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Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

The Pursuit of the Millennium

by Norman Cohn


Thomas Müntzer was born in Stolberg in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. He was born not – as has often been stated – to poverty but to modest comfort; and his father ws not hanged by a feudal tyrant but died in bed in the fulness of years. When he first comes clearly into view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an 'eternal student', extraordinarily learned and immensely intellectual. After becoming a university graduate and then a priest he led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, immersed himself also in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he never was a pure scholar; and his voracious reading was carried out in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer at that time was a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty – in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also – if only incidentally and transitorily - as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1517 he nailed the famous theses against the sale of indulgences on to the church door at Wittenberg, in 1519 he questioned in public disputation the supremacy of the Pope, in 1520 he published – and was excommunicated for publishing – the three treatises which launched the German Reformation. Although it was to be many years before there appeared Evangelical churches organized on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognizable Lutheran party; and many of the clergy joined it, even while the majority clung firmly to 'the old religion'. It was as a follower of Luther that Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; and all the deeds that have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; and it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not indeed to be found in Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Niklas Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, Strorch himself had been in Bohemia and it was essentially the old Taborite doctrines that were revived in Storch's teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; and the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then – and it would be very soon – the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless, so that the Second Coming could take place and the Millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this program was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, he now thought and talked only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents in the Old tEstament as Elijah's slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu's slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael's assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving.

By force of Arms the elect must prepare the way for the Millennium; but who were the Elect? In Müntzer's view they were those who had received the Holy Spirit or, as he usually called it, 'the living Christ'. In his writings, as in those of the Spiritual Libertines, the 'living' or 'inner' or 'spiritual' Christ who is imagined as being born in the individual soul; and it is the latter who possesses redemptive power. Yet in one respect the historical Christ retains great significance: by submitting to crucifixion he had pointed the way to salvation. For he who would be saved must indeed suffer most direly, he must indeed be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and ot created beings. First he must voluntarily subject himself to an ascetic preparation and then, when he has become fit and worthy to receive them, God will impose further and unutterable sufferings upon him. These last afflictions, which Müntzer calls 'the Cross', may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience – but above all they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world, weariness with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. Only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. This was of course traditional doctrine, such as had been held by many Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages; but when Müntzer comes to speak of the outcome he follows another and less orthodox tradition. For according to him when once 'the living Christ' enters into the soul it is for evermore; and the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit – Müntzer even speaks of his 'becoming God'. Endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission; and that is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself. It was not for nothing that this propheta had been born within a few miles of Nordhausen, the centre of that underground movement in which the doctrine of the Free Spirit blended with that of the flagellants. The scourge might be cast away – the underlying fantasy was still the same.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded amongst Luther's followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. Since the middle of the preceding century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau and had turned the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden...A few months after he arrived in Zwickau Müntzer became a preacher...and he used the pulpit to utter fierce denunciations not only of the local Franciscans, who were generally unpopular, but also of the preacher – a friend of Luther's – who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

In April 1521, the Town Council intervened and dismissed the turbulent newcomer; whereupon a large number of the populace, under Storch's leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down and many arrests were made... As for Müntzer, he betook himself to Bohemia, apparently in the hope that even at that late date he would find some Taborite groups there... His own role he now defined in terms of that same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants' Revolt: 'Havest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed with the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair, soul, body, life curse the unbeliever.'

Müntzer's appeal to the Bohemians was, naturally enough, a failure; and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by a now unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. . .His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a cure at the small Thuringian town of Allstedt... Peasants from the surrounding countryside...came regularly to hear him. Together with the artisans of Allstedt these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organization, the 'League of the Elect'. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated people, was Müntzer's answer to the university, which had always been the centre of Luther's influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Allsted was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium.

Before long Müntzer became involved in conflicts with the civil authority; so that the two princes of Saxony – the Elector Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John – began to observe his doings with a mixture of curiosity and alarm. In July 1524, Duke John, who had himself abandoned the traditional Catholic faith and become a follower of Luther, came to Allstedt and, by way of finding out what kind of man Müntzer was, ordered him to preach him a sermon. Müntzer did so, taking his text from that fountain-head of the apocalyptic tradition, the Book of Daniel; and the sermon, which he very soon had printed, gives the clearest possible conspectus of his eschatological beliefs. The last of the world-empires is approaching it end; now the world is nothing but the Devil's empire, where those serpents, the clergy, and those eels, the secular rulers and lords, pollute one another in a squirming heap. It is high time indeed that the Saxon princes choose whether to be servants of God or of the Devil. If it is to be the former their duty is clear:

Drive Christ's enemies out from amongst the Elect, for you are the instruments for that purpose. Dearly beloved brethren, don't put up any shallow pretence that God's might will do it without your laying on with the sword, otherwise your sword might rust in its scabbard. . . . Christ is your master. So don't let them live any longer, the evildoers who turn us away from God. For a godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly.

Priests, monks and godless rulers must all perish; and the preacher insists:

The sword is necessary to exterminate them. And so that it shall be done honestly and properly, our dear fathers the princes must do it, who confess Christ with us. But if they don't do it, the sword shall be taken from them. . .If they resist, let them be slaughtered without mercy. . . .At the harvest-time one must pluck the weeds out of God's vineyard. . . But the angels who are sharpening their sickles for that work are no other than the earnest servants of God. . .For the ungodly have no right to live, save what the Elect choose to allow them. . .

Müntzer however admits that the princes cannot carry out these tasks effectively unless they are informed of God's purposes; and that they cannot attain for themselves, since they are still too far from God. Therefore, he concludes, they must have at their court a priest who by self-abnegation and self-mortification has fitted himself to interpret their dreams and visions, just as Daniel di dat the court of Nebuchadnezzar. And the Biblical allusions which accompany this recommendation show clearly enough that he saw himself as the inspired prophet who was to replace Luther in the favour of the princes, as Daniel replaced the unillumined scribes. In this way, he reckoned to acquire such influence over the rulers of the land that he would be able to direct them in making the necessary preparations for the Millennium. . .

As for Müntzer himself, when he writes of the Law of God he certainly seems to equate it with that original and absolute Natural Law which was supposed to have known no distinctions of property or status. . .According to [Histori Thoma Müntzers], Müntzer, at least in the last months of his life, taught that there should be neither kings nor lords and also, on the strength of a misunderstanding of Acts iv, that all things should be held in common.. . .For what he confessed was that the basic principle of his league was that ll things are common to all men; that its aim was a state of affairs in which all would be equal and each would receive according to his need; and that it was prepared to execute any prince or lord who stood in the way of its plans. In this programme there is after all nothing which the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine drew up for his imaginary Brotherhood of the Yellow Cross.

Whe Müntzer delivered his sermon before Duke John he clearly hoped that the princes of Saxony coulc be won over to the cause; and when, a few days later, followers of his were expelled by their lords. . .and came as refuges to Allstedt, he called on the princes ot avenge them. But the princes made no move and this transformed his attitude. In the alst week of July he preached a sermon in which he proclaimed that the time was at hand when all tyrants would be overthrown and the messianic Kingdom would begin. This in itself would no doubt have sufficed to alarm the princes; but in any case Luther now wrote his Letter to the Princes of Saxony, pointing out how dangerous Müntzer was becoming. . .

Müntzer had reached the point which had been reached by earlier prophetae during the English Peasants' Revolt and the Hussite Revolution. For him too it was now the poor who wre potentially the Elect, charged with the mission of inaugurating the eqalitarian Millennium. Free from the temptations of Avaritia and Luxuria, the poor had at least a change of reaching that indifference to the goods of this world which would qualify them to receive the apocalyptic message. It was therefore the poor who, while the rich and mighty were being cut down like weeds in the last great harvest, would emerge as the one true church: 'Then must what is great yield to what is small. Ah, if the poor downtrodden peasants knew that, it would be a great help to them.' And nevertheless – Müntzer insisted – so far not even the poor were fit to enter into their appointed glory. First they too must be broken of such worldly and frivolous pastimes as they had, so that they should with sighs and prayers recognize their abject condition and at the same time their need for a new, God-sent leader. 'If the holy church is to be renewed through the bitter truth, a servant of God must stand forth in the spirit of Elijah. . .and set things in motion. In truth, many of them will have to be roused, so that with the greatest possible zeal and with passionate earnestness they may sweep Christendom clean of ungodly rulers.' Just as Müntzer had previously offered his services to the princes as the new Daniel, so he now proposed himself for the office of divinely inspired leader of the people.

The explicit unmasking was followed at no great interval by another and more virulent pamphlet, directed specifically against Luther and accordingly entitled The most amply called-for defence and answer to the unspiritual soft-living flesh at Wittenberg. It was with good cause that Luther and Müntzer had by this time come to regard one another as deadly enemies. Just as much as Müntzer, Luther performed all his deeds in the conviction that the Last Days were at hand. But in his view the sole enemy was the Papacy, in which he saw Antichrist, the false propet; and it was by the dissemination of the true Gospel that the Papacy would be overcome. When that task had been accomplished Christ would return to pass sentence of eternal damnation upon the pope and his followers and to found a Kingdom – but a Kingdom which would not be of this world. In the context of such an eschatology armed revolt was bound to seem irrelevant, because bodily death inflicted by men was as nothing in comparison with the sentence of damnation imposed by God. And armed revolt was also bound to seem pernicious, partly because it would shatter the social order which allowed the Word to be disseminated and still more because it would discredit the Reformation which to Luther was incomparably the most important thing in the world. It was therefore to be expected that Luther would do his utmost to counteract Müntzer's influence. . .

Chapter 13
The Egalitarian Millennium (iii)


The Lutheran Reformation was accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect inevitable. As against the authority of the Church of Rome the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men took to reading the Bible for themselves they began to interpret it for themselves; and their interpretation did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther's influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God and an indispensable spiritual guide. But once the layman began to feel that he himself stood face to face with God and to rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy...

The [Anabaptist] movement spread from Switzerland into Germany in the years following the Peasants' War. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly the majority had no idea of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from peasants and artisans; and after the Peasants' War the authorities were desperately afraid of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed. This persecution in the end created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order – they interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those 'messianic woes' which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed by imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movement of earlier centuries. The bulk of the Anabaptist movement continued the tradition of peaceful and austere dissent which in earlier centuries had been represented by the Waldensians. But alongside it there was growing up an Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut - a former follower and disciple of Muntzer's and like him a native of Thuringia. This man claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. The Saints would hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teachings and, above all, on the great ones of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterized by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died, or was killed, in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany.

In the professions of faith of Hut's followers one recognizes the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Taborites, repeated almost word for word: 'Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments; communize all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised.' And again: 'The government does not treat the poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want ot punish and wipe out the evil. . .' And if Hut himself expected all this to take place only when Christ 'came on the clouds', not al his disciples were so patient: at Esalingen on the Necar Anabaptists seem in 1528 to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Amongst these militant millenarians the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; and it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nuremberg warned those at Ulm that Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But a few years later it ws to reappear elsewhere, in Holland and the extreme north-west of Germany, and this time with results that gripped the attention of Europe. . .

Melchior Hoffmann, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys (Matthyszoon) of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the second coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys on the other hand was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In this teaching the spirit of the Pikarti, of Thomas Muntzer and Hans Hut rose to new life.

From the Netherlands Matthys sent out to the various Anabaptist communities apostles who believed that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them as upon the original Apostles at Pentecost. In each town that they visited they baptised great numbers of adults and appointed "bishops" with the power to baptise. Then they moved on, while from the newly converted town new apostles set out on similar missions. In the first days of 1534 two apostles reached Munster, where their arrival at once produced a veritable contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised; and they were followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and in the end by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on but they were replaced by two more; and these – most significantly – were at first taken to be Enoch and Elijah, those prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two 'witnesses' against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson (Bockelszoon, Beukelsz), better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been converted months before and who was to achieve in Munster a fame which has lasted to the present day. For here as so often – as in the case of hte 'Master of Hungary' and many another in the Middle Ages and indeed at all times — the messianic leader was to be the stranger, the man from theperiphery. It was Bockelson, at first together with his master and later alone, who was to give to Anabaptism in Munster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism even more startling than that at Tabor a century before.


During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Munster increased rapidly. Bockelson had at once established relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck, whose daughter he was shortly to marry. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all people to repent of their sins. No more was needed to release a flood of hysteria, especially amongst the women Anabaptists, who from the first had been Rothmann's most enthusiastic followers and whose numbers had latterly been swollen by the many nuns who had broken out of their convents, put on secular attire and undergone rebaptism. These women now began to see apocalyptic visions in the streets, and of such intensity that they would throw themselves on the ground, screaming, writhing and foaming at the mouth. It was in this atmosphere, charged with supernatural expectations, that the Anabaptists made their first armed rising and occupied the Town Hall and market-place. They were still only a minority and could certainly have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had their sympathizers on the Council; and the outcome of the rising was the official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience.

The Anabaptists thus won legal recognition for their already large and powerful community. Many well-to-do Lutherans, alarmed at the prospect of ever-increasing pressure from their opponents, withdrew from the town with all their movable belongings. The majority of the remaining population was Anabaptist; and messengers and manifestos were sent out urging the Anabaptists in nearby towns to come with their families to Munster. The rest of the earth, it was announced, was doomed to be destroyed before Easter; but Munster would be saved and would become the New Jerusalem. Food, clothes, money and accommodation would be ready for the immigrants on their arrival, but they were to bring arms. The summons met with a vigorous response. From as far afield as Frisia and Brabant Anabaptists streamed to Munster, until the number of newcomers exceeded that of the Lutheran emigrants. As a result, in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected, with Knipperdollinck as one of the two burgomasters. On the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures and paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed.

Meanwhile Jan Matthys himself had arrived, a tall, gaunt figure with a long, black beard; and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. Rothman and the other local Anabaptist preachers could not compete for popular support with the 'Dutch prophets' and were soon being borne along by a wild movement which they no longer had any power to influence, let alone to resist. They functioned merely as obedient propagandists for a regime in which all effective power was concentrated in the hands of Matthys and Bockelson. The regime was a theocracy, in which the divinely inspired community had swallowed up the state. And the God whom that theocracy was supposed to serve was God the Father – that jealous and exacting Father of overwhelming power who had dominated the imagination of so many earlier millenarians. It was the Father, not the Son, whom Matthys and Bockelson encouraged their followers to invoke. And it was in order that the Children of God might serve the Father that in unity that they resolved to create a 'New Jerusalem purified of all uncleanness'. To achieve this pure and uncontaminated community Matthys advocated the execution of all remaining Lutherans and Roman Catholics; but Knipperdollinck having pointed out that this would turn the whole outside world against the town, it was decided merely to expel them.

On the morning of 27 February armed bands, urged on by Matthys in prophetic frenzy, rushed through the streets calling: 'Get out, you godless ones, and never come back, you enemies of the Father.' In bitter cold, in the midst of wild snowstorm, multitudes of the 'godless' were driven from the town by Anabaptists who rained blows upon them and laughed at their affliction. . .Mostly they came from the more prosperous part of the population; but they were forced to leave behind all their belongings and money and spare clothes, even their food was taken from them and they were reduced to begging through the countryside for food and shelter. As for the Lutherans and Roman Catholics who remained in the town, they were rebaptised in the marketplace. The ceremony lasted three days; and once it was finished it became an offence to be unbaptised. By the morning of 3 March there were no 'misbelievers' left in Munster; the town was inhabited solely by the Children of God. These people who addressed one another as 'Brother' and 'Sister', believed that they would be able to live without sin, in a community bound together by love alone.

In eliminating the Lutheran and Roman Catholic elements from the population, the prophets were moved not only by fanaticism but also by the knowledge that Munster was about to be besieged. . .On the following day, 28 February, earthworks were thrown up around the town and the siege began. . .

The terror had begun and it was in an atmosphere of terror that Matthys proceeded to carry into effect the communism which had already hovered for so many months, a splendid millennial vision , in the imagination of the Anabaptists. A propaganda campaign was launched by Matthys, Rothmann and the other preachers. It was announced that true Christians should possess no money of their own but should hold all money in common; from which it followed that all money, and also all gold and silver ornaments, must be handed over. At first this order met with opposition; some Anabaptists buried their money . . .

Propaganda against the private ownership of money continued for weeks on end, accompanied both by the most seductive blandishments and by the most appalling threats. The surrender of money was made a test of true Christianity. Those who failed to comply were declared fit for extermination and it seems that some executions did take place After two months of unremitting pressure the private ownership of money was effectively abolished. From then on money was used only for public purposes involving dealings with the outside world – for hiring mercenaries, buying supplies and distributing propaganda. Artisans within the town, on the other hand, received their wages not in case but in kind; and it would seem that they were paid no longer by private employers but by the theocratic government.

Steps were also taken to establish communal ownership of commodities. At each town-gate there was set up a communal dining-hall where the men who were on duty on the walls dined together, to an accompaniment of readings from the Old Testament. Each of the halls was in charge of one of the deacons appointed by Matthys. The deacon was responsible for providing the rations. . .

All of these measures were of course favoured by the conditions of the siege. Nevertheless it is certainly mistaken to suggest – has has sometimes been done – that 'communism' at Munster amounted to no more than requisitioning to meet the needs of war. The abolition of private ownership of property, the restriction of private ownership of food and shelter were seen as first steps towards a state in which – as Rothmann put it – everything would belong to everybody and the distinction between Mine and Tine would disappear; or – as Bockelson later expressed it – 'all things were to be in common, there was to be no private property and nobody was to do any more work, but simply trust in God.' Rothman after all had been holding up community of goods as an ideal for the elite long before the siege was though of; now, in the service of the 'Dutch prophets', he demanded that the same ideal be translated into a social institution and accepted by all alike. The familiar blend of millenarianism and primitivism emerges quite clearly from the following passage in the propaganda pamphlet which he produced in October 1534, for distribution to the Anabaptist communities in other towns:

"Amongst us God – to whom be eternal praise and thanks – has restored community, as it was in the beginning and as befits the Saints of God. We hope too that amongst us community is as vigorous and glorious, and is by God's grace observed with as pure a heart, as at any time before. For not only have we put all our belongings into a common pool under the care of deacons, and live from it according to our needs: we praise God through Christ, with one heart and mind and are eager to help one another with every kind of service. And accordingly, everything which has served the purposes of selfseeking and private property, such as buying and selling, working for money, taking interest and practising usury – even at the expense of unbelievers – or eating anddrinking the sweat of the poor (that is, making one's own people and fellow-creatures work so that one can grow fat) and indeed everything which offends against love – all such things are abolished amongst us by the power of love and community. And knowing that God now desires to abolish such abominations, we would die rather than turn to them. We know that such sacrifices are pleasing to the Lord. And indeed no Christian or Saint can satisfy God if he does not live in such community or at least desire with all his heart to live in it."

The appeal of the new social order was by no means wholly idealistic. Already the year before, swarms of homeless and propertyless people had been attacked to Munster by the prospect of social revolution. But now the revolution was taking place; and the propaganda which the leaders sent out to other towns was sometimes couched in purely social terms and aimed specifically at the poorest classes. 'The poorest amongst us, who used to be despised as beggard,' runs one letter, ' now go about dressed as finely as the highest and most distinguished. . . . By God's grace they have become as rich as the burgomasters and the richest in the town.' There is no doubt that the poorest classes over a wide area did indeed look towards the New Jerusalem with a mixture of sympathy, hope and awe. From Antwerp a scholar could write to Erasmus of Rotterdam: 'We in these parts are living in wretched anxiety because of the way the revolt of the Anabaptists has flared up. For it really did spring up like fire. There is, I think, scarcely a village or town where the torch is not glowing in secret. They preach community of goods, with the result that all those who have nothing come flocking.' How seriously the authorities took the threat is shown by the repressive measures which they adopted. Anabaptism was made a capital offense not only throughout the diocese of Munster bu tin the neighboring principalities. . .During the months of the siege countless men and women in the towns were beheaded, drowned, burnt or broken on the wheel.

By then end of March Matthys ahd established an absolute dictatorship; but a few days later he was dead. . .This event gave an opening to Matthys's young disciple, Jan Bockelson, who so far had played no great part but who was in every was fitted to seize such a chance and use it to the full. . .

Bockelson's first important act was – characteristically – at once a religious and a political one. Early in May he ran naked through the town in a frenzy and then fell into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days. When speech returned to him he called the population together and announced that God had revealed to him that the old constitution of the town, being the work of men, must be replaced by a new one which would be the work of God. The burgomasters and Council were deprived of their functions. In their place Bockelson set himself and – on the model of Ancient Israel – twelve Elders. . . This new government was given authority in all matters, public and private, spiritual and material, and power of life and death over all inhabitants of the town. A new legal code ws drawn up, aimed partly at carrying still further the process of socialization and partly at imposing a severely puritanical morality. A strict direction of labour was introduced. . .At the same time the new code mad capital offenses not only of murder and theft but also of lying, slander, avarice and quarreling. But above ll it was an absolutely authoritarian code; death was to be the punishment of every kind of insubordination – of the young against their parents, of a wife against her husband, of anyone against God and God's representative, the government of Munster. . .

Sexual behaviour was at fist regulated as strictly as all other aspects of life. The only form of sexual relationship permitted was marriage between two Anabaptists. Adultery and fornication – which were held to include marriage with one of the 'godless' – were capital offenses. This was in keeping with the Anabaptist tradition; like the Waldensians in earlier centuries the Anabaptist in general observed a stricter code of sexual morality than most of their contemporaries. This order came to an abrupt end, however, when Bockelson decided to establish polygamy. That such an undertaking was possible at all was due to the fact that many of the emigrants had left their womenfolk behind in the town, so that there were now at least three times as many women
of marriageable age as there were men. . .The path along which Bockelson now led the Anabaptists in Munster was in fact that which in earlier centuries had been trodden by the Brethren of the Free Spirit and by the Adamites. . . Bockelson, who had left a wife in Leyden, began by marrying the beautiful young widow of Matthys, Diever or Divara, and before long he had a harem of fifteen wives. . .

Bockelson . . .[had] himself proclaimed king.


It was not as an ordinary king but as a Messiah of the Last Days that Bockelson imposed himself. In order to do so he invoked yet another divine revelation – in which he may or may not have believed – and in a manner even more dramatic than usual. At the beginning of September one Dusentschur, a goldsmith from a neighbouring town, set up as a new prophet. One day, in the main square, this man declared that the Heavenly Father had revealed to him that Bockelson was to be king of the whole world, holding dominion over kings, princes and great ones of the earth. He was to inherit the sceptre and throne of his forefather David and was to keep them until God should reclaim the kingdom from him. Thereupon Dusentschur took the Sword of Justice from the Elders and presented it to Bockelson, anointed him and proclaimed him King of the New Jerusalem.

Oxford University Press, 1957, 1961, 1970
Excerpted from Chapter 12 and 13: pp. 254-

Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press

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