The events that transpired in the northwestern German town of Münster in 1535 have continued to intrigue and shock readers hundreds of years later. The radicalism that had been sown through both political and religious actors, while veiled in mystery, has engendered very strong views from many different viewpoints.
Norman Cohn, in his analysis of the Münster rebellion, and similar uprisings throughout history, contended they occur within a vacuum of societal change and social rebellion: “They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful.”
During times of upheaval, more radical groups, developed by the same means as the popular revolt, would always produce some outlier of people that sought to go even further.
The logical starting point for the turmoil that surrounded the early Renaissance era in western Europe was the invention, and proliferation of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press in the mid-15th century. It spread throughout Europe over the next several decades. It vastly improved literacy, and fostered a rapid spread of ideas through the dissemination of pamphlets that began to be mass produced. The printing press “was the physical instrument that tore the west asunder.”
Next came the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther publishing his “Ninety Five Theses.” Luther questioned the Roman Catholic Church’s authority, specifically the sale of indulgences. Many of the early Reformers were also highly critical of perceived icon worship, prevalent in the Late Middle Ages, likening the practice which was supported by the Roman Catholic Church to idolatry. With the help of the printing press, these new arguments spread fast, and resulted in a break with the Church. This resulted in two large branches of Christianity in western Europe: Catholicism and Lutheranism. But the it would not be a clean succession, offshoots of the new Protestant beliefs continued to develop.
Martin Luther also translated the Bible from its original Greek into German, so that it could be read by anyone who was literate. There were three large changes taking place in regards to the later developments at Münster: 1. People were questioning how a Christian should live. A new kind of Christian primitivism, or a return to the perceived lifestyles and society of the earliest Christians, would become influential. People were reading the Bible for the first time, and they were beginning to interpret it many different ways. 2. The Book of Revelations, and the way in which it was interpreted would have a haunting effect on early Renaissance era society. Many people would become convinced that they were literally living in the End of TImes. 3. Doctrinal practices of the Church would be questioned as well. The idea that only someone over a certain age could accept a baptism would be a hallmark of many of the non-Lutheran Protestant sects. These people disregarded infant baptism, and began to be referred to as Anabaptists, meaning rebaptists.
“The year 1524 opened inauspiciously for the scientific minded: a conjunction of Pisces suggested a terrible deluge to come.” Astrological predictions of doom only added to the feeling many people felt, resulting from the spread of radical preachers. Europe was in turmoil after “popular Reformation and more than half a century of expectation of the Last Days.” ³
In Feudal societies in medieval Europe, the Church was the rock on which society functioned. With the authority of the Papal state, and its role in shaping Christian doctrine, up for debate, an anti authoritarian mood swept over many parts of western Europe. This boiled over into the most widespread popular rebellion on the continent from that point until the French Revolution. ³
Adding to the problems was the fact that the wealthier Churches, Cathedrals and Monasteries were in fact the landlords of their respective towns: “this made the rhetoric of the Reformation a useful extra weapon for the protesters…” ³ Peasant uprisings in many of the towns north of the Alps in 1525 became known collectively as the German Peasants’ War. The uprisings were harshly put down, with some sources stating 100,000 peasants and plebeians died.
A radical preacher named Thomas Müntzer took on some significance during the Peasants’ War. He preached to the social dissidents of the time, and tried to tie his vision of a Christian society living in the end of times to the rebellions going on across German speaking Europe. The convergence of religious reform and political rebellion would become important in Münster.
He was brought back to the attention of the world when the cold war era German Democratic Republic (East Germany) set out on massive research projects to liken him to their own cause- a forefather to communism, or marxist-leninism. Diarmaid MacCulloch refers to Müntzer as an “impractical mystic and dreamer (although his dreams were frequently vicious and bloodthirsty)”, and Martin Luther had referred to him as “the archdevil who rules in Mühlhausen, and does nothing else than stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed.” ³
The critical consensus on Thomas Müntzer, piecing it together from earlier Christian scholarship, and later marxist inspired theory, appears to be that he did not cause the peasant uprisings, but did preach to them, and latched on to their movements, while imbuing it with his own radical perceptions of the reformation. One wouldn’t have to rely on marxist views to assert that while these events, and later developments in Münster, while seemingly propelled by a radicalized search for fulfillment (or doing God’s will) through primitivism, they appear to be an early example of communism.
Many people were not content with either Lutheranism or Catholicism. “Luther failed to hold the allegiance of great multitudes of the common people”, Cohn wrote in The Pursuit of the Millennium, “Amongst the pertubed, disoriented masses there grew up, in opposition to both Lutheranism and Catholicism, the movement to which its opponents gave the name Anabaptism…” ¹ There were an estimated forty independent sects of Anabaptists.
The Anabaptists, for the most part, “attached relatively little importance to theological speculations or to formal religious observances.” ¹ The Anabaptists were centered around their immediate community, and rejected outside society. The sixteenth century would have seen many people with hardened opinions, but even so, many of the Anabaptist sects went even further: “Even Luther granted that a Roman Catholic could be saved; but for the Anabaptists Lutherans and Catholics alike were worse than the Turks, true ministers of Antichrist.” ¹
The next pivotal figure in the lead up to the events of the Münster rebellion was Melchior Hoffmann. Hoffmann preached of the Last Days, and took his message across northern Europe as a “wandering prophet.” He predicted that Strassburg, Germany was the New Jerusalem, where the faithful would be safe from the apocalypse, which he also predicted to occur in the year 1533. Hoffmann deliberately set out to bring people to Strassburg, to prepare for Judgement day. He also performed rebaptism, or adult baptism, like many of the other radical sects. The events failed to materialize, Hoffmann was imprisoned in Strassburg, and his followers left the city. Many of them would seek refuge in the nearby town of Münster.
With years of sporadic rebellions across German speaking Europe, even before the events of 1525, many towns had won concessions for not rebelling, or in order to quell existing revolt. Münster was one of these towns, and had enjoyed an uncommon level of self rule, usually in the form of city councils. Münster had also enjoyed a unique level of commerce, as it had been a member of the commercial Hanseatic League in the Late Middle Ages. There were well developed guilds in the town. Guilds during this time were a unique combination of a trade union and corporate network.
The Lutheran pastor in Münster, after travelling across Europe in 1531, began preaching in a tone “that was thoroughly evangelical” Rothmann continued to move towards radicalism, away from Lutheranism. Finally, he appears to have become Anabaptist by 1533, a major factor in this would likely have been Rothmann wanting to bring the new Anabaptist refugees from Strassburg to his congregation. Many of these new arrivals would have been “Melchiorites”, influenced by Hoffmann’s preaching in Strassburg and northwest Europe.
One of the Melchiorites was “a charismatic Dutchman, a baker from Haarlem called Jan Mathijzoon” ² Jan Matthys, as his name is frequently spelled, was able to gain a following in the Netherlands- in fact, a “Melchiorite” congregation in Amsterdam recognized him as a prophet “having the duty to prophesy and punish the wicked cities of the world.” ²
Matthys declared the New Jerusalem was not to be Strassburg, but instead the nearby town of Münster. Meanwhile, in Münster, Hoffmann along with a wealthy wool merchant named Bernhard Knipperdolling, were producing pamphlets urging like minded Anabaptists to come to the city and share in the town’s wealth. With a growing radical population, the Lutherans were chased out of the city, or left to avoid the disintegrating state of the town. New Anabaptists outnumbered the “emigrants”, and it wasn’t long before they took power in the city, and banished the town’s ruling Prince-Bishop, who also ruled the region of Westphalia, of which Münster was the capitol. The radicals won a majority on the city council, and Bernhard Knipperdolling was appointed one of the two mayors of the town. On January 5, 1534, Matthys and some of his followers arrived in the city and started performing adult baptisms.
“All over northern Europe humble people had been excited by Luther’s cry of liberty, then bitterly disappointed when in 1525 this had turned out not to involve a radical transformation of society and a righting of injustice…” ² Anabaptists from across northern Europe took the news that Münster was in a radical state of rebellion as confirmation the End of Days was upon them. ²
It wasn’t long before the Prince-Bishop of the town returned with a force to besiege the city. Matthys, who had now gained a leadership role in the city, had predicted that Judgement Day would be on Easter in 1534. Upon what he thought was a divine command, he took a handful of men outside of the protections of the city walls, and attacked the besieging forces that numbered in the hundreds. He believed with divine power bestowed upon him, this small group of men would drive off the Bishop’s army. Instead Matthys and the small group of men were cut down. Seeing their Prophet fall in such a way must have had a traumatic effect on the mood in the town.
Under Matthys, during the early days of the siege, the town had become even more radical. The private property of the Lutherans was confiscated. Most private property in general was placed in central depots to be distributed in accordance with need. It was stated true Christians should not possess money, but instead if necessary, hold it in common. ² “The surrender of money was made a test of true Christianity. Those who failed to comply were determined fit for extermination and it seems that some executions did take place.” ¹
Just like marxist historians overemphasized some of the appearances of communism amongst the German peasants during the rebellions of 1525; others have overemphasized the need to militarize to survive the siege as an explanation for the Anabaptist radicalism in Münster.
Thomas Cohn pointed out, the intentions of this initial “communism” in Münster, in Rothmann’s own words, was to be the first steps towards a society in which “all things were to be in common, there was to be no private property, and nobody was to do any more work, but simply trust God.” ¹ Rothmann wrote in one of his pamphlets that has been recovered, “everything which has served the purposes of selfseeking and private property, such as buying and selling, working for money, taking interest and practicing usury… and indeed everything which offends against love- all such things are abolished amongst us by the power of love and community.” ¹
This was a curious form of communism, if we can even call it that, which was developing. It was steeped in a kind of Christian primitivism. The radical Anabaptists sought to live as they believed the earliest Christians lived- free of earthly pursuits. This was an equality not concerned with the poor, but concerned with gathering believers for a last battle during the End of Days.
After the death of Jan Matthys, Jan Bockelson, who would come to be known as John Of Leiden, would come from obscurity in regards to this radical movement, to making himself “king” of the Münsterite movement, “...he had from youth onwards revelled in writing, producing and acting plays. In Münster he was able to shape real life into a play, with himself as its hero all Europe for an audience.” ¹
“Bockelson [John of Leiden] seems to have been a megalomaniac, whose behaviour cannot be adequately interpreted either simply as sincere fanaticism or simply as calculating hypocrisy”. ¹ Shortly after assuming power, Bockelson “ran naked through the town in a frenzy and then fell into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days.” After this event, he stated he must abolish the town council and replace it with twelve Elders, as the town council was a making of man’s intentions, whereas the Elders would not be. Some on the town council carried over to become the town’s Elders.
By this time, there were more than three times as many women in the city as men. Bockelson’s next order of business was to institute polygamy. This measure was initially resisted, and John of Leiden jailed, but after about fifty of the rebels were executed, and Leiden freed, it became the norm in the town. Bockelson soon had sixteen wives, and had taken to dressing up as a king, in full regalia. The motives for instituting polygamy are still contested, from multiple viewpoints, just like almost every other event surrounding the radical Reformation, and the Münster rebellion.
During John of Leiden’s reign, the expelled Bishop received widespread support, and assistance from across northwestern Europe. The different states were willing to accept Lutheranism, but this kind of radical instability going on in Münster would not be accepted. Especially with Rothmann and others deliberately trying to stew insurrection across the region through their pamphlet campaigns. With his new found support, the Bishop was able to completely surround the city, and cut it off from the outside world.
John of Leiden had succeeded in militarizing the town, but a bit of treason would bring his “kingdom” crumbling down. Two men escaped one night and indicated to the Bishop’s army where the weak points were in the defences of the town. On June 24, 1535, a surprise attack was launched and the town taken back. “After some hours of desperate fighting the last two or three hundred surviving Anabaptists accepted an offer of safe-conduct, laid down their arms and dispersed to their homes, only to be killed one by one and almost to the last man in a massacre which lasted several days.” ¹
Leiden was paraded across the entire region in chains, like a “performing bear.” In February 1536 he was brought back to Münster, where he and two other prominent Anabaptists were executed in a brutal manner. Their remains were “showcased” inside of iron baskets that resembled cages, which are still hanging in the city where they were left to this very day.
1. Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millenium Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford U, 1971. Print.
2. Barzun, Jacques, and Peter Conrad. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. London: Folio Society, 2015. Print.
3. MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Viking, 2004. Print.
4. Neff, Christian, Ernst Crous, William Klassen and Gary K. Waite. "Rothmann, Bernhard (ca. 1495- ca. 1535)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 14 Aug 2017.