Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 5
The Anabaptists

VI. The Disturbances in Münster

The Reformation movement began to develop itself and to let loose the class antagonisms of that era later in North, than in South Germany. In a great measure this is attributable to the economic backwardness of the North Germans. In those districts of the North-West which were more highly developed, the Reformation agitation was checked by the proximityofthe Hapsburg Netherlands, from which Charles V. could exercise far more adverse influence upon the border districts than he could upon the other parts of the Empire.

The peasants in the North did not join in the universal movement, as the events of the year 1525 in South and Central Germany found no echo among them, partly on account of their being in a better position than their brothers in Upper Germany, and partly because single districts were more separated from each other, and intercourse between them was consequently less frequent than in the more thickly settled North.

Only two aspects of the Reformation were prominent in South Germany; the princely and the municipal; but the municipal Reformation in the North was marked by severer and keener contests between the municipal and the princely authorities on the one side, and on the other between the guilds and the municipal patricians. The analogy with South Germany goes still further; for the struggle between these conflicting classes could not be fought out without the lowest stratum of the urban population taking part m the movement.

The most celebrated and powerful of the North German cities which played a part in the Reformation was the Hanse town of Lübeck.

The aristocratic Town Council sided with the existing authority, i.e., the Catholic Church, while the democrats made the cause of the “Gospel” their own. In 1530 an insurrection gained the victory over the nobles and Church; the constitution was changed to suit democratic ideas, and the Church property confiscated by the town. But this victory had been won only by the guilds combining with the masses of the “common” people. The leader in the conflict, and the most prominent representative of the union was Jurg Wullenweber, Burgomaster of Lübeck, in the year 1533. The fact that he had been obliged to rely on the common people makes it comprehensible why he should have manifested sympathy with the Anabaptists. So notorious was this sympathy, that when he was Burgomaster of the town, the report went through Germany that L ubeck had been won over to the cause of the Anabaptists. Whether Wullenweber really did favour the opinion of the Baptists, and if so, to what extent, cannot now be ascertained. Certain it is, however, that the Anabaptists in Lübeck gained no advantage from his sympathy, nor did any of the other North German cities in which they were numerously represented.

In one town only were they temporarily successful, thanks to a singular conjunction of circumstances – in Münster.

North-Western Germany was particularly rich in ecclesiastical principalities; Cologne, Münster, Paderborn, Osnabrück, Minden, &c. Of these, the Archbishopric of Cologne and the Bishopric of Münster were by far the most important.

The social and political contests in the ecclesiastical principalities took a special colour. There the reigning prince united in his person the ruling powers of both Church and State; though he was by no means an absolute prince in consequence. Much more dependent on the Emperor arid the Pope than a secular lord, he was at the same time more of a puppet than a ruler among the nobility and clergy in his dominions. The election of Bishops had everywhere been monopolised by the Chapter for themselves, and these, like the higher and more lucrative places in the Church generally, had become a privilege of the nobility (in Münster since 1392). Nobility and clergy were in consequence bound together in a close association of mutual interests, and they presented a far more formidable phalanx against their elected ruler than was the case in the secular principalities. The constitutional States had, in consequence, more to say in the ecclesiastical provinces than in the others; but in the constitutional States, again, the nobility and the Church were in the majority, when united. The cities were always outvoted; the lesser among them were oppressed, while the greater were driven to help themselves in whatever way they could.

Under these circumstances the nobility and the higher Church dignitaries had the most to lose, and therefore held fast to the old faith. They preferred sharing with the Vatican the huge amount of wealth which the Church had amassed in the ecclesiastical principalities, to losing it altogether.

The Bishops, on the other hand, were not to be depended on. Only too easily did they give way to the temptation which the example of their temporal neighbours offered them. Conversion to the Lutheran doctrines promised them not only independence of the Pope, who taxed them heavily, but a free right over Church property and great power over the nobles. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the Bishops of Münster, like many of their colleagues, opposed the Evangelical doctrines in a very lukewarm and halfhearted manner; and, indeed, not seldom secretly favoured them.

When Bernt Rothmann, in 1531, began to preach Lutheran doctrines in the suburb of Münster (St. Moritz) the Chapter appealed in vain to Bishop Frederick, petitioning him to restrain the mischief which was being done. He certainly forbade Rothmann to preach, but did not do the smallest thing to enforce his mandate, thus enabling Rothmann to continue his ministry undisturbed. Only an Imperial command at last induced the Bishop to stop him (in January, 1532). Rothmann quitted St. Moritz; not to turn his back on the country, however, but to be the better able to assail the Church in Münster at its centre; that is, he transferred his preaching to Münster itself.

Münster was a large city, rich and well fortified, the chief town, not only of the bishopric, but of the whole of Westphalia. Democracy had proved itself particularly strong there. Originally as was the case in every medieval town, the Council had been exclusively in the hands of the patricians, the “hereditary race” (Erbmänner), as they were called in Münster. But when the trades and handicrafts began to flourish, and the guilds attained to power and importance, they also were admitted into the Council, which was thenceforward selected annually by ten electors (Korgensten), who were nominated by the assembled citizens. Only half of the four-and-twenty members of the Council were to be drawn from the aristocratic class; but as the management of municipal affairs had already become an occupation which demanded more time and knowledge than was, as a rule, attainable for a man of the lower classes, the twelve seats in the Council which appertained to the citizens again and again fell to the members of a few wealthy families, from among whom, little by little, a second aristocracy was developed, less eminent than the Erbmänner, but united to them by association of interests.

Thus the Council gradually became once more exclusively representative of the municipal aristocracy; men who lived partly on their rents from the leasing of their landed property, and partly by commercial enterprise. But, next to the Council, the power of the companies or guilds held its ground. There were seventeen guilds in Münster, each of which possessed its own Guildhall, and made bye-laws for its own guidance. The “Schohaus” Guildhall was the central point of the assembled civic guilds. In Lent, shortly after the election of the Council, the four-and-twenty guildmasters met there, and elected two aldermen. “These,” says a Münster historian of those times, “are the heads and representatives of the whole community of burgesses, and their authority is so great that they, together with the guildmasters, could reverse the decisions of the Council if they wished. Hence the magistrates can hardly decide anything of importance in matters concerning the welfare of the community, without the consent of the above-mentioned principals.” [33]

In peaceful times, certainly, the Council was at liberty to act very much according to its own sweet will; but if it came to a conflict between the community and the Council, or between the clergy and community, the authority of the Council vanished very quickly.

This had been practically demonstrated more than once, especially in 1525. The mighty struggle in Upper Germany did not pass over Lower Germany without leaving its traces. In the towns the “common man” everywhere arose; the result of this, in Cologne as in Münster, was an agitation against the clergy, which increased into violent rebellion when the Council endeavoured to oppose the movement. The people resisted, and nominated a committee of forty men, who formulated the demands of the community in thirty-six articles; not concerning religious subjects, but on economic questions; thus proving that the guilds were the instigators of the movement.

But though the articles were accepted by the Council (the Chapter even signing some of them), they were not carried in their entirety. The overthrow of the North German uprising brought the South German agitation also to a standstill, while, at the same time, it set free the power of the victorious princes, and enabled them to help their friends in the South. It came to a compromise between the clergy and the town, by which the rights of the clergy were restored; and, in return, the latter relinquished all their original claims to compensation and security against any contingent future injury.

Peace was thereby restored, though the opposition of the civic elements (particularly the town democracy) to the rich, privileged, and tax-imposing clergy continued. The mighty catastrophe of 1525 had set the masses in motion, though they had taken but little interest in the Reformation up to that time. This was the case, not only with Münster, but with the whole of Lower Germany, where the “cause of the Gospel” now found a joyful reception. The clergy were at the head of the movement, which had originally been purely economic, but now began to make use of religious arguments, and to assume an apparently purely religious character.

This is a phenomenon which often meets us in the period of the Reformation, and finds its analogy in modern middle-class and proletarian movements.

The cause of this is not difficult to discover. As long as a social movement is merely a question of the special demands of the moment, its economic character is clearly evident. But the deeper its penetration and the greater its expansion, the more it seeks to transform the whole of society – i.e., the whole of the commonwealth – the greater becomes the necessity for establishing a rational connection between its separate claims. Thoughtful men will feel impelled to be clear as to the ultimate aims of a movement whose first efforts represent only passing demands, and will endeavour to explain these on lofty general principles. In proportion to the limit of economic knowledge in any age, and the generally subversive aims of the movement, the arguments and theories of the agitators appear as a rule more and more mystical, and the malcontents more easily lose a right comprehension of the economic basis of their agitation. When, for example, the cause of a movement happens to be only a question of free trade, or some trifling tax; or when it concerns shorter hours of labour and higher wages, the economic principle is clear enough to the most shortsighted. But if the movement has to do with the general class-antagonism of the middle class or proletariat against existing society, then, to a superficial observer, the economic basis is almost wholly lost sight of, and it becomes a question of the everlasting principles of natural right, reason, justice, &c., &c. At the time of the Reformation, the general tone of thought was not legal, but theological, and, in consequence, the more radical a social movement, the more theological were its party words; such as the “Will of God”, the “Word of Christ”, and others of a similar nature.

In the year 1529 the democratic Protestant movement in Lower Germany received a special stimulus. At that time a terrible famine broke out, which lasted till 1531, as Sebastian Franck tells us in his Chronicles, published in this year. At some places a bushel of rye cost three shillings and sixpence, and in the following summer nine shillings. In 1531 the price went up still more. In Dortmund in 1530, a bushel of rye cost five shillings and sixpence; in 1531 the price had gone up to fourteen shillings. A devastating plague, the so-called “English sweating sickness”, ravaged the country, at the same time as the famine.

Then came the Turkish invasion, which was felt in Lower Germany, in consequence of the war-tax, i.e., the “Turkish tax”, which was at once levied. But in those parts of the country which had nothing to fear from the Turks, this tax must have been most exasperating, in the midst of so much distress, especially as the rate of assessment was not low. For instance, in the Duke of Cleves’ Principality it was 10 per cent. on the income.

This must have intensified the social antagonism immensely, adding bitterness to the contests of the democracy against the wealthy clergy, who knew only too well how to avoid taxation themselves, and to whom, in their shortsighted avarice, it did not occur to subscribe voluntarily to the war expenses.

In this state of affairs the preaching of Bernhard Rothmann found a favourable hearing; and when he withdrew in 1532 from St. Moritz to Münster, he was received with open arms by the democracy, and protected from all attempts at violence. The most prominent of the democratic party was a rich cloth-merchant, named Bernhard Knipperdollinck; “a stately man, still young in years, with beautiful hair and beard; brave, frank, and strong in appearance, gestures, and movements; full of plans, clever in speech, and swift in deed” (Cornelius); stubborn, active, and with a propensity for the romantic.

It was very fortunate for the struggling, aspiring democracy at a time when they had to put forth all their strength in defence of Rothmann, that the clerical authorities were taken up with internal affairs which were characteristic of the Church at that period.

Bishop Frederick was an ease-loving noble, whom the office of Bishop pleased so long as it occasioned little trouble and brought in plenty of money. Now, when the difficulties of the Church multiplied, when Pope, Emperor, and Chapter urged him to a more energetic policy in defence of the Church, the Bishop’s chair grew odious to him. He therefore looked about for a successor who should take the episcopal commission off his hands for a good round price; and such a person he at last found in Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabriick, a noble as greedy of land as he was capable of paying for it, and who gladly seized the opportunity to add yet a third episcopal commission to the two he already possessed. The Catholic Archbishop of Cologne and the Lutheran Elector of Saxony were the intermediaries in this clerical traffic (whether they received commission fees is not known). The purchase-money was fixed at 40,000 gulden. By a gross fraud, these nobles, as pious as they were powerful, gained the consent of the Chapter: a counterfeit agreement was laid before the latter, instead of the real one, in which only half of the true amount was stated as the purchase-money. And it was a person of this class who took upon himself to defend religion, morals, and property against the Anabaptists!

After he had received his price, Eric was provisionally elected Bishop in 1531, and Frederick laid down his episcopal dignity in March, 1532.

During this interim the heretics throve gaily in Münster. The entrance of the new Bishop upon his office did not affect them much, however, as he looked upon himself in the light of a ruler rather than a Bishop, and the spread of the Lutheran teaching was even less distasteful to him than it had been to his predecessor. Moreover, he was the close friend of the Elector John of Saxony (one of the intermediaries in the purchase of the Bishop’s chair) and of Landgrave Philip of Hesse, both leaders of the Evangelical movement in Germany. In fact, so little did he hesitate to manifest his Protestant sympathies, that he acted as a witness to the marriage of Graf von Tecklenburg with a nun who had quitted the cloister.

The election of the Bishop strengthened the Protestant cause in Münster enormously, but also led to a division of the movement into two parties. Much as Eric inclined towards the Reformation, it was not the Reformation of the lower classes, but of the higher, that he favoured; a reformation which increased the power of the rulers, but not that of the democracy, at the expense of the Church.

Against the clerical party and the knighthood, Eric sought for the support of the town patricians and the Council, with its adherents; the two together forming a “moderate party” which coquetted with the Lutherans.

So long as all their adversaries were Catholics, the urban democracy were willing to make the Lutheran doctrines serve as the foundation of their faith; but now that Lutheranism threatened to be turned from a weapon of defence into one in the hands of their most dangerous enemies, viz., the Bishop and the patricians, they began to lose their sympathy with Luther’s teachings, and to turn towards Zwinglianism, which was better suited to their wants.

Eric and the Council considered it most important that they should get the upper hand of the municipal democracy; and by beginning in this way they were sure of the assistance of the clergy. On the 17th of April, 1532, the Bishop issued a mandate, in which he offered a prospect of speedy reform in the Church; but asked, first of all, that the preacher whom the community had so arbitrarily protected should be removed.

The Council, thereupon, gave orders to Rothmann to discontinue his sermons; but the community would not consent, declaring that they would retain their preacher under all circumstances (April 28th).

Again the democracy were in luck. “In fact,” writes the good episcopalian, Kerssenbroick, “this upright Bishop would have effected much in this matter by means of his own authority and the support of his friends, if he had not been prevented by a premature death. Making more merry than usual at his castle of Fürstenau, situated in the Diocese of Osnabrück, he suddenly became ill; though some assert that he died suddenly, on May 14th, after having emptied a large beaker of wine.” [34]

This event was the signal for an insurrection in all the three bishoprics which had been harassed and oppressed during the lifetime of him who had expired in so holy a manner. In Osnabrück, Paderborn, and Münster the people rose, drove away the Catholic priests, and appointed Protestant pastors of their own way of thinking; the Council being nowhere in a position to check them. In Osnabrück a compromise was effected between the clerical party and the town by the interposition of the knights. Paderborn was utterly crushed by force in October, 1532, by the Archbishop Hermann of Cologne; but in Münster, on the contrary, the rebels understood better how to carry out their plans.

The Chapter had immediately elected Franz v. Waldeck to succeed Eric; and on June 28th a letter from him arrived in Münster, summoning the town to return to its allegiance. The assembly of the hereditary aristocrats declared itself ready to submit; but that of the guilds decreed (July 1st) the formation of a confederacy for the defence of the gospel. The appointment of the committee of thirty-six men so frightened the Town Council that they joined it, and granted the demands of the community. The committee of thirty-six immediately urged the reorganisation of the Church on Evangelical principles, and sought for help from abroad, finally concluding an alliance with Philip of Hesse; and when, in October, Bishop Franz, supported by the clerical and secular aristocracy, made preparations to overcome Münster by force, the community compelled the Council to make counter preparations; three hundred soldiers were enrolled and the fortifications repaired.

There were unimportant collisions between the parties; but the Bishop shrank from a decisive advance upon the strong city, which threatened him either with defeat or with foreign intervention and the loss of his independence. Moreover, his coffers were empty, and the greedy clergy refused to make sacrifices for him. The Emperor, the most powerful protector of Catholicism in that region, was himself financially embarrassed at that time, in consequence of the Turkish war. Bishop Franz therefore endeavoured to return to the policy of his predecessor, and to make peace with the Council, entering into negotiations for this purpose.

Self-interest inclined the Council to make concessions, but the people would hear nothing of the kind. “Not a step backwards! rather let us kill and eat our children!” cried Knipperdollinck; and the masses supported him.

In order to manage the negotiations with more chance of success, the Bishop had betaken himself to the little town of Telgt, in the neighbourhood of Münster. But the proximity of the Bishop incited the warlike community to anything but peace. A sudden attack on Telgt was secretly planned and successfully carried out on the night of December 26th; but the Bishop himself was not captured, as he had accidentally left Telgt the day before. A great number, however, of the most illustrious representatives of the Catholic cause – ecclesiastical and secular aristocrats and fugitive hereditary patricians from Münster – were taken prisoners.

This victory had important results. By the interposition of Philip of Hesse a treaty was concluded (February 14., 1533), of which the chief stipulation was that the Bishop, Council, and knights should permit the democratic party such advantages as they had gained in the insurrection. Münster was thenceforth recognised as an Evangelical town.



VII. The Anabaptists in Strassburg and the Netherlands

The democratic guilds had been victorious in Münster, but having won all their successes solely through the help of the lower masses of the population, they could not, as had often happened before in similar cases, throw aside the tools which had been used as soon as they had attained their object. The victory had been won by a lucky stroke of fortune, not by a decisive defeat of the adversary in open fight. Peace, therefore, merely meant a temporary cessation of hostilities, while the prospect of more severe battles loomed up before the middle-class democracy, making them afraid to drop their connection with the proletarian democrats. The convictions of the latter found their most congenial expression in Anabaptism. The prominent position which the proletariat had attained in Münster made that town the centre of the Baptist faith in Lower Germany.

Zwinglians having made their appearance in Münster during the year 1532, in addition to Catholics and Lutherans, the Baptists joined them. The two centres from which Anabaptist doctrines spread into Lower Germany were Strassburg and the Netherlands.

In Strassburg, which was in close economic and political intercourse with the great towns of North Switzerland, the Zwinglian State Church triumphed in 1525. The struggle of Zwinglianism against Catholicism and Lutheranism assisted the Baptists in Strassburg, as in other South German towns. After Augsburg, as we have already seen, Strassburg became the most important centre of the South German Baptist community. It there held its ground longer than in other places, thanks to the power possessed by the “common man”, and to the fear of an insurrection, which prevented the Council from taking decisive measures against the Baptists. So strong were these people in this powerful capital, that the most important of the Church leaders there, especially Capito, continued the policy at first followed by Zwingli, and for a long time showed a great inclination towards Baptist opinions.

During the great persecution Strassburg was a city of refuge for those “Brothers” who did not emigrate to Moravia, and after the Baptist community in Augsburg had been cruelly suppressed, it became the metropolis of the movement in South Germany, so long as such a movement could be said to exist.

Nearly all the prominent men among the South German Baptists passed through the new metropolis at various times; but the most important of them all was the journeyman furrier, Melchior Hofmann, from Hall in Swabia, a man who had travelled a great deal. In 1523 he had preached the Evangelical doctrines in Livland, and had become a preacher in the German community at Stockholm. Driven from there, he took refuge in Holstein, where King Frederick of Denmark granted him the means of livelihood and freedom to preach. But when he changed from Lutheranism to Zwinglianism, he was banished from the country (1529), and turned towards Strassburg, where he was soon carried away by the Baptist opinions, becoming one of the community in 1530, and, after the old chiefs had fallen or been driven out, rising to a position of the highest prominence among them.

An eccentric and visionary enthusiast, he took up with Hans Hut’s views on the millennium, which must now have found a still more favourable soil among the Brethren, as the persecution against them was still raging. In fact, if there had not been some signs of a speedy deliverance, it would have been difficult to remain steadfast in the midst of the cruelties of the hunt for heretics. But the fiercer the persecution, the stronger grew their faith in the promises which foretold the approaching collapse of the existing state of society-that most passionate desire of their hearts. Nothing more, however, was to be expected from the Turks.

Strassburg was looked upon as the heavenly Jerusalem by Hofmann; for it was confidently expected that power would fall to the Baptists, in that place, within a very short time, perhaps in the year 1533.

But Hofmann agreed so far with the Baptists’ usual mode of thinking, that he declared himself against all employment of force. He relied upon the effect of his propaganda, which was that God would bring about victory, and that all rebellion was sinful.

At first Hofmann met with angry resistance in the community. Two different parties were formed, of which his finally triumphed, perhaps more from his success in the Netherlands than from the force of his arguments, or the innermost needs of the Brothers.

He was too restless, however, to remain long in Strassburg. In 1539 he went down the Rhine to promulgate his new conviction in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was the home of heretical communism north of the Alps. There Beghardism had its origin; there “the Brothers of the Common Life” had worked, and educated the people. But the rapid economic development of the country which led to the creation of communism there, also matured a strong government, the most dangerous enemy of communism. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the government was far more powerful and absolute than in the neighbouring part of Germany.

The Burgundian House, and, after its extinction in 1477, its successor, the House of Hapsburg, had united the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands into one whole, by the most diverse means – through inheritance, by purchase, and by conquest.

Moreover, in 1504, the Hapsburgs had also succeeded to the throne of Spain, in which country despotism had already made great progress. The Church especially was there reduced to almost total dependence upon the Crown. The Inquisition, which nowhere exercised such terrible power as in Spain, had become a blind tool of a despotism which crushed all intractable elements. Abroad the strength of the Spanish power was so great at that time that it ventured to take up the quarrel with France about Italy and the Papal rule. As kings of Spain, the Hapsburgs had even more reason for supporting Catholicism than they had in their capacity as rulers of Austria (then threatened by the Turks) and Emperors of Germany, whose power was undermined by the Evangelical princes, for the Catholic Church had become one of the most important, if not the most important of their instruments of power.

They had, therefore, every reason for being decidedly opposed to Protestantism; but they could attack it with more energy in the Netherlands than in Germany. As Emperor of Germany, Charles V united the Netherlands to the Spanish kingdom in 1516. Besides the highly efficient means of governmental power which the Netherlands offered him, he had at his command the forces of the Spanish throne with which he could crush all opposition in any of his dominions. Without outwardly touching the old forms of government, he took from them every vestige of political freedom. The despotism which assumed such terrible proportions under Philip II, and which later on could be put down only by a sanguinary war of nearly a hundred years’ duration (1561-1648), and then in only a portion of the Netherlands, was initiated by Charles V, who, whenever, it appeared necessary, relentlessly enforced his autocratic power.

The lower classes were kept down with an iron hand, and rendered powerless so long as there was no great conflict among the rulers themselves. This was the reason why the native land of heretical communism apparently remained an unfruitful soil for communistic propaganda during the first decade of the German Reformation. The mind of the people, however, was well prepared, and communistic tendencies were widespread before Hofmann appeared on the scene.

At the end of the fifteenth century “Waldensian” secret societies were reported to exist in Flanders and Brabant, and were called “Turlupins”, or “Pifles”, often also (and this is worthy of notice) “Tisserands” (weavers). “They were strict in their morals, charitable towards all men, and harboured no revengeful feelings. Many joined the Dutch Anabaptists, and added much to their strength.” [35]

According to their own tradition, the Baptists had spread their propaganda to the Netherlands as early as the year 1534, and indeed it is known that three “Brothers” suffered martyrdom for the cause in Holland in 1527.

Hofmann’s importance lay, not in his introduction of Anabaptism into the Netherlands, but in the courage he imparted to the members of the sect to propagate their doctrines. This courage flowed from his convincingly confident prophecy that the end of the existing order of society was at hand, and that the year 1533 would see the inauguration of the new state of things. The effect of his preaching was enhanced by the pestilence and famine which had been prevalent since 1529, as well as by the democratic movement in the adjacent provinces of Lower Germany, especially in Westphalia.

It is worthy of remark that the new sect (called Melchiorites, from Melchior Hofmann) could never obtain a firm footing in Flanders and Brabant, where economics and politics had reached an advanced stage of development, and where the executive power was strong and concentrated. The centre of the movement lay in the towns of the Northern provinces – in Holland, Zealand, and Friesland, which, though backward in politics and economics, had for that very reason preserved a large measure of municipal independence, and which, unlike Flanders and Brabant, were afterwards successful in freeing themselves from Spanish domination. Amsterdam became the seat of the leading community of Anabaptists.

The Melchiorites had hardly begun to be numerous, when they divided themselves into two parties. All of course believed in the imminent coming of the New Jerusalem, but the more practical among them were forced to admit that it would not come of itself, by means of a miracle, but that the proletariat must free itself. They maintained that they must fight their opponents with the same weapon which had been used in the subjugation of the people: that the sword, which the godless had drawn from its scabbard against God’s people, should now be turned against the hearts of their tyrants.

So taught Jan Mathys, a baker of Haarlem, who was the first of the Melchiorites to counsel violent measures. “Jan Mathys was the first to demand and inaugurate the use of arms and force against the authorities,” said Jan van Leyden to his judges; and in an earlier confession, he tells of the dissension which had arisen between Mathys and Hofmann. [36]

The doctrines promulgated by Mathys were favoured in the Netherlands by the circumstance that class antagonisms were much more acute in that province than in Switzerland, the native land of the Baptist sect. In the Netherlands, hardly a single representative of the upper classes was to be found in the ranks of the order, the movement in that country being eminently proletarian in character, and among classes who had nothing to lose but their fetters; a fact which must have increased both the strength of their resistance and their eagerness for it.

Mathys succeeded in firmly establishing himself in the community of Amsterdam, and also gained many adherents outside that community by the instrumentality of his messengers, the number of which increased with the growth of the Melchiorites. By far the most prominent among them was the before-mentioned Jan Bockelson of Leyden. His mother, who was a tradeswoman from the neighbourhood of Münster, had been servant to Bockel, mayor of Soevenhagen, to whom she bore a son – Jan (1509).

She subsequently married Bockel, after having bought her freedom. Jan learned the craft of tailoring in Leyden, but received a very scanty mental training. His extraordinary natural endowments, however, compensated for this. After studying Münzer’s works, he took a lively interest in the stirring questions of his day, and was especially enthusiastic concerning communism. His mental horizon was broadened by extensive travels also. As a journeyman tailor, after going to Flanders, he visited England, where he remained four years. On his return home, he did not pursue his craft, but married the widow of a mariner, and set himself up in trade. Business took him to Lübeck and Lisbon; but having no luck, or perhaps lacking the requisite business capacity, he became a bankrupt just at the time when the Baptist sect made its appearance in the Netherlands. With all the ardour of youth, he now embraced the doctrines with which he had always been in sympathy. Much as he had seen and experienced, he was not yet twenty-five years old when he was won over to the cause of Jan Mathys (November 1533).

Handsome, vivacious, enthusiastic and of captivating eloquence, he soon made conquest of hearts. Enjoyment of life and of the beautiful was a conspicuous trait of his character, in striking contrast to the bulk of his associates, who favoured a gloomy puritanism; in this respect he also completely differed from Thomas Münzer. From early youth he had manifested poetical talent, and Kerssenbroick informs us that “he had also written all sorts of plays, which, as was customary in that country, he produced on the stage before the whole people, to gain money.” His proclivity and aptitude for theatrical affairs were afterwards displayed in Münster.

Kerssenbroick, however, has little cause for deriding him as a “tailor” and “theatre king”. The masters whose devoted servant Kerssenbroick was, trembled for fear of the tailor and theatre king; for to the characteristics just described, the dictator of Münster united an inflexible will and a penetrating acuteness, which made him an opponent to be dreaded.

Before Bockelson became a partisan of Mathys, the latter was at the head of the Melchiorites in the Netherlands, Hofmann having left in the beginning of the year 1533 to return to Strassburg, as the time for the commencement of the New Jerusalem had arrived. Hofmann had prophesied that he should be taken prisoner and remain confined for half a year, but that then the Redeemer would come. The first part of the prophecy was soon fulfilled, as he was arrested in May. The Brothers were now on the tenterhooks of expectation, and looked forward with feverish impatience to the time when, at last, there should be an end to all sorrow and want.

The remainder of the prophecy lacked fulfilment. The year 1533 drew to its close, and all continued to be quiet in Strassburg. As a chief result of Hofmann’s agitation, the Council was spurred on to energetic measures against the Baptists. All their wavering adherents fell away from the sect, and their cause from that moment continued to lose ground in the town. [37] Just at this time, however, an impetus was given to the enthusiasm of the Brothers, which made it blaze up once more; for “throughout the Netherland communities a report was spread that the Lord had rejected Strassburg on account of its unbelief, and had in its stead chosen Münster as the seat of the New Jerusalem” (Cornelius).

Let us now see what had meanwhile been transpiring in Münster.



VIII. How Münster was won

As early as the year 1532, Baptist and other similar tendencies had become noticeable in Münster, and during the following year rapidly gained in definiteness, strength, and range.

The Town Council was divided in its policy; for the election of March 3, 1533, had introduced into its midst a number of decidedly democratic elements. One of the two Burgomasters, Hermann Tilbeck, a patrician by descent, but a good democrat in opinions, was a partisan of these, and he subsequently joined in bringing about the union between the radical section of the burgess democracy and the Anabaptists.

The guilds were quite as disunited, vacillating, and uncertain as the Council, knowing that the Bishop and clergy were only watching for a favourable opportunity to regain their control of the town. A part of the body of the guild-burgesses, however, began to feel anxious concerning the poor population, whose aggressiveness was stayed by no consideration of privilege or possession, and would, therefore, make no exception of the property of the guilds. This body weighed and compared the respective dangers threatening them from the masses on one side and the aristocracy on the other. Those among the democrat burgesses who had most to fear from priestly and aristocratic domination, remained true to their alliance with the proletarian elements; others joined the Lutherans and even the Catholics of the town; while the majority of the guild faction oscillated unceasingly hither and thither, concerned alone in keeping the mastery out of the hands of any of the other parties.

This condition of affairs was highly favourable to the Baptists, as it prevented all decisive action against them on the part of the Town Council; and they were not slow in taking advantage of their opportunity. Their zeal for the cause left nothing to be desired, and their numbers were augmented not merely by the accession of proselytes from the town, but (and this is worthy of remark) by the influx of immigrants, at first from neighbouring districts, but afterwards from distant ones, and especially from the Netherlands. These immigrants came partly as refugees from persecution and partly because they were impelled by a desire for great deeds; for they were not only in less danger in Münster than elsewhere, but there was greater scope for their activity in aid of the good cause. They became of the highest importance to the development of affairs in Münster, as they belonged to the most courageous and energetic party, and gave an important moral and military support to the Baptists in the town. Gresbeck, who was an eye-witness of events, ascribes to them the leading part in the triumph of Anabaptism and in all the incidents which took place in the town under the communist régime. He invariably speaks of the strict Baptists in Münster as “the Dutch and Frieslanders”.

The “party of order” (as we may briefly designate the opponents of the Baptists) dwindled away from day to day; for a panic had seized the wealthy inhabitants, and every advance made by the democracy drove some of them away in flight.

The propertied classes now displayed a disposition to combine; but each endeavoured to turn the agitation to its own profit alone, and in spite of their co-operation they never could overcome a certain mutual distrust; for while each member of the league wanted to deceive his associates, he also feared being deceived by them. Even when Münster had fallen into the hands of the Baptists, it was not easy to combine the propertied classes into a solid body.

As soon, however, as the beginnings of a “party of order” became visible, the more radical among the middle class democratic elements, under the leadership of Rothmann and Knipperdollinck, found it necessary to bind themselves more closely to the proletarian factions, and consequently went over to Anabaptism. On September 5, 1532, Rothmann, who had hitherto combated the doctrines of the Anabaptists, wrote to Busch: “I have had some trouble with the Anabaptists, who long since left us, threatening, however, to return with greater power. But ‘if God be with us, who shall be against us?’” [38]

As early as May in the following year, Rothmann declared himself opposed to infant baptism.

The Town Council endeavoured to overcome the Baptists with “spiritual weapons”. They induced Melancthon to write to Rothmann, in order to bring him back to the true faith. As this and similar letters bore no fruit, the Council ordered a disputation for August 7 and 8, 1533, which of course did not convert the Baptists, but rather encouraged them.

The Council now resorted to sharper measures. A number of municipal preachers had joined the Baptists. In September the Council threatened them with dismissal if they refused to baptise infants: to which the pastors replied that they must obey God rather than man; whereupon the Council endeavoured to carry out its menace. First of all, Rothmann was deprived of his office of preacher in the Lamberti Church; but the attitude of the community was so threatening, that the Council installed him in another Church in October. The Baptists had thus gained their first victory.

In the beginning of November there was another trial of strength between the contending parties. The Council at that time made an attempt to combine all the different opponents of Anabaptism in united action. It invited the guildmasters and Catholic patricians to a conference on the best means to be adopted for gaining the mastery over the Baptist faction. At this conference it was agreed that an armed attack should be made on the following day.

In pursuance of this agreement the members of the party of order met under arms, and sought first of all to get possession of the Baptist preachers. Now, however, certain extreme reactionists (probably Catholics) demanded that all members of the Council in sympathy with the Baptists should be banished from the town, together with the preachers. Burgomaster Tilbeck was especially named. Not a word had been uttered to this effect on the preceding day, and the moderates among the party of order were so startled by the demand that they began to distrust their colleagues. In the meantime, the Baptists assembled and intrenched themselves in the Lamberti Churchyard. The following day the Council entered into negotiations with them, and the conflict which was to have ended in the dissolution of the Baptists, really terminated in a few insignificant concessions to them. Some of their preachers left the town; but, though inhibited from preaching, Rothmann was allowed to remain. While open propagandism of Baptist doctrines was forbidden, the party of order had to submit to the retention of the leaders in the town. Thus the Anabaptists had successfully withstood a second and far more dangerous assault.

Kerssenbroick informs us that: “Although the compact of November inhibited Rothmann from preaching, he did not cease to do so; first of all secretly and by night, but afterwards, when his adherents grew in number, by day also, in the houses of some of the burgesses. The time of preaching was announced by musket-shot, and no one was admitted to the gathering who was not tainted with Anabaptism” (vol.i, p.453).

The propaganda was carried on not only by these oral means, but also by printed pamphlets; a printing-press being secretly set up in Rothmann’s house, where it was afterwards discovered by the authorities.

Attempts at a practical realisation of communistic ideas were now initiated. The rich among the Brethren “laid all their wealth at Rothmann’s feet, tore up and burned all written evidences of debt, and absolved their debtors from payment. And this was done not only by men, but by women as well, who at other times were wont to throw nothing away. Frau Brandsteinin, Knipperdollinck’s mother-in-law, a very wealthy woman, was so moved by the spirit of God as to restore their bonds to her debtors, together with the interest already paid on them.” [39]

Unselfish enthusiasm of this kind must have powerfully influenced the masses, and as a result the Baptists soon became so strong that they could openly defy their enemies. On the 8th of December the journey-smith, Johann Schröder, began to preach Baptist doctrines in public. On the 15th, he was arrested by order of the Council; but the guild of smiths assembled, marched to the town hall, and extorted his release. Though Rothmann had been banished, he remained quiet and unmolested in the town. At the end of the year the preachers who had left in November returned, but were again exiled by the Council, January 15, 1534. They were led out by soldiers through one of the town gates, only to be brought back again through another by the Brethren, with whom the Council did not dare to interfere. As a matter of fact, the Baptists were already masters of the city.

It is not surprising that the Brethren everywhere now admitted that Strassburg had been rejected by God, and that Münster was to be the seat of the New Sion. The centre of the movement was consequently transferred thither from Amsterdam. In the beginning of the year, Jan Mathys sent a series of messengers to Münster, among whom was Jan Bockelson, of Leyden, who arrived on January 13th. In February we find Mathys himself there.

Complete despair now seized the party of order. They saw only one possible means by which the swelling flood of communism could be checked; they threw themselves into the arms of the Bishop, and treacherously surrendered to him the freedom of the town.

The solemn compact by which Bishop Franz had guaranteed freedom of religious worship in Münster had, from the very first, been regarded by him as a mere scrap of paper, to be torn in pieces at the first favourable opportunity. The more democratic the town became, the more he longed to break the treaty. As early as December, 1533, he had begun to make preparations for taking the Münster democracy by surprise and annihilating it; hence the treacherous proceeding of the party of order was most opportune for him.

“When, therefore,” writes Gresbeck, “my gracious Lord of Münster saw that the Anabaptists in the town would neither listen to the Council nor plead for pardon of the Bishop, he came to an agreement with the Town Council, and some of the other burgesses who did not hold with the Anabaptist doctrines, that they should leave two gates to the town open for the Bishop; namely, the gate of our Blessed Virgin and the gate of the Jewish quarter. Then were these gates opened for the Bishop, so that he brought into the town from 2,000 to 3,000 footmen, and a force of horsemen, and my .gracious Lord of Münster became master of the city.” [40]

This occurred on the 10th of February. The Bishop’s forces, which had thus so treacherously fallen upon the town in the midst of peace, were joined by the “order loving burgesses” who had been awaiting them and wore armour under their clothing. By previous arrangement they had hung wreaths of straw on their houses that they might be spared from the pillage of the town which it was expected would be carried out by the “defenders of property.”

Success at first attended the conspirators, who laid hold of Knipperdollinck and a few other Anabaptists, and cast them into prison.

The Baptists, who had been taken completely by surprise, soon assembled, however, and showed that the spirit of the war-like party of Jan Mathys still lived in them. They gained the upper hand in the street combat which ensued; the Bishop’s troops fell back offering to come to terms, and “the footmen and horsemen were cleverly and skillfully driven out of the city” (Gresbeck). Their treachery had turned against the traitors themselves, and as a result the town, which had already virtually belonged to the Baptists, now fell into their military power, captured, not in aggressive riot, but in self-defence.

The fight of February had two results. From that time war was waged between the town and the Bishop. On the 28th of the month, Franz and his troops moved into Telgt, to begin the siege, and on the same day the legally-prescribed election of magistrates took place in Münster, which, without any alteration in the electoral views, ended in the complete triumph of the Baptist party. Knipperdollinck and Kippenbroick (a cloth-maker who had repeatedly distinguished himself in the Baptist cause) became Burgomasters. “The leaders of the movement were consequently raised by legal methods to the highest power, and the chief town of Westphalia lay at the feet of the new prophets” (Keller).




33. H. v. Kerssenbroick, Geschichte der Wiedertäufer zu Münster, nebst einer Beschreibung der Hauptstadt dieses Landes, 1771, vol.i. p.98.

34. Kerssenbroick, op. cit., vol.i. p.204.

35. A. Brons, Ursprung, Entwicklung und Schicksale der altevangelischen Taufgesinnten oder Mennoniten, Harden 1891, p.57.

36. Berichte der Augenzeugen über das Münsterische Wiedertäuferreich, Edited by C. M. Cornelius, vol.ii of Geschichtsquellen des Bisthume Münster, 1853, pp.370, 399.

37. Hofmann never regained his freedom. After long years of imprisonment, he died in a dungeon.

38. Quoted by Kerssenbroick, vol.i, p.183.

39. Kerssenbroick, vol.i, p.455.

40. Berichte der Augenzeugen, pp.14, 15.


Last updated on 20.1.2004