The Forge of Resistance

Not to distract from the drawn battle lines and pages of build up, but it’s worth a short detour to talk about the kind of siege both sides were getting themselves into. Although the advent of gunpowder weapons had changed the dynamics somewhat, siege warfare in the 16th Century still overwhelmingly favoured the defender. High walls gave the advantage of cover and superior firing angles, and the Anabaptists had already made a point of demolishing buildings within cannon range of Münster, denying the Prince Bishop vantage points and cover. Any soldier crossing to attack the city would be in the sights of Anabaptist guns long before they were in place to scale even the first set of walls.[1]

And then there were the soldiers themselves. Franz von Waldeck didn’t exactly have access to the access to the Roman legions, and was mostly stuck relying on the support of local nobles and mercenaries. Most prominently in Germany, this meant the Landsknechte (Land Servants), a professional class of hardened killers who roved like coyotes from one killing field to another. With no insurance and a short life ahead, Landsknechte spent their money on gold, gaudy clothes, and alcohol, spelling problems for army discipline in the long and often boring months ahead in any siege.[2] Along with the knights von Waldeck could recruit, these men were arrayed in seven camps built with the drafted assistance of the local peasantry in a rough circle around the city.

Landsknecht. The original “war hard, play hard”. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If there was one thing immediately in von Waldeck’s favor, it was that the local nobility had clear memories of the Peasant’s War. From Cologne to as far away as the Spanish Netherlands there was a vested interest in shutting down the Anabaptists as quickly as possible. From all over nobles sent powder, shot, or loaned out artillery pieces. Von Waldeck soon had 42 cannons built on platforms around the city. The biggest were given names by the troops, “The Serpent of Zwolle”, “The Devil”, and “His Mother”.[3] Acquiring all of this, and paying to outfit and feed these troops and cannon was dreadfully expensive, and von Waldeck would find himself spending the rest of his tenure paying back this or that expense accrued during the year long siege.

Inside the walls, Jan Matthias and his cabal were just as busy preparing for the battle ahead. A gunpowder mill was assembled from scratch, and all available resources put to work manufacturing weapons and explosives. The walls were strengthened and gun platforms built, often with stones and statues recycled from the ransacked churches. It would have been quite a sight to see the faces of saints peaking out from portions of the city ramparts. The people themselves were also divided into units and given specific tasks in the event of an attack. When the Bishop finally made his move, his drunk discotheque mercenaries would face a disciplined and concerted resistance. Bernard Rothmann also busied himself producing new pamphlets to inspire the region’s Anabaptists to rise up and come to the city’s relief.

16th_Century_Artillerie otto henne am rhyn kulturgeschichte des deutschen volkes
A collection of 16th Century artillery pieces. Devils of a smaller sort. Photo Credit: Otto Henne am Rhyn.

The revolution also began to proceed as planned. Everyone who had fled the city had their assets seized, with all bills or marks of debt destroyed and all material wealth like gold and silver placed into a common treasury. Even their homes were used to resettle the newly arrived Anabaptist forces. Further steps were made to consolidate and control all wealth and goods centrally, deacons were appointed to preside over warehouses stocked with meat, beer, and other essentials. As Bernard Knipperdolling described the city, “One God, one pot, one egg, and one kitchen”. Ignorance was also held in common. Matthias had expanded his previous bonfire of the vanities by ordering the destruction of all books everywhere, except for the Bible.

While much of the city wasn’t going to quibble with the words of their “Dark Prophet”, there were a few dissenters among the faithful. One was the blacksmith Hubert Ruescher. An Anabaptist himself from the early days, Ruescher crops up at points in Kerssenbrück’s narrative, showing the same kind of wild joy and devotion that seemed to fill the revolutionaries. Following the initial February truce with the remaining Lutherans, Ruescher had joined a parade featuring a mock Prince Bishop and other figures of the hated Catholics, himself dressed as a Franciscan monk pulling the bishop’s cart. Yet Ruescher had clearly not signed up for the kind of tyrannical leadership Matthias exhibited. One night on guard duty he finally spouted off, “Is this remarkable madness that a stupid crazy liar does not blush at calling himself a prophet…It is we who are the stupidest since we take him to be prophet who is so often proven wrong in his predictions! My judgment is that as a prophet he gives shit!”[4]

jan kills ruescher
Jan van Leiden (Christoph Waltz), offs Ruescher in a more dramatic fashion in the Film König der Letzten Tage. (Ard Productions. Used under U.S. Fair Use for Historical/Teaching purposes).

While Ruescher must have thought he was in good company, it didn’t take long for word to filter back to our grimdark prophet Matthias. Not exactly the kind to take an outburst in stride, Matthias had Ruescher arrested and hauled in front of a crowd in the market square. After a few minutes it was soon clear to everyone that Matthias was going to kill Ruescher, then and there. Just a year prior, the city had been based around a duly elected council, with a system of due process for criminals. Perhaps guilty over his role in handing the city over to the Anabaptists, Herman von Tilbeck and another Anabaptist stepped forward to plead that Ruescher get a trial, at least. Furious at the defiance, Matthias ordered the arrest of the pair. For a moment, the prophet’s leadership held in the balance as the crowd hesitated. Before they could turn, Jan van Leiden stepped forward and rammed a halberd in between Ruescher’s shoulder blades.[5] Whether van Leiden misjudged the swing or people were built tougher in the Renaissance, Ruescher didn’t die and likely began to scream as he lay there. Not one to leave things undone, van Leiden then snatched up a handgun and shot the blacksmith for good measure. Still not dead, and now probably screaming louder than ever, Ruescher was hauled off to a nearby house. The incident seemed to rattle the Jans a bit, and after storing Ruescher away Jan came back out and told the crowd “he’s getting better, he’s getting better”.[6] Then, “after a hymn was sung in praise of god, they all dispersed”.[7] In the first of many failed predictions by Jan, Ruescher died after lingering for eight days.

[1] Author Anthony Arthur likens the situation to the uneven confrontation between a lethargic bear and a beehive filled with honey.

[2] The result being that many 16th Century battlefields looked like a more violent take on a Discotek.

[3] Meaning the Devil’s Mother. More Grendel and Angelina Jolie, less “your mom”.

[4] Kerssenbrück 532

[5] Accounts differ on this point. Kerssenbrück says the van Leiden simply chastised the crowd and waved a sword for a bit before Matthias took the swing. Gresbeck, who was more likely there, actually claims van Leiden did the killing.

[6] Gresbeck, H. (2016). False Prophets and Preachers: Henry Gresbeck’s Account of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Translated by Christopher Mackay. Page 102

[7] Kerssenbrück 532.


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