Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 5
The Anabaptists

IX. The New Jerusalem

(a) Our Sources of Information

According to the representation usually given in the accounts of historians, the seizure of Münster was followed by frenzied orgies of debauchery and bloodthirstiness. “When the city fell into their hands,” writes Bishop Franz, in an official report, “they overthrew all godly and Christian law and justice, all rules of Church, and secular government and policy, and substituted a bestial manner of life.” This is the way in which these events have generally been depicted from the time of the Münster “commune” down to the present day.

A recent writer, the. anonymous author of Schlaraffia politica [41], tells us with awe: “Münster became the theatre of the lowest debauchery and bloody butchery ... A power was thus established which carried into practice communism and polygamy; a government in which spiritual insolence and fleshly concupiscence, bloodthirsty barbarism and base epicurianism, were associated with pious renunciation and self-sacrifice. The infamies of which the women of Münster were victims, the Nero-like debaucheries and barbarities of Jan van Leyden and his colleagues, are the historical illustration” of the aim of modern socialism. Nevertheless our writer thinks that in the socialist society of the future “the Saturnalia of Münster will doubtless be surpassed” (pp.68, 70).

This is the key-note of nearly all representations of the Münster commune. The closing sentence of the above quoted passage discloses one of the reasons why middle-class historians have found it difficult to deal impartially with the Anabaptist communism. It bore for them too close a resemblance to modern socialism.

Another obstacle to impartiality respecting that order is presented by the character of our sources of information. The historians were too easily convinced of the truth of everything told by witnesses of the Anabaptist rule. Yet it is precisely here that the greatest caution is necessary in the use made of the evidence.

From the 10th of February, the day of the decisive Baptist victory, Münster was a beleaguered town, cut off from the outer world. After it was recaptured by the besieging forces, almost the whole population was massacred. No defender of the Baptist cause escaped a bloody grave, who was in a position to give a literary account of the events of the siege. All the descriptions proceed from the enemies of the Anabaptists.

There are three main sources of information. Immediately after the fall of Münster a work appeared entitled: Wahrhaftige historie, wie das Evangelium zu Münster angefangen und danach, durch die Widderteuffer verstöret widder aufgehört hat, &c. Beschrieben durch Henricum Dorpium Monasterimeem, 1536 (A True History of the Introduction of the Gospel into Münster, and its subsequent Destruction by the Anabaptists, &c.; “written by Henry Dorpius of Münster”). In his treatise on the Sources of the History of the Münster Insurrection, forming the introduction of his Berichten der Augenzeugen (Accounts of Eye-witnesses), Cornelius thus characterises the work: “It is a Wittenbergian partisan production, printed in Wittenberg, and with a preface by Luther’s chief coadjutor and delegate for South Germany, Johann Bugenhagen ... The object of the book is to compass the complete moral defeat of his opponents, and by this means advance the interests of his party” (pp.16, 17). Even the title contains a falsehood. Cornelius points out that even if the author were named Dorpius, he was not a resident of Münster, although “the book makes it appear that he had himself been in Münster, and had personally experienced that which was, in fact, only reported to him” (pp.11, 12). Hence he was a swindler, whose “book is not to be regarded as an accurate and unprejudiced account of the whole course of events.” [42]

Kerssenbroick’s work on the Münster Anabaptist régime, of which the Latin original is still in manuscript, is of far greater importance. When it was about to be printed in 1573, its publication was prohibited by the Münster Town Council. It has been preserved in transcriptions only, but a translation appeared in 1771, of which we have availed ourselves. Born in 1520, Kerssenbroick went to the Cathedral school of Münster from 1534 until the Anabaptist victory, and was rector of the same school from 1550 to 1575. In the latter capacity he wrote his history, which has an importance on account of the numerous public documents given in it, but which, while uncritical and careless as regards the sources of information, is, in addition, full of party spirit. The following passage is enough to show this. Kerssenbroick affirms that he has not written for fame, but “to serve my country and posterity, so that the brilliant deeds may not be forgotten, which were done to the destruction of the most barbarous and infamous heresy, by the most Reverend Count and Lord in Christ Frantz – that righteous Bishop of the Münster Church, and branch of the ancient Waldeck stem. I furthermore give this history to the world, that all righteous people may avoid and detest the abominable and infamous madness of the Anabaptists.” His purpose, therefore, is not to give an objective representation, but to glorify the Bishop and to vilify the Anabaptists. Hence everything is extolled which redounds to the credit of the hero, while, where possible, silence is maintained on all that might cast a slur upon him. On the other hand, the author eagerly seeks for the most pitiable gossip unfavourable to the Anabaptists, and, without examination or verification, inserts it in his work, even exaggerating it when he can.

Let us give an example. He tells us: “Just about this time” (the beginning of February) “the prophet Jan Mathys, who was an extremely sensual man, secretly called together the Anabaptists of both sexes by night in Knipperdollinck’s rather spacious house. When they had assembled the prophet stood in the centre of the room before a copper candlestick fastened to the floor, in which three candles were burning, instructing the surrounding crowd, and by his prophetic spirit fanned into full flame the fire smouldering in the hearts of many. He then explained the first chapter of the first Book of Moses, and when he had read the words of the twenty-eighth verse, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth,’ the lights were blown out. What infamies were then practised may be inferred from the fact that on one occasion the prophet was found lying in a most indecent attitude in the lap of a maiden. They called this assembling together the ‘Fiery Baptism’. This is no fiction; for though mention was made of the Fiery Baptism here and there in the town, no one knew what was meant until a certain woman was induced to investigate the matter by a bribe from my landlord, Wesseling. After learning the Anabaptist sign this woman gained admission to the above mentioned house, saw everything, and related it to us afterwards” (i, p.504). Our trustworthy rector considered this sufficient ground for his assurance that his account of the Fiery Baptism is “no fiction”! Let us deliberate a moment. For the sake of a gratuity some woman relates any tale she likes to the landlord of the house in which Kerssenbroick lived when a youth of fourteen; a generation later he writes it down from memory, and asks us on this single unsubstantiated piece of evidence to attribute the most unbridled licentiousness to the Anabaptists: scientific historians, too, scrupulously reproduce this woman’s gossip – if it be not something worse because in this way communism is to be “scientifically” annihilated!

The fact, to which we shall again allude, that in a particular work the Münster Anabaptists pronounce all such accusations “shameless and scandalous lies” does not seem to have been noticed by any one; and quite as little that Kerssenbroick himself in other passages gives prominence to the puritanism of the sect.

“After he had gone over to the Baptists, Rothmann’s morals became quite changed, because he had taken upon himself to propagate Anabaptist doctrines, and consequently displayed greater holiness and fear of God than formerly. He renounced all feastings and all sensual intercourse with the other sex; in a word, all that could cast on him a suspicion of frivolousness ... In order, however, to make his teachings tally with his morals and to arouse the people to deeds of charity, he proclaimed in all his sermons that men should use their possessions in common and render each other service,” &c. (p.429).

This is exactly the picture of the typical Anabaptist and heretical communist in general with whom we have already become acquainted. At all events this description is accurate; but how is it to be reconciled with the accounts given us of orgies?

Kerssenbroick seems to have been particularly impressed by the gossip of the anonymous woman, as he expressly relies upon it to prove that he is relating “no fiction “; and this is one of the few instances in which he finds it necessary to tell whence he obtained his knowledge. He generally gives none of the sources, so that these may have been of an even more lamentable kind!

By far the most important of the sources of information regarding the Anabaptist government is Gresbeck’s narrative, already cited. [43] A joiner by trade, Gresbeck returned in February, 1534, to his native town, Münster, which he had left in 1530. He remained until the 23rd of May, 1535, and was consequently in a position to disclose the most eventful occurrences there, from personal observation; but he wrote, perhaps eight or nine years after the end of the Anabaptist regime, entirely from memory and without any collateral aid. Hence he frequently confuses events. Moreover, the clearness of his memory was dimmed by one serious circumstance; for Gresbeck was the man who betrayed Münster and brought the Bishop’s forces into the town. He naturally hated his former associates, whom he had betrayed, more than they were hated by their open enemies. He almost invariably speaks of them as “miscreants” and rogues. This is the way with renegades and traitors. Quite as naturally he tries to distort facts, so as to make it appear that he had by merest accident come to Münster – when all the world was full of the news that the town was in the hands of the Anabaptists – and joined them under the influence of fear alone! [44] Hence he paints the picture of the reign of terror in the coarsest tones possible, and by this means succeeds not only in appearing blameless for his treachery, but in giving it the aspect of a highly meritorious deed.

These are the chief sources of our knowledge concerning the Münster episode. Although they should be used only with the greatest circumspection, they have fallen into the hands of historians who from the outset accepted as proved the statement which these authorities wished to prove, viz., that communism of necessity engenders wildness and atrocity. It is not surprising that under this method of writing history the reign of the Anabaptists presents itself as a frenzy not only of hideousness and vulgarity, but of inane and aimless vulgarity and hideousness.

Nevertheless even these sources make it possible to comprehend the Anabaptist regime in Münster, provided they are critically examined and compared with the scanty remains of other contemporaneous testimony; and if a view is kept both of the generic character of heretical communism and of the peculiar conditions prevalent in the town at that time.

(b) The Reign of Terror

It is of the first importance to remember that a state of war existed in Münster from the day the Bishop surprised it on February 10th. A war must be a remarkably insignificant affair, else how comes it that historians who are acute enough to discover the most trivial circumstance of possible moment to the often puerile actions of a monarch almost invariably forget to take account of the state of war, when they concern themselves with the actions of a democratic and even communistic commonwealth fighting for its life? We refer in proof of this to any of the traditional descriptions of the uprisings of the Paris Commune in 1871, or of the Reign of Terror during the great French Revolution.

Precisely the same thing has happened with regard to the Anabaptists in Münster. If, however, we would understand them, we must not measure them by the standard of a condition of peace, but of a state of siege; and indeed a siege of peculiar severity. They could not appeal to the customary laws of war; they were precluded from making an honourable capitulation; they had only the choice between victory and a most agonising death.

Together with this peculiar situation favourable to violent deeds, regard must be had to the characteristics of the century, which was one of the most, if not the most, bloodthirsty in history. The Anabaptists gained ample knowledge of this from personal experience. They – the most peaceable of all men – were hunted down like wild beasts, and handed over as victims to the most atrocious cruelties. It is not surprising that among this suffering people a party should have finally arisen who. became wearied with sheepish patience and counselled violent resistance. The only cause for wonder is that this spirit was so long in developing itself and that it never affected more than a portion of the persecuted community.

A series of fortuitous circumstances had now placed a fortified town in the hands of this maltreated sect. Already, however, complete destruction threatened them from without. Let us see how they acted under these circumstances.

Janssen tells us (with a proper show of indignation) that ‘On February 27th the Reign of Terror began with the proclamation of a decree that all the inhabitants must either receive the new baptism or leave the town.” He then quotes the Bishop of Münster, who in a certain document grows wrathful over the fact that the “pious citizens” were driven in poverty from the city; and affirms that “in no land, even of infidels, or Turks, or heathens, had such unheard-of and inhuman barbarities taken place.” [45]

So great is the rage of the Catholic historian that he quite forgets to mention that the tender-hearted Bishop was at that time laying siege to Münster, nay, that on the 13th of January he had already issued an edict commanding his officials to treat all “disobedient and rebellious” persons conformably to the Imperial decree, that is, to slay them. Moreover, this edict was rigorously carried out. Kerssenbroick exultantly tells us that “in order satisfactorily to execute the Imperial decree and the ordinances of justice the Anabaptists remaining in various localities in the diocese were severely punished, for at that time five women and one man belonging to Wollbeck were thrown into the water and drowned; in Bewergern four women were drowned and two men burnt. Many of those whom Rothmann had secretly baptized were also punished, as they deserved, by being put to death” (i, p.517). Janssen says not a word concerning all this, and in this respect affords us a specimen of traditional representation. Of course Janssen is also silent about the conspiracy entered into with the Bishop by the opponents of the Anabaptists within the town to open the gates on the 10th of February for the passage of the Bishop’s troops. After the siege had begun the traitors were not executed, in conformity with the laws of war and the good Bishop’s example, but were invited to leave the town! And this, forsooth, is called the “reign of terror”! Was there ever more pitiable cant?

In the course of the siege a rigorous government became necessary within the city, and a series of executions took place. If the cases adduced by Kerssenbroick and Gresbeck are examined they will be found in every instance to relate to offences against the safety of the town; such as treacherous communication with the enemy, offences against discipline and attempts to desert, or to discourage the populace. Without doubt an execution is a cruel deed, but no more cruel than war. The Baptists had not sought this war; it was forced upon them, for on all occasions they earnestly asseverated their love of peace. [46]

A “reign of terror” existed not only in Münster, but also in the domain of the Bishop; and the comparison between the two does not redound to the credit of the latter.

The Bishop was the aggressor, the Baptists the defenders; the Bishop slew for his own gain; the Baptists slew that they might not be themselves slain. They fought for their lives. While the Bishop delighted in inflicting cruel modes of death upon the Baptists (especially drowning and burning) the condemned in Münster were not tortured, as there existed only two modes of execution, viz., beheading and shooting, and no less offensive form of capital punishment has been advanced in even the humane nineteenth century.

It has been regarded as evidence of a peculiarly strong spirit of bloodthirstiness that the heads of the town, “King Jan van Leyden, and his lieutenant, Knipperdollinck, carried out the executions with their own hands. This betrays a gross misconception of the feeling and the thought of that period. If the great lords, who at that time generally decided matters of life and death, did not themselves execute the condemned, it was not from humane sentiments, but because the loathsome and filthy work of the executioner’s calling seemed too base for them. The executioner, whose trade was the handling of corpses, was everywhere looked upon as the most despicable of men, with whom all intercourse was anxiously avoided. If, then, the leaders of the movement in Münster undertook the office of executioner, they thus performed an act of unexampled self-abasement – an act which, far from evidencing a cruel disposition, merely exhibited a high feeling of equality.

That this is “no fiction” (to use Kerssenbroick’s expression) is borne witness to by that worthy man himself, whom we can trust on this point. “Just at this time,” he writes, “the prophet and man of God, Jan Bockelson, for the terror of evil-doers, handed over the sword to Knipperdollinck, whom, before the assembled multitude, he dubbed the ‘bearer of the Sword’; for as all the high were to be laid low, and Knipperdollinck had hitherto been burgomaster and head of the city, it was now the will of the father that Knipperdollinck should fill the office of public executioner, so ill esteemed by mankind” (i, p.545)

It is impossible to speak more plainly. The carrying out of executions with his own hands by Knipperdollinck, sprang from the same principle that caused him and the “Queen” to wait upon the multitude at the public meals. [47]

Where then, after all, is the unheard of Nero-like cruelty of the Anabaptists? Upon close inspection it vanishes like vapour. Far from being exceptionally cruel, they show themselves to have been unusually lenient for their time, and in view of their peculiar situation. Their cruelty lay in not patiently allowing themselves to be slaughtered – an unpardonable crime of course! Shooting them was a service of love, as Luther said; every shot on their part was an iniquitous brutality!

The charge of tyranny is closely related to that of cruelty. It is said that Münster shows us whither the freedom and that equality of communism lead.

We have seen that the Baptists at Münster acquired their mastery by strictly legal means, the Council being composed of adherents to their cause. But for the very reason that the election was legal, it took place within the limits prescribed by the ancient electoral law, which restricted the franchise by a rule of eligibility; resident burgesses alone being represented in the Council. There was no representation of the proletarians or of the immigrants, who were about equal in number to the remaining population capable of bearing arms, and who bore their full share of the burdens of the conflict. On the other hand the civil government was established for a time of peace, and was unequal to the demands set up by the siege.

A state of siege has always led to the temporary suspension of civil rights and privileges, and to the transference to the military authority of an unlimited power over the life and property of the people; so much so indeed that the words “state of siege” imply the setting aside of freedom and ordinary judicial methods. Communism has, unfortunately, not yet discovered the miraculous elixir which shall make this necessary consequence of a state of siege superfluous. Neither could it prevent the siege of Münster leading to a military dictatorship.

Besides conducting the very formless Church service, the preachers in the town gave their attention to questions of legislation and government. It was through their influence that a popular assembly was instituted apart from the Town Council, composed of members from the different parishes, in the election of which the non-guild portion of the population had votes as well as the burgesses. After the death of Mathys the preachers also proposed the formation of a “Committee of Public Safety”, the members of which were appointed by them, subject to the approval of the community.

Gresbeck tells us that “the prophets and preachers wanted to abolish all government in the town of Münster. Prophets and preachers, Dutchmen and Frieslanders – the villains who were the true Anabaptists, wanted to be the only rulers. To this end they decreed that twelve from among the wisest elders, who were to be good Christians, should govern the people and take precedence of them; and that these twelve elders should have power in the city. They thus supplanted the burgomasters and council (whom they had installed) as well as all guilds and aldermen, so that these were no longer to have any authority” (p.35). Kerssenbroick expressly mentions among the elders three foreign brethren, of whom one was a Frieslander, the patrician Hermann Tilbeck, who was a member of the old Council, and indeed one of the two burgomasters of 1533, and who had from the outset sympathised with the Baptists.

As none of the community had received a classical education, but, like all heretical communists and democrats, based their order on the Old Testament, they did not call the members of the committee senators, or directors, or dictators, but “the elders of the twelve tribes of Israel.” These were endowed with unrestricted power in judicial, legislative, and administrative affairs.

As a consequence of the state of siege, however, the supreme power fell into the hands of the commandants of the fortress, of whom the first was the prophet Jan Mathys. After he had fallen, fighting most bravely, in the sortie of April 5th, Jan van Leyden took his place, and, as the result shows, filled it satisfactorily.

In his capacity of commander-in-chief of the military forces, he became the autocratic ruler of the town. On the 31st of August, after a heavy cannonade, a severe attack was made upon the city, which was repulsed. After this success, Rothmann and the twelve elders, in the presence of the community, handed over their authority to Jan van Leyden, at the instance of the goldsmith and prophet Dusentschen, and with the consent of the most prominent Baptists (Knipperdollinck and Tilbeck, together with Henry and Bernt Krechtinck – two brothers who had immigrated in February). In so doing they only publicly recognised the state of affairs already existing. [48]

That the Baptists found no more suitable name for their municipal chief than “King of Israel,” was due to their one-sided Biblical training, already noticed. Pious minds should least of all see evil in this; and loyal historians should be especially sympathetic with those communists who make to themselves a king. These writers will in vain seek for the smallest trace of monarchial tendencies among Anabaptists while living in a state of peace (e.g., the Moravians).

Like a good general, Jan van Leyden concerned himself not only about the sufficiency of military equipment and the drill of his troops, but also about the good psychological training of the people. In order to counteract the depressing inactivity and anxiety of the siege he endeavoured to keep them employed and to amuse them. The first object was attained by work upon the entrenchments and the razing of superfluous churches and old buildings. We are told by Kerssenbroick – not, of course, without his customary suspicion, “in order, however, that the inhabitants of the town might have no time for thinking of an insurrection against the king, they” (the chiefs of the city) “unceasingly burdened the people with labour; and that they might also not grow too petulant gave them only bread and salt to eat. [49] As at that time” (January 15, 1535) “there were no new entrenchments to build nor old ones to repair, the people were set to work razing the churches, and old huts, and other low houses in the orchards, and to digging up all the walls. To that end they began on January the 21st to remove the upper roof from the church; whereas previously their whole time had been occupied in work on the fortifications.” (ii. p.142).

Jan, however, made provision for amusement as well as for work. Together with military and gymnastic exercises he arranged public meals, games, and dances, festal processions, and theatrical representations. In these matters his joyous, artistic nature stood him in good stead. His appearance and actions at these popular entertainments, especially in the processions, may well appear theatrical to the modern spectator; and we know, indeed, that he was at home on the stage, and understood scenic effects. Jan should not, however, be viewed with modern eyes.

Festal shows seem somewhat theatrical to us because we get our ideas of them from the theatre only, whereas three hundred or four hundred years ago they were a common feature of social life. Church, sovereigns, and nobility then vied with each other in pompous display. The Anabaptists, like all other heretical communists, repudiated this splendour, as it could be maintained only by spoliation. They not only wore the very simplest clothes, but in Moravia even refused to make sumptuous clothing for others. [50] In Münster, however, abnormal conditions prevailed in this as in other respects. The sumptuousness of attire displayed by Jan and his people was not kept up by the spoliation of labourers. This “tailor-like”, “theatrical” splendour had existed previously. “The Counsellor of the King (Jan van Leyden),” says Gresbeck, “had obtained possession of the garments formerly belonging to the wealthy persons who had been driven from the town” (p.89, with which compare 136, where the former owners of the clothes are spoken of as burgesses and young noblemen). Kerssenbroick moreover informs us: “They seized and appropriated gold and silver whether it belonged to the town or to the burgesses, as well as the holy embroidered silken purples and all other ornaments employed in divine worship. They also appropriated everything else belonging either to the town or the burgesses, and even slew those who resisted and would no longer suffer and endure such robbery. Thus did they deck and adorn themselves for their own gratification, regardless of the fact that the means for this had been obtained by others through hard toil” (ii, p.58).

Hence the pomp displayed by the Anabaptists was habitual in Münster; those who displayed it had alone changed.

The study of the Apocalypse must also have encouraged the development of pomp among the Münster Baptists. In that Book the New Jerusalem is depicted as being full of gold and precious stones; “And the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it” (Rev. xxi, 24). It was imperative therefore in Münster to prove that the town was truly the long yearned-for New Jerusalem.

Imagination should not picture the splendour of Münster as being so excessive as is generally represented. Were the descriptions by Gresbeck to be believed, Jan and his soldiers must have carried about an incredible quantity of gold and silver. Whoever takes these descriptions literally will, on close inspection, be quite as much disappointed as were the Bishop’s soldiers, whose mouths had been made to water by similar stories of booty. There was, for instance, a renegade from the Baptists, who related that “the king had a great treasure of gold, silver and money.” Five or six tons of gold awaited them in the town! When, however, Münster had been taken, they found barely half a ton ;and it availed them nothing that they tortured Jan and his treasurer, and beheaded the soldier who told the silly tale; they got none the more.

There could be no question of the treasure having been buried; for the town had been captured by a night surprise, and the besieged had found barely time to seize their weapons, much less to bury treasure.

The theatrical representations carried out by Jan’s orders are characteristic. One of them is described by Gresbeck. It is a didactic play: “As the common folk found great pleasure in anything that whiled away the time, the king caused them to be assembled in the cathedral. Men and women all obeyed the summons (with the exception of those who had to keep watch on the walls) in order to see the great show, and the wonderful thing that was to take place. The king had caused a stage with curtains to be erected in the choir where the High Altar stands, and so placed that it could be seen by every one; and on this stage was performed the play of ‘The rich man and Lazarus.’ They began the piece and played it through, holding speech with each other. When the rich man had finished speaking to Lazarus, three fifers stood at the foot of the stage and played a three-part piece on German fifes. Then the rich man began once more to speak, and again the fifers played. Thus the play went on to the end. Then the devil came to fetch the rich man, body and soul, and dragged him away behind the curtains. There was great laughter in the cathedral when the people saw the great show” (p.168).

The other popular entertainments, of which Gresbeck writes, were as harmless as this one. He is malicious and crabbed enough in regard to this cheerful scene, but makes no mention of licentiousness or even frivolity.

The most wicked of the “orgies,” described by him, is the following:– “After the election by the people of the twelve gate-commanders, called dukes, the king held a feast, to which he invited all his dukes and counsellors, and the counsellors and handmaids of the queen, and all the highest servants of the king ... After having assembled, they behaved as if they were to remain at the head of the Government for their lives long. When the banquet was ended, they paid court to each other and danced, each with his own wife. The king banqueted with the dukes, and they all ate, drank, and were merry” (p.184).

This is reproduced by Keller, with the words: “The king assembled at his residence all the dukes, counsellors, stadtholders, and holders of office, with their wives, at a great feast, and caroused with them in great splendour and superabundance.” [51]

In this way is history written! There is not one word about “carousal, splendour, and superabundance” in the whole account!

It appears from the context that it was not Gresbeck’s purpose to call attention to the carousal, but to stigmatise the fact that the king and his retinue had enough to eat and drink, while the populace were starving; for he continues: “The common folk fled from the city through hunger, and a part began to die of starvation.”

This is Gresbeck’s most heinous charge against Jan van Leyden; not that he indulged in wild orgies, but that he withheld the necessary means of subsistence from the hungering population, while he himself had plenty to eat.

Gresbeck was not a personal spectator of these scenes, for he belonged neither to the king’s entourage, nor to the officers of the army, nor to the Government officials. He, therefore, speaks of the above-mentioned “banquet” as of Jan’s private luxury in general, only from hearsay. That many in the town grew discontented as the rations got lower and lower is extremely probable, and it is equally probable that they gave utterance to their discontent in evil reports about their commanders; but it is remarkable that the farther removed persons were from the “king,” the more positive they became in their assertions respecting his luxury in the midst of misery.

For example, Justinian von Holzhausen, a Burgomaster of Frankfort, who was in the camp before Münster, wrote to his father, June 8, 1535: “The cows in the town [52] are eaten by the king and his people unknown to the public. We wonder that the king’s deception has not been discovered.” [53] How then did the Burgomaster come to discover it in the camp outside the town ?

Gresbeck betrays himself on one occasion by his reference to the fact that Jan shared in the universal want: “Most of the women, therefore, had fled the town through great hunger. The king had fifteen wives, to whom, with the exception of the queen, he gave leave of absence, telling them that each should go to her friends, and that all were to obtain food wherever they could.” [54] Gresbeck relates this immediately after his account of the “great banquet”. He had not acquired the art of writing history “systematically”.

(c) Communism

Community of goods was the basis of the whole Baptist movement. For its sake the great fight was waged at Münster. It was not, however, the chief factor in determining the character of the Münster Baptist government, that factor being the siege. The town was a great war-camp; the demands of war took precedence of all other matters, and sentiments of freedom and equality were active only in so far as they were compatible with military dictatorship.

Hardly had the city fallen into the hands of the Baptists on February 10th, when they sent letters in all directions, inviting comrades holding similar views to come to Münster. In one of these missives, still preserved, it says: “Here shall all wants be satisfied. The poorest amongst us, who were formerly treated like beggars, now go as sumptuously attired as the highest and most prominent with you or with us. Hence the poor are, through God’s mercy, become as rich as the Burgomasters, or the wealthiest in the town.”

This communism, however, stopped short in its beginning.

Historians are fond of assuming that all private proprietorship was abolished in Münster. Private property in gold, silver, and money was alone completely abolished. The prophets, preachers, and Council (the twelve elders had not yet been inaugurated) “came to an agreement, and decreed that all possessions should be in common; each one should bring forward his money, gold and silver, and this was finally done” (Gresbeck, p.32). This money served to defray the expenses of intercourse between the town and outer world, and especially the sending out of agitators, as well as proselytising among the mercenaries.

The single household, however, remained in existence, and private proprietorship, in articles of consumption and production, was abolished only to the extent demanded by the exigencies of the war.

That rights of inheritance were not abrogated is shown by the following regulations of the elders, recorded by Kerssenbroick (ii. p.80): “If any one should, by God’s dispensation, be shot, or in other way fall to sleep in the Lord, no one shall dare to take away his property for himself, be it in arms, clothes, or other things; but it shall be brought to the Sword Bearer, Knipperdollinck, who shall spread it before the elders, so that, by their instrumentality, it may be adjudged to the rightful heirs.”

Even a portion of the war-booty might become private property. The fourteenth of the twenty-four articles submitted by Jan van Leyden to the people (January 2, 1535), directed that: “If booty be captured from the enemy, no one shall keep it for himself, or dispose of it after his own caprice; but, as is fit, he shall notify the authorities in the matter. If they give him a part of it, he may, without injustice, use it for his own needs.”

The next article says: “Under penalty of the last judgment, no Christian is to trade with his brother, or buy anything from him for money; nor shall any one act deceitfully or fraudulently in exchange and barter.”

After the abolition of money, exchange and barter became inevitable, if private proprietorship in articles of production and consumption was to be preserved. How little this right had been abrogated is shown by the following incident, which occurred after the raising of Jan to the kingship, and is narrated by Gresbeck (p.144): “Then came Knipperdollinck to a shopkeeper, who still carried on his trade. Knipperdollinck said to him: ‘Thou wouldst be in truth holy, yet art not willing to give up thy shop. There thou sittest, and ponderest how thou canst get profit from it. Thy shop is thy God. Thou must yield it up if thou wouldst be holy.’” From this it appears that shopkeeping was not deemed honourable; but the “government of terror” was far from resorting to violent measures to make it impossible to keep a shop.

It is true that we find common repasts in Münster; but these were in part occasional festal assemblages of the populace, and in part a war regulation. “Before every gate there was a house belonging to the community, in which every one took his meals who kept watch at the gate, or worked on the walls, or in the trenches. A sermon was preached every morning in these houses, the management of the food being undertaken by the deacons, each of whom had his own gate.

“Each parish had its community house, for which a manager was appointed whose duty it was to cook and take care of the house. At noon a young man stood up and read aloud a chapter from the Old Testament or the Prophets. After they had eaten they sang a German Psalm, then rose and went back to their watch” (Gresbeck, pp.34, 35).

Not only men, but women shared in these meals; for women also took an active part in the defence. The picture of these “bacchanalia,” drawn by Gresbeck, is completed by the regulation prescribed by the elders and given by Kerssenbroick (ii. p.5): “That a due regard to order may be had in the management of eating and drinking, not only shall those who serve the meals be mindful of their duty, and give the Brothers what they have hitherto received, but the Brothers and Sisters are always to sit apart at the tables assigned to them, preserving fit modesty and asking for no other food than that which shall have been provided.” According to Kerssenbroick, not a word was spoken at table, attention being given to the reader.

All this reminds us more of a meeting of pietists than of libertines; but it accords with the general character of heretical communism.

The expenses of these common meals were thrown upon the Catholic Church and the emigrants from the town, the provisions being taken from the monasteries and deserted houses.

Three deacons were appointed for each parish (by whom chosen Gresbeck unfortunately does not tell us, but probably by the populace), whose duty it was to look after the poor. Christian communism has never gone beyond that limit in communities which retained the system of single households. “The deacons,” Gresbeck informs us, “sought out the poor in their respective districts and supplied all needs. They made a good show in Münster of allowing no one to want for anything.

“These deacons went into every house and made a written memorandum of what it contained in the way of food, grain, or meat. When all had been recorded, the householder had no further control over the provisions” (p.34). This regulation was not an outcome of communism, but a war measure, always absolutely necessary in a beleaguered town where the military authorities must know the quantity of provisions available. This very regulation presupposes the existence of a single household. Only afterwards, and under the pressure of necessity, was it ordered that all superfluous clothing should be delivered up as well as the stores of provisions. This measure did not, however, do away with the single household; for the deacons had to give to each family its share in the common store, of bread as well as of meat, so long as these lasted. “They killed a number of horses, and had the meat carried to the house to which the people went for their provisions. The deacon first asked how many persons there were in each house, and then served out the meat accordingly, writing down what had been given, so as to prevent any one from being served twice” (Gresbeck, p.174).

Moreover, such land as necessity compelled them to cultivate was not held in common, but was allotted among the households. “The king appointed four administrators of land, who went over all the farms, and allotted from them one or two pieces of land to every household, according to the number of its inmates. These allotments were planted with cabbages, turnips, roots, beans, and peas. The owner of a large farm was not allowed to use more of it than had been allotted to him by the land administrators. They had even proposed to move all hedges and fences from the farms inside the town area, so that these might be in common” (Gresbeck, pp.175, 176). This last measure, however, was not carried out. The regulation that all house doors should be left open day and night was probably of a moral rather than an economic nature, and designed to increase the feeling of brotherhood.

The preservation of the single household was closely allied with the maintenance of the disciplinary power of the house-master over the members of the household. In the Middle Ages a family consisted of more persons than the married couple with their children. The large households of that period demanded a staff of servants, and hence, in Münster, we find the authority of the husband over the wife combined with that of the master over the servants. In one of the edicts of the elders, the third clause treats of “the dominion of the husband and the subjection of the wife”; while the fourth deals with “the obedience of house-servants to the house-masters, and the duties of house-masters to their servants” (Kerssenbroick, ii. 1). The common meals were participated in by “each Brother and his wife, together with his house servants” (Gresbeck, p.106).

There was no abolition of the distinction between master and journeyman, nor of production in single petty shops, so closely bound up at that time with the single household. In an already quoted edict of the elders, certain craftsmen were designated to work for the town and populace. This should not be regarded as a socialistic organisation of labour, but as a regulation engendered by the exigencies of war; i.e., the specified craftsmen were exempt from guard duty (Kerssenbroick, p.221). The edict says: “No one shall carry on the trade of fishing except the master fishermen, Christia Kerckring and Hermann Redecker, together with their men, who, moreover, when necessary, shall not refuse fish to the sick and women with child ... Hermann Tornate and Johann Redecker, with their six journeymen, shall make shoes for the New House of Israel ... Johann Coesfeld and his journeymen shall make iron keys.” (Kerssenbroick, ii, p.6).

Hence historians are by no means accurate in asserting that “a far reaching community of goods” was inaugurated in Münster. [55] That it did not arrive at that stage may be explained in the same way as the small activity in social affairs of the Paris Commune of 1871. It was an inevitable consequence of the siege, which left its evil trail at every step and laid claim to every thought and act. A time of war has never yet proved itself to be the suitable moment for the inauguration of a fundamentally new order of society.

In so far as the introduction of a new state of things was concerned, the Anabaptists were as unsuccessful in ecclesiastical matters as they had been in those relating to economics. Keller wonders at this. “It was to be expected,” he says, “that their activity would begin with the promulgation of a new Church discipline, or with a regulation concerning the form of divine worship, or similar affairs; yet not only was there a lack of all necessary provision for these things at the inception of their government, but, so far as we know, no regulation of Church ritual was ever made” (Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, p.202). This does not seem so surprising to us. We ascribe this circumstance in part to the war, but in part also to the indifference to the form of divine worship shown by the Anabaptists, quite as much as by the Bohemian Brethren and the disciples of Münzer.

The predilection for the Old Testament shown on every occasion by the Baptists is quite in harmony with the universal spirit of heretical communism, as is also their contempt for erudition, evidenced by their burning of all books (with the exception of the Bible) and all letters found in the town. Moreover, they confirmed the rule that disdain for learning among the committee went hand in hand with care for popular education. In spite of the siege, they established five or six new schools “where children, youths, and maidens were made to learn German Psalms, and read and write. All their instruction appertained to Baptism, and was given in the manner of the sect” (Gresbeck, p.47).

Mysticism is once more met with among the Münster Baptists, e.g., the belief of some few enthusiastic Brothers in direct intercourse with God, and in revelations and prophecies. In regard to Knipperdollinck, Jan Mathys, Bockelson, and other prophets of the New Jerusalem, many features of morbid ecstasy are recounted which, although in many cases distorted and exaggerated, are probably not wholly without foundation.

However great may have been the resemblance of their conduct in these matters to that of their peaceable forerunners in Moravia, they were (if we may trust their Chronicles) completely dissimilar in one respect, viz., their dissoluteness. We have already had frequent occasion to touch on this point, but will now examine it more closely.

(d) Polygamy

Modern sentiment is generally offended by the austerity and puritanism of the Anabaptists, but it has had no reason to complain of their dissoluteness. If these characteristics were prominent among peaceable Baptists, it may, at the outset, be anticipated that they were not weakened by the exigencies of a siege demanding, before all things, the strictest discipline. Closer inspection confirms this, and we should not allow ourselves to be misled by the accounts of the popular entertainments already mentioned.

That good behaviour and discipline were zealously preserved, is proved by some of the twenty-eight articles of January 22, 1525, in which among others we read:–

“6. No one who fights under the standard of justice should defile himself with the infamous and hateful vice of drunkenness, with disgraceful shamelessness, with fornication and adultery, or with gambling – a vice which betrays a greed for gold and often engenders dissension and hatred; for such sins shall not go unpunished among the people of God.”

“16. No Christian” (i.e., no Anabaptist) “shall be admitted from one society or community into another, unless he shall have previously shown that he is blameless, and has not been guilty of any crime; if, however, the contrary is discovered he shall be punished without forbearance.”

“20. No Christian shall resist a heathen” (i.e., a non-Anabaptist) “authority who has not yet heard the Word of God, nor been instructed therein; nor shall he do the said authority any injury, provided it forces no one into disbelief and ungodliness. On the other hand, the Babylonish tyranny of priests and monks and all their partisans and adherents, who darken the justice of God with their violence and injustice, shall be crushed in every possible way.”

“21. If, after the commission of a crime, a heathen shall fly to the community to escape punishment, he shall not be admitted by Christians, but so much the more certainly be punished, provided it is proved that he has acted directly against God’s command, as it is not to be permitted that a community of Christians should be a refuge for the doers of infamous deeds and crimes” (ii, pp.133-137).

As lovers of peace, they exhorted to obedience where it was possible, and carefully guarded themselves from association with common criminals. Drunkenness, gaming, and every kind of illicit sexual intercourse were severely punished.

A striking example of the strict discipline maintained in Münster is given by Gresbeck: “On the 28th of June 1534, it so happened that ten or twenty soldiers were seated in a house in the town, where they had a drinking-bout and had become merry. They were frolicsome, as soldiers are wont to be, and consequently the landlord and his wife would draw no more for them; whereupon the soldiers said, ‘Landlady, if you will not draw, then we will,’ and upbraided her. Upon this the landlord and his wife went before the twelve elders, and accused the soldiers of having been violent in their house, and of having chidden the landlady. The twelve elders immediately had the soldiers arrested and thrown into prison. The next day a congregation was convened in the Cathedral yard and the soldiers were brought before it. Then the chancellor, Heinrich Krechting – the rascal! – proclaimed what was said to have been done by the soldiers, who immediately sued for pardon. At last the door of mercy was a little opened; some received pardon, but six had to die” (p.36).

This case of severe discipline is adduced by Keller as a proof of “the criminal character of their proceedings”. Yet only two pages further on he is forced to praise this discipline, whose stern punishments so operated that drunkenness was hardly ever seen among the Baptists, while in the Bishop’s camp it raged to such an extent that it caused many military operations undertaken by the besieged forces to be successful.

We will cite only one more passage from Gresbeck’s work illustrative of the spirit prevalent among the Baptists: “Now the Anabaptists often used to sally out for a skirmish with the soldiers; at such times they held themselves as boldly as if they had done twenty years’ service, and moreover did everything with sagacity, dexterity, and calmness. For the prophets, preachers, and head men of the town sharply forbade any one daring to drink himself full, so that they always retained their senses, were never drunk, and were invariably calm. When, therefore, they sallied out they acted with wisdom and skill” (p.50).

It is this that constitutes the “brutal dissoluteness”, and “wildness”, delineated by an eye-witness who was least of all given to palliation.

But how is it with regard to unchastity – polygamy? On this point at least, it is possible to speak of brutal dissoluteness?

We have now reached the most difficult and obscure phase in the history of the Münster Anabaptists. Polygamy is so opposed to the generic character of that sect (e.g., the Moravians, and indeed to heretical communism in general) that we were at first inclined to assume the existence of a misapprehension, based upon a confusion of terms. There is, in fact, no more difficult task for an observer than that of correctly and impartially estimating the features of an unusual relation between the sexes. Nowhere does the extraordinary produce such repulsion and repugnance as in sexual matters. To this prejudice is chiefly due the fact that only within the last generation has it been possible to conduct a scientific and unprejudiced investigation into the sexual relations of the folk of primitive times and among modern savages and uncivilised races.

Those who know what nonsense has been proclaimed to the world by missionaries concerning the intercourse between the sexes in the South Sea Islands, might well surmise that the assumption of the prevalence of “polygamy” in Münster was based upon a confusion of that term with a sort of community of wives similar to that existing among the Adamites – a form of sexual intercourse associated, as we know, with many kinds of communism in the means of consumption. This surmise, however, is untenable, as there never was any talk of a community of wives in Münster.

The edict with which the twelve elders inaugurated their government, imposed the death penalty on adultery and the seduction of a maiden. At about the same time the Münster community must have published their written defence entitled: Bekentones des globens und lebens der gernein Christe zu Monster (Confession of Faith and Life of the Community of Christians at Münster). [56] In the chapter On Marriage (pp.457 sqq.) it says: “In respect of that with which we are charged, and the malevolent lies by which many goodhearted persons are led to suspect that we live in illicit wedlock, together with numerous fabricated and slanderous accusations unnecessary to repeat, we wish herewith to set forth our judgment and usage concerning the holy state of matrimony ..."

“Marriage we say – and we hold by the Scriptures – is a union and an obligation between man and woman in the Lord ...

“God in the beginning created man; ‘male and female created He them,’ and joined the two in holy matrimony, so that the two souls were to be one flesh. For this reason no man may sunder such a union ...

“Marriage is an image of Christ and His holy bride, ie., the congregation of His believers. As Christ and His congregation care for each other and hold to each other, so those who are married in the Lord and joined together by God, should care for and hold to each other. While then it so stands with the married state, we make a distinction between it and the marriage of heathens and disbelievers, which is sinful and unclean, and is not marriage in the sight of God, but only harlotry and adultery ...

“For as is plainly seen, they marry only for the sake of friendship and kinship, or for money and possessions, or for the flesh and adornment. Nay, they seldom or never rightly consider what true marriage is, or how one should be married; much less do they see to it that they are truly married and keep their vows ...

“Since then marriage is a glorious and honourable state, no one should be frivolous respecting it, but enter into it with pure and true heart, so that nothing but God’s honour and will be sought for, as, thanks and praise be to God, is the custom with us, and shall be spread abroad to the glory of God.

“We hear that many other evil things are imputed to us: that we have our women common to all in a platonic way, or after the manner of the Nikolaitans” (Adamites), “together with sundry other vile accusations, as if we made no distinction in matters of blood-relationship. But this is a shameless lie, as are all other abusive and wicked things published with intentional deceit respecting us. [57] We know that Christ said: ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old times, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, bath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Were such a one to be found among us – which God forbid – we should in no wise suffer him, but excommunicate him, and deliver him unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”

We see that the “sensuality” (called “Neronic” by a modern German author) declares even flirting with a maiden to be sinful. The opinions prevalent in Münster are in complete harmony with the austerity in sexual matters which characterised the majority of other Anabaptists. Jan van Leyden ratified these views on January 2, 1535, in his Twenty-eight Articles already mentioned, by providing for the punishment of adultery and harlotry (the latter word implying not only prostitution, but every illicit intercourse between the sexes). Moreover, this was at a period when polygamy had already been introduced.

How, then, is the apparent inconsistency to be accounted for? The usual explanation, based upon the assumed innate sensuality and immoderation of communists, is very convenient, but it has one defect – it has no certain foundation. The explanation rests wholly and solely on the thing to be explained. Everything else contradicts it, for we have seen that abstinence and discretion were conspicuous characteristics of the Anabaptists.

Neither can the solution be found in the character of Baptist communism; on the contrary, it makes the matter more inexplicable. There remains nothing but to seek for the elucidation in the peculiar relations between the sexes in Münster during the siege. Moreover, these relations were of such a strikingly singular kind, that it would have required an incredible degree of obduracy or a great lack of good intention to prevent their being recognised.

We must remember the large emigration from Münster of aristocratic and middle-class citizens. The men went, but they left their women and female servants behind. There was thus an excess of women over men, which, from the figures given by Gresbeclc, must have been enormous. He writes of an evening meal on Mount Sion. “Men, old persons, and youths were there to the number of two thousand. The number of men in Münster capable of bearing arms was never greater than fifteen hundred. The women in the town, old and young, numbered eight or nine thousand, more or less – I cannot be exact about the children who could and could not walk, they were perhaps one thousand or twelve hundred.” [58]

The situation was further complicated by the fact that quite half the men were unmarried; such being the case with the majority of the numerous immigrants, and of course with the soldiers who came as prisoners or deserters, and joined the sect.

In face of the strictness of the Baptist in sexual matters, these conditions must, in the course of the siege, have become insupportable for the majority of the marriageable population, cut off as they were from the outer world. The very strictness which threatened all illicit sexual intercourse with severe punishment, finally made a revolution in the relations between the sexes unavoidable.

The very persons who cannot show enough indignation over the polygamy of Münster look upon prostitution as a self-evident necessity. This vice was of course prevalent under the reign of “respectability.” In the Thirty-six Articles formulated by the Münster insurrectionists in 1525 (compare p.265), the eighteenth required that: “All lewd women and the concubines of the priests shall be distinguished from virtuous women by certain marks.”

These “lascivious debauchees” put an end to prostitution. Prostitution and communism are two reciprocally incompatible conditions. The various forms of communism are compatible with the most diverse kinds of sexual intercourse, but not with one kind – venal love. Where there is no production of commodities for sale, where nothing is bought or sold, the body of woman, like the power to work, ceases to be saleable ware. Incomplete as was the communism of Münster, no maiden of that town was forced to sell herself during the reign of Anabaptism. The wenches who from habit would gladly have obtained the gains of the trade they carried on under the old society, found no buyers in Münster, where no private person possessed money. Such women were forced to seek their pay among their old customers in the camp of the “defenders of morality and order”, i.e., among the soldiers, the reputable burgesses, and the secular and spiritual aristocracy.

The natural working of communism was, in addition, favoured by the sexual austerity of the Baptists. Is it conceivable that prostitution should not have existed among the thousand and more unmarried men and several thousand husbandless women living together for months in a town which, according to modern ideas, was of small size? It was inevitable that adultery and illicit sexual intercourse should make their appearance. The severest penalties must have been powerless to prevent it. There was only one means by which the destructive sexual confusion could be remedied, viz., a new regulation of the condition of marriage. In July, the fifth month of the siege, and after long opposition, the elders and preachers set about the work.

The task was a difficult one, nay almost impossible; for it concerned the making of marriage-laws in harmony both with the austere morality of the Anabaptists in matrimonial matters, and the unique sexual conditions existing in Münster. It was quite in conformity with this difficulty, that the new marriage law did not appear in the form of a unified and completely elaborate statute, but in numerous regulations, partly supplementing and partly abrogating each other. The Anabaptists never got beyond the search for a suitable form of marriage, and indeed could not do so under the abnormal conditions of their existence.

Gresbeck follows their uncertain gropings after a marriage law, but his account is so confused and so full of contradictions and absurdities, that it is difficult to get a clear picture from it. [59] It enables, us however, to distinguish two features of this search. One consists in the effort to make marriage a free union. First of all it was necessary to pronounce all marriages invalid which had been contracted before the adoption of the Anabaptist faith; otherwise a new marriage union would have been impossible for the wives of the burgesses who had emigrated. This decree of invalidity came the more easily from the Anabaptists, since although they declared marriage to be an indissoluble union, they held “heathen” marriage to be no true marriage, just as infant baptism was said to be no true baptism. Hence they now required a renewal of vows on the part of those who had been married before joining them.

The second feature shows itself in the attempt to bring all the women into the married state; at the outset, however, not in a corporeal, but in an economic state.

In order to understand the “polygamy” of Münster, it must be borne in mind that the single household was never abolished. As a result of the emigration of burgesses, it came about that there were many households which contained no man, and indeed some in which there was no mistress, but only maids. In a beleaguered city holding so many unmarried soldiers, this state of things must have entailed numerous disadvantages; hence it was ordered that no woman should be without male protection and also male guardianship. For as the Münster Anabaptists did not do away with the system of single households, they were quite as little advocates of the emancipation of woman as emancipation of the flesh. The third clause of the already quoted edict of the elders, which treats of “the sovereignty of the man and the subjection of the woman,” says, “Husbands love your wives. Let wives be subject to their husbands, as to their lords. And let the wife fear the husband.” [60]

In this connection Rothmann expresses himself very drastically in his Restitution – a pamphlet which appeared in October 1534. [61] “The husband is therefore to accept the sovereignty over his wife with manful feeling, and to keep his marriage undefiled. In most places wives have the mastery, and lead their husbands as bears are led ... It is highly needful that wives, who almost everywhere now wear the breeches, should humble themselves in right and becoming obedience; for it is agreeable to God that every one should keep in his place – the husband under Christ, and the wife under the husband.”

The women who are without masters were now ordered to attach themselves to households in which there were men; not as drudges or servants, but as companions of the wives.

This regulation was not based upon actual conditions – they were not so materialistic in those days – but upon Biblical precedent. There was, however, but one example in Scripture which in any way suited their case, viz., the polygamy of the ancient Jews, more especially of the patriarchs; and they appealed to this with the greater confidence as the patriarchs had undoubtedly been highly pious men, whom God had honoured with personal visits, or with visits from His angels. That which had been done by these prototypes of Christianity could not possibly be sinful. Moreover, the Baptists could rely upon the most prominent evangelical lights of the Church for support to this mode of thinking. On August 27, 1521, Melancthon had advised the King of England to take a second wife in addition to his first, and had declared that “polygamy was not forbidden by Godly law”. [62]

The true character of Münster “polygamy” has been much obscured by its religious dress. It has, moreover, been made no clearer by the pile of odium, slanders, and distortions heaped upon it by antagonistic chroniclers; while the unfair interpolations of partisan accounts have completely concealed almost every trace of the true nature of this regulation. Fortunately, however, the chroniclers were too shortsighted to remove every vestige of the truth. A few statements which they have handed down to us suffice to show that the aim of the Baptists in introducing “polygamy” was the uniting of several women in one household, but not in one marriage-bed; though it is not to be denied that the latter condition was favoured by the former.

It is highly important to point out the fact that every woman was obliged to seek a man; not only those who were suitable for sexual intercourse, but the old and those who had not yet reached the age of puberty. [63]

This is not the only point in support of our views. Another is the following communication by Kerssenbroick, “In the beginning of October the wife of one Butendick was publicly accused by her lord and husband. The cause was that she resisted him, and insulted him with many slanderous and abusive words, saying that he lived with the rest of his women and fellow-sisters not in a spiritual but in a fleshly manner, and often had carnal intercourse with them.” She was found guilty and sentenced to death, but pardoned after having asked forgiveness of her husband (p.80).

Hence a distinction was made between a lawful wife and the sisters of the community living with her. Not all female members of a household were the lawful wives of the head of the house, although they were designated as his wives.

Meanwhile, it is presumable that, with the prevalence of such intimate life in common, the same state of things arose which is not absent elsewhere, viz., that the husband sometimes remained unsatisfied with his lawful wife alone, which was the reproach brought against Butendick by his wife. This was made more probable by the austerity of the Baptists, which, under certain circumstances, prohibited sexual intercourse even between husband and wife, e.g., when she was barren or pregnant, on the ground that sexual intercourse was not to serve for the gratification of sinful lust, but solely for the perpetuation of the human race. [64] Hence, in certain cases, a man was allowed to make natural wives of those women who had been commended to his protection, in addition to his first wife. Thus Rothmann says in his Restitution, “If a man should be so richly blessed of God as to impregnate one wife and, in consequence of God’s commands, should not wish to abuse such a blessing, then, on necessity, he shall be free to take to himself several fertile wives; for to know a woman out of wedlock is adultery and harlotry.”

It is, however, always possible to distinguish clearly between this sexual polygamy and that which was of an economic character. In the former the man chose the women; in the latter the women chose the man whom they wished to acknowledge as their protector and master. The former kind was, under certain conditions, allowed; and, in the state of things described, impossible wholly to prevent. The lawgivers of Münster contented themselves with the effort to keep it in the paths of regulated marriage. The polygamy, on the contrary, which was for a long time prescribed by law, was economic; that is, the union of several women under the protection and guardianship of one man. The Münster marriage-law imposed on women the obligations of the latter kind of polygamy, but not those of the former. Moreover, this compulsion soon ceased, as is proved by the Twenty-eight Articles promulgated by Jan van Leyden. We will give those which treat of marriage, as they are highly characteristic of the spirit of the Münster marriage law:–

“24. No one shall be forced to marry; since marriage is a voluntary compact, entered into more from a natural instinct and the bonds of love than through mere words and outward ceremonies.

“25. If, however, any one is afflicted with epilepsy, venereal disease, or other complaints, he shall not marry unless he previously makes known his malady to the person whom he wishes to marry.

“26. No one who is not a virgin shall give herself out to be such, and deceive and entrap her fellow-brothers. Moreover, such deceit shall be severely punished.

“27. Every unmarried woman, or those who have not their regular husbands, shall be authorised to choose a guardian or protector from the congregation of Christ.”

The final clause contains a prophecy, “The voice of the living God has instructed me that this is a command of the All Highest: The men shall demand a confession of faith, as well from their legal wives as from those whom they are charged to guard and protect; not that which is commonly recited – ‘I believe in God the Father,’ but a confession of faith of the marriage-union in the New Kingdom – why and to what purpose they were baptised. They shall show and disclose all this to their husbands.” (ii, pp.138, 139).

This is the last form of the marriage-law among the Münster Anabaptists. It completely agrees with the sober and rational simplicity which we have learnt was their distinguishing characteristic; and the most dexterous and unscrupulous annihilator of socialism will find it a hard task to produce therefrom a trace of unbridled licentiousness.

These Articles of January 2nd contain an important amelioration of the marriage-law introduced on July 23rd of the previous year. By the latter, every woman had the obligation imposed on her of seeking a protector and master, whose household she was compelled to join. This regulation seems to have had manifold disadvantageous consequences, as it was abrogated in the autumn of the same year, and those women who wished to do so were allowed to leave the “lords” to whom they had attached themselves. From the obligation resting upon women there grew up a right which they were free to exercise.

Whatever mental picture one may make of this “polygamy,” it should in no case be that of an Oriental harem. The latter implies the complete enslavement of the woman. There was no question of such a thing in Münster; indeed, it was the women who had free choice of their husbands, protectors, and guardians. How little they were oppressed by the new regulations may be seen from the circumstance that the majority of them were numbered among the most enthusiastic combatants for the New Kingdom.

Some, of course, were discontented. Not every one had remained in the town through conviction; and the new marriage law, which engendered such an abnormal state of things, was in too sharp contradiction to deeply-rooted sentiments. Moreover, the new regulation could not set aside existing complications without now and then creating fresh ones. Nevertheless, we very rarely hear of any resistance on the part of the women [65], while we very often hear of the enthusiasm with which they embraced the new order of things.

An example of this is afforded by the Mollenheck insurrection. This is represented as an uprising of the moral portion of the citizens against polygamy. “Though the complete community of wives was not introduced,” says Bezold, “the command of the prophets, that no woman should be without a husband, led to the institution of a kind of polygamy which was not much better. The feelings of the native-born Brothers revolted against these horrors; but their attempt at insurrection was frustrated in blood, and the distribution (!) of the women (who formed by far the larger part of the population) among the male minority – the ‘lords’ – was proceeded with” (Geschichte der deutschen Reformation, p.710).

What are the facts? Mollenheck, a former guild president, “gathered round him a part of the burgesses, pious inhabitants and soldiers,” not merely to do away with the new marriage law, but “that every one might receive back his property, the Burgomasters and Council be reinstated in their control of the town, and things in general be as they were previously” (Gresbeck, p.73). The deserters from the besieging army were in the vanguard of this movement, which, ostensibly in defence of chastity, was in reality a counter-revolution. Success attended the first efforts of the insurrectionists, who even went so far as to make prisoners of Jan van Leyden and Knipperdollinck. Gresbeck further says that if they had immediately opened one of the gates, the Bishop’s forces would have obtained possession of the city; but the revolutionists were thinking of plunder only. “They were more anxious to get hold of booty than to capture a gate. They had their sleeves full of money, and sat the whole night drinking wine until they were drunk. This was the cause of their defeat by the Frieslanders and Dutchmen.”

The saddest feature of the overthrow of this counterrevolution is the circumstance that while the soldiers ventured their lives for “chastity and morality” in drunkenness and pillage, those whose cause they were espousing – the “down-trodden women” – fought most resolutely against them in defence of “rape and incest.” When the rebels barricaded themselves in the town-hall, it was women who brought heavy guns to the market to blow in the doors.

Kerssenbroick and Gresbeck give numerous proofs of the enthusiasm and joyfulness with which women fought on the walls when an assault had to be repulsed. Moreover, they were ready to take part in the sorties. On one occasion Jan van Leyden made preparations for a sortie in force to assist the relieving army which he expected from the Netherlands, and called for volunteers for the hopeless undertaking from the women as well as the men. “The next day those women who wished to take part in the sortie assembled in good order three hundred strong in the Cathedral yard armed with various weapons, one having a halberd, another a pike, and so forth. As the king did not wish to take all, he had them mustered and selected fifty-one, a written list being made of their names.”

“The next day all women who wished to remain in the town, were ordered to assemble in the Cathedral yard. These also came with their weapons, and marched about in good order, like soldiers.” After being divided into as many sections as there are gates to the town, each section, together with a body of men, was detailed to guard a gate. They thereupon marched off singing the Marseillaise of the German Reformation, the Psalm: Eine fest Burg ist unser Gott (A tower of strength is our God) (p.128).

This was the way in which the women of Münster defended themselves against the “infamies” heaped upon them.

Enough has been said respecting the “woman question” in Münster. There is still much to clear up, many lacunae still to be filled; but what has been given is, we think, sufficient to make the new regulation of sexual matters in Münster quite comprehensible, and to show that in spite of its imperfection, its simplicity, and even its crudity, it had much that was in sympathy with modern sentiment. The defenders of the society of to-day have least cause of any to grow irate over the “shameless licentiousness” of the Münster Anabaptists; those defenders of a society which has for one of its supports the most shameless and debauching form of sexual intercourse, viz., the taking advantage of the poverty and ignorance of young girls, for the noble purpose of debasing them to passive instruments for the gratification of men, and to a condition in which they are helplessly abandoned to every form of lust. But for this high-minded regulation, where would be the prosperity of a great number of our industries, and where the virtue and modesty of our middle-class maidens?

The picture by middle-class historians of the sexual licentiousness of Münster is in reality a picture of the present time. It is a true portrayal of what takes place day by day in every modern civilised town; and the last exhibition of wisdom in our society is-the regulation of these “Saturnalia” by law!




41. Schlaraffia Politica, Geschichte der Dichtungen vom Besten Staat, Leipzig 1892.

42. The Protestant Hase endeavours to free Dorpius from the reproaches of Cornelius, but, in our opinion, unsuccessfully. (Heilige and Propheten, Leipzig 1892, Vol.ii, p.291, sqq.) In other respects, Hase’s account and the often quoted work by Keller are relatively the best which have appeared from the middle-class side. The classical work by Cornelius on the Münster rebellion was unfortunately not completed, but breaks off just at the capture of the town by the Baptists.

43. Summarische ertzelungk und bericht der Wiederdote und wat sich binnen der stat Münster in Westphalen zugetragen in jahr, MDXXXX. Cornelius was the first to recognise the importance of this work, which is preserved in several hand copies. He reproduced it in the already quoted Berichte der Augenzeugen über das Münsterische Wiedertäuferreich, of which it forms the most prominent part.

44. In a letter written by him during the siege he admits that his master’s mother warned him against going to Minster, telling him that he would assuredly allow himself to be baptized (Berichte der Augenzeugen, p.323)

45. Janssen, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes, iii. p.30.

46. In a pamphlet issued to the besieging mercenaries they proclaim “Hear ye, young men and elders, who have encamped yourselves against our city, as we wish not only to live in peace with every one, but also to prove by our acts our brotherly love in Christ for all men, ye must take heed how ye shall answer before pious persons – not to speak of God – for having laid violent siege to us and murdered us, against all written and signed treaties of peace, and without proper declaration, of war.” The whole pamphlet is reproduced by Kerssenbroick, ii. p.9.

47. We have found no authentic evidence of the horrible story related by Kerssenbroick, that Jan van Leyden beheaded one of his wives; those remaining afterwards dancing round the corpse. It probably belonged to the same category as the “Fiery Baptism” spoken of by Jan Mathys.

48. According to Kerssenbroick, of course, the whole Anabaptist government was arbitrarily framed by Jan, merely that he might become its ruler. “Jan Bockelson, of Leyden, had long striven for such things. For that reason he also repudiated and contemned all authority, and, to the same end, ordered that all citizens should share possessions in common, at the same time seizing them for himself,” &c. (ii. p.47).

49. Thus out of the simple fact that provisions were short in the beleaguered town, our objective historian contrives to twist a halter for the Anabaptist leaders.

50. A Moravian Baptist states: “Concerning the making of clothes, we ought to and will serve our neighbour with all zeal in his necessity, to the praise of God and to the end that our diligence may be known; but that which conduces to pride and arrogance only, such as sloped, bordered, and fringed work, we will make for no one, in order that our consciences may be kept undefiled” (Loserth, Der Kommunisinus der Mährischen Wiedtäufer, p.126).

51. Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, p.237.

52. He writes on May 29th that the town still had 200 cows.

53. Berichte der Augenzeugen, p.354.

54. This passage alone confutes the dreadful story before alluded to, of the beheading of one of his wives by the king. If he assembled them to their full number, and gave them permission to leave, he could not previously have murdered one of them.

55. Lamprecht, Deutsche Geschichte, vol.i. p.356. Lamprecht contrives to delineate the “grotesquely abominable conditions” in Münster without in the least connecting them with the state of siege, this being afterwards mentioned in two lines as an insignificant trifle, having no effect on the internal life of the town.

56. Reproduced in Berichte der Augenzeugen, pp.445-464, Concerning the probable date of this document, compare V.W. Bouterwek Zur Literatur und Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, Bonn, 1864, p.37.

57. Master Gresbeck found it necessary to spread these miserable lies (p.80); it did not trouble the worthy gentleman that he thereby contradicted his other deductions regarding the married state in Münster. They seemed suitable for compromising his opponents, and that was his chief purpose.

58. p.107. The Baptist Werner Scheiffurth von Merode, who was made prisoner in a sortie, gave a smaller number in his judicial examination on December 11, 1534: “The men, women, and children in the town number approximately between eight thousand and nine thousand, of whom about fourteen hundred are able to bear arms” (Berichte der Augenzeugen). This number of men available for the defence nearly agrees with that named by Gresbeck, and the estimate of the total adult male population is probably correct, as he gives it with great preciseness. They had evidently been counted. If to this we add one thousand children, the number of marriageable women must still have been from five thousand to six thousand, and therefore twice or thrice as great as the number of men.

59. Kerssenbroick’s account is absolutely idiotic. He relates that a soldier had surprised Jan van Leyden as the latter was creeping to one of Knipperdollinck’s maids. To save himself from falling into bad odour, Jan thereupon persuaded Rothmann and the other preachers (“who were not less given over to lasciviousness and lewdness”), to introduce simply – polygamy!

60. Kerssenbroick, ii. p.1.

61. Eyne Restitution edder Eine wedderstellinge rechter vnde gesunde Christliker leer, gelauens vnde levens vth Gades genaden durch de gemeynte Christi tho Münster, an der Dach gegeven ..., Münster, 1534. A long extract from this work, with many quotations, is given by Bouterwek in his Literatur and Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, pp.15-34.

62. Even after the introduction of polygamy into Münster had caused such scandal, and been everywhere condemned, Luther and Melancthon declared to Landgrave Philip of Hesse that: “What the Mosaic law permitted is not forbidden in the Gospel.” He might, therefore, be tranquil with regard to polygamy. (See also numerous similar quotations by Keller, Die Reformation, p.454 sqq.) It was, therefore, not polygamy itself which so enraged pious persons against the Baptist, but their impertinence in transforming it from a privilege of rulers to a common right.

63. Gresbeck is of the opinion that the last measure had for its aim the forcing of young maidens into sexual intercourse. It is not impossible that some heads of households (perhaps rough soldiers) abused their position. Even Kerssenbroick said no more than this. Similar things may happen elsewhere. That, however, the aim of the regulation was the ravishing of young children, we must have more than a Gresbeck to make us believe; for however valuable many of his statements are when they deal with facts, he can only adduce odious and unsupported gossip respecting the motives and aims of the Baptists. We hold that those eminent gentlemen who levy maiden-tribute in our modern Babylons are incapable of demanding the enforcement of this brutality by law.

64. Rothmann says in his Restitution: “That a man neither should nor ought to know a woman who is pregnant or barren can be proved, in the first place, by the fact that God commanded mankind to increase and multiply; and for that end alone should husband and wife employ the blessing of God, and not for lust.”

65. How well some historians contrive to exaggerate this resistance may be seen from the following example. Keller writes in his Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, p.211: “It is certain that many women, married and unmarried, showed the greatest repugnance to the new regulation. It is related that one of them chose a voluntary death to escape from the infamy to which it was proposed to subject her.” What is actually related? Gresbeck writes: “On one occasion a woman was found lying in the water, drowned and floating on the surface of the water in her clothes. The common people did not know how she came to that pass; whether the prophets and preachers had caused her to be drowned, or if she had done so of her own will. The people of the town were of the opinion that she had drowned herself, because she was grieved by the marriage regulations. I am not able to write more concerning the true cause of her misfortune” (pp.64, 65).

Hence it was “related” simply that a drowned woman was found in Münster. Whether it was a case of crime or suicide (or a mere accident, in regard to which possibility Gresbeck is strangely silent), is totally unknown. From this, forsooth, a tale of murder is concocted; and this single story of murder serves as proof that many women “showed the greatest repugnance to the new regulations”!


Last updated on 23.12.2003