a sign draped around his neck stating his condemnation, Rohac was hung by a gold chain from the top of a three-story gallows. Beneath him hung the bodies of the Sion garrison.

Present-day Jan Rohac appreciation is best done Czech.

This bio is available reprinted from a public domain source. There’s also a 1947 Czechoslovakian film (appropriately titled Jan Rohác z Dubé, but also known in English as Warriors of Faith) celebrating Rohac’s exploits.

* No truth to the rumor that the Hussites’ doings in doomed Sion inspired the techno rave scene in the city of the same name in The Matrix.

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1419: The (first) Defenestration of Prague

14 comments July 30th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1419, an angry mob of Hussite peasant rebels stormed the town hall on Charles Square in Prague and threw the judge, the mayor and several city council members (either seven or thirteen; accounts differ) out the window. They all either died in the fall or were killed by the crowd outside.

The event has been the subject of several paintings, as well as being beautifully illustrated in Lego form and also reenacted.

Hussites followed a Christian reformer, Jan Hus, who was one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Hus was eventually excommunicated and burned as a heretic. The cause of the July 30 riot was the city council’s refusal to release from custody several Hussite prisoners.

The mob, led by the Hussite priest Jan Želivský and future general Jan Žižka, marched to the town hall, but they only became violent after someone inside the building threw a stone at them. After that there was no stopping them.

The riot had far-reaching consequences, inasmuch as it is seen as the start of the Hussite Wars, which lasted until 1434 or so and involved government-sponsored military action against the Hussites as well as Hussites fighting amongst themselves.

This event has come to be known as the First Defenestration of Prague. That is, I’m sure we all can agree, an AWESOME name, and probably the principal reason the riot is still remembered today. The word “defenestration” comes from Latin: de-, meaning “out of,” and fenestra, “window.”

The Czechs have a habit of throwing people out of windows at critical junctures in history; since 1419 there has been at least one more (nonfatal, but more famous) Defenestration of Prague, in 1618. A couple of similar events since then have sometimes been called the Third Defenestration of Prague, though this is not universally agreed upon.

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