The Münster rebellion: the creation of a 16th-century theocracy

Today, Münster is a small and unassuming city in the northwest of Germany, hardly the first place one would think of when asked to identify historical hotbeds of sedition and rebellion. Yet for several surreal months in 1535-6, Münster was the scene of a radical religious and political experiment, an attempt by a small group of radical Protestants to create a totalitarian communist theocracy, a ‘New Jerusalem’ located not in the deserts of Palestine, but in the fertile region of Münsterland.

It all started in Strasbourg, which had become an unofficial headquarters of the Anabaptist movement following the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The Anabaptists formed a radical sect which had sprung up in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In Strasbourg, an Anabaptist leader named Melchior Hoffmann declared himself the ultimate interpreter of prophecy, and a divinely appointed leader. He claimed that he was one of the “two witnesses” of the Book of Revelation, that the end of the world was nigh, and that Strasbourg was about to become the new Jerusalem, ruling the entire world. Crucially, Hoffmann also suggested that violence could be used with impunity against enemies of the faith (i.e. those who opposed his teachings).

Melchior Hoffmann
Melchior Hoffmann

This heady invocation of prophecy and millenarian visions, combined with more than a whiff of rebellion, proved attractive to quite a few contemporaries, especially to Anabaptists and members of similar religious sects. Hoffmann travelled throughout Germany preaching his gospel, spreading it to particularly great effect in northwest Germany and the Netherlands. His followers called themselves “Melchiorites”, a name which reveals the centrality of his charismatic personality to the movement.

Sensing a threat to the political, social and religious status quo, a group of German rulers had managed to get Hoffmann thrown into prison by 1533. Yet the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed thanks to its egalitarian  nature; where one leader fell, another quickly rose to take his place. It was therefore difficult for the authorities to entirely crush Anabaptist unrest. In the event, it was a lowly baker from Strasbourg, Jan Matthys, who took up Melchior Hoffmann’s mantle. He claimed to be the second witness of the coming apocalypse, but transferred the soon-to-be capital of the saints from Strasbourg to Münster. In order to pave the way for his arrival in Münster, Matthys sent four ‘apostles’ ahead of him to convert the ordinary folk and sound out the religious sympathies of the town’s leaders.

Jan Matthys
Jan Matthys

Matthys’ apostles found the town council full of Anabaptist sympathisers, who would be a great help and source of support in the coming months. Matthys arrived in Münster, staged a rebellion, and managed to throw out the erstwhile ruler, the Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck. Matthys and his disciples entered the city in triumph and soon got to work re-baptising thousands of the inhabitants. As part of his program of spiritual purification, Matthys expelled all the Catholics from the city, outlawed money, and forbade anyone from owning property. All goods were now supposed to be held in common.

Franz von Waldeck, meanwhile, was busy getting together an army with which to take back his city. He managed to obtain material help from neighbouring princes, as the presence of such a politically and religiously radical community was not in the interests of any of the naturally conservative local rulers. Once assembled, Waldeck’s troops besieged the city and proceeded to starve out the city’s inhabitants.

This fledgling New Jerusalem suffered the misfortune of losing its leader on Easter Sunday in April 1534. Ever mindful of messages and visions from God, Matthys had prophesied that on that very day, God’s judgement was going to fall upon the wicked (i.e. Waldeck and his supporters). Matthys therefore thought it a good idea to make a sally against Waldeck’s troops with only thirty men. He believed that he was destined to be a second Gideon, imitating Gideon’s slaughter of the Mideonites in the Bible. Whatever the truth of God’s supposed judgement on that day, Matthys’ own judgement proved distinctly abysmal. He and his small band of men were soon cut off by Waldeck’s troops and Matthys was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for everyone in the city to see. His genitals were also nailed to the city gate, in case the point needed stressing.

A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster
A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster

As already mentioned, however, the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed, so another obscure man soon rose to take Matthys’ place. John of Leiden, one of Matthys’ core disciples, was recognised as Matthys’ religious and political successor. He justified his authority and actions by the apparent receipt of visions from heaven. As Leiden’s authority grew, he proclaimed himself the successor to King David, and adopted royal regalia, honours and absolute power in this ‘new Zion’. Leiden legalised polygamy (he himself took sixteen wives) and reaffirmed the community of goods. Leiden managed to keep most of the townspeople on his side by the sheer force of his charisma, and also by making frequent promises of eternal salvation for those citizens who held out against the besieging forces. His motto for the defence of the city was “Gottes Macht ist mein Kraft” (God’s power is my strength).

Meanwhile, people inside the city were starving due to the siege blockade. After a surprisingly lengthy resistance, Münster was eventually taken by the besiegers in June 1535. John of Leiden and other prominent Anabaptist leaders were captured and imprisoned. Several of them were tortured and finally executed in the city marketplace; after the initial burning, their tongues were pulled out with tongs, before each was killed with a burning dagger thrust through the heart. Their bodies were placed in three cages and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, and the remains left to be picked at by carrion birds. The bones were removed about fifty years later, but the cages still remain on the church tower.

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The problem with this story is that we don’t really know how much of it is actually true. If the story reads like sensational reporting, it could be because it really was. Much of what we know about the Münster Rebellion, specifically about what went on in the city, comes from hostile sources who would of course play up the scandalous and sensational aspects, in order to discredit Anabaptists and similar groups. In fact, the Münster Rebellion really did mark a turning point for the Anabaptist movement in Germany. It would never again assume such political significance; rulers, both Lutheran and Catholic, adopted stringent measures to suppress them and similar religious groups. Matthys and Leiden had tried their best to create a New Jerusalem, but it was never to be.

The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert's Church in Münster
The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church in Münster

 

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6 thoughts on “The Münster rebellion: the creation of a 16th-century theocracy

  1. Good to hear that you are still blogging following your graduation. I hope you are surviving in the “real world”. I remember it being a hard adjustment, even though I was a workaholic student who treated my studies like a full time job.
    What prompted you to write about Munster? Have you been there recently?

    1. Thank you David! I thought I’d have lots of time to write, but this is the first post I’ve managed to get out so far. Hopefully more will come as I get better at organising myself in, as you say, the real world. Actually I was prompted by the fact that I recently taught about the Münster rebellion in class! I then remembered it from my own schooldays. It’s an interesting story, even if it isn’t all true.

  2. Loved your blog, which I came upon over at Freelance History Writer (where I have occasionally guest-posted). It is sometimes conveniently forgotten that Martin Luther drafted an unbelievable diatribe against peasants who had taken up arms, largely in support of the aims that he himself advocated. His polemic demanded, “[E]veryone who can, to smite, slay and stab them, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.” And he concluded, “You cannot meet a rebel with reason: your best answer is to punch him in the face until he has a bloody nose.” This, from history’s premier Protestant.

    1. Thanks Erik! I hadn’t come across his response to the 1525 Peasant’s Revolt before. I would have thought that his espousal of established authority helped him win over the German princes.

  3. Welcome back! I knew (or remembered) nothing about this – fascinating. Where would history be without its nuts? It’s a shame that religion is still being used as a justification for persecution and cruelty.

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