The End is Nigh(ish)

Great_Comet_of_1577 Jiri Daschitzsky
German urbanites watch a comet passing over in 1577. Woodcut by: Jiri Daschitzky

For Kerssenbrück and other Catholics living in Münster, 1533 must have been an unsettling year. The newcomers wore their loyalties openly, including “a certain tall, fat, blind man who had been born in Scotland”.[1] In response any Catholic with means and a bit of foresight grabbed what they could and slipped out. As demographics shift, eventually the political spectrum follows. By March 1533 the new elections swept out all Catholics and moderate Lutherans from the town council. There was still some division among the council, with some of the Lutherans especially opting for negotiations with von Waldeck. But it was clear which way the pendulum was swinging.

In Kerssenbrück’s retroactive narrative, the shift in the city was mirrored by all sorts of ominous portents. Three comets streaked the skies in previous years, a whale beached near the Dutch city of Haarlem where Jan Matthias lay biding his time. And,

Sometimes, the watchmen reported that the city was covered with fiery clouds that directly threatened to create a conflagration by suddenly falling down. Monstrous progeny of both farm animals and humans were born. A rabbit—the sort of animal that otherwise shuns contact with men—was caught entering the city. Chickens unnaturally crowed in imitation of the males, while effeminate roosters clucked.[2]

While the veracity of chickens that “unnaturally crowed” is questionable, the change in the city from radical Lutheran to out and out Anabaptism was not. By January 1534, Jan van Leiden and other newcomer Anabaptist preachers were openly carrying out mass conversions, as many as fourteen hundred in a single week. Nor were these all newcomers, the message of equality and common goods was appealing to many of the locals as well. In an instance of patriarchal tyranny, Kerssenbrück notes that many upper class women converted, a decision that at least one Lutheran husband responded to by “so confirm[ing] in her new faith that she could barely crawl, so much less walk”.[3] Against such vicious abuse, it’s easy to see the appeal of a new equal society that Rothmann and the others were promising. There were also signs that the Anabaptists were committed to a defending this new world, as Jan van Leiden took to organizing the converts into military units in advance of the Bishop’s response.

convent john everett millais
The typical Convent scene in Medieval Europe. To some it was a chosen alternative to marriage and the traditional role expected of women in Europe. For others, it was the same without the “choice” element. Photo Credit: John Everett Mills

Franz von Waldeck had certainly been following the events in Münster closely, and with mounting fury. By early January 1534 he decided it was time to bite the bullet and do something about the “disgusting heresies of this damned sect of Anabaptists and their misguided leader Bernard Rothmann, who along with his helpers is trying to pull everything down”.[4] To this end von Waldeck began to hire a professional force of knights and mercenaries which began to cluster outside of town. For those inside Münster it must have been deeply unsettling. While the Anabaptists were automatically the prime target a degree of uncertainty remained for the Lutherans and the few remaining Catholics inside. Given their own role in permitting Rothmann and his group to fester inside Münster the Prince Bishop might have it out for them as well.

Following another failed attempt by the Bishop to negotiate with the city’s inhabitants,[5] Rothmann staged his boldest political stunt yet. Marching to the front of one of Münster’s nunneries, he launched into a speech on the virtues of marriage and the reasons that the nuns themselves shouldn’t be cloistered away. At this point though, Kerssenbrück notes that the speech took an apocalyptic turn,

Next, to make them completely crazy instead of merely stupid, he convinced them that the tower of the convent along with its entire structure and all those living in it would collapse at midnight on the following day, claiming that this event had not only been foretold by certain prophets present in the city but disclosed to him personally by God through divine revelation. This oracle brought the nuns not so much distress as joy. For their spirit, which was ablaze with lust, hated the monastic life, and now they thought that they had been given a suitable opportunity to shake off their yoke. Therefore at dawn on the following day they carried out virtually all their possessions.[6]

dancing plague
A painting of a “dancing plague”. Similar instances of mass hysteria dot Medieval European History. It gives a sense for the cacophony and scale of these revelations. Photo Credit.

Even through Kerssenbrück’s decidedly Catholic lens it’s easy to see the appealing revolution Rothmann was offering. “Ablaze with lust” or no, for many nuns the monastic life hadn’t been a choice. They had been forced into the life of quiet contemplation by fathers and husbands who couldn’t stand rebellion. Rothmann was offering them freedom, though this being Münster he was also offering them fiery biblical death if they did not listen. Yet when midnight the following day had come and gone and the convent was still standing, Rothmann and his followers leaped into plan B. Like the biblical Ninevah, clearly the convent had been spared because the nuns had heeded his warning, even more a sign of his prophetic powers. This wasn’t an argument Rothmann, Knipperdolling and the increasingly vocal Jan van Leiden made in some pamphlet though. They carried their message to the streets with such a frenzy that Kerssenbrück suspected “this sort of madness was induced in the rebaptized with a drug”.[7]

More fully from Kerssenbrück:[8]

At about 3 p.m. on the same day, Knipperdolling and John Bockelson the prophet from Leiden rushed through virtually all the streets of the city, demanding with sorrowful and terrifying shouts that people should correct their previous lives. With heads bare and eyes fixed on heaven, they bellowed nothing but “Repentance! Repentance! Repentance!”…

After the madness died down and they gradually regained their previous mental health, George tom Berg, the tailor whose daughter had preached a little while before, was seized with a new madness, and he immediately rushed up, throwing aside his headgear and raising his palms towards heaven.

“Look up, brothers!  Look up and lift your heads now!” he shouted. “I see the God of Glory flashing in the clouds of heaven and carrying the Cross of Victory in His right hand! Woe to you impious people who are obstinate in your evil! Come to your senses, come to your senses! I can see the Heavenly Father with many thousands of angels making dire threats against you on high. Woe, woe to you impious people! Repent, repent! That great and terrifying day of the Lord is here….

Though Gresbeck and Kerssenbrück also write of seeing terrible omens in the sky around this period, at the time young Hermann and his friends thought the sight more comic than unsettling,

All of us who in our youthfulness decided to attend were flabbergasted at this unusual bellowing and gazed up quite carefully at heaven, but we perceived none of the things that the rebaptized saw or even any unusual appearance to the sky. Thus, these bacchants were laughed at by the surrounding youths for fun,

As the day closed out Bernard Knipperdolling held a full conversation with God as manifested in a section of his own wall; followed by the Scottish beggar deciding his eyes had been miraculously healed, until he ran full speed into a dung heap. Unfortunately for Kerssenbrück the joke was too good to last.

[1] Kerssenbrück 482.

[2] Kerssenbrück 182.

[3] Kerssenbrück 472.

[4] Letter from Franz von Waldeck to Phillip of Hesse, 1534. In Arthur, 26.

[5] Rothmann apparently insisted the city’s delegation include one of the men from the raid on von Waldeck’s own mansion, and a cyclopean giant named Tile Bussenmeister. The latter was the head of the city arquebusiers, in addition to cutting a generally sinister figure.

[6] Kerssenbrück 479

[7] Podcaster Dan Carlin hypothesizes that Ergot poisoning was the culprit. The fungus grows on rye and was known to many as “St. Elmo’s Fire”. It could spark hallucinogenic episodes.

[8] Kerssenbrück 481-83, excerpted.

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