MEPHIST. Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?
FAUSTUS. I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,
To do whatever Faustus shall command,
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.
MEPHIST. I am a servant to great Lucifer,
And may not follow thee without his leave:
No more than he commands must we perform.
FAUSTUS. Did not he charge thee to appear to me?
MEPHIST. No, I came hither of mine own accord.
FAUSTUS. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.
MEPHIST. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;
For, when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the prince of hell. ( Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus )
”The “New Jerusalem” (Münster), the founding of which was signalized by a reign of terror and indescribable orgies. Treasures of literature and art were destroyed; communism, polygamy, and community of women were introduced.”
The end of the messianic kingdom of the Anabaptists in Munster was not pretty. Jan of Leyden proclaimed himself king of all the world. He himself took fifteen wives and set up court and legislated a social order that grew increasingly bizarre. At the same time he did not entirely neglect the war. By summer two hundred of the prince-bishop’s mercenaries had gone over to the Anabaptists. In an attack on the walls at the end of August, 1534, the bishop’s forces were repulsed, and disintegrated. For the moment it seemed that Munster was reprieved.
We are ages away today, when magic, wizardry, mumbling of spells and incantations held minds captive and populated the world with invisible unknown phantoms and forces. The type of charlatan that Jan of Leyden was,is typical of periods of great social change; in this case the Renaissance and the Protestant reformation of Martin Luther. Leyden, like a Faustus knew only too well that it was the words of a spell, the right words, that had the power to conjure the demon.
Enter FAUSTUS to conjure.
FAUSTUS. Now that the gloomy shadow of the earth,
Longing to view Orion’s drizzling look,
Leaps from th’ antartic world unto the sky,
And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath,
Faustus, begin thine incantations,
And try if devils will obey thy hest,
Seeing thou hast pray’d and sacrific’d to them.
Within this circle is Jehovah’s name,
Forward and backward anagrammatiz’d,
Th’ abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and erring stars,
By which the spirits are enforc’d to rise:
Then fear not, Faustus, but be resolute,
And try the uttermost magic can perform…. ( Christopher Marlowe )
To argue against Leyden was to tremble in real horror that a very real devil, the right words having been spoken, might indeed present himself. Whatever eloquence Leyden possessed, he seemed to have a way with words, or certain combinations of them that retained an inexplicable power to produce behavior and effects that bypass the circuits and effects of ordinary reason; where language suspended its normal chain of cause and effect and transcended the laws of ordinary comprehension.
The town grew more and more debauched. The defenses were neglected, and the prince-bishop returned to the attack. The town was doomed when, in April 1535, at an Imperial Diet at Worms all the states of the Holy Roman Empire voted to contribute money and forces to the siege. Munster was completely isolated from aid by an elaborate ring of trenches and blockhouses and by a double line of infantry and cavalry, so that even the expected Anabaptist relief forces from Holland and North Germany could not hope to break through. As the people of Munster starved, the king ordered dances in the market square. He first promised military deliverance by foreign allies, and when that was seen to be futile, he promised a divine salvation. God the Father, he proclaimed, would change the cobblestones to bread. Men wept when the cobblestones remained stone. By late spring every animal in the town had been killed an eaten. Men gnawed at pieces of leather, and at ”the bodies of the dead”.
Leyden was like the lead in the play, ”The man Who Came to Dinner” by Moss Hart a
eorge Kaufman; a kind of outsider celebrity who attends a normal family’s home for dinner, due to his charismatic aura and good looks. But he slips outside, injures himself, and moves in to recover for endless weeks, infinitely, during which he commandeers the services of the entire household, utterly disrupts their normal routines and, above all, is totally oblivious to his impact. He is magnificently absorbed by his own needs, comforts and security.
…Soon the only relief from horror was sexual. Having abolished monogamy and proclaimed plural marriage early in his divine reign, Jan presided over a protracted orgy. All notions of family broke down. men and women coupled freely, joining and parting each day, not caring any longer even for the forms of authorized communal marriage. Even that, it seemed to the populace, presupposed permanence in a world of terrifying impermanency . In this too, the king was an example to his people; he could not sin, he proclaimed, because he was ”wholly dead to the world.”
” At last in May 1535, when most of the inhabitants had tasted no bread for eight weeks, ” writes Norman Cohn, ” the king agreed that those who wished to should leave the town. Even then he cursed the fugitives, promising them that the reward of their infidelity would be everlasting damnation. Their earthly fate was indeed fearful enough. the able bodied men were at once put to the sword; as for the women and the old men and children, the bishop feared, not unreasonably, that if they passed through his lines they would stir up trouble in the rear and accordingly refused to allow them past the blockhouses. These people therefore lingered on for five long weeks in the no-man’s land before the town walls, begging the mercenaries to kill them, crawling about and eating grass like animals and dying in such numbers that the ground was littered with corpses.”
Within the city the Anabaptists watched from the walls and jeered, acting out the belief so dear to medieval man that the greatest delight of the saved in Paradise was watching the sufferings of the damned in Hell. In the end it was the king’s brutality in driving the misbelievers from the city that destroyed him. On the night of June 24, 1535, one of the starving expellees crawling about between the siege works and the town walls offered to show the prince-bishop’s troops a secret entry into the city. An assault breached the town’s defenses. By morning the town had fallen . About three hundred Anabaptist troops surrendered on promise of their lives only to be slaughtered almost to a man.
Leyden reflected all the religious authority of his time and was a symptom about a state of mind and the relationship between the governors and the governed. Part of an overriding mass failure of empathy. The existing religious terror and Leyden’s use of the same means, just added to the existing stock of excuses to get even more disconnected and disenfranchised. Lots of redemption, heaven and the devil and precious little with mundane realities which was the cause of the crisis of ecclesiastical legitimacy. Leyden was simply offering similar utopian promises of beauty, joy, pride and a sense of the ”we” in human life. Our present dilemmas of evil is like the ending in ”The Man Who Came to Dinner”; the man finally leaves, but outside injures himself again and is brought back inside and we are left wondering who is really stranded here, what, when, where and why, that raise to the fore between bouts of fright, mesmerization and anger.