THE PERSECUTION OF CATHOLICS BY THE ANABAPTISTS
The "New Jerusalem" (Münster), the founding of which was signalized by a reign of terror and indescribable orgies. Treasures of literature and art were destroyed; communism, polygamy, and community of women were introduced.
During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased dramatically. On February 8, Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden and the guild leader Bernard Knipperdolling, whom Bockelszoon had befriended, ran wildly through the streets, screaming that everyone must repent of their sins. This ignited much emotional turbulence, especially among the women Anabaptists, who, as former nuns,had recently left the convents and fallen under the influence of Rothmann's preaching. Some began to see apocalyptic visions in the streets of such intensity that they would foam at the mouth and throw themselves upon the ground . In such a charged atmosphere, the Anabaptists made their first armed rising and took the Town Hall and market place. The Lutheran majority in the town offered little resistance, and soon the town council recognized the Anabaptists as legal citizens of Münster. Thereafter, many Lutherans fled the city and the Anabaptists grew in number and power. Messengers and manifestos were sent out urging Anabaptists in other towns to come with their families to Münster. The rest of the earth, it was announced, was to be destroyed, but Münster would be spared to become the New Jerusalem.Into this volatile situation Jan Matthys entered: a tall, gaunt figure with a long black beard. His imposing, physical presence allowed him to gain power quickly, but the attempt to realize the New Jerusalem was not without authoritarian measures. Unlike Hoffman, he did not hesitate to employ violence to accomplish his purposes. On February 25, 1534, he preached a sermon at the house of an Anabaptist near a fish market. Afterwards, he proclaimed to the crowd that God 's grace had allowed the city to have a favorable beginning, but in order to build the republic of Christ on earth, it was necessary to purify the city of all uncleanness (Unsauberkeit), whether the impure be papists or others who dissented from the prevailing Anabaptist teachings. To achieve this goal, Matthys advocated the execution of all remaining Roman Catholics. However, Knipperdolling, one of the town leaders, disagreed with Matthys, saying that the bloodshed would cause the outside world to be enraged against Münster. A compromise was reached and they decided to expel all the "godless" ((Gottlosen)) from the city and make those who chose to stay behind receive compulsory baptism.
This task of expulsion and compulsion took place several days later. On the morning of February 27, armed men, urged on by Matthys, ran through the streets yelling: "Get out you godless ones, and never come back you enemies of the Father." In bitter cold, in the midst of snow, rain and wind, droves of the "godless" including the old and invalids, small children, and pregnant women were chased from the town by Anabaptists who beat and laughed at them. They were forced to leave their belongings behind, their food was confiscated and they had no choice but to beg in the countryside for food and lodging. As for those who decided to remain in town, they received compulsory re-baptism in the marketplace. The entire process lasted three days. By eliminating the The Catholics from the city, Matthys and his cohorts not only heightened the sense of chiliastic expectation but they also came to realize that the outside world was growing intolerant of the developments within Münster, and that they were soon to be besieged. The Catholic Bishop of the city, Franz van Waldeck, had been at work some time in recruiting soldiers to confront the Anabaptist threat. The expulsion of the Catholics prompted him to accelerate his efforts. Soon thereafter, earthworks were erected around the town and the siege began. Many Anabaptists were surprised and confused to find themselves at war, but under the leadership of Knipperdolling they soon recovered confidence and began responding to the threat. Men, women, and children were assigned various duties. Small skirmishes took place outside the walls.
The war atmosphere led to a veritable social revolution. Matthys seized the opportunity to consolidate his power over the property and money of the townspeople. He preached that it was the Father's will that all the goods of the recent exiles be confiscated. Moreover, all the account books and contracts found in their homes were burned. Treasures of literature and art were destroyed. Their clothing, beds, furniture, tables, weapons, and food were placed in a central area and, after praying for three days, Matthys announced that God had given him a sign to appoint seven deacons to distribute the goods to the people.
This trend toward common ownership culminated in an institutionalized communism. Under the leadership of Matthys, the town preachers and council members decided that all goods should be shared in common. Matthys employed Rothmann to promulgate this new vision of society in his sermons. "Dear brothers and sisters," Rothmann proclaimed, "afterwards we shall be one people. Brothers and sisters, indeed it is completely God 's will that we bring our money, silver, and gold together. One person should have just as much as another." At first this order was met with considerable opposition. The people who had recently received compulsory baptism were assembled and told that unless they relinquished their money they would perish. They were then locked inside a church in a state of mortal fear for several hours. At length Matthys entered the church with a group of armed men. His victims implored him to intercede to God for them, which he did, saying that if they complied, God would allow them back in the community. Ultimately, they complied.
Yet not everyone acceded to Matthys's authority: some defied him unto death. A blacksmith, for instance, unconvinced by Matthys's prophecies, accused him of being possessed by the devil. Matthys had him arrested and thrown in the tower. Later he was brought to the market place where many of the citizens were also summoned. Matthys gave a speech in which he declared that God was outraged at this man's evil actions because he had defiled an otherwise pure town. He was sentenced to death, but before execution, was stabbed repeatedly with a halberd and thrown back into the tower. Later he was placed against the town wall and Matthys himself shot him in the stomach, causing his eventual death. The gathered crowd was told to profit from the example of the blacksmith and they dutifully sang a hymn before dispersing.
A final instance of the authoritarian control exercised by Matthys may be seen in his decision to regulate information. On March 15, 1534, Matthys proclaimed that all books except the Old and New Testaments (which were deemed solely sufficient for conducting a holy life) were to be brought to the cathedral-square where they were burned to ashes. This anti-intellectualist act represents a complete break with the past, and it allowed Matthys to gain a complete monopoly in the interpretation of Scripture.
On Easter Sunday of 1534, Matthys received what he believed to be a divine command to make a sortie against the besiegers of the city with only a few men to help him. The result was a miserable failure. He was pierced with a pike beheaded, and his body hacked to pieces. His head was later raised on a pole outside the city. Thus, the authoritarian reign of Jan Matthys came to an end Summing up the character of this prophet years later, Obbe Philips wrote:
He was so fierce and bloodthirsty that he brought various people to their deaths; yea he was so violent that even his enemies for their part were terrified of him, and finally in a tumult they became too powerful for him, they were so incensed that they did not just kill him . . . but hacked and chopped him into little pieces.
The death of Matthys allowed for his disciple Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden to assume leadership. Under Bockelszoon, the previously- established authoritarian measures of Matthys continued, reaching a crescendo in his decision to anoint himself king. The kingdom which he set up is legendary in German history, so here I will touch upon only its most salient features.
Bockelszoon began his messianic reign by running naked through the streets of Münster in a wild religious frenzy; he then fell into a silent ecstasy for three days. When his power of speech returned, he announced that God had told him to restructure the town government immediately, which he did by appointing twelve men whom he called the Elders or the Judges of the Tribes of Israel (Ältesten der Stämme Israels) who were placed in charge of all the public, private, spiritual, and worldly affairs of the citizens of Münster the "Israelites." The twelve published a new code of moral law which provided for strict military organization and a tighter communism of goods. Some workers, for instance, previously employed for money, were forced to continue in their trades without pay, simply as servants of the community. The code also had a very rigid stance on sins committed after (re-)baptism, and all citizens were subjected to demanding laws:
If we are God's sons and have been baptized in Christ then all evil must disappear from among us.... Every one is under the authorities, who have power over all. Because there is no authority outside of God.... If you do evil, fear the authorities. They wield the sword not in vain; they are God's servants, the avengers to punish the evildoer.Sins punishable by death included blasphemy, seditious language, scolding one's parents, adultery, lewd conduct, backbiting, spreading scandal, and even complaining! Bockleszoon's most controversial innovation was polygamy. It was introduced at least partly to emulate the Old Testament patriarchs and also (perhaps) to compensate for the rapid attrition of male citizens due to their military efforts. Bockelszoon established polygamy on his own authority by announcing that all who resisted it would be considered reprobates and therefore in danger of execution. Persons of marriageable age were ordered to marry; unmarried women had to accept the first man to ask them. This often led to disorder in the competition to see who could acquire the most wives, and thus this latter regulation was ultimately rescinded. Bockelszoon himself, beside remarrying Matthys's widow Divara,ultimately accumulated 15 wives. Bernard Rothmann received second place with nine.
It was not as an ordinary king that Bockelszoon established himself, but as the Messiah of the Last Days. One day a goldsmith declared that the Heavenly Father had revealed to him that Bockelszoon was to be king of the whole world, holding dominion over all kings, princes, and great ones of the earth. He was to inherit the scepter and throne of his forefather David and was to keep them until God should reclaim the kingdom from him. Bockelszoon accepted this man's prophecy and soon enlisted the town preachers to deliver one sermon after another, explaining that the Messiah foretold by the prophets in the Old Testament was indeed none other than Jan van Leiden Bockleszoon. Bockelszoon himself called a town meeting in which he gave a speech to proclaim his new identity, "Now God has chosen me to be king over the entire world. What I do, I must do, because God has ordained me. Dear brothers and sisters, let us now give thanks to God." After the sermon, Bockelszoon led the crowd in singing a psalm, and then everyone returned to their homes.
Bockelszoon did everything possible to represent tangibly the importance of his new position. While the siege continued outside the city, the streets and the gates within were given new names. Sundays and feast days were abolished and the days of the week were renamed on an alphabetical system. Even the names of infants were decided upon by the king according to a special system. Gold and silver coins were minted with inscriptions that emphasized Bockelszoon's unique role: "One King Over All."A special emblem was devised to symbolize Bockelszoon's absolute claim to spiritual and temporal dominion: a globe, representing the world, pierced by two swords and surmounted by a cross inscribed with the words: "One king of righteousness over all ." The king himself wore this emblem modeled in gold as a necklace, his attendants wore it as a badge on their sleeves, and it was accepted in Münster as the official emblem of the state.Bockelszoon set up a throne in the marketplace. Draped with cloth and gold, it towered above the surrounding benches which were allotted to other dignitaries and preachers. Often the king would come there to sit in judgment or to oversee the proclamation of new regulations. Heralded by fanfare, he would arrive on horseback wearing a crown and carrying a scepter. In front of him marched officers of the court, behind him came Knipperdolling, who was now chief minister; Rothmann, who was now the royal orator; and a long line of lesser servants. On either side of his throne stood a page, one holding a copy of the Old Testament, the other a sword. Both symbolized the absolute control which Bockelszoon exercised over the citizens.
Though the king indulged in a life of excess, he subjected his citizens to austerity. Harsh regulations of dress went into effect; for God, Bockelszoon had said, abhorred all superfluity in clothing. Every house was searched and anything that was considered surplus was confiscated. To justify the disparity between his lifestyle and that of the people, he explained that luxury was permitted him because he was completely dead to the world and the flesh.
Finally, though Bockelszoon maintained his grip on power through prophetic outbursts and appeals to Scripture, his primary means of controlling the populace was terror and brute force. Two instances suffice to demonstrate this. The first one came in the wake of Bockelszoon's decree of polygamy when a group of citizens, led by Henry Mollenhecke, attempted to stage a coup and depose him Their efforts failed, however, and Mollenhecke, with forty-eight of his followers was brutally tortured and ultimately beheaded in a macabre process that took four days. Afterwards, two mass graves were dug in the marketplace where all the dead bodies were placed a solemn reminder of Bockelszoon's authority. Another example of Bockelszoon's tactics of intimidation was his decision to execute several women for their sins. One was beheaded simply for denying her husband his marital rights, another for bigamy (the practice of polygamy was solely a male prerogative), and a third for insulting one of Bockelszoon's preachers. Indeed, the king would tolerate no transgressions. It was thus announced that all sinners in the future would be immediately brought before the king and sentenced to death. They would be extirpated from the Chosen People their very memory would be blotted out, and they would find no mercy beyond the grave.
WHILE Bockelszoon was busy with his power and prestige within the city outside the city walls, the siege of Münster, spearheaded by Bishop Franz von Waldeck, continued. By careful diplomatic action, the Bishop had managed to involve both Catholic and Protestant rulers, as well as imperial representatives in support of his cause. Even Philip of Hesse, one of the staunchest supporters of Protestantism, was a faithful supporter. Almost constantly out of funds, the Bishop wrote letters pleading for help to a host of potential patrons: King Ferdinand, elector of Mainz, Trier, Saxony, and Brandenburg; the dukes of Braunschweig, Luneburg, and Saxony; and the bishop of Liege. Although most declined, the bishop raised enough support to maintain the force which he had gathered and to continue the siege and the occasional skirmishes against the city. Despite political and financial support, the actual military enterprise proved largely unsuccessful throughout 1534 and for the first few months of 1535. Endeavors to blockade the city, to drain the moats, and even to take direct military action ultimately failed. In June, 1535, the defence became more and more hopeless, and John, as a last means of escape, determined upon setting fire to the city. His plan was frustrated by the unexpected capture of the town by the besiegers (24 June, 1535). The King, his lieutenant Knipperdollinck, and his chancellor Krechting were seized, and after six months' imprisonment and torture, executed. As a terrible warning, their bodies were suspended in iron cages from the tower of St. Lambert's church.