Of Shirts, Sorties, and Bible Service

knipperdolling the swordbearer
Knipperdolling the swordbearer.

Jan van Leiden wasn’t just out to reform the city physically though, it was time for a leadership facelift in Münster. Unlike Matthias’ thunderous teleconferences with God, van Leiden opted for a more carefully planned and staged kind of revelation. One calm evening in April Jan van Leiden ran through the streets, wearing himself out with the now typical cries of “come to your senses, people of Zion! [woe, repent, etc. etc.]”.[1] While this kind of screamathon had happened at least a dozen times by this point in the story, Jan van Leiden added his own twist the following morning. He revealed that the Father had shut his mouth and bound his tongue. Clearly whatever epiphany the heavenly Father was uploading into his brain it was a doozy and some buffering was required. For three days Jan van Leiden remained mute, scratching out his orders and teasing the revelation on paper. Then on the third day he announced to the typically expectant crowd that the Father had showed him the new order that would reign in the city. Gone was the town council, in its place were twelve “elders”, functioning as adjudicators and masters of the city. They were given mastery over specific duties, such as fishing, or, “Whenever beer and bread are necessary, the elders will, by the grace of God, see to it that no harm comes to the community”.[2] Interestingly Bernard Knipperdolling was not an elder, but instead granted the title of “Swordbearer”. He would be personally responsible for maintaining law and order in the city, and handling any beheadings meted out as punishment under the new laws.

While Moses had made due with Ten Commandments back in the Old Testament days, Jan van Leiden was far more detailed. The new city codes essentially criminalized most activities. Everything from public drunkenness to theft were now potentially a beheadable offense. In practice, Jan van Leiden pardoned most of the guilty, but it was another way to psychologically place Münster in the palm of his hand. Even so, Bernard Knipperdolling would confess that he killed “ten or twelve” people as the draconian laws were phased in.

As the city continued to twist into its new theocratic shape, the siege continued as a kind of violent slapstick comedy. By their very nature, the majority of a siege is boring. For mercenaries and soldiers waiting to assault the walls, there was little to do while they waited for Franz von Waldeck and his advisers to plan their attack. To pass the time, they diced, gambled, drank, and hurled insults at the defenders. At the risk of life and limb many would run up to the gates and nail worn shoes to them, mockingly calling the prophet to come down and fix them, a strange joke, especially given that “Sometimes they got away, sometimes they fell shot.”[3] In another story, a group of soldiers became obsessed with mooning the Anabaptists, and “after a certain boy took to doing this frequently, almost always in the same location, the townsmen aimed a gun at that place and fired with such effect that his limbs, which were torn apart and scattered all over the place throughout the fields, could scarcely be found, much less gathered.”[4]

The defenders gave as good as they got. In one instance they filled a beer barrel with human waste and sent it out from one of the gates, giving the soldiers a disgusting prize when they undid the stopper. In another, a straw bishop was assembled and stapled with papal bulls. When he was launched from the city on a riderless horse the mercenaries gathered round to look at the oddity. As they ogled the mannequin the Anabaptists fired several cannons at the gaggle of soldiers, “and only a few escaped without injury.”[5]

Bernard Krechting. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The games covered for the more deadly serious guerrilla war that happened each night. Two of Jan’s closest advisers were the Krechting brothers, Bernard and Henry. The pair had served as mercenaries, Henry had actually been part of the sack of Rome in 1527. Under their leadership, the Anabaptists repeatedly launched midnight raids that left the Prince Bishop’s forces with spiked cannons and dead men in their tents each morning. In spite of these mildly painful setbacks, Franz von Waldeck’s forces were slowly preparing for their assault on the city. The date for the attack was set for May 25th, following a three day bombardment to punch holes in both walls. The plan was simple. von Waldeck’s engineers had built a sluice to drain the city’s moat near one spot. With some straw mats thrown in the moat bed, it would be easy to walk across and throw up scaling ladders on the inner wall, as well as rush any breaches in the walls themselves. Certainly the cannons sounded up to the job. If Kerssenbrück is to be believed, when the one known as “The Devil” fired it could be heard over 75 miles away. On the 24th, von Waldeck confidently wrote to Phillip of Hesse and his allies that the whole thing would be over soon, and he would be able to discharge his men in two weeks. That wasn’t quite what happened.

Though the Prince Bishop had made serious efforts to maintain discipline in the camp, nothing is more psychologically ruinous than waiting for the order to charge a bunch of loaded cannons. Understandably the night of the 24th found much of the von Waldeck’s army drinking anything boozy to help them “cast off the terror of death”. One group in particular (von Waldeck blamed the Dutch) was soon so blind drunk that when they saw the sunset, they assumed it was sunrise. Worried that they were about to miss the chance at a good old fashioned city plundering they charged, and pulled the rest of the army in after them. With no mats, the moat was a swampy mess, and the soldiers soon found themselves in a killing ground exposed to the sharpshooters on the walls above them. When darkness finally gave the troops a chance to disengage, hundreds had been killed or seriously wounded in the drunken charge. The more disciplined and prepared Anabaptists had lost less than ten men.

Insisting that this was not in fact a retreat, merely a change of strategy, von Waldeck went back to the drawing board to consider his next move. The attack itself had been a failure, but he was confident that if it had been carried out correctly then it could work. At least that was the sales pitch von Waldeck’s representatives made to his increasingly sceptical neighbors when he asked for more funds, men, and guns. All three were needed to fend off the increasingly brazen Anabaptists, and the local rulers shuddered to think about what would happen if they successfully broke the siege.

triple handgun!
An example of a “triple handgun”, only 200 years too late for the situation. It’s actually not too surprising that someone would try to get around the slow reload time by adding more barrels to the weapon. Photo by the author.

Following their victory, van Leiden’s troops were throwing everything they could at the Prince Bishop’s men to see what would stick. Many of these moments were clearly individual initiative, like the tale of, “Bernard Buxdorp, a very daring man, [who] often left the city alone armed with a triple handgun, just about always at noon, and would challenge the quite drunken soldiers.” [6] Chased to the tune of Yackety Sax Buxdorp would take a few potshots at his pursuers and lead them into a prepared trap set by the other Anabaptists, or simply slip away. In another story, one of the Anabaptists felt compelled by the spirit of the Father to sneak into the town of Wolbeck and attempt to blow up the Prince Bishop’s powder magazine. In this case he not only failed, but was burned at the stake himself in a nastily appropriate punishment.

Yet the most audacious and notorious move was by a 15 year old Dutch girl named Hille Feicken. Hille had been listening to the stories of Bernard Rothmann and the other preachers had made, and the tale of Judith had made a strong impression on her. Judith had seduced the general of an army besieging the Israelite settlement of Bethulia, and then when the man was alone with her and drunk, she had killed him. Taking the head back to her city, the dead general’s army had melted away in shock. Deciding that Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck was a good standin for this evil empire of old, she volunteered to reenact the plot, using a heavily poisoned shirt she had woven herself as the murder weapon. To Jan van Leiden and Bernard Knipperdolling, this must have seemed like it was worth a shot, and it would cost them little if Judith 2.0 failed.

Judith beheading the warlord Holofernes, apparently at a safe arm’s length. It provides the hoped for fate of the Prince Bishop, without the actual result. Photo Credit: Caravaggio

It’s hard to say if something as deeply bizarre as a poisoned shirt could have killed the Prince Bishop, but a traitor named Herman Ramers had already told the details of the plot to von Waldeck. Feicken was tortured, with her limbs broken against a wagon wheel. Defiant to the end, she told her executioner that he would have no power over her, “Hearing this, he brought the sword down on her with energetic force as if what he was cutting through was not the soft neck of a woman but an aged oak.”[7] The Anabaptists needed their luck to change soon.

In spite of all the poisoned shirts, arson, and “triple handgun” ingenuity, the larger Anabaptist pushes failed to shift the momentum of the siege. Their raids continued to meet with success, but their largest sortie outside the city was a resounding failure. In their efforts to break the siege lines, the Anabaptists identified a small ruin just outside cannon range of the walls. Fortifying it in the dead of night, it would have served as a springboard for more and larger attacks on the siege lines, but the Prince Bishop’s men quickly took steps to wipe out this toehold. This low intensity mayhem continued into the summer, when the situation inside Münster suddenly took a stranger turn.

[1] Kerssenbrück 541

[2] Kerssenbrück 550

[3] Kerssenbrück 555

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kerssenbrück 556

[6] Kerssenbrück 565. A note from the Translator Christopher Mackay: “This story is related only by K. I have no idea what he means by “triple handgun” (triplex chyrobombarda).”

[7] Kerssenbrück 568


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