E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
IN the course of the studies just terminated we have traced the main lines of social and political thought and life during that remarkable epoch, now nearly four centuries behind us, in which the period known as the Middle Ages was slowly but surely, (so to say,) winding up its accounts with universal history. During the first half of the 16th century, as more than once remarked in the course of these pages, the economic and political conditions of the Middle Ages, although rapidly disintegrating, were still in the main, outwardly intact. The undercurrent of change which was breaking through at different points manifested itself under medieval forms. The same may be said of the intellectual aspect of the period in question. The old order of ideas was indeed changing, but the new ideas of the time that took the place of the old were still essentially dominated by a mediaeval habit of thought. Thus the science of the age was, taken as a whole, little more than the folk-lore, and ecclesiastical conceptions of the Middle Ages systematised under a new form. It is true that through this mass of old notions dressed-up anew, the facts and methods of modern science were here and there piercing. A Paracelsus amidst his abuse of the old medical theories based on the teaching of Galen and Avicenna, in favour of his own equally crude and fantastic system founded on the supposed affinities of things nevertheless hit upon discoveries the value of which is recognised to-day. Still more a Copernicus who, working in the intellectual atmosphere of his age, must have been unquestionably in the main dominated by its modes of thought, could, notwithstanding this, lay the foundation of modern astronomy. But in judging of the age we must never forget that these things were exceptional, and that the newly awakened intellectual life of Christendom, in the bulk, moved along the old lines and sought to realise its dawning aspirations through methods dictated by these old ways of thought. Thus its freshly awakened interest in the investigation of Nature expressed itself in the search after the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life, the Transmutation of Metals and such things. The chief interest in the study of the heavens for it lay in the calculation of nativities.
Yet there are some among the seemingly impossible ends which the 16th century placed before itself as the main objects of human science to achieve, and which it sought to realise by magical or quasi-magical means, that in the light of recent scientific research, no longer seem as absurd as they did in the early days of modern rationalism. Communication at a distance through other than the ordinary channels accessible to the senses, one of the achievements ascribed to the mystic powers of the learned alchemist and astrologer Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, is to-day a commonplace of the telephone and wireless telegraph. Aerial locomotion, which the 16th century regarded as the exclusive privilege of the superior magicians, the Simon Maguses, of the world’s history, is now a fact only awaiting some final touches to revolutionise transit. Even the Elixir of Life, impossible as it seems at first sight, has lost some of its absurdity in the light of theories based on recent experiments and now currently held by physiologists of repute. In short, while of the objects handed down to it from tradition and furbished up anew by the freshly awakened intelligence of the Renaissance period, which the wisdom of that age placed before itself as the goal of its endeavours, such as the calculation of nativities and the Philosopher’s Stone, some may have disclosed themselves to later ages as mere absurdity, there are many other things, at that time believed in as possible, but rejected as equally absurd in the earlier stages of modern science, which are nevertheless now the realised assets of later invention and discovery.
There is however a striking difference. Though some of the objects pursued by the votaries of the pseudo-science of the Renaissance have been realised by modern scientific discovery and invention, they have been realised in a different way and by very different means to those alone conceived of by the cosmic speculator of the 16th century. The latter had no idea — in accordance with the prevailing theory of the universe — of achieving his ends otherwise than by supernatural agencies or mysterious and occult powers akin to these, that he supposed to be inherent in nature. The methods by which the real results have been attained have, of course, implied a complete revolution in our conception of the order of the universe.
The case of the social and political aspirations of the period in question is similar. As already pointed out, the communistic ideal of the religio-political movements of the Middle Ages which culminated in the Anabaptist revolt of the 16th century, was that of the communism of the economic product, and was invariably based on the notion of a return to the economic conditions of the old village community — an ideal which appealed to the poor handicraftsman and peasant especially when smitten by the stress of changing circumstances. The social revolution was conceived under a theological guise as the “Millennial Kingdom,” the “Restitution of All Things,” the “Reign of the Saints,” and in cognate phrases. It was a dispensation of the Deity to be initiated in the relations of believers with each other, and the full fruition of which, the “Kingdom of God on Earth,” would come when the time was ripe, and was to be awaited with prayer and watching. It was under the dominance of this attitude of mind that the conviction of the imminence of the promised millennial reign seized such vast numbers of the poor working-population of Western Europe during those early years of the fourth decade of the 16th century. In such wise did the disinherited classes of that age envisage their social revindication. Not so does the proletariat of the modern Great Industry look for its emancipation. The aspirations, au fond legitimate as they were, of the mediaeval working classes of the 16th century, were historically retrograde in their form both as regards the end conceived, and the means by which it was believed that end would come to pass — and hence they were foredoomed to failure. In the recognition of this the political economy of a later age regarded the bare notion of social and economic equality as a Utopian absurdity, much as the physicist of the dawning 19th century would have regarded immediate communication at a distance, or the reproduction of the voices of the dead, the steering of balloons, and such marvels of modern science. Nevertheless, we now see once again to the fore the notion of a social regeneration of society, not indeed based on the immediate communisation of the economic product, as was the former, (and necessarily so owing to the then prevailing conditions of production) but based on the communisation of the means of production, concentrated as they are to-day on a great scale, and on their exploitation for the common use and benefit. Those who look forward to a higher and better organisation of society in our time no longer have visions of a “New Jerusalem,” of a divine “Millennial Kingdom” brought about by the dispensation of a supernatural Providence. They base their hope and expectation, not on the vaticinations of prophets claiming a divine mission, but on the great facts of historic evolution and on the analysis of the material basis of human life to-day; in other words, on the conditions of modern capitalist production. Thus, in social as in physical matters, the crude fancies and vaguely thought-out aims of an earlier age are taken up again by modern scientific thought, and while the old beliefs and dreams as to how, when, and where, they should be brought about, have been long set aside for ever, modern science sees another way opened for their realisation, a way necessarily undreamt of four centuries ago. The goal as such, is indeed seen to be attainable, but viewed in the light of modern research, and after an intervening industrial and economic evolution traversing so many generations it looks far different from what it did as regarded through the mists of mediaeval and renaissance fancy. Thomas Münzer, Jan of Leyden, Jan Matthys, and the rest of those who sought the revindication of social justice in the early 16th century, have, together with their aspirations, passed away for ever. But foolish as their ideas seem to us to-day, who regard the problem from so totally different a standpoint, let us not forget that with all their follies and shortcomings, they were, in a sense, the forerunners of Modern Socialism, and, as such, let us spare them a passing tribute of recognition!