Jan Jesenský

 

By Erin Naillon

An engraving of Jesenský by Matthaus Merian the Elder

Noble Origin of Jan Jesenský and Good Education

Jan Jesenský, also known as Jan Jesenius, came from a noble family in the Hungary/Slovakia region (over the centuries, the border between the two countries has changed position many times). Jesenský himself was born in Wrocław, Poland. He studied at three European universities – Wittenberg, Leipzig, and Padua, becoming a physician.

After spending some time working as a physician and teaching medicine, Jesenský made the fateful move to Prague, in 1600. That year, he performed a public autopsy in the city, which would be attended by a man he would later meet under very different circumstances. Jesenský was a personal consultant to Emperor Rudolph II, and worked as rector for the Charles University.

Karlstejn Castle Tours from Prague

Politics

Jesenský was elected as rector in 1617. Trouble was already brewing in Bohemia at that time. The Czechs were largely Protestant, due to the influence of Jan Hus, and Ferdinand II of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty was elected as Crown Prince that year, with the understanding that he was later to become King of Bohemia. Ferdinand was staunchly Catholic and viewed himself as defender of the faith; the Protestants feared that they would lose all their rights.

Capture

Jesenský had undertaken some missions between the Bohemian estates and King Frederick of the Palatinate, also known as the “Winter King”, whom the Protestant nobles wanted as King of Bohemia. Frederick agreed, and the Thirty Years’ War began. Frederick’s forces were overwhelmed at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, and Jesenský was arrested. After standing trial, he and 26 other noblemen were sentenced to death.

Execution

On June 21, 1621 – the longest day of the year – the executions began. Three of the noblemen were hanged, while the other 24 were beheaded. Jesenský was one of the latter. He had been noted for his skills as a public speaker, so before the execution, the public executioner hacked out his tongue. He was then beheaded, and his body cut in quarters. Jesenský had been well-known for his anatomical experiments on the bodies of executed criminals; he attempted to rejoin the head to the body and thus bring the dead man back to life. Such was the fear of his knowledge that his body was quartered in the hope that he would be unable to bring his own body together and return to life.

Aftermath

Jesenský’s head, with his tongue nailed to it, was put in an iron basket and suspended on one of the towers of the Charles Bridge. The rest of his body was put on spikes outside the city gates. Some years later, his skull was buried beneath the floor of Týn Cathedral, which faces the execution site.

Ironically, public executioner Jan Mydlář, the man who put Jesenský to death, had been one of those who attended the public autopsy conducted by Jesenský himself, all those years ago.


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