E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
IN the midst of the consternation and depression among the Brethren of Münster, caused by the death of their great prophet, the voice of Jan Bockelson of Leyden, his disciple, was heard in a public assembly which he had called, praying the brethren not to despair because their leader had fallen, “for,” said he, “God shall raise up unto us another prophet, who shall be greater and higher than was even Jan Matthys. God willed that Matthys should die, his time was come, and God hath let him die, to the end that ye should not place all your faith in him and hold him for higher than God. For what Matthys did and prophesied was even done by God through him, and God is even mighty enough to give unto us a new prophet in his stead.” The oration delivered on this occasion raised Bockelson to a position in the public mind greater than even that he had previously occupied, and secured for him without contradiction the reversion of the prophetic mantle of Matthys, for which he had long seemed destined.
The doctrine that Münster was the holy city, that God would have it, that all who dwelt therein should be a holy people, and that all those still in sin must be rooted out, was incessantly preached. After every exhortation of this kind, the disciples of the new prophet would once more dash through the streets and lanes of the town, brandishing their naked swords, dancing, and crying: “Father, father, give us light!”
The temporary depression caused by the fate of Jan Matthys was soon followed by the reaction in the shape of a fresh wave of fanaticism. Once more women and girls were to be seen with hair floating in the wind and their dress in disorder, dancing in the cathedral close, anon proceeding thence in wild capers through the town, up one street and down another, crying, “Father, father, father, give, give, give!” They would advance in pairs and then join hands and dance until they could dance no more. As they were led home exhausted they looked, says our contemporary chronicler Gresbeck, “so pale and so white of countenance, even as though they had been dead.”
The nominal government of the town had been from the first, as may be imagined, little more than an instrument in the hands of the prophets and their followers. Jan of Leyden now bethought himself of consolidating his own power as leader and of organising the community of the Saints in even more exact accordance than heretofore with the principles of Anabaptism as interpreted by his master Jan Matthys and himself. Jan Bockelson had something more than the mere élan of the fanatic and enthusiast, such, for instance, as Melchior Hoffmann. He had considerable capacity for organisation, keenness of insight into the characters and motives of men, and great political adroitness. He knew how to utilise in the most effective way his extraordinary gift of popular oratory and to win the now mixed population of Münster for the ideas which he had doubtless persuaded himself into sincerely believing, that Münster was the chosen city of God, and that the power of its holy Saints was ordained to extend itself over all nations, tongues and peoples. Such was the constant theme of his discourses on the frequent occasions when the citizens were called together in public assembly. Thus enthusiasm was never allowed to flag. But, in addition to his hold on the people, Jan of Leyden had the tact to retain, outwardly at least, the confidence of the leaders who had previously acted under Matthys. Bernhardt Rothmann, Heinrich Krechting, of whose arrival in Münster we have already spoken, and, above all, Bernhardt Knipperdollinek, became avowedly staunch henchmen. Bockelson now determined that it was time to abolish even the show of an independent secular power such as was ostensibly vested in the Council and Bürgermeisters elected on February 23rd. The New Jerusalem must have a definitely theocratic constitution. The organisation of the New Israel should be modelled on that of the Old. One day, therefore, Jan called the inhabitants together and informed them that he had received a divine revelation to the effect that a new government must be set up. The old one, said he, was appointed after the manner of men; the new one should be established by God himself on the model given in the Holy Scriptures. The proposition was at once agreed to, no man daring to gainsay the prophet.
Jan next proceeded to name twelve” elders,” influential men of the town, some of them members of the old council. Among them was the ex-Bürgermeister Hermann Tylbeck, who was now again received into Anabaptist favour. These elders Bockelson presented to the people, amidst their acclamations, as their future government, at the same time publicly handing over to them the sword of justice, intimating thereby that they had power over life and death. In imitation of the biblical model a table of the law was drawn up, containing amongst others the following provisions: “Each shall perform his allotted task with diligence, shall fear God and the authority set over him, for it beareth not the sword in vain, but is the avenger of evil deeds. All things which the elders determine, the prophet Jan of Leyden shall, as the true servant of the Almighty and of his holy authority, proclaim to the congregation. Bernhardt Knipperdollinck shall be the guardian of public order and the magistrate to whom is intrusted the carrying out of the decisions of the elders. ‘To this end he shall be accompanied by four attendants in arms.”
The new constitution, embodied in this table of the law, contained in all thirty-one articles. Some there were regulating the victualling of the New Israel, the fabrication of clothes and other details affecting the industrial and economic life of the community. Seven deacons with subdeacons were appointed to superintend and organise this department, which included the establishment and maintenance of the daily meals, already referred to as being taken by the brethren in common at the public tables. The military and defensive operations formed another department of the administration. Church-bells and the metal coating of steeples were melted down and used for military purposes. Heinrich Krechting was appointed chancellor, and his signature was necessary to give effect to all public documents. A common garb was enacted, and a special cloth provided, that the clothing department was to use in its manufacture. The table of the law concluded with the provision: “Every member of the New Israel shall follow without wavering every precept that the Holy Scripture setteth forth, according as it commandeth or forbiddeth aught.”
The twelve Elders, who regarded themselves as representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, invariably had a large Bible lying open before them as they took counsel. In their capacity of supreme criminal court a case came before them on June 28th, which has sometimes been quoted as an instance of the brutality of the Anabaptist regime in Münster. It is related that some free-lances, probably deserters from the Bishop’s camp, were holding a carouse, and after they had continued their potations to the point of hilarious drunkenness, the innkeeper and his wife refused to serve them any more, at which they threatened to go and treat themselves from the inn-cellars. The innkeeper and his wife had them at once arrested and brought before the twelve, alleging their rights in their own house. The free-lances were ordered to be fettered and thrown into one of the towers. The next day they were called up to the cathedral close to be tried. Heinrich Krechting, the chancellor, then read the act of accusation which he had drawn up. Thereupon the freelances fell upon their knees, begging for mercy and promising to work all day in the moat at the most laborious of the defensive operations, if they were but released. In the result some were allowed grace, whilst others were condemned to death. Of these, two were immediately bound to lime-trees in the close, and shot through the body with firearms, while the rest were taken back to prison again. The following day they were again brought to the same place. This time four of the condemned were bound to trees and executed in the same manner as their companions had been the previous day. “So,” observes our friend Meister Heinrich Gresbeck, “were these same fellows shot through because of a hasty word and a drink of beer.” But here again, monstrous as the sentence seems, and at ordinary times doubtless would have been even in the Middle Ages, we must not forget the excessive dread, on the part of the Anabaptists, of disturbance in the town, which might be purposely got up to afford the opportunity of opening one of the gates to the enemy. The generally hostile witness, Gresbeck, admits the strength of this feeling as in some sort a palliation of the severity exercised. Moreover, the defenders were few compared to the besiegers, and their chief advantage over them lay in their sobriety as against the enemy’s drunkenness.
The idea that absorbed the whole community, that the entire life and institutions of the Brethren were to be founded on the Old Testament, was acted on up to the introduction of polygamy. This was decided at a meeting consisting of the twelve Elders and all the preachers, where it was broached by Jan of Leyden in person. In view of the well-known asceticism of the Anabaptists in general, Karl Kautsky is of the opinion that this step was rendered almost a necessity owing to the enormous excess of the female over the male population in the city. Certain, it is, as he justly points out, that prostitution was not tolerated within the walls of the New Jerusalem. The very communism of the brethren itself sufficed to render this difficult or impossible, so that women who wished to live by the sale of their bodies had no alternative but to seek their market outside the walls amid the forces of law and order in the Bishop’s camp. In addition to this, one of the first edicts of the twelve Elders was one of Draconian severity directed against adultery and seduction. It would look, indeed, as though the attempt to carry out sexual asceticism had broken down by its own weight, and the weight of the conditions in which the town was placed, and that the leaders had no alternative left them other than to regulate the disorder caused by nature asserting herself — a disorder which no number of ascetic edicts of however drastic a nature could effectually stem — by a legal modification of the marriage system adapted to the existing circumstances. How far the precedent of the Hebrew patriarchs and Kings influenced the decision of the Anabaptist authorities is impossible to say with certainty, though that it did so admits of no doubt. Whether Jan’s appeal to biblical precedent and to the injunction to be fruitful and multiply, etc., was chiefly the cover used to sanction a measure which the prophet’s astuteness in practical matters led him to see was indispensable, if the social organisation of Münster was to hold together, or whether the logical carrying-out of the idea of the New Israel already entered upon by him was the determining factor, it is at present impossible to decide. It may be remarked in this connection, that religious asceticism in sexual matters has invariably throughout history carried its own reaction within it. It has always tended to pass over into its opposite.
In any case it is certain that the number of women in Münster during the siege was little short of three times that of the men, and that perhaps the larger number of these women were left quite without male protectors or friends, many of the original male burghers having fled and left their houses in charge of their womenkind. This of itself might have sufficed at least to suggest some modification of the marriage law in a sense adverse to strict monogamy. Jan, as stated, succeeded without much difficulty, in inducing the Elders and the Preachers to take this view of the matter. Rothmann, indeed, became especially enthusiastic on the question. As to the women, they seem to have been divided in their views. Some are said to have objected strongly, one indeed, we are told, preferring suicide to compliance. The majority, however, the evidence shows, readily and even joyfully acquiesced in the new order of things.
The edict enjoining all women to unite themselves with one of the brethren was promulgated by Rothmann as spokesman for the leaders, on July 23rd. It now became the test of good citizenship to carry out this mandate. Those who proposed to marry were to give three days notice, during which they were to pray that God would bless the new union with offspring, and to vow to live to the honour and glory of God and his chosen people, the Saints. Rothmann adjured the people assembled in the cathedral close in enthusiastic tones that it was the will of the Lord that the Saints should increase and multiply as the sands of the sea, and that all who refused to accept the new matrimonial relations were incurring the wrath of God, which would sweep them from the earth. His discourse was greeted with shouts: “Long live the prophet!” The preacher, Bernhardt Krechting, brother of Heinrich, then cried out: “All his laws are holy and wise.” a cry that was repeated by the assembled concourse as one man. Therewith was the new regime inaugurated. But there remained some, specially among the men, otherwise zealous Anabaptists, who still had misgivings on the point. These the prophets in a series of discourses lasting three days, set themselves to convince, calling to their aid biblical examples of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. In this they seem to have been successful, so far at least as the otherwise sincere adherents of the Anabaptist doctrine were concerned.
The secret enemies, however, of the regime thought this a favourable moment to stir up strife and betray the town. A certain “mastersmith,” an ex-alderman, named Heinrich Möllenbecke, constituted himself the leader of this movement and soon gathered together some two hundred partisans, whom he persuaded to make a bold stroke for overthrowing the Anabaptist authority, seizing the leaders, and opening the gates to Franz von Waldeck, the Prince-Bishop. Accordingly, just a week after the promulgation of the edict concerning polygamy by Rothmann in the Cathedral close, on the 30th of July, at midnight, the houses of Bockelson, Rothmann, the Krechtings, Knipperdollinck, and other prominent Anabaptists, were broken into and they themselves bound and carried captive into the Rathhaus. The people having been called together, Möllenbecke and his accomplices endeavoured to enlist their sympathies for the coup d'état they had accomplished. The result was not encouraging to the conspirators, a few cheered, but the bulk either remained silent or gave vent to murmurings. Nothing daunted, the conspirators determined on the surrender of the town. Luckily for the Anabaptists, however, and unluckily for themselves, they resolved to postpone action to the following day. In the ensuing hours the loyal Anabaptists were not idle, and the following morning the call-drum, which Möllenbecke caused to be beaten for the purpose of rallying his followers on the Market-street, was also the signal for the Anabaptists, headed by the master-goldsmith Redecker, or as some accounts say Tylbeck, to appear on the scene. Considerably outnumbering the rebels as they did, they had no difficulty in scattering them, after making twelve prisoners. The ringleaders with a few followers retreated into the Rathhaus, which they made their citadel. Redecker and his friends, however, lost no time in posting cannon over against the municipal head-quarters, which after a short bombardment was forced to capitulate, Möllenbecke and his band being driven amid a shower of blows and curses to prison. Four thousand gulden stolen from the municipal coffers were found on their persons. Jan of Leyden and his colleagues were liberated amid the plaudits of the people.
The next day Möllenbecke and seven companions were fastened with iron bands round their necks to the lime-trees in the cathedral close. Before them a judgment seat had been erected and on it sat the prophet himself. Having passed sentence of death, Jan called upon those present, as they would do God a service, to fire the first shot. The head conspirators, including Möllenbecke, having been despatched in this manner by the populace, Bockelson called upon Knipperdollinck and his four assistants to deal justice to the remaining prisoners, fifty-eight in number, who had been guarded in the background. Knipperdollinck, with the red mantle of the executioner thrown over his arm, stepped forward holding aloft the great sword.. One after another the remaining prisoners were beheaded and their corpses buried in two large ditches. Reactionary writers have of course made the most of this exercise of martial law, to the detriment of the Anabaptists, conveniently forgetting that had such executions taken place at the behest of the representatives of class-interest and its order, they would have been the first to applaud the act as showing “vigour” under circumstances calling for a “strong hand.”
The measures adopted on this occasion, in any case, seem to have had the effect of silencing opposition to the new edict and the Anabaptist administration generally. It was now compulsory for every woman to have a husband, although the choice of whom they would have was left to them. All previous marriages were held to be dissolved as such by the new edict. In most cases, however, the original wives remained on condition of cheerfully receiving the new comers, whom they were to embrace with the greeting: “Welcome, dear Christian sister!” This did not prevent disturbances from arising in households, between the womenfolk. So serious did this become in certain cases that the authorities had to step in, and numbers of quarrelsome women were arrested and imprisoned in the Rosenthal Monastery, which had been set apart for the purpose. In those cases where the continuance of marital relations or of cohabitation proved untenable, divorces were granted.
The prophet Bockelson set the example of obedience to the new regulation, in taking to himself three wives, Divara, widow of the deceased Jan Matthys, Knipperdollinck’s daughter Klara, and Margaretha Modersohn. Rothmann also took three wives, a course soon followed by the other leaders, including the Krechtings and Knipperdollinck himself. The original wife of Knipperdollinck, having spoken evil words of the edict enjoining this reconstruction of domestic relations, had to suffer the penalty. She was compelled to stand for some hours on the Prinzipalmarkt, holding the executioner’s sword, and then to humbly beg forgiveness. Six schools were now established in different parts of the town for the instruction of the children in the Anabaptist doctrine.
Meanwhile the siege was continuing, but the military situation was not unfavorable to the Anabaptists. After vainly endeavouring to initiate negotiations for peace early in May, the manning of the fortifications had been carried on with redoubled vigour and sorties made almost daily. The Bishop, already sorely tried in his resources, resolved to attempt to carry the town by storm. A demand for surrender was accordingly made on Whitsunday, May 24th. On the demand being refused, preparations were made for the assault. Owing, however, to premature movement of one of the divisions of the besieging army, as well as to the vigilance of the Anabaptist guards on the walls, Bockelson, the Krechtings, and Knipperdollinck had time to organise their followers, who encountered the Bishop’s forces with such a vigorous resistance that they were driven back in confusion with heavy loss, amidst the triumphant shouts of the defenders.
This success naturally contributed to further the Anabaptist cause, not only in Münster but throughout the whole of the neighbouring territories, and seemed to give hope of a diversion in the shape of a general rising. For the next three months no further attempt on a great scale was made by the besiegers to seize the town, the idea being apparently to reduce it by famine. Towards the end of August, however, the inhabitants perceived indications of a renewed assault being in preparation. The defenders could see from the walls that trenches were being dug, cannon brought into position, and an unwonted activity displayed in the camp. The result was once more enthusiasm and organisation on the part of the Anabaptists; this time all the inhabitants of the town, old and young, including the women, according to Gresbeck, hurried to the walls to assist in the work. “Within the city,” says he, “was not one left, save old people and sick people.” The practice of chaffing the soldiers of the Bishop, a favourite diversion of the Anabaptists on the walls, was freely resorted to on this occasion. 11 When will ye come? We have baked and brewed, three and four nights long, the brew is long finished: will ye not come?” But it was not before the next morning that the Bishop’s free-lances ventured on the attack. Meanwhile every preparation had been made to receive them. On the first signal of battle, the defenders crowded to man the outer fortifications and the gates, which were the object of attack, and with them they brought “tar-wreaths,” heavy stones, and vessels containing boiling water and quick-lime, all which things were hurled down on the heads of the assaulting free-lances, who, driven back, returned again to the charge, and in some instances three times, but in vain. Leaving numbers of dead and wounded behind them, they were forced at length to retreat into their camp, once more amid the derisive cries and mocking challenges of the Münsterites. After this success Jan of Leyden, with his colleagues and the Preachers, headed a joyous procession through the town, singing hymns of thanksgiving. Addressing the assembled people: “Dear brethren,” said Jan, “have we not a strong God? He it is who has helped us. With our own might we had not done it. Let us now be joyful, and give thanks to the Father!” The danger passed, no time was lost in rebuilding the gates destroyed by the onslaught of the freelances and in repairing the fortifications.
But this military success was not merely of moment for the defence of the town. It also had important results in matters of internal politics, since it was the direct occasion of the assumption by Jan of Leyden of the dignity of King of the New Zion. The idea, it is said, had already been mooted amongst the leaders. It was indeed in consonance, like the rest of their organisation, with the biblical model. A few days after the defeat of the Bishop’s army an Anabaptist preacher, who recently had attained the rank of prophet, appeared on the Prinzipalmarkt before the assembled people, declaring that the Heavenly Father had revealed to him that Jan of Leyden, that holy man and prophet of God, had been divinely called to be King of the whole earth, to cast down the mighty from their seats and raise up them of low degree. To him should be give the crown, sceptre, and throne of his father David, until God should take it from him again. He then called upon the twelve Elders to resign their office into the hands of the new King, and, as a symbol thereof, to hand over the sword of justice which they had received on their appointment. On the Elders surrendering their sword of office to the speaker, the latter, calling upon Jan of Leyden, then’ formally handed over the emblem of supreme authority to the new King, with the words: “Receive this sword of justice, and therewith the power to bring all the peoples on the earth under thy authority!” Having them anointed the head of Jan, in biblical fashion, he proclaimed in a loud voice: “In the face of the whole people of God, I declare thee hereby King of the New Zion.” Thereupon, the anointed one, Jan Bockelson of Leyden, himself stepped forward to address the people
“God hath chosen me,” he said, “to be King over the whole world. But I tell ye, dear brethren and sisters, I had rather tend the swine or follow the plough than be King. Yet that which I do, I must forsooth do, in that God hath appointed me thereto.” After he had thus spoken, Gresbeck tells us, the people. remained silent, until. Jan called upon them to praise and thank God, upon which they broke out into the hymn: “To God on high alone be praise,” after which the assembly dispersed.
The first act of Jan of Leyden, in his new capacity, was the re-organisation of public functions. The twelve Elders resigned as such, though many were appointed to places in the new organisation. Jan reserved to himself the office of public executioner. The meaning of this, as Kautzky has pointed out, is not far to seek. The office of executioner, in mediaeval times, was reckoned the lowest and most degraded calling, involving social ostracism. Bockelson, therefore, in his new capacity of King of Zion, in taking upon himself the obloquy of this office, was only following out the New Testament injunction, so dear to the Anabaptist heart, that the first should be last and that he who would be highest should be servant of all. Knipperdollinck became in this, as in all other functions, the representative, or vice-steward, of the King. Rothmann was made royal orator and steward. Most of the former twelve Elders, with other prominent Anabaptists, became royal counsellors. Hermann Tylbeck was made master of the ceremonies.
Jan, who, like his master, Matthys, was no puritan, but, on the contrary, seems to have always had a taste for the dramatic and was never averse to display as such, arranged his court down to the smallest detail, with due regard to scenic effect. He always appeared in public richly attired and surrounded by a numerous retinue. Two crowns were made for him, a royal crown and an imperial crown, both of which were of the finest gold and covered with precious stones. He wore a golden chain, still extant, to which a ball was attached, containing two crossed swords, the ball emblematic of the world, the crossed swords of the highest jurisdiction. On the ball was a golden cross on which were the words: “A King of righteousness everywhere.” His royal sword; with its golden sheath, was attached to a heavy golden belt. The sceptre was rich in gold and precious stones. The goldsmiths’ and tailors’ guilds in the New Jerusalem were busily employed for weeks in furnishing forth the insignia of the new court. For the numerous retinue were attired on a scale of corresponding magnificence. Their garments of the finest cloth and silk were light blue and red; on their arms gleamed the heraldic shield of the new Kingdom, the globe, the cross, and the swords. Divara, the late widow of Matthys, noted for her beauty, was named queen by Bockelson, the other wives being enjoined to obey her in all things. Even these secondary wives, however, were allowed to gratify their vanity to the full in the matter of dress and toilet luxuries. On the Prinzipalmarkt a magnificent throne was erected, to which the King repaired three times a week in state, to administer justice. On these occasions his coming was heralded by a fanfare of trumpets. Before him marched the master of the ceremonies, Hermann Tylbeck, with a white staff in his hand. Immediately behind followed the King, attired in his royal garments, the crown on his head, the sceptre in his hand, riding on a white horse and accompanied by two gorgeously dressed pages, one on either side, one bearing the Old Testament and the other the great sword of justice. A long procession followed, headed by the vicegerent Knipperdollinck, the royal orator. Rothmann and the newly appointed chancellor Krechting. The rest of the procession consisted of councillors and attendants on horse-back and on foot, whilst bringing up the rear, came the royal bodyguard, who surrounded the throne and court during the judicial proceedings.
The pomp and magnificence of the new Kingdom, Jan declared, was for the honor and glory of God. He, a poor human being, was simply acting as God’s representative on earth. The time was at hand, said he, when the whole people of the New Israel should sit on silver chairs and eat from silver tables, when gold and silver would have no more value than common stones, for the Glory of this world should pass away into the hands of the Saints. Addressing the people on the first occasion that he thus appeared after his coronation, Jan painted in glowing terms to the citizens, the time coming when the Kingdom of God should be established over all the Kingdoms of the earth, when he and his followers should go forth from Münster conquering and to conquer. Bockelson showed himself in the new organisation at once energetic and politic, he had obtained the support and attached to his person all the influential Anabaptists in Münster. His bodyguard and most of his courtiers were composed of his compatriots, the Dutchmen and Frieslanders.
The pomp and show that characterised the reign of Jan Bockelson as King of the New Jerusalem has often enough been treated as conclusive evidence of hypocrisy. There is, however, no justification for this conclusion. It is quite admissible to suppose that these things were done simply to inspire confidence in the people by the outward signs of wealth and power. The whole wealth of the city appeared concentrated in the new state, in the official representation of the community of the Saints. To make this official representation of the new order of things as imposing as possible was to impress the imagination of the people, to keep their spirits up, and to encourage them in their resistance, alike passive and active, to the common foe. To this must be added, however, that Jan had the dramatic instinct strong in him. It doubtless seemed to him appropriate that the New Jerusalem, the model of the kingdom of God throughout the earth, should be inaugurated with all the pomp and circumstance characteristic of mediaeval temporal power. That as a mere matter of policy he was right, is indicated by the fact of the length of time the city held out, and of the comparative unanimity that the population displayed during the subsequent period of the siege.
A new prophet now arose in the person of one Henrikus, an ex-schoolmaster. One day, as the King was on his throne on the Prinzipalmarkt, surrounded by his court for the purpose of administering justice, this Henrikus rose up and declared that, for three nights in succession, he had been awakened at a certain hour by a voice saying: “Prepare.” On the third night, he had fallen on his knees with a prayer: “Dear Father, what shall I prepare?” whereupon the voice answered him: “Thou shalt proclaim to my people great joy.” After this statement, Jan arose, saying: “Dear brethren and sisters, let us thank the Father,” and thereupon knelt down. The assembled people did the same, singing a German psalm. Another day, Dusentschur, the goldsmith of Warendorf, he who had anointed Bockelson King and who had for some time held the rank of prophet, rose up on the Prinzipalmarkt, in the presence of the King and people, declaring that God had revealed to him a sumptuary ordinance respecting the number of clothes that Christian brethren and sisters might retain for their own use. This divine revelation, he explained, ordained that a man might not have in his possession more than one coat, two pairs of hose, two doublets, and three shirts; a woman only one skirt, one mantle and four chemises. No one should possess more than one bed and four sheets. This ordinance at once acquired the force of law. Bockelson ordered the deacons to make a house-to-house visitation sequestrating all the property that they found over and above the allotted measure. Thus far the communistic principles of Anabaptism were consistently carried out. All the riding horses of the town were now concentrated in the court of the King’s residence abutting on the cathedral close, and a squadron of light horse was now organised as additional body-guard. They were frequently exercised, clad in full armour, in front of the cathedral, in order that the people might be still further impressed with a sense of the material power at the disposal of their cause.
We have seen that Jan Bockelson had succeeded not only in acquiring the enthusiastic support of the people, but also in attaching all the leaders to him as supreme head of the Münster community. Whether this adhesion to the new order of things was in all cases purely voluntary has been called in question. Keller conjectures that especially Knipperdollinck and Rothmann had been driven by circumstances into the new position they occupied rather than had been consciously working for it. They certainly, more particularly Knipperdollinck, suffered a loss of power and prestige through the charge. Rothmann had been for some months little more than the spokesman and echo of the Dutch prophets. But Knipperdollinck had until recently occupied the foremost position in the Münster Commonwealth. It is readily conceivable that the new development of things was riot quite to his liking. Certain actions of his are reported, tending to show that he at one time really meditated the overthrow of Bockelson. He withdrew himself, it is said, some days from public affairs into his house, and then went out declaring that he had a revelation, visiting, it is said, the people working at the defences. But the nature of the revelation our informant Gresbeck does not tell us.
Shortly afterwards, Knipperdollinck had the call to repentance cried in the streets, a practice which was common previous to the communication of some new revelation to the Brethren. It so happened that this was one of the days on which Jan held his court of justice on the market-place. As usual on such occasions, one of the preachers was addressing the multitude, it being the custom for a sermon to be delivered at the beginning and end of the proceedings. Knipperdollinck burst in upon the assembly in the middle of the discourse, crying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, holy is the Father, and we are a holy people!” As he said this, he began to dance in front of the King’s throne, declaring that the preceding night it had been revealed to him that he was to play the part of court-fool. He then began to perform the antics of a madman, prostrating himself before the throne, jumping up and down, throwing himself into all manner of gestures. He called upon one of the attendants with a halberd to follow him and strike down the godless. Knipperdollinck continued dancing till he fell over two of the benches on which the women were sitting, rolling over on the ground as one possessed. Rising to his feet, he declared that the Holy Ghost had passed through him, and proceeded to kiss the bystanders on the mouth, with the words: “Thou art holy, God hath made, thee holy!” Jan, who had looked on in silent embarrassment, at last rose up, saying: “Dear Brethren and Sisters, let us praise and thank God and go home!” The multitude then dispersed after a remonstrance addressed by Knipperdollinck to the King and the singing of a hymn.
The next day there was again an assembly on the Prinzipalmarkt. On this occasion, it is related, Knipperdollinck advanced before Jan and seated himself on the throne in his stead, with the words: “It is I who of right should be King here, since it is I who have made thee what thou art.” At this Bockelson was enraged and went home. He subsequently returned, however, and resumed his place on the throne, which Knipperdollinck had now vacated. Having bidden Knipperdollinck to be silent, Jan addressed the people, saying: “Dear Brethren and Sisters, heed ye not the thing which Knipperdollinck hath said, for he is not in his right mind.” He proceeded to deliver one of those eloquent discourses that had always won the heart of the people, who remained unaffected by what had happened in their loyalty to him. Jan had Knipperdollinck arrested. He was liberated after three days on begging pardon and averring that he had been beguiled by the devil, not knowing what he did. (Gresbeck, Bericht, pp. 142-50).
A complete reconciliation between Bockelson and Knipperdollinck seems to have been effected before many days were over, for shortly afterwards we hear of a triumphal procession of Jan through all the streets and open places of the town, when he was accompanied by his court and his full military retinue, horse and foot, with Knipperdollinck, in his earlier capacity of master of the ceremonies, taking a leading part. Everywhere the King of the New Jerusalem was greeted with enthusiasm by the whole population, the women especially distinguishing themselves by the ardour of their loyalty. As yet, in the late autumn and early winter of 1534, want of provisions had hardly made itself felt in Münster. The public tables were still fairly well supplied, and from time to time special feasts were given in the King’s palace or in the open air in the cathedral close, now called by the faithful the Hill of Zion. Jan, with his artistic instincts, saw to it that the proceedings were accompanied by music and at times by song and dance as well. At intervals on these occasions a chapter of the Old Testament would be read by someone appointed for the purpose. Some of these functions, were kept up far into the night.
As showing the devotion of the people to the new King the following incident will serve. One day a crier was sent through the town to announce that the hour had come when the New Israel, under the leadership of its King, should go forth into the promised land, and that all should make themselves ready for their departure. As some ten thousand persons, two thousand men and eight thousand women, it is said, were assembled on the “Domhof” in obedience to the summons, Jan appeared in full regalia, accompanied by his court, and announced to the multitude that the hour had not yet come, that he had only wished to try their faith, and that he begged them now to be his guests at a joyful feast. Benches and tables were hastily made ready, and the whole concourse sat down to the rich fare provided. The King himself, with his Queen, and his court-functionaries served the people with their own hands. As soon as the feast was over, Jan rose up to address the people. “God,” he said, “had relieved him of his dignity of King and he would now abdicate.” Thereupon the ex-goldsmith, and now prophet, Dusentschur, in his turn rose up and declared that God had revealed to him the command that their dear brother, Jan of Leyden, should continue King, an announcement which was accepted with acclamation by the people. Thus was Jan confirmed in his office by a kind of popular election. Jan.now announced to those assembled that a divine revelation had enjoined him to send forth twenty-seven chosen men in the capacity of apostles. Dusentschur read the names and the places, amongst others, Soest, Osnabrück, Warendorf and Coesfeld. The apostles immediately departed as ordered. It is said that Jan ended this feast by the execution of a prisoner with his own hand, a statement that, coming as it does from hostile sources, may well be open to doubt.
The travesties of the Catholic cultus continued at intervals throughout the whole siege. Grotesque effigies of the Bishop, hung round with letters of indulgence, were popular. On one occasion, one of these figures was mounted on an old horse, to the tail of which a large parchment representing the agreement entered into by the Bishop with the town of Münster on February 14th, 1533, was attached, and the animal was then driven out of the city in the direction of the Bishop’s camp. The soldiers hurried up to ascertain who the intruder was, and on discovering the hoax, hewed the figure in pieces to the great amusement of the Anabaptist guards on the wall. Towards the end of the year 1534, famine began to make itself unmistakably manifest. The duty of the deacons to provide the daily meals became daily more difficult. Strong measures had to be taken to prevent the hoarding up of provisions by private individuals; it was stringently forbidden to bake or brew in private houses; the millers were prohibited from grinding corn for private persons. A house to house search was made for hidden food or drink, and concealment of the necessaries of life was visited with the severest penalties.
The hope of relief from the brethren outside in the other towns of Westphalia, and indeed as far off as Friesland and Holland, found expression in the revelations and visions, that formed part of the atmosphere of the Anabaptist world. Many of these emanated from Jan himself, others from the other prophets. One night, we are told, Jan ran barefoot through the streets and along the wall, crying: “Israel, rejoice, thy deliverance is near!” Words of encouragement from their King and leader always infused fresh confidence into the impressionable population. Once the King actually made preparations for heading a sortie. He had all available sacks in the town brought together into the hands of the deacons, preparatory to taking them with himself and followers, hoping to return with them filled with corn and flour for the hungry population. A rumour as to this having reached the camp outside, the soldiers of the Bishop were not slow in casting jeers at the defenders of the ramparts, asking why Jan of Leyden delayed coming. He should only hurry, they said, and they would see to the filling of his sacks for him. But Jan’s practical good sense kept him back in time from a project that, under the existing conditions, without a relieving force to co-operate with him, would have meant certain destruction.
The towers of the churches were now partially broken down and used as platforms for the planting of ordnance. The “Lambertikirche” alone of the principal churches remained untouched. Its lofty tower was used as the chief watchtower, from which an alarm was blown whenever a movement of the enemy in the direction of the city was observed. Some smaller ecclesiastical buildings were demolished and the materials used for strengthening the fortifications. By the beginning of 1535 all the churches, streets and public places were renamed so as to obliterate all memory of Catholic times. To this end also, all Catholic festivals and observance days were done away with as such; the distinction between Sunday and week-day was likewise abolished on the same grounds. Work on the walls and in the trenches, and in collecting and carrying material for repairs in the defensive works, naturally occupied much of the time of the inhabitants. But their King Jan took steps to distract them as far as possible from dwelling on the miseries of their situation, by means of amusement and instruction combined in the shape of dramatic representations. For this purpose, the choir of the cathedral was transformed into a stage, somewhat after the manner adopted for the old Catholic mystery-plays of the earlier Middle Ages. Curtains were hung right across the nave, at the entrance of the choir.
Gresbeck has left an account of one of these Anabaptist mystery-plays. It represented the story of the rich man and Lazarus. “They began to play,” says Gresbeck, “and played and made speech one with the other. When the rich man had made a speech with Lazarus, three pipers, who stood by the stage, played a piece in three parts. Then the rich man spake again, and then the pipers played again, and so the play went through to the end. At the last came the devils and did fetch the rich man, body and soul, and did draw him behind the curtain. There was a great laughter in the cathedral and much merry talk.” (Gresbeck, Bericht, p.168.) In the above we have an illustration again of the powerful influence exercised by tradition and the intellectual atmosphere into which we have been born, even when we are with our conscious will engaged in a bitter protest, as we suppose, against that tradition and atmosphere. Jan of Leyden and his followers, so far as their conscious endeavours were concerned, aimed at destroying all vestige of the hated Catholic-Feudal system of society, against which they were ostensibly rebelling. Yet strangely enough, as it might seem, they could think of no form of dramatic representation more appropriate than something scarcely distinguishable from the old traditional mystery-play so familiar to the mediaeval mind. Again, the pomp of the New Jerusalem, the importance, attached to which may possibly have been suggested, as Kautsky has observed, from frequent readings of the Johannine Apocalypse, was through and through mediaeval in character. The Middle Ages were always great in pageants, and the pageant-life of the Middle Ages had never attained such dimensions or such magnificence as it did when they were nearing their close during the earlier half of the sixteenth century. Even under the storm and stress of siege and hunger in Münster in 1535, we see the old careless, naive and joyous life of mediaeval times still active. The true puritanical spirit, indirect outcome of the new conditions of life then indeed arising, but not as yet become dominant, only sporadically asserted itself. The difference is marked in this respect between the Anabaptists of Münster and the English Puritans of over a century later. So true is the commonplace that our minds run in grooves and that it takes a long time before we can free ourselves from our old habits of thought.
But in spite of amusements, in spite of visions, in spite of revelations of coming help, day by day as the new year 1535 advanced, the terrible ravages of hunger made themselves more and more felt. At the same time, the Bishop’s forces continued to draw an ever tightening cordon around the doomed city. All possible communication with the outer world was now cut off, and the hope of relief from outside grew daily fainter. The horses were now slaughtered for food. With the first indications of spring, an attempt was made to cultivate the not inconsiderable amount of garden and arable land within the walls. Münster is even to-day a town of orchards and market-gardens. The available land was divided into lots and distributed among the inhabitants for cultivation. But the result did not answer to expectation. Jan and the Preachers unceasingly exhorted the people to regard the present condition of famine in the light of a fast ordained by God, which it was the duty of the Saints to observe till the time of feasting should come again.
Up to this time no steps had been taken by the authorities to prevent people leaving the town. The forces of the Anabaptists had been, moreover, largely recruited by fugitives from the Bishop’s camp. The King now resolved that it was time to regulate the departures. One of the Preachers, therefore, who appears to have also acted as public crier, was told off to announce throughout the town, that for four days it should remain free to all to leave if they pleased, but that after the expiration of that time all those caught attempting to escape should be executed as traitors. During the four days, large numbers of men, women and children flocked to the Rathhaus to claim the promised escort to the outer ramparts. It was a terrible alternative that presented itself to the famished inhabitants Münster. Death from hunger within the walls, or probable death at the hands of the Bishop’s mercenaries without. Almost all those of an age to bear arms were seized as they neared the trenches of the besiegers and summarily put to death. Old men, women and children were left without shelter in the open field. The Bishop sought counsel of the Archbishop of Köln and the Prince-Bishop of Cleves, his allies, as to what course he should pursue. They told him to drive the fugitives back into the town. This was tried, but they unanimously refused to move, saying they preferred immediate death in the camp of the besiegers to death by starvation in Münster. At this, these unfortunate half-starved fugitives were arrested and the episcopal monster had a number of them executed; the remainder, mostly women and children, being interned in various towns of the bishopric.
Notwithstanding famine and siege, the faith of the leaders and of the bulk of the inhabitants of Münster seemed to be little affected. The belief in the ultimate victory over the whole world of the millennial kingdom inaugurated in Münster remained for the most part unimpaired. But Jan, with his practical sense, knowing that disaffection existed in the town and tended to increase with the growth of the famine and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, bethought himself of a plan of placing the defence of the gates in the hands of persons upon whom he could thoroughly rely. Whether he had any special reasons for distrusting any of the existing defenders we know not. But the defence of the gates was obviously a matter of prime importance for the safety of the town. It only required a single act of treachery on the part of the commander of one of the gates for the city to be hopelessly lost. It was therefore only natural and wise that such a post of special confidence should be occupied by persons of whose fidelity the King had personal assurance. Accordingly, under the pretext of choosing betimes the twelve “dukes,” as they were called, or governors, among whom the kingdoms of the earth were subsequently to be divided, subject to the headship of their divinely-appointed King, Jan decided to carry out an important plan of reorganisation in the defence. To gain popular support for the measure and to confer more indisputable authority for the new officers, it was determined that the latter should be chosen by a suffrage of the Brethren. On the appointed day, therefore, all the adult inhabitants of Münster, men and women, were ordered to the gate belonging to the particular ward of the city in which they resided. After one of the preachers had here held a service, voting papers were distributed, upon which each person was to write the name of the Brother he wished to see fill the office of “duke.” This being done, all the voting papers were collected into an urn by the royal councillor who directed the proceeding at each of the places appointed. An attendant page thrust his hand into the urn, and drew out, haphazard, one of the voting papers which he handed to the councillor. The latter then read out the name supposed to be written thereon, the bearer of which he thereupon proclaimed the duke appointed to take over the command of the defence at the particular gate in question. The reader will see’ that the election was not by majority-vote, but by a process purporting to be a kind of mixture of democracy and chance, or, as the Anabaptists doubtless believed it, divine Providence. It has been suggested, not without reason, that the name announced by the councillor who was functioning was not necessarily the one that was written on the paper handed to him by the boy; but one that had been previously decided upon by Jan and his trusted councillors. It is, in fact, not improbable that a deception of this kind was practised, but if so, it was a deception for which it must be admitted there was considerable excuse, in view of the vital importance of the issues that hung upon the election. An injudicious choice might have meant the speedy betrayal of the town and all within it to the hordes of the Bishop’s free-lances, thirsting as they were for blood and plunder.
The proceeding accomplished, Jan himself on horseback, attired in his kingly robes, made a tour of the twelve gates, and at each one, solemnly and with a ceremonial customary in the New Jerusalem on public occasions, inaugurated the newly chosen duke in the office to which he was called — at first in the defence of Münster and later as vicegerent of the King of Zion in the government of the millennial monarchy. This was followed by a feast at which all the dukes had places of honour with the King and his councillors. Afterwards, we are told, the guests danced “each with his own wife.” The proceedings concluded with the King presenting each duke with a silken band embroidered with the most costly gold, which each wore round his neck. These silken bands were hung with gold and silver coins. The election of the dukes meant a complete change in the personnel of the officers at each gate. Every duke chose for himself a lieutenant to act as his representative. The latter in his turn (hose a quartermaster. These three were supreme at their own gate and the section of the defensive works allotted to it.
But no reorganisation of the defence could finally save the city. Famine and the superior force of the besiegers rendered a prolonged resistance impossible. The numbers in the town were gradually reduced by starvation and the diseases accompanying want of food, and by flight, for in the last part of the siege this happened daily. The usual state of things in a besieged and hunger-stricken city obtained in Münster. According to Gresbeck everything that had life was eaten, dogs, cats, rats, mice, etc. Dark suggestions of cannibalism were as usual not wanting, but Gresbeck is honest enough to admit that he never saw any evidence of the latter. In the course of the month of May, large numbers of women left the city together with nearly all the children, amongst them fourteen  out of the fifteen wives of Jan of Leyden, the one remaining being the Queen and late widow of Matthys. It was necessary to limit the population as far as possible to those engaged in the work of the defence. Even then the suffering of the city was great enough.
It is necessary now to say a few words anent the charge of bloodthirstiness commonly brought by historians against the Münster Anabaptists. The charge is based on the fact of sundry executions having taken place in the city during the siege. As usual, reactionaries have set up for the Anabaptists of Münster, conducting the defence of a beleaguered town in the 16th century and at death-grips with a pitiless enemy, a supererogatory standard of mildness and humanity, which the governing classes they champion would not under normal conditions attempt to attain. When, of course, they can show that the Münsterites did not come up to it, they affect to be staggered with horror. The Anabaptists had arrived at the supreme power in Münster in February, 1534, in a perfectly legal manner. Franz von Waldeck had thereupon made war against the city, at the same time continuously murdering in cold blood any Anabaptists that fell into his hands. A portion of this sect — which, as we have seen in former chapters of this work, notwithstanding its doctrine of non-resistance to evil consistently carried out and hence its ultra-peaceable character, had been for years the victim of the most fiendish persecution — had at length resolved upon vigorous measures of self-defence, and as fortune would have it, had come into possession of a strongly fortified town against which war had immediately been levied by its persecutors as representing the existing order of society. All knew that it was a case of life and death and that the capture of the city meant their extermination. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person can wonder that measures of exceptional severity had to be adopted and carried out against traitors and all whose acts militated against the safety of the town. Executions there undoubtedly were within the walls of Münster at the hands of the Anabaptist authorities. Of the circumstances of most of these we are ignorant, but as to those cases of which we have information, afforded it must be remembered exclusively by hostile witnesses, it is plain that we have to do with either acts of overt treachery or at least such as seriously menaced order within the town itself, on the maintenance of which the general safety so much depended. These were certainly inflicted without regard to rank or sex, for the followers of Jan of Leyden were no respecters of persons.
The executions, unfortunately, though not unnaturally, increased as the famine increased and the hope of succour from without died away. As might be expected, the temptation to half-concealed disaffection and to open treachery rose with the conditions mentioned. During the last month of the siege the executions were most numerous, although the incredible statement of one account, that on June 3rd fifty-two persons suffered, may well be doubted. In one respect, certainly, even in this connection, it must be admitted that the much maligned sectaries showed themselves superior to their time. We do not hear of the torture being inflicted before the condemnation, as was usually the case elsewhere at that period, whilst the modes of death themselves were exclusively those sanctioned by the conscience of the nineteenth century. The only forms of execution practised by the Anabaptists in Münster were hanging, shooting, and beheading. Partisans of the dominant classes of that age may well be invited to compare the, for the period, comparatively humane conduct of the Anabaptists with the bestial blood-lust of their enemies.
It remains to sum up briefly the nature of the institutions of the New Israel before concluding the present chapter. Of these the most notorious are the so-called communism that was established and the new marriage law, permitting, and in some cases even enjoining, polygamy for the saints. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, communism in a mediaeval sense (that is, communism in the economic product as distinguished from communism in the means of production) formed an undercurrent, so to say, in all the forms of Anabaptism and was in various parts a recognised institution long before Jan Bockelson and the leaders of Münster appeared upon the scene. Free views of the marriage relation were, as we have seen also, occasionally to be met with among the earlier adherents of the movement. But, in both cases, the practical application of these doctrines was primarily determined by the peculiar local conditions obtaining in Münster during the siege. The communism, for example, was never complete, but was only, as Kautsky has pointed out, carried as far as the exigencies of the moment rendered it desirable. The confiscation of private property for the commonweal did not, for a long time, extend beyond money and the precious metals, a plentiful supply of which was necessary for defraying the expenses of sending out missionaries, and otherwise maintaining intercourse, such as it was, with the outer world, as well as for inducing as many as possible of the Bishop’s free-lances to desert and enter the service of the defence.
Later on, as famine began to make itself felt, and clothes began to wear out, private food stores, together with superfluous wardrobes, were also confiscated for the general use. The wealth of the religious houses, a by no means inconsiderable factor in Münster, was of course secularised or “municipalised” when they were abolished by the new order of things, after which, as generally occurred, their inmates abandoned them of their own accord to join the Anabaptist community. The same happened to the goods of hostile burghers who had fled. It is possible also that guild-property as such was regarded as available for public purposes.
How far the common meals started at an early period of the siege extended to all the inhabitants is doubtful; that the whole community on special occasions sat down to a common meal in the open air is clear. But various indications would seem to show that, as regards every-day life, the public meals were mainly confined to those actively engaged on the walls and in the trenches, the houses set apart for them being situated as close as possible to the gates. In these common meals women as well as men took part, for the Anabaptist women were amongst the most active in the work of defence. It is plain that the private household, with the private meals held therein, was not abolished as an institution. This comes out in the matter of the confiscation of the private food stores. We hear also of rations being served out to private households. The common table of each town-ward was, of course, open to all the inhabitants of the ward, but there is no reason to suppose that there was any compulsion as to attendance. It is probable, however, that during the last few months of the siege, when food was becoming scarce, little was obtainable except at the public tables.
Private property and even inheritance was never, as such, formally abolished in Münster. So much is evident by the regulations drawn up at various times during the siege, which have been preserved mainly by the hostile witness Kerssenbroick: One of these, the work of the twelve Elders, has it: “Should any man, by the providence of God, be shot or otherwise fall asleep in the Lord, none shall venture to keep such one’s goods for himself, whether arms, garments, or whatsoever they may be; but he shall bring it before the sword-bearer, Knipperdollinck, who shall lay it before the Elders to the end that by them it may be adjudged to the true heirs.” Again, one of a series of twenty-four articles drawn up by Jan of Leyden in January, 1535, provides that whilst no one of his own initiative shall appropriate booty captured from the enemy, but shall surrender it to the proper authorities, yet the latter may give him a portion of it, which he is free to use as he likes. Other articles of this code whilst strictly forbidding buying or selling, also enjoin fair dealings in the exchange and barter that had taken its place. A curious regulation is the appointment of certain craftsmen, who had to be exempt from the work of defence in order that they might labour at their craft for the common benefit of the new house of Israel. Thus two master-shoemakers, with their six journeymen, were to provide shoes for all the community. In a similar way, tailors were appoined, and blacksmiths to make — keys! The allusions to masters and journeymen in these regulations indicate that the Anabaptists’ communism, as practised in Münster, involved no serious breach with the then current conditions of industrial life. The disciples of Matthys and Bockelson, although doubtless in theory communists in the mediaeval sense of the word, were unable under the conditions of a beleaguered town, where everything was subordinate to the emergencies of the moment, to undertake any systematic application of their doctrines.
As regards the question of the sexual arrangements of the Saints in Münster, it is only fair to take into account the doctrines concerning marriage contained in the “Bekenntniss des Globens und Lebens der gemein Criste zu Münster,” where, in the section dealing with marriage, the conventional Christian doctrine on the subject is emphasized to the fullest extent. Marriage is proclaimed to be a sacrament of the highest order, typical of Christ and the Church, etc., with a due wealth of quotations from the New Testament. At the same time, the charges of debauchery that had been brought against the Saints by their enemies are indignantly repudiated as foul slanders. Speaking of this, the apology goes on to say: “We leave vengeance to God, for know we not that how long soever we are fought against with blasphemous lies and with might, and the godless pour out the measure of their evil doing, yea, even though we suffer according to the flesh, yet shall the truth conquer in our little congregation, as Christ saith, Luke XII: Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Everything points to the fact that originally the Münster Anabaptists, like the enormous majority of their co-religionists elsewhere, professed and practised asceticism in sexual as in other matters. The modification that subsequently took place was of a peculiar character. Had it been in the direction of a community of wives or of free love, it would have had its parallel in certain previous phases of mediaeval Christian communism, for instance, the “Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit,” the heretical Hussite sect of the “Adamites,” etc. But as it is, it stands unique in the history of mediaeval socio-religious movements. The contract, or sacrament, as it was conceived, of marriage, once entered upon, was no less sacred and binding after the introduction of polygamy; than it had been under the previous monogamy. The difference consisted solely in the lawfulness of having more wives than one. In the twenty-eight articles, promulgated by Jan of Leyden, in January, 1535, months after polygamy had been introduced, we find the same severity against adultery and all forms of illicit sexual intercourse as in the edict of the twelve Elders already alluded to, which was enacted before the introduction of the new marriage system. That marriages concluded before re-baptism should be regarded as null and void was only a logical deduction from the idea of a new life entered into by joining the community of the Saints. The explanation of the polygamy of the Münsterites is undoubtedly the one suggested in an earlier part of the present chapter.
On the town falling into the hands of the Anabaptists, a large emigration of the wealthy inhabitants took place, as we know. But it was mainly the master of the house who departed, in these cases, with perhaps such of his sons as were grown up, leaving behind the female section of the household, as a rule a tolerably large one in the Middle Ages. The average population of the town of Münster in those times is estimated at fifteen thousand. The number present within the walls at any time during the siege could not have exceeded, according to all accounts, from twelve to thirteen thousand, whilst some statements make it less. The number of the male inhabitants is reckoned by Gresbeck at two thousand, of which fifteen hundred are mentioned as capable of bearing arms. There were, of course, losses and gains in the adult male population — losses from military operations and gains from prisoners brought in, and from deserters from the Bishop’s camp, who joined the defenders. Allowing for this, however, the difference in the numerical proportion of women to men could not have been less than three or four to one and was probably much more. Given such a state of things, with an Anabaptist code of morals prevailing and strictly enforced in a town for months cut off from all intercourse with the outer world, any reasonable man can see that an untenable situation from the sexual point of view must be created, which could only be remedied either by a serious relaxation of the sexual code itself, or else by an enlargement of the moral and religious sanctions as regards marriage. The latter was the course chosen by Jan of Leyden and his colleagues. An almost exclusive study of the Bible and the dominant idea that absorbed the Anabaptists of living over again the life of the Old Testament Israel, as they conceived it, rendered the notion of a plurality of wives plausible by its accordance with the household of the patriarchal society depicted in the Pentateuch. It may be true that Jan Matthys probably, and certainly Jan Bockelson, did not in all respects share the ultra-ascetic views of some amongst the Anabaptists, any more than they shared the belief in the doctrine of non-resistance so prevalent in the sect; but the evidence shows that even these leaders accepted the strict doctrines on sexual morality general among the Brethren. The biblical-patriarchal view taken of the marriage relation is further shown by the authority vested in the husband over his wives and household generally. This point of view comes out strongly in a pamphlet published by Rothmann in October, 1534, as spokesman of the Münster Saints.
It should not be forgotten by the conventional historian, who overflows with indignation at the wickedness of the Münsterites in instituting polygamy, that such accredited representatives of orthodox Protestant respectability as Luther and Melanchthon had declared polygamy to be not contrary to Christianity. This, it is true, was said by the distinguished “reformers” in question in order to curry favour with Henry VIII. of England and the Landgraf of Hesse respectively, and they, together with their patrons, would have wished doubtless to keep it, as Kautsky has suggested, as a reserve doctrine for the convenience of the great ones of the earth on emergency. But their arguments which showed that, whilst polygamy was avowedly permitted by the Mosaic law, it had never been forbidden by any precept or injunction of Christ or the Apostles, must, to the Anabaptist mind, have held equally good when applied in a democratic sense.
The ground of the innovation introduced by the prophets and preachers of Münster, it must, moreover, not be forgotten, was economic as well as sexual. Large numbers of women had been left deserted in the town and had to be protected and provided for by the new regulation. All such women came into the household of one of the Brethren. In fact, it would seem that there were a certain number among the so-called wives under the new ordinance who were such in name only and for whom the new relation was avowedly merely one of protectional maintenance. For the original edict, it must be remembered, provided that no woman, old or young, should remain outside the marital relation, although she was free to choose the man she would have. The original edict, however, did not remain in full force, being modified more than once. The domestic disturbances caused by the new arrangements, which were first met by the imprisonment of the recalcitrant women in one of the evacuated religious houses prepared for the purpose, and even in two or three cases, it is stated, by executions, were later on dealt with by a liberal application of a divorce law, which had been enacted to this end. Towards the close of the siege, the majority of the female population had left the town.
In concluding this chapter, we must once more repeat that, in considering the conduct of the Anabaptist authorities during their lease of power in Münster, it is above all things necessary to remember the altogether exceptional conditions with which they were confronted. Münster was from beginning to end a beleaguered town, for the greater part of the time cut off almost completely from all communication with the outer world; the population was exceptionally disproportioned as regards the sexes, and was composed, besides, largely of heterogeneous elements from various quarters, united only in the one faith. Last, but not least, it was not even an ordinary siege that was in question, but one which all knew to mean victory or the most terrible of deaths.
1. In the account of the circumstances connected with the assumption of the Kingship by Jan of Leyden, I have in the main followed the treatment of the subject by Dr. Ludwig Keller, who in his capacity of Royal Librarian and Keeper of the Archives at Münster, has had the opportunity of investigating the whole of the extant state documents relating to the Anabaptists in Münster, and is hence the best court of appeal on doubtful points. I have purposely disregarded the foolish and malignant gossip of Kerssenbroick, which some later historians have repeated.
2. Gresbeck hints at other causes for Bockelson’s resentment, besides the ostensible one in question. He seems to suggest that Knipperdollinck was connected with a party among the Anabaptists in the town, who advocated the appointment of an additional king. “They would,” he says, “have a worldly and spiritual king.” “Many of these,” he says, “were also seized and kept many days in durance. The same are Dutchmen and Frieslanders; had they been burghers or free-lances the King would have had them beheaded.”
3. This statement by a hostile contemporary witness disposes of the story of the execution by Jan of one of these women, Elisabetha Wandscherer, for wishing to leave the town.