The Prophet Arrives

Within a day another rumor of imminent assault by the Prince Bishop threw the city to the brink of open civil war. The Catholics took to nailing straw crosses to their door, and both groups quickly clustered into armed bands. The Anabaptists began to tear up portions of the city and build rough barricades and gun platforms, while the remaining councilors tried to slip word to the Prince Bishop of the situation. All the while brief skirmishes erupted between the two groups. Kerssenbrück gives a brief idea of what it was like,

The rebaptized rushed from the marketplace in groups without any proper battle order and vainly shot after us in the distance. Meanwhile, since I was still a boy, I was unused to the kind of buzzing sound made by gun shots, which resembles the sound of hornets, and was terrified by the threats of the Anabaptists, so I hid in the Cemetery of St. Giles behind the charnel house. I remained concealed there, and after the commotion settled down, I timidly crept out again.[1]

As both sides waited for Franz von Waldeck to weigh in, the Bishop sent word that he would send a representative to meet with one of the councilors, Herman von Tilbeck. While Tilbeck was the same man who had been arrested the previous year, he was considered a level headed voice by both sides. He was also a nobleman, which was supposed to place him above this nonsense. The councilors must have received the news with a heavy heart when Tilbeck returned and told them that the Bishop wasn’t offering a peace, or even just out for the Anabaptists. There was to be no negotiating, and he implied the city was in for a thorough sacking if it opened its gates. Even though the numbers still favored the Lutheran and Catholic alliance over the out and out Anabaptists, Tilbeck urged reconciliation rather than an internal war that would weaken both groups. After some tense negotiations, a truce was struck, both sides swapped hostages, and the city recognized the freedom for all to choose their own faith. As they would for many other events both major and mundane, celebratory and sinister, the Anabaptists greeted the news with wild dancing and howls of spiritual inspiration.

For many of the remaining councilors, the accord was less cause for more celebration, and more a final sign that it was time to grab what they could and flee. With no sign that the bishop would intervene in their favor, it was time to get out before this situation escalated any further. While this first February exodus was allowed to bring material goods with them, they were not allowed to carry out any food. Clearly, the Anabaptists knew what the likely next move from the Bishop was going to be.

The accord was also greeted with much less enthusiasm by Franz von Waldeck. As it happened, Tilbeck had burned the Prince Bishop’s real offer, and unknown to just about everyone was already a practicing Anabaptist. Rather than a full on Mongol treatment of the city, von Waldeck had asked for a list of the most responsible Anabaptists. The Lutherans faced no punitive measures whatsoever. All he had asked in exchange was that one of the gates be opened so that his cavalry could slip in and support the councilors as they swept out the insurrection. From von Waldeck’s perspective his offer had been slapped down, and now everyone was culpable.[2] One of the councilors, a respected lawyer named Friedrich von Wyck, was waylaid by the bishop’s men as he fled and quickly executed. Now decided on his course, von Waldeck began to make his preparations for a more serious siege of the city. Messages were sent to all the surrounding lords, asking for loans of gold, as well as supplies of men, gunpowder, and cannons to bring down the walls and kill the insurrection growing inside them.

For the Anabaptists, the execution of one moderate and the harder attitude of the Bishop was no great loss. For one, all of the fleeing moderates had been more than replaced by a new influx of Anabaptists from the surrounding region. Bernard Knipperdolling’s press had been churning out a Rothmann penned version of the standoff on the city, filled with divinely inspired miracles that clearly showed God’s favor for the Anabaptists in their moment of crisis. Apparently the night the city made peace, not one sun had set but three, illuminating the faithful in a golden light. It was sufficiently inspiring to put many on the road for Münster, where they slipped past the bishop’s troops with apparently little trouble. Bolstered further by the new arrivals, the year’s elections that February were an Anabaptist landslide. Bernard Knipperdolling and other members of the Brethren’s inner circle were suddenly in full command of city. At least in theory, around this time another figure makes his presence known as the real power in Münster.

Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch
The “Three Suns” of Münster. The Anabaptists attributed the sign to represent both the Holy Trinity, and the Three Holy Cities they preferred. Which is to say Jersualem, Strasbourg, and Münster. Photo Credit: Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch

It’s not clear when Jan Matthias heeded the call of his disciple Jan van Leiden, but by February 25th 1534 he had found his way inside the city. Matthias looked very much the part of the Old Testament preacher. His abnormally large head was mostly shaved bald, with a pair of dark eyes peering out from sunken sockets. To cap it off, his beard reached almost to his waist. Accompanying him was his wife Divara, a beautiful ex nun, some twenty years his junior and dressed all in white to contrast the prophet’s ominous shadow.[3]

While his appearance was impressive, it was his unsettling habit of “talking” directly to God that ensured Jan Matthias’ instant command of the Münster Anabaptists. The scene on February 27th was a typical format for these conversations. After sprinting through the city with one of the now typical calls for the non-believers to repent their sinful ways, Matthias reached the market center and collapsed in front of his flock. Then, “as if springing up from a deep sleep,” he announced that the “Father” commanded that all non-Anabaptists must either convert or be expelled from the city. Matthias had cast himself as a kind antennae tuned to a divine channel, one who could pick up the invisible signals of God as they passed through the world, and then relay them to his followers directly. Not that these commands weren’t sometimes open to interpretation. At least a day before this very dramatic pronouncement, Matthias had suggested in a sermon that all of the remaining citizens who hadn’t submitted to rebaptism should be executed, but both Bernard Knipperdolling and Jan van Leiden had talked him down. They pointed out such a violent purge at this stage was likely to bring not just the Prince Bishop down on their heads, but the entire region. While they didn’t necessarily seem to disagree with the end goal, they had the practical sense to realize it would spell certain doom for their plans to spread their revolution outwards from Münster. Matthias had seemingly agreed with this, and at his divine command his followers had moved to toss out the nonbelievers.

jan matthys
Jan Mathias, seen her looking a little less intimidating than the description might suggest. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

One of those nonbelievers was Hermann von Kerssenbrück himself.[4] Many converted rather than face the cold and loss of property, others tried, without success, to hide in their homes. Children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly were all forced out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Now certain of the coming siege, the Anabaptists made certain of this final point. One of the remaining church officials named Herman Dungel decided to make for the gate with a cart full of his belongings and a letter of safe passage from some of the remaining town councilors, but found his way barred by Jan Matthias himself. Putting a spear to Dungel’s chest, the Dutch prophet told him “You’re not getting away from here scot-free, you professional cheater,” [Matthias] said. “You’re going to puke out either your life or the money you’ve got and leave it for us.”[5] When Dungel protested and tried to show his letter, Matthias simply replied that he had made no promise. His men then stripped Dungel of his belongings, down to the rings on his fingers. Kerssenbrück casts the anecdotal tragedies like this against a backdrop of overwhelming noise, a kind of tragic city wide tinnitus.[6]

With no one else to stop them, Jan Matthias and his now sole faction celebrated their victory with a thorough ransacking of the city cathedral. Statues were overturned, the organ melted down for shell casings, the windows smashed, and every book in the cathedral that wasn’t the Bible set alight. The fires were doubtless visible from the Prince Bishop’s growing camp outside the city walls. By February 28th, Franz von Waldeck’s forces had reached critical mass, and a more formal siege of Münster had begun.

[1] Kerssenbrück 487

[2] Kerssenbrück describes von Waldeck as weeping, Gresbeck as cursing at the news. While neither of them really have a reason to know how von Waldeck reacted, given the murder spree that followed the latter seems more likely.

[3] In Kerssenbrück’s account, Matthias’ first appearance is some kind of black mass in Knipperdolling’s basement, with a quick reading from Genesis by candlelight followed by some Satanic canoodling when the candles were waved out. As author Norman Cohn notes, this was a surprisingly standard impression many Catholics had of heretical belief systems.

[4] Kerssenbrück for his part relocated to the Prince Bishop’s nearby mansion at Telgte, and spent much of the siege observing from the sidelines.

[5] Kerssenbrück 517

[6] “I can express neither by voice nor by writing the extent of the shouting in the city, the clanging of weapons, the sound of the doors being pounded on, the crying of women and children, the wailing, the lamentations and the plaintive sounds, while the Anabaptists laughed”. Kerssenbrück 516

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