E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
THE goal was now obtained by the election of the 23rd of February, and the reconstitution of the government of Münster. The Anabaptists obtained a supreme political power. The Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Zion of the prophets was definitely founded. The old burghers of Münster were become an insignificant and powerless minority. As to the character of the new inhabitants of Münster, if we are to believe an “instruction” drawn up by the district assembly of Köln in October, 1534, it consisted largely of very questionable elements; “all fugitive, banished and evil-doing citizens and inhabitants from among the towns of the bishopric of Münster came thither together,” are the words used. And again, in an official report to Bishop Franz von Waldeck, we read “so soon as the town had come into their power did they utterly overthrow all divine Christian order and justice, all spiritual and temporal rule and policy, and did set up a bestial life.” The histories that have been written subsequently of the great Anabaptist movement in Münster, from that of the contemporary Kerssenbroick downwards, have all been couched in this tone. The leaders of the Anabaptists were cunning and designing rogues, while their followers were the offscouring of the earth, composed of some fools and of more knaves, whose end was plunder, and whose means were anarchy. This, of course, is only one more instance of how the dominant class of every age writes history in its own interest, and of how it has hitherto succeeded not only in imposing its view on the average intelligence of its own time, but in handing it down to the second-hand historians of subsequent ages. These, as a rule, themselves the pensioners of the dominant classes of their own time, slavishly copy their predecessors in the art of slandering the enemies of an older ruling class. Now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, for the first time in history has the opposition to the interests of the propertied classes acquired sufficient strength and consistency to make headway against the distortion of history designed to pander to their passions. It would, of course, be absurd to deny that amongst those who flocked from all sides to Münster in the name of the new doctrine, there may have been some individuals who might possibly answer to the descriptions officially given. In all movements whose seed-ground is a decaying economic state of things, are to be found the flotsam and jetsam cast forth by decay. In the early sixteenth century, we may be quite sure, the revolt against moribund feudalism was not ideal in all its individual elements. It would be manifestly foolish to expect such to be the case with sections of a population more or less suddenly cast adrift from their social and economic moorings. But at the same time there can be no doubt in the mind of any person who has seriously studied the history of social movements, that the bulk of those who thronged the city of Münster in the year 1534, were infinitely honester and nobler characters at bottom than the unscrupulous ruffians of the moribund feudalism with whom they were at war.
At the time at which we have now arrived, as already stated, the immigrants, of whom an important portion hailed from Holland, considerably outnumbered the original inhabitants who remained within the walls. The, question of language offered comparatively little difficulty, as the local Platt or Low German dialect of Westphalia closely approached that other Low German dialect of Holland which, owing to its having become enshrined in a literature of its own, and to its being the dialect of a people through long centuries politically separated from the rest of Germany, we are accustomed to call the Dutch language — and so the newcomers and the Münsterites were mutually intelligible from the first. A few weeks doubtless sufficed to make the strangers proficient in the tongue of the native-born inhabitants.
Already before the new elections the Catholic churches and religious houses had been stormed and the contents rifled by crowds of zealots. Even the Cathedral was not spared. On the evening of the 24th of February it was entered and sacked, many remarkable specimens of mediaeval art being destroyed. The notion of making a complete break with the past was carried to the point not merely of consigning to the flames all official documents and charters dealing with the feudal relations of the town, which would have been at least intelligible, but of handing over to the same fate the priceless collection of mediaeval and Renaissance manuscripts and printed books which had been formed by the patrician Rudolph von Langen. The systematic destruction of all manuscript or printed relics of the past that could be laid hands on, seems to have been carried out by the direct order of the new authorities, and the work lasted from the 15th to the 23rd of March. The wealthy church of St. Mauritz, outside the walls, where Bernhardt Rothmann had originally been called to the pulpit, was also burned to the ground, although in this case military reasons were assigned as an excuse. These measures, not unnaturally, excited the indignation of the Evangelical and Catholic burghers who had remained, an indignation which did not fail to show itself, in some cases in active opposition. The opposition of the older inhabitants to the work of destruction which the Anabaptists had resolved to carry through to the bitter end, led to the decision to slay or drive out the godless and the heathen, by which was understood all who refused to receive baptism at the hands of the brethren appointed to administer it. The decree enjoining this was issued for Friday, February 27th. It was the second Friday in Lent. On this day at seven o'clock in the morning, contingents of Anabaptists paraded the streets, shouting: “Away with the godless! God will straightway awake and will punish thee!” These contingents, which were armed with muskets, pikes, and halberds, proceeded themselves to accomplish the work of God in driving out the unbaptised men, women and children. It was a bitter cold winter’s day, a cutting wind accompanied by sleet swept through the narrow streets and byways of the old mediaeval city. Says Meister Heinrich Gresbeck : “One ought not on that same Friday to have hunted a dog from the town, so bitter was the weather on that same Friday." A great cry was heard, according to Gresbeck, from the women and children, as they were driven out of the gates. (On the other hand, Gresbeck does not mention that the Bishop at this juncture was murdering every Anabaptist he could lay his hands on.) The one condition of being allowed to remain was the consent to undergo the cardinal Anabaptist rite of rebaptism. Those who pledged themselves to be rebaptized were immediately marched up to the market-place. On this day alone three hundred were baptized, but the baptizings lasted in all three days. After the ceremony was over, the rebaptized were required to repair to the house of one or other of the Burgermeisters, Knipperdollinck and Kibbenbroick, and sign their name in a register which was kept there for the benefit of the new converts. Three or more Anabaptist bishops or shepherds remained in attendance all day long in the market-place to perform the ceremony, now required to be undergone by every inhabitant of Münster. The Anabaptist preachers, each of whom had a large vessel containing water standing before him, would first of all admonish the candidate for baptism to abandon his sins and follow goodness, after which he had to kneel down, when, bending low his head, he would receive from the hand of the administering “Bishop” three sconces full of water poured over it, one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost. Those who were unable through age, infirmity, or sickness, to repair to the market-place were allowed, a representation to this effect being made, to receive the rite in their own homes, “but,” observes Gresbeck, “few of those who were thus baptized against their will were fully aware what they were to suffer, otherwise not so much as a child would have remained in the city.” On the other hand, those who had been driven out as little dreamt that their expulsion meant a long exile from hearth and home. They had hoped that possibly in a few hours, or in any case, in a few days, they would have been permitted to quietly re-enter the city at another gate.
But this was not to be. Knipperdollinck and Kibbenbroick in conjunction with their Council organised a watch, having its centre in the marketplace, with a banner and a watch-fire. The circuit of the walls was also carefully patrolled, Knipperdollinck and Kibbenbroick and the “prophets” between them taking it in turn to inspect matters. One night, as the two Bürgermeisters and Jan of Leyden were performing their duty, accompanied by two of the guards, they saw a great fire suspended in the air before the town, together with two gigantic swords. This fire, which the exalted imagination of the onlookers doubtless exaggerated and supplied with the two swords, probably had as its basis — as Meister Heinrich Gresbeck rationalistically suggests — in a watch-fire made by the free-lances of the Bishop, who was beginning now to seriously organise the siege of the town. It was, however, immediately hailed by the Anabaptist chiefs as a sign from Heaven that God would watch over the town. Visions became now the order of the day and night. The faithful were informed that the appearance of three cities had been seen hovering over the town. One was Münster itself, another Strasburg, and a third Deventer. They were, it was said, the three cities chosen by God as the rallying places of the faithful, of which Münster was the chief. This survival of the original belief held by the Hoffmannites, that Strasburg was to be the Zion of the new movement, is noteworthy.
The Government of Münster now consisted, officially, of the two Bürgermeisters and the newly elected Anabaptist Rath, assisted, unofficially, but with so much the more real power, by Jan Matthys and his disciple Jan Bockelson of Leyden. One day, soon after the occurrences just referred to, Matthys and Bockelson called all the people together to the Cathedral. They then ordered those who had been baptised on the Friday to separate themselves from the rest. These, like the remainder of the people, had come armed. They were, however, ordered to lay down their muskets and remove their armour, after which they had to lie on their faces and pray the Father that they might stay in the town and be accepted into grace. “For,” said the preachers, “God would have nothing unclean in the city of Münster. He would have a holy people to praise his name.” The multitude of the newly-baptised lay prostrate in this way for nearly an hour, “fearing,” says Gresbeck, “lest they should be fallen upon and slaughtered by the Anabaptists.” At last they were allowed to rise, and marched in procession to the church of St. Lamberti, where a similar ceremony was repeated, but genuine religious excitement seems to have seized these people also, for Gresbeck relates (“Geschichtsquellen,” vol. 2, p.24) that men and women embraced one another and danced, while invoking the Father. Women and children, he also states, “made a horrible din” (gresslik Geluit) in the church. Finally Jan of Leyden entered the church, and proceeding to the high altar, proclaimed: “Dear Brethren, it is God’s will that I make known unto you, that ye have received Grace from God, and shall remain with us and be his Holy people.”
Tokens were now struck and distributed in St. Lamberti, bearing the inscription “The Word was made Flesh.” A few weeks later others were distributed with the words “The Word was Flesh.” These tokens were worn hung round the neck. Woe betide anyone now who doubted the authority of the prophets, or attempted to make a jest of their mission. One of the town guards, a smith named Rüscher, while performing his watch was rash enough one night to observe, “The prophets will prophesy till they've broken our necks. One might think they had a devil in their bodies.” This was reported to the great men and their preachers, who thereupon had the luckless soldier seized and thrown into one of the towers. The next day a general assembly of the men was called to adjudicate on the matter. On the prisoner being brought and placed in the midst of the Assembly, the Prophets and the Preachers charged him with having spoken disrespectfully of God, his Prophets and his Apostles, repeating the words he had said. On his confessing the truth of the allegation, the Prophets and the Apostles or Preachers declared him worthy of death, since he had incurred God’s wrath. In spite of the protests of the Münster burghers, including the second Burgermeister Kibbenbroick, Jan of Leyden seized a halberd and stabbed him twice in the body. He was subsequently brought to the Cathedral, where he threw himself upon the ground, in the sight of the people, begging for mercy. Matthys then took up a musket, as though he would shoot the delinquent, but, according to Gresbeck, the firearm refused to go off. The probability is that the whole thing was intended by the leaders simply as a piece of play-acting to intimidate the disaffected. Gresbeck alleges that Matthys subsequently shot him through the body, but without killing him. This, however, is incredible, seeing he relates the man walked home afterwards. A day or two later the Prophets and the Preachers came to the house and informed him that it was the will of God that he should not die, but recover; as fate would have it, however, he did die within a week. A free-lance who had found his way into the town, and had been heard to threaten to shoot one of the preachers, was executed. This last execution will hardly excite surprise as the free-lance obviously laid himself open to being dealt with severely. As regards the case of the too free-spoken citizen of the town-guard, although he undoubtedly, if Gresbeck’s report is to be credited, received injuries from which he died, it would not seem that the intention was to kill him, and even here allowance must be made for the condition of a besieged town, and the feelings of men who daily lived in the fear of traitors. In fact, the ruthless bias of the verdict of the conventional historian, full as he is of dominant class-prejudices against all that threatens dominant class-interest, is crucially exhibited in his judgment of this affair of Münster, as in the case of the Paris of the Revolution, the Paris of the Commune, and in other similar instances. The aforesaid historian assumes the right to judge men under conditions of great popular excitement and imminent danger from without, by the same standard that he would have a right to apply to them under normal conditions. He never for a moment dreams of dealing out the same measure to highly respectable governments representing class-interests under analogous circumstances. Münster in 1534, however different otherwise, was, in this respect, like the Paris of 1792. It was a community imminently threatened by an external foe, for which the toleration of traitors or spies in its midst meant ruin and destruction. Under these circumstances, naturally, deeds are done and justifiably done, which under normal circumstances would be rightly condemned. The critic and historian who so unsparingly condemns the Anabaptists of Münster for certain executions or other events that took place during the siege of the town, or the sans-culottes of Paris for the September massacres, when the arrival before the city of the armies of the European coalition seemed to be only a matter of days, would never think of treating similar acts — even though perpetrated on a much greater scale, when an orthodox government is in question, by similar severe canons, but coolly waves them aside with remarks about the unhappy necessities of the situation, or even with stale phrases such as that “war is war,” and the like. Circumstances, though they may not excuse everything, do undoubtedly excuse a great deal, and those who have exceeded the limits of what may be excused or condoned by circumstances, have been assuredly far more often representatives of law and order, that is, of the privileged classes, than the depositaries of the power of popular insurrection.
After the newly-baptized had been duly received by Jan of Leyden in the cathedral, and had had the hands of two of the foremost preachers laid on their heads with a blessing, the Anabaptists believed themselves comparatively secure against internal traitors. The next procedure was to endeavour to organise the kingdom of God as it was conceived by the Anabaptists generally, and especially as formulated by Matthys. This involved on the economic side Communism, not in the means of production, as modern Socialism demands, but in the objects of consumption, as mediaeval Christian Communism demanded. Accordingly, as Gresbeck informs us, the Prophets, Preachers and the whole Rath took counsel together how they might make all goods common. Nevertheless no definite attempt seems to have been made to carry out a scheme of universal Communism. This was mainly limited to the precious metals. It was decided that all should bring their money, silver and gold to a certain place. Thereupon the prophets and the preachers proclaimed from the pulpit that all should be common, and that one should have as much as the other. “Dear Brethren and Sisters,” said they, “insomuch as we are one people, brethren and sisters, so it is the whole will of. God that we bring our money, silver and gold together. One shall have so much as another. Each shall bring his money up to the chancery by the Rathhaus, there shall the Council sit and receive the money.” Our friend Bernhardt Rothmann cried: “A Christian durst have no money be it silver or gold. He is a Christian, and all that Christian brethren or sisters have belongs to the one as much as to the other. The brethren shall possess no other thing but their food, clothes, house and home. What ye require that shall ye obtain. God will have nothing lying idle. One thing like the other shall be common to all. Such is the duty of us all. It is mine as well as throe, and throe as well as mine.” Large numbers of the faithful, thus admonished, carried their portable property to the place appointed. Many brought their entire possessions in money and precious metals; others brought a large quantity, while keeping a residue for private purposes. The latter were suspect, while those who refused to comply with the order at all, chiefly those who had been compulsorily baptized on the momentous Friday, were declared to be godless, and to merit being rooted out. Against such Jan of Leyden inveighed in the market place. They were declared outlaws from the Christian community, and were threatened with so severe penalties that they were forced to yield. As will be seen, the Communism of the Anabaptists was very largely the exaggerated Christian almsgiving of the Annanias and Sapphira episode, modified, it is true, by a little coercion, but in its form at least, voluntary.
In every, parish of the town three deacons were appointed to administer the common good in the shape of provisions: Here a more genuine communism was inaugurated, but was imperfectly carried out. The deacons went into all the houses, impounding corn, meat and vegetables, and after they had made a note of what they required for the use of the poor citizens, all above what was notified the proprietors might keep for themselves.
To emphasise the solidarity of the community of the saints, common meals were now instituted. In front of every gate leading out of the city a house was taken over, which was called the house of the community; every one could go and eat there, though it was probably specially designed for the defenders who kept watch, or who worked at the defences of moat and wall. Before every gate there was a captain and a preacher. Each deacon was responsible for one of these houses, whose function it was to supply the comestibles and to superintend the cook and caretaker of the house. During the mid-day meals, a youth was appointed to read a chapter from the Old Testament or from the Prophets. When those assembled had finished they sang a psalm in the vernacular, after which they rose up and left. Thereupon, the rank and file having had their food, the captains and officers of the administration would sit down to table, on the principle of the last being first and the first last. The deacons further took the meat, bacon, and corn from the monasteries and the cellars of those burghers who had left the town. Gresbeck states that in the summer of 1534 ten to twelve hundred oxen were consumed, together with, a quantity of other meat, butter and cheese, besides codfish and herring. Herring, however, appears not to have been popular in the earlier days when there was plenty, though, as Gresbeck observes, the time came afterwards, as the town began to suffer from the effects of the continued siege, when men were glad enough to get herring to eat.
It was not long before a modification was introduced into the government of the town. The prophets with the preachers or apostles, as they were variously called, chafed at being nominally under the control of the secular authority of the Bürgermeisters and the Great Council, notwithstanding that the latter was composed, as we have already seen, of fanatical Anabaptists elected on the 23rd of February. The prophets and preachers were almost entirely composed of Dutchmen and Frieslanders.
One day Jan Matthys invited some of his countrymen and others to a feast, for the doctrine of Matthys did not involve asceticism or the mortification of the flesh. In the middle of the proceedings Matthys became grave, threw up his hands, and was silent for a few moments. The guests were stricken with amazement. Suddenly he rose up, and with the words: “Oh dear Father, not as I will, but as thou wilt!” gave each person present his hand, at the same time kissing him on the lips, with the words “God’s peace be with you all.” After which he departed with his wife. The other guests, after remaining some time longer, also departed on their several ways. The next day Jan Matthys, taking with him some twenty companions, made a sortie from the town upon the camp of the enemy outside the walls. The attack seems to have been courageous, but the handful of men was soon overpowered, and Jan Matthys fell pierced with a pike. His corpse was immediately seized by the Bishop’s freelances, his head severed from his body, and the latter, we are told, hewn into a hundred pieces. The Bishop’s free-lances then called over the walls to the Anabaptists in the town, that they should come out and fetch their leader.
Jan Matthys is described as a tall man with a long black beard. His death spread consternation among the faithful within the walls, especially among the Dutchmen and Frieslanders. With the death of Matthys, his disciple, Jan Bockelson of Leyden, naturally became the leader of the movement and the head of the city. Matthys has, of course, been represented by the conventional class-historian as a designing rogue, who for his own purposes deceived the people. It is scarcely necessary to point out to the impartial reader how utterly inconsistent is this theory with the admitted circumstances of his death. The master-baker of Haarlem was doubtless a genuine fanatic, if there ever was one, who believed in all truth and sincerity in his having been entrusted with a divine mission. Much has been made, as shewing his eagerness for the good things of life, in his having brought a young and beautiful wife from Haarlem to Münster. These same historians find nothing inconsistent with the sincerity of Luther in his having adjured celibacy and taken to himself a wife. The fact was, in this respect the two men resembled one another. Jan Matthys no more believed or professed asceticism than Martin Luther. Consistent to the last, Matthys, in true Anabaptist fashion, when in the midst of a feast with his friends, became suddenly inspired with the idea that he had a call to risk his life on the morrow at the head of a handful of followers, in order to free the New Jerusalem from the besieging cohorts of this world. He loyally carried out the mandate of what he believed to be the will of God as revealed to him, and in this way, fearless, and faithful to his convictions, went to his death.
The same religious fanaticism which animated Matthys continued to inspire his followers. A young woman from Friesland, described as exceptionally beautiful, conceived the idea of acting the part of another Judith, and assassinating the arch-enemy of the New Israel, Bishop Franz von Waldeck himself. She left the town amid the blessings of the prophets, the preachers, and Knipperdollinck. Believing it to have been revealed to her that she should enter unscathed in open daylight the camp of the enemy, she passed out of the gate only to be arrested by the outposts. Brought before the Bishop’s Provost, Theodor von Meerfeld, she first excused her proceeding by alleging that she was weary of the life in the town, and that she had purposely allowed herself to be made prisoner in order to reveal to the Bishop the best way of obtaining entrance. She refused, however, to disclose anything except to the Prince-Bishop himself, and demanded to be taken to him. Meanwhile one of the original town burghers, who knew of the plan, managed to escape, and also get himself arrested by the Bishop’s sentries. In consequence of this man’s denunciation Hille Feiken, the would-be Judith, was placed on the rack, and a full confession extorted from her. In the course of her evidence obtained in this manner she stated that before coming to Münster she had given away all the property she possessed in her native place, that she needed neither money nor goods, her one desire being to live with the saints in the New Jerusalem; and that for this reason she had wandered thither. The only reward she hoped for in the success of her enterprise was the knowledge that she had delivered the saints of God from their enemy. She was willing to suffer whatever might befall her. Nothing should turn her, neither suffering nor death, from the word of God as preached by his prophets. She was beheaded after having made her confession.
1. Geschichtsquellen des Bisthums Münster, vol 2, page 19.