”On February 8, 1534, Anabaptists in Münster started to arm themselves as a result of threatening confrontations with both Lutherans and Catholics. On the 23rd of February, 1534, two things happened which were to drastically shape the future of Münster. Bishop Franz vonWaldeck began a siege of the city in hopes of regaining power. At the same time, a new city council was elected. This new city council included many men who had concealed their rebaptism from the public, and was overwhelmingly Anabaptist. The new council was also composed of men a lower social status than the previous council. …In response to the siege, in late February and early March the city council expelled all citizens who refused rebaptism. This was the political environment when Jan Matthijs became the leading spokesman for Anabaptism in Münster.”
Besieged in their ” holy city” of Munster, and surrounded by a moat, the Anabaptists fought the mounting forces of much of the old Holy Roman Empire for sixteen months in 1534-35. When the walled bastion of the revolutionaries fell, their prophet Jan of Leyden was caught, tortured to death, and strung up in a cage hanging from the tower of St. Lambert’s Church.
That the old social order was corrupt was undeniable. In 1490, according to historian Henri Pirenne, there were approximately 6800 courtesans in the Holy City. The pope and his cardinals ”consorted publicly with their mistresses, acknowledged their bastards,” and paid for their lifestyle and upkeep with money taken from the Church funds contributed by the faithful. The conduct of the clergy outside Rome was not much better, as men like Thomas More repeatedly pointed out.
But the state of the Church alone does not account for the turmoil that convulsed the sixteenth century. As the century began, an old way of life was passing in the northwest of Europe. It was the death of the old static, agrarian, traditional culture and the birth of a new, urban, commercial, capitalist, and proto-industrial which has died down, in an unbroken line since then, to our own.
Lewis Mumford termed the dawn of the age of technology in the sixteenth century the ”eotechnic age”. Vast technological improvements were either invented or put into widespread operation in that century. These included the blast furnace, artillery,the printing press, the power loom, the domestic clock, and cheap paper for books. The initial effect of these devices was not simply to improve life but to contort it; the new inventions spurred the growth of factories and created a new, rootless industrial proletariat siphoned off from the once stable peasant communities from the countryside.
The capitalism of sixteenth century Europe was naked, entrepreneurial capitalism, unchecked by social conscience or the intervention of governments, which in any case, were too weak to govern these burgeoning new industries. And as capitalism grew and the old order died, the whole peasant world was shaken. Inflation, over population, and repeated basd harvests and plagues reduced the peasants of Germany and The Netherlands to a misery they had rarely known.
In such circumstances the old tradition of the last days revived. People began to see in their afflictions the realization of the Biblical ”Apocalypse”. The reign of Antichrist to be succeeded by a perfect peace on earth wherein men and women would dwell in harmony with one another. Thus the people who followed Jan of Leyden in his brutal effort to take the millennium by frontal ast were not comfortable burghers, artisans and peasants secure in their place in society.
They were not men tightly integrated into the old system of city guilds and manorial farms. They were landless peasants, or peasants with small patches of land of land; they were beggars and unskilled workmen, on the fringes of society. They were the abandoned, the desperate and the afraid. In short, the raw material of which every fanatic movement of modern times has been made. The Anabaptists revolution in Munster was striking in its modernities of class warfare, thought control, communal farms, an elite military corps, and a proto-Gestapo.
Dangerous social unrest in Germany dated back to the early years of the century. The early sporadic peasant uprisings against the feudal lords had been largely conservative in character. Even the Great Peasants War of 1524-25 which aroused Luther’s fury and in which one hundred thousand died, impresses us today with the reasonableness of its demands. But when the peasant uprising was crushed, the vision of God’s kingdom on earth went underground, ready to burst forth with greater violence once again.
Anabaptism began, at about this time, as a purely religious movement in opposition to conservative Lutheranism. Its name means, in Greek, ”to baptize again”, and its basic doctrine was that infant baptism did not suffice to make a man a Christian. As Anabaptism developed, however, it was transformed into a genuine revolutionary movement of the poor and disinherited who broke with Lutheranism because they saw in it a bulwark of the authority of the princes.
Caring little for theological speculation, the followers of Anabaptism read their Bibles literally and with total commitment, and riveted their attention on the social doctrines of the Gospels; to the poor belonged the earth and eternal life. Private property was at best a hindrance to salvation, and the extremists among the Anabaptists believed that communal ownership was God’s order of the world.
The princes hunted down the Anabaptists by the thousands, but in doing so, only intensified the Anabaptists’ fanatical belief in the imminent coming of the Earthly Kingdom. Like revolutionaries, before and since, the Anabaptists were divided into pacifist and militant wings, and from the princes’ point of view, the worst feature of the persecutions was that they tended to kill off the peaceful Anabaptists and drive the movement more and more into the hands of those who wanted to take the Earthly Kingdom by blood and fire.
Munster in the sixteenth-century was that anomaly of the jerry-built Holy Roman Empire , a petty ecclesiastical state ruled by a bishop who was at the same time a prince. In the state of Munster the privileged clergy was everything, and there were many of them; the tiny prince-bishopric boasted four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, and a cathedral, each with its vast bureaucracy. Throughout the principality, monks carried on a thriving commerce outside the jurisdiction of the guild.
Virtually all the clergy were exempt from taxation. Thus the real public burden was carried by a struggling merchant middle class, by artisans who bitterly resented the competition of the monks; who they charged, supported no families, paid no taxes, and did no military service. Add to this the Munster proletariat, who had three times times between 1498 and 1522 been forced to contribute a sizable donation to the Roman Curia when a new Bishop was elected. By 1534, to make matters worse, the prince-bishop was not even a true priest but a secular lord who had not taken the trouble to be ordained.
On Philipp I of Hesse:”Philipp far surpassed his contemporaries and also the reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon; he represented a new era, they were still in the clutches of the Middle Ages. He maintained this position even during his imprisonment by Charles V after the unfortunate outcome of the Schmalkaldian War. In his opinion to Johann Friedrich the Middle of Saxony, on 7 March 1559, he says, “It is so, many Anabaptists have an unchristian evil sect, as was shown at Münster and elsewhere; but they are not alike. Some are simple, pious folk; they should be dealt with in moderation. Anabaptists who deal with the sword may rightly also be punished with the sword. But those who err in faith should be dealt with leniently, and shall be instructed in accord with the principle of love to one’s neighbor, and no effort shall be spared, also they shall be heard, and if they will not accept the truth and scatter error like a harmful seed among Christians, they shall be expelled and their preaching abolished. But to punish them with death, as happens in some countries, when they have done nothing more than err in faith and have not acted seditiously, cannot be reconciled with the Gospel. Other Christian teachers like Augustine and Chrysostom also violently opposed it.’ ”