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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1433: Pavel Kravar, Hussite emissary

Add comment July 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1433, Pavel Kravar — known in the place of his death as Paul Craw — was, “found an obstinate heretic, he was convicted, condemned, put to the fire and burned to ashes”* at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Kravar was a Czech (probably) physician who entered that hotbed of religious reform, the University of Prague, the very year after Jan Hus burned at the stake.

Adopting the burgeoning Hussite creed with gusto, Kravar spent the 1420s proselytizing in Poland as a side gig to a medical practice. (He was the court physician to the King of Poland, who was briefly friendly with the Hussite cause.)

In the early 1430s, perhaps as part of an aggressive, Europe-wide Hussite propaganda campaign, Kravar turned up in evangelizing in Scotland.

Lest this strike the latter-day reader as bizarre — a Bohemian church seeking converts in the Highlands — it bears remembering that Hus himself took inspiration from a Briton, Englishman John Wycliffe; one of Wycliffe’s followers, James Resby, had become the first documented Christian reformer martyred at the stake in Scotland in 1408. There are other traces of anti-Lollard legislation in the first decades of the 15th century that hint at some level of heretical ferment abroad.** And in the widest sense, the Hussite movement had, until its imminent military destruction, a legitimate shot at mounting the sort of continent-wide challenge to ecclesiastical orthodoxy that the Reformation accomplished a century later.

That events didn’t quite work out that way was hard luck for Kravar, who had headed straight to the country’s only university town where his reformist ideas (and Latin lingua franca) might have some currency. There he may also have run into the realm’s most implacable Inquisitor: Kravar’s actual activities,his objectives, his specific doctrines, and the circumstances of his capture and condemnation — these are all most obscure. The best we have is a hostile chronicler allowing that the Hussite was “fluent and skilled in divinity and in biblical argument.”†

Tudor-era Scottish cleric John Knox filled in the dubious detail that Kravar had been gagged en route to the stake with a large brass ball, to prevent his exhorting the crowd; more contemporary-to-Kravar sources unfortunately did not think to notice this picturesque expedient.

* From Walter Bower in Book XVI of the Scotichronicon (1440s), via Paul Vysny, “A Hussite in Scotland: The Mission of Pavel Krava? to St Andrews in 1433″ in The Scottish Historical Review, April 2003. It’s not clear from the primary source whether events proceeded from trial to execution all in the same day, but July 23 is the date typically given for Kravar’s death and certainly the last date of his life distinctly in the historical record.

** See Vysny, op cit.

†Bower, again; via Vysny, again.

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1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr

Add comment May 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1416, the Council of Constance had Jerome of Prague burned at the stake in the town square.

This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.

Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.

While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.

Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.

After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.

Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.

By the time he was ready to answer for himself, and his soul, he was well past any spirit of capitulation. A witness to the procedure wrote of Jerome on trial for his life:

I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.

When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”

Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.

At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.

Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.

“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”

Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.

* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.

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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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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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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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