Subtitle: Why the European Renaissance wasn’t actually a very good time to be alive.
The man whose face is stamped on this 1535 silver medal is Jan van Leiden. In January 1536, van Leiden was tortured to death with two other men at a public square in Münster, a city in the German region of Westphalia. The city’s officials and a throng of spectators watched as the three were pulled apart with searing hot tongs, one by one, until their agonies were ended with a thrust to the heart. But who was this Jan van Leiden, and why was he so violently and horribly executed?
Germany in the 16th century was a rough place. Martin Luther’s protests against the corruption of the Church sparked a long and partly successful rebellion against the spiritual and temporal authority of Rome. They also sparked smaller movements that branched off of Lutheranism to pursue their own goals. One of the earliest of these offshoot movements was Anabaptism. This new Christian sect proposed that infant baptism was invalid and that, to be truly saved, Christians must be baptised as adults. Some Anabaptists also advocated for total equality between fellow Christians and even the total abolition of property and wealth. Naturally, the Church hated these innovations, but they had their hands full with the Lutherans and the Netherlands and northern Germany became hotbeds of Anabaptism.
Renaissance Europe was a mix of large kingdoms and small principalities, dukedoms and republics. One of these was the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire. While formally under the control of the Emperor, Münster was truly ruled by Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck, who was exactly what he sounded like: both the prince of a territory and a bishop of the Church. He wasn’t the city’s absolute ruler, however: Münster had an elected town council, unusual for a state in that period.
Initially, the population of Münster was composed of a mix of Catholics, Lutherans and Anabaptists. By 1532, however, that balance began to change. Bernard Rothmann, an Anabaptist preacher in the city, began to rail against the Catholic Church, while Bernard Knipperdolling, a wealthy merchant with Anabaptist sympathies, used his printing press to spread Rothmann’s sermons far and wide. By 1533, the city had attracted two of what would become the century’s most charismatic and dangerous men – Jan Matthys and Jan van Leiden. Matthys and van Leiden had traveled from their homes in the Netherlands to answer Rothmann’s call for the establishment of a “New Jerusalem” in Münster: a perfect Christian society that would witness and be spared from the end of the world.
Ironically, their actions ended up bringing down deadly wrath upon Münster and its remaining inhabitants.
Matthys and his lieutenant van Leiden immediately took a considerable share of influence in the city’s affairs through their connection to Rothmann, the firebrand preacher, and Knipperdolling, the respected councilman and merchant. Together, the four initiated a religious reign of terror. They first ran new elections to the Münster city council that packed the body with Anabaptists. Matthys then shockingly urged the council to put the town’s spiritually unfit – meaning its Catholics and more moderate Protestants – to death. Knipperdolling managed to negotiate this sentence down to forced expulsion, and many of the city’s old families were subsequently thrown out without their property or belongings. These remaining assets were transferred to Münster’s new arrivals: thousands of destitute Anabaptists from the surrounding northern German and Dutch lands, attracted by Knipperdolling’s continued printing and publishing of Rothmann’s calls to action.
All of these happenings naturally attracted the attention of the Prince-Bishop of Münster. Waldeck, who had fled Münster ahead of the Anabaptist takeover, promptly gathered his forces, supplemented by mercenary troops, and laid siege to the city.
Meanwhile, Matthys and van Leiden began to organize the city’s defense and stockpile its resources. Helpfully, Matthys claimed to regularly receive messages from God. These divine revelations included orders to put the “faithless” of Münster to death, orders that he and his men carried out swiftly. God also apparently ordered him to ride out of the city armed, with a few dozen followers, to meet the Prince-Bishop’s thousands of troops in battle, because on Easter 1534 that’s just what he did. Jan van Leiden inherited the spiritual leadership of Münster right after Matthys’ death (cause: getting hacked to pieces by Franz von Waldeck’s cavalry.)
Jan van Leiden, a.k.a. Jan Bockelson, was an interesting character. In addition to leadership over the fervently faithful Anabaptists of Münster, van Leiden also inherited Matthys’ direct line to God – as well as his allegedly attractive wife Divara.
This new Jan was slightly different from the old one. Van Leiden first weirded out the people of Münster by running around town naked, supposedly in a divinely induced trance, and then he shocked his followers by announcing that God wanted Münster to adopt polygamy as a legal practice. Jan completed his master plan (assuming he had one) by having himself declared King of Münster, something that the severe Jan Matthys had never done. His Majesty dissolved the city’s old government and created a royal court for himself composed of his inner circle of friends, including the two Bernards, Knipperdolling and Rothmann.
Despite his faults, van Leiden seemed to have been at least kind of competent, because his newly organized defensive military units, composed by the remaining citizens of Münster, successfully repelled two of the Prince-Bishop’s direct assaults. The city was starving, however, and by mid-1535 its some of its people had had enough. Several deserters to the enemy’s siege lines gave the Prince-Bishop enough information to realize that he had worn the city’s inhabitants down. A third assault in late 1535 was successful, and the Prince-Bishop’s men retook Münster after a bloody battle within the city’s walls.
Many of the town’s population were summarily executed, but the leaders of Münster’s short-lived rebellion were captured alive to be questioned and later to be horrifically executed. Van Leiden, Knipperdolling and one Bernard Krechting suffered the officially sanctioned sentence of being ripped apart with coal-heated tongs for one hour each. Bernard Rothmann, the other ringleader of the Anabaptist rebellion, was not available for execution – after the last battle for Münster, he simply disappeared. Even if he had been killed in the fighting, we should probably consider him lucky that he didn’t have to share the scaffold with his friends in January 1536.
As a final insult, the bodies of the now-dead Anabaptist leaders were shoved into iron cages that were then hauled to the top of Münster Cathedral, presumably there to serve as a reminder and a warning. The corpses have long since decayed and scattered, but the iron cages remain hanging from the steeple of the great church to this very day.
This bizarre chapter of history raises all kinds of issues. We’re still not sure just how far King Jan of Münster believed what he told his people during his short reign – many of his actions suggest a desire for self-preservation that Jan Matthys, the man who rode against an army with a handful of citizen-soldiers, clearly didn’t have.
But the short-lived experiment in Münster is about more than this uniquely strange character. It’s also about the role that fanatical beliefs – religious or otherwise – can have on people. Münster was a relatively peaceful town before the arrival of the extremist Anabaptist preachers from Holland, and it was largely due to the influence of the Münsterites Hoffmann and Knipperdolling that they succeeded in overturning that peace and taking control of the city. Otherwise, they probably would have remained two obscure Dutch guys remembered only by hardcore Reformation historians. But they bought their fame at a great price. Thousands of Münsterites were killed, some by the extreme Anabaptists and some by the Prince-Bishop and his mercenary armies. Thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. And the heads of the whole business lost their lives in an undignified, brutal and incredibly painful way.
Today’s Anabaptist societies, most famously the Amish and the Mennonites, are entirely pacifist and spend their time farming, building furniture, having children and not using modern technology. Maybe living in obscurity isn’t such a bad thing.
Münster’s Anabaptist “coins” aren’t coins at all. Many Anabaptists, including the Münster faction, didn’t believe in money or personal ownership of property, so minting coins would have been pretty useless. Medals bearing the image of Jan van Leiden as king of the “New Jerusalem” were crafted purely for propaganda purposes. These medals were produced at a time when the quality of coins was on the rise: they were beginning to be produced on round planchets, as opposed to the irregular planchets common to medieval coins.
I’m not even sure how many of these things exist, but considering the brief period of Anabaptist rule in Münster and the extreme strain on the besieged city’s resources, I imagine not too many were produced. Medals and other trinkets from the period and place are still around, though. Let me know if you find one!
If you want to learn more about the Münster Rebellion of 1534-5, look up the book The Tailor King. There are probably many more sources on the subject written in German and Dutch, but I can’t read them. If you’re more into podcasts, or you have four and a half hours to kill during commutes to and from work, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History site, which features an episode on the rebellion and its causes and effects. I’m a big fan of his work, and you might find that you’re one too.