The Agony and the Ecstasy of Jan(s)

Two Dutch men with no relation to Münster had just executed a citizen in cold blood, only two men had spoken out. The city had literally sung their blessing for the incident. Tilbeck and his colleague were released, humbled and unquestioning, the following day. Matthias and van Leiden had greatly strengthened their hand with this show of force, and they moved to tighten their control on the city’s populace even further.

St. Lambert’s Church today. While sizeable, 2,500 was probably somewhere north of the recommended capacity. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Matthias next decreed that all gold and valuables were to be handed over for stockpiling. The notion of currency or wages was completely abolished, all labour was to be given freely and all debts forgiven. Second, Matthias and van Leiden had their doubts about everyone who had converted rather than face expulsion from the city. By Henry Gresbeck’s count, this was close to 2,500 people, or perhaps a quarter of Münster’s inhabitants, and after gathering them together Matthias berated them for their “counterfeit saintliness and sham religion”. To drive the message home that they needed to double down on their faith or get a Ruescher special, Matthias then the majority inside St. Lambert’s Church while he waited for the Father to decide their fate. For those inside the church, it must have been agonizing. Hours ticked by, and slowly the crowd unraveled mentally. By the time Matthias opened the door, flanked by armed guards, the entire group fell to their knees in front of him and begged for his intercession with God on their behalf. Obliging them, Matthias also went to his knees and after a moment announced that God was placated by his prayers. After another literal round of hymnal song and dance everyone was released from the Church, either overflowing with piety or too scared to speak out.

As Matthias tightened his grip over this small nation, outside the city Franz von Waldeck found himself engaged in a permanent game of Anabaptist Whack-a-Mole. Prior to the siege, several preachers led by the zealous Henry Roll had snuck out to rally their allies on the outside, clutching another Rothmann penned essay calling for a wider scale revolution. In response to their call, the Anabaptists had come out of hiding to help their Brethren. In Holland a group seized a monastery, and were wiped out by Spanish troops. Another force took a fleet of ships down the river Ijssel to directly relieve the city, but were sunk from shore by imperial cannons. A third and likely hyperbolic 16,000 were broken up near the town of Zwolle before they could meet a contact from Münster. Roll himself was also quickly caught and burned at the stake. No one wanted to risk another Peasant’s War, and with imperial assistance von Waldeck’s allies spent the next month “burning and drowning” the rebels wherever they appeared.

Spread_of_the_Anabaptists_Maximillian Dörrbecker
A map of Anabaptism’s focal points at the time of the Münster revolution provides a good image of where the Jans had turned to for aid. And just as clearly a picture of what scared every lord in the region. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

It’s not clear exactly when Matthias and the city’s leadership figured out that help wasn’t coming, but they took steps to keep morale in the city high. Festivals and weddings were still held, and shortly before Easter Jan Matthias chose one of these to publicly announce the Anabaptist’s new direction. In the midst of a wedding reception between two new arrivals the dark prophet suddenly groaned and fell face first onto the dinner table. Our chronicler Gresbeck and all of the other guests must have gotten used to this kind of sight over the past month, and all conversation died as everyone waited to see what update the prophet was downloading now.

When Matthias’ eyes fluttered open he turned his head to the sky and cried “Oh my beloved Father and God, not what I want but what you demand!”[1] In a rapture he kissed everyone on the mouth with the words “God’s joy is with you all!”[2] Then he walked straight out with Divara.[3] In any other city this would have been confusing, but for the Münsterites this was likely just another Tuesday. In bits and pieces Rothmann and the others explained that their allies on the outside had failed, and that God had called on Jan Matthias to take on the role of David to von Waldeck’s Goliath.

It must have made quite a sight from the besieging camp when a fifty something baker in full plate armor rode out of the city on Easter with just ten or twenty men behind him. After the laughter died down, close to 500 of the Bishop’s knights rode down to answer the challenge. It’s hard to know what 10 men against 500 looks like, but it was likely quick and quite messy. In full view of the watching Anabaptists, the prophet Jan Matthias was first stabbed in the side with a pike, then hacked into tiny bits by the Prince Bishop’s men, just to make sure he was all dead rather than “mostly” dead. His head was nailed on a spike, and the following night “certain very bold scoundrels” affixed his genitals to one of the city gates.

Jan Matthys beheaded
An 18th Century woodcut of Jan Matthias after all the Prince Bishop’s horses and all the Prince Bishop’s men got through with him. Photo Credit: Getty Images (Copyright expired under German Law, which covers up to 70 years after the author’s death. If Getty proves their author is, in fact, a vampire, the image will be removed).

It must have seemed to Franz von Waldeck that with the prophet thoroughly humpty dumptied there was no way for the Anabaptists to carry on. For the first few hours the Münsterites must have been inclined to agree. Their line to God had just been graphically murdered in front of their eyes, casting his words and the salvation of their very souls into doubt. Yet after a day of shock and rampant speculation, the Münsterites were drawn to a church near the town square by the sound of trumpets. From the upper balcony, ringed by candlelight and clothed in white stood the 24 year old Jan van Leiden. Credit where it was due, the actor clearly knew how to make an entrance. After the crowd calmed, van Leiden told them that they shouldn’t grieve Matthias’ passing. Indeed, Jan Matthias had been a failure who hadn’t heeded God’s advice. He had trusted in his own strength rather than God’s and had stupidly risked the lives of his comrades rather than riding out alone. All of this, van Leiden asserted, had been related to him in a dream more than a week before. In it he had seen the same horrible scene unfold, but as the bishop’s soldier jammed his pike into Jan Matthias and spilled the prophet’s guts on the ground, he had turned to the frightened van Leiden and spoke, “Do not fear, man of God, or be in any way terrified! Instead, press on with your calling and plan! For this specific judgment of God concerns not your life but that of [Matthias], whose wife you should marry.”[4]

While the crowd was by this point used to divine prophecies that bit about marrying Matthias’ wife Divara prompted some odd looks. It was known that Jan was already married to a woman in Leiden, she was even attempting to rally support for them in the Spanish Netherlands at the moment.[5] He had also more or less married one of Knipperdolling’s daughters just a few months ago, so there was no way around calling this at least a second marriage. Jan agreed that the whole “bigamy” thing was a bit weird, but he backed up his claim by stating that he had told Bernard Knipperdolling the whole story that same day. Knipperdolling duly stepped up and backed the new prophet’s claims, mollifying the crowd.[6] Jan had just thrown the demoralized city a lifeline, and they weren’t going to quibble with some of the weirder details in the moment. Everyone fell into the now usual bout of singing and dancing late into the evening.

The merchant Knipperdolling then took things a step further and claimed his own divine inspiration. It was time for a change of scenery in Münster. Time to cast down the mighty and raise up the lowly. This was not a metaphorical statement, and the following day construction crews were sent out to rip down the church steeples of Münster. Assuming that information in and out of the city was sparse, the rising dust and crumbling steeples may have been the first sign for Franz von Waldeck that his Anabaptist headache was far from over. Ominously, the now flattened towers were revamped into gun platforms, with cannons ranged and sighted to fire over the city walls.

[1] Gresbeck, H. 1853 edition. Berichte der Augenzeugen über das münsterische Wiedertäuferreich. Pg. 144. The author clumsily translated this passage from Frisian.

[2] Ibid. The original line is: “Goddes frede sei mit iw al”. “Frede” calques to modern “Freude”, suggesting joy, pleasure, delight, etc. Mackay rolls with “God’s Peace is with you all”

[3] From the margins of Gresbeck: “(At that time the rebaptizers didn’t have so many wives yet.)”

[4] Kerssenbrück 539

[5] She would actually be burned at the stake for doing so.

[6] In his final confession, Knipperdolling actually swore that van Leiden had foretold the prophet’s death, but had apparently never mentioned the bit about marrying Divara. Regardless of what he personally thought, the merchant was able to improv his response effectively.


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