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Anabaptists in Munster believed their enemies would perish at the Millenium

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners, Superstition on Friday, 24 February 2012

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This edited article about Anabaptists originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 651 published on 6 July 1974.

Anabaptists, picture, image, illustration

Anabaptists caused mayhem as they ransacked churches smashing images and murdering bishops, as they proclaimed the New Jerusalem in Munster

The heavy tread of the band was muffled in the snow that lay deep on the cobbles. Torches flared and crackled in the dark, winter morning, revealing the blazing eyes, the bared teeth of the men who marched down the street. Their leader, his gaunt face shadowed by a black hood, pointed to certain houses on either side and his men hammered on the front doors. The bewildered householders who answered were dragged outside and hustled towards the city gates. The gates were opened and they were unceremoniously bundled out. Some turned to protest but the leader of the band cursed them into silence. “Out, out ye godless ones,” he cried, his grating voice echoing across the snowy waste beyond the walls. “Never come back! Ye are the enemies of the Father and of the New Jerusalem!” The year was 1534. The “New Jerusalem” was the city of Munster in Germany. And Jan Matthys, once a baker in Haarlem, now leader of the Anabaptist sect, had purged it of all who did not share his faith.

In the aftermath of the Reformation, many Protestant sects sprang up, among them that of Anabaptism. In its most violent form, it spread from Holland to Germany and its most militant supporters gathered at Munster. They believed in a prophecy that the year 1533, held to be the fifteenth century of the death of Christ, would see the inauguration of the Millenium, the end of the old corrupt world and the beginning of a new, in which only believers like themselves would be saved.

The belief was especially strong in Holland and parts of Germany because of extensive unemployment amongst the workers in the cloth industry. The thought of a new world in which there would be justice for all and wealth would be equally divided was an attractive one and Anabaptism soon won many adherents. Even when 1533 passed without any noticeable change in the world, they clung to the belief that the end was only months . . . weeks . . . days away.

In Munster, Jan Matthys, aided by his lieutenant, John Bockelson, another Dutchman, quickly took control. At first it seemed that the Anabaptists would tolerate those who did not share their faith. Their anger was directed against the outward trappings of other religions – statues, books, vestments – rather than the worshippers themselves. Then came the great expulsion of Roman Catholics and Lutherans alike; those who had accepted conversion for the sake of peace and quiet, discovered that they had put themselves in the hands of men who knew no mercy.

The expulsion was not simply an act of intolerance. Matthys had heard that the Bishop (who was also the ruler) of Munster, was coming at the head of a mercenary army to lay siege to the city and he was anxious to reduce the numbers to be fed. It was, he argued, an act of mercy. A wicked man, he explained, would have killed the unbelievers outright.

A few days later, the siege of Munster began. The Anabaptists believed that they had only to hold out until the Millenium came, when their enemies would be destroyed. They ransacked the houses of those who had been expelled, centralised all surplus food and lived communally; recent converts were expected to contribute especially generously to the common pool of supplies. For some, however, conversion had come a little too suddenly to prepare them for such a selfless gesture and they buried their supplies instead. Matthys forced them to confess, locked them in a church and prepared to burn them to death. At the last minute, he reprieved them and they crawled to him on their knees, begging forgiveness. Supplies were contributed readily after that.

Matthys was now dictator of the city but he did not live long to enjoy his power. Obeying what he believed to be a divine command to scatter the besiegers with a handful of men, he rode out – and was promptly hacked to pieces. He was succeeded by John Bockelson. In obedience to the message of a friendly prophet, he was crowned king of the city, monarch of the New Jerusalem; he was King David’s heir to whom the world had been entrusted until it should pass into divine keeping, an event which was promised for the very near future.

His immediate concern was morale. The effects of the siege – sickness and hunger – were noticeable, so Bockelson turned his considerable talent for stage-management to good use. He organised pageants, ceremonies, plays, athletic contests, anything to take his subjects’ minds off their predicament. For those who did not respond to such forms of entertainment, he organised something different – death. Executions were entrusted to his bodyguard who hunted down anyone who complained and killed them mercilessly.

Meanwhile, outside the walls, the Bishop was sitting, patiently waiting for the inhabitants of Munster to starve to death. And starve they did. By the spring of 1535, famine had decimated the Anabaptists; deaths were so numerous that the corpses were tipped unceremoniously into mass graves. Undeterred, Bockelson insisted that deliverance was at hand. He even gave a firm date – Eastertide, he said, would see the salvation of the city. When Easter came without any improvement, he explained that he had meant the spiritual salvation of the city, not relief from famine.

Opposition to his rule re-asserted itself. Again he tried to crush it by terror. He summoned a meeting of all those who wished to leave the city and gave them his permission to go. As they reached the city gates, his creatures massacred all the able-bodied. Only the feeble and the children were allowed to stumble across to the enemy lines. Bockelson was quite happy to see them go – it meant that there were fewer mouths to fill. The Bishop was not prepared to admit them, however, and the old and the young crawled aimlessly about the no-man’s land between the city walls and the enemy trenches, nibbling like animals at grass, until death released them from their misery.

In case this lesson was not enough, Bockelson ordered that anyone found speaking of defeat or criticising his rule should be publicly hanged and quartered. By now, however, hunger had goaded some of his subjects beyond fear of such threats. They escaped and revealed to the Bishop the weak points in the city walls. His mercenaries attacked and soon broke into the city. They massacred its entire Anabaptist population.

Bockelson was kept alive. On the Bishop’s orders he was displayed around the country, chained like a performing bear. Then he was brought back to Munster and put to death with red-hot irons. His body hung in a cage from a church-tower in the middle of the city. The cage is there to this day. It is a grim reminder of the end of the New Jerusalem.

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