Polygamy and Protest

Abraham and his second wife Hagar. His first wife, Sarah, looks on with a suffering eye roll provided by the artist. One of many stories that would have been known to the Anabaptist preachers, and grounds for an (unconsenting) marriage. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like the awkward fetish revealed after marriage, Jan van Leiden tried to raise the topic of polygamy quietly at first. As far back as late May 1534 he spoke with Bernard Rothmann and some of the city’s leading preachers about its introduction. Far from agreeing with the prophet, Rothmann and the others questioned whether this idea was divinely inspired or coming out of Jan’s “secret place posteriale”.[1] But Jan persisted. Seen through the theological lens, there were some practical arguments for polygamy’s legalization. For one, the city of Münster now had three times as many women as men, a product of both the mass exodus and the abolition of the city’s convents. There had likely been more than a few infidelities, and polygamy must have seemed like a work around. There was also the biblical precedent, and the argument that if marriage was for procreation, then a man needed multiple wives in case someone actually got pregnant or passed the age where having children was biologically possible. When all else failed, Jan threw a temper tantrum; literally hurling the bible down on top of his cloak to silence some of the defiant preachers. Likely with some reluctance by July Rothmann and the others began to slip references to polygamy into their sermons. But before the Münsterites were even more than a little turned on to the topic, Jan’s hand was forced and polygamy exploded onto the scene. This was immediately followed by hasty excuses and pamphlets explaining why this had never happened before, and the special condition the city was experiencing.

To hear Kerssenbrück tell it, Jan had been discovered by a deserter from the Prince Bishop’s army in bed with one of Knipperdolling’s servants. The man had also been staying in Knipperdolling’s house, and he began to mock Jan for his “sham piety”. Even after bribing the man into silence, Jan knew the rumor wouldn’t stay quiet for long. Already he was more or less living with two wives, and a story like this would only reinforce a bad narrative. Hopping out in front, Jan delivered a sermon on the topic to the population on July 23rd.

If the preachers had been a hard sell, then the townsfolk took the news of polygamy even worse. After several hours of shouting, everyone dispersed but it was clear the issue was an unsettling one. Not only was Jan declaring that polygamy was a city wide policy, it wasn’t an option. Women whose husbands had fled the city or had died as Lutherans were also obligated to remarry. If a girl had undergone puberty, she could be forced into a marriage. As the newly adopted city laws also mandated that all household doors had to remain ajar, Gresbeck noted that many of the Hollander Anabaptists would burst into homes randomly to check for girls of nuptial age.

Sebastia mategna
Saint Sebastian’s pincushioned demise provides a decent enough reference for Gert the Smoker’s untimely demise. Given the audience the execution may have been inspired. Photo Credit: Andrea Mategna

Even among the devout Anabaptists, this wasn’t a situation everyone would stand for. A week later the counterrevolution began. Like the hapless and halberded Herbert Ruescher, the revolt was led by another blacksmith named Henry Mollenheck. He had been until July 23rd a committed member of the Anabaptist leadership, and Mollenheck’s name is even listed as the master of munitions. Polygamy was his line in the sand. Mollenheck quickly found a base of support among the deserters from Franz von Waldeck’s army. Around the time polygamy was announced, their nominal leader Gert the Smoker and his friends had been arrested for public drunkenness. Rather than sleeping it off in a drunk tank, the Anabaptists had fastened Gert and his men by their necks to a tree, then shot them full of arrows. If this was a utopia, many of the remaining deserters wanted no part in it.

Henry Mollenheck’s revolution certainly started on the right foot. On the night of July 30th he and his men stormed the town hall, capturing Jan van Leiden, and Bernards Knipperdolling and Rothmann in a hat trick coup. To complete the manoeuvre, groups were sent to other leader’s houses. One of the head elders, Herman Schlactscape was pulled out of a bed he now shared with four wives. Blurry eyed, as he was hauled back to the town hall some of the revolutionary women pelted him with dung, calling out, “do you have enough women now?”[2] While everything had gone swimmingly, Henry Mollenheck faced a big problem. What now? He had hoped that capturing the city leadership would prompt a more general revolution but that hadn’t happened. While he could open the gates for Franz von Waldeck’s men, Mollenheck didn’t want anything to do with the Prince Bishop either. While he mulled over the pickle success had made of him, Jan van Leiden began to shout for help from the Anabaptists near the city hall.

It didn’t take too long for Herman von Tilbeck to rally a counterattack. After some shouted exchanges, Tilbeck rallied five hundred men and ringed the town hall. Soon cannons were pointed at the front door, and Mollenheck retreated to the upper floors with his remaining men. Jan van Leiden and the other leadership were soon released from their prison, shouting out, “No mercy toward the enemies of the lord! No mercy for Mollenheck!”[3] When Anabaptist bullets began to punch through the floorboards around their feet, Mollenheck and his revolutionaries knew the jig was up. Waving a felt hat on the end of a sword, the last one hundred and twenty men surrendered.

The Münster town hall, site of Mollenheck’s last stand. More momentously, also the site of the 1648 Peace of Münster. But that is a story for another time. Photo Gredit: Florian Adler

The ending for Mollenheck and his conspiracy was sad and predictable. Too far gone to appeal to the bishop for aid, but not far enough to swing the city populace, he was tarred as a looter and thief rather than a man spiritually troubled by Jan van Leiden’s leadership. He and over forty of his men were then executed. Some were made to dig their own graves then shot. Others were decapitated or literally split in two by Bernard Knipperdolling, in order to save gunpowder and prevent the Prince Bishop from learning what had transpired.

With the insurrection stamped down, there was no one left in Münster who could prevent Jan van Leiden implementing polygamy. Even writing decades later, Kerssenbrück still can’t seem to believe it, “it was not enough for the stupid crazy people to bring in an actor king who was a guardian of harlots if they did not also bring in actress whores (I meant to say “queens”).”[4] In total van Leiden married sixteen women, with Divara presiding over them as “queen”. Interestingly, in spite of what was likely a lot of intercourse, Jan van Leiden only had two or fewer children, both of them girls. This was considered by some of his contemporaries a sign that he was sterile, and therefore actually a demon.

Other Anabaptist leaders were equally enthusiastic. Relaying the attitude with a more wry perspective, Gresbeck notes that the more wives an Anabaptist had, they had “the better a Christian he must be”. For his part, the cabinet maker married a woman named Clara Clevorn, though he insists this was as much for her protection as anything else. As with many elements of his story though, Gresbeck may have been using his memoirs as a chance to cast himself in a less prominent light in the unfolding nightmare around him.

There is certainly no shortage of horrible stories of the treatment many of the brides were receiving. Kerssenbrück insists that he will “pass over these matters in silence than to offend modest ears”, before immediately diving into every terrible detail. Women who resisted their forced husbands had their arms or legs broken. One married woman with medical knowledge found herself running a makeshift field hospital to help some women and girls recover from trauma and injury related to intercourse and domestic abuse. Two women were also executed, one for denying her husband three times, and the other for marrying two husbands. Apparently polygyny was god’s work, but polyandry was the devil’s.[5]

Outside the city, even the other Anabaptist leaders were questioning the introduction of polygamy. Pamphlets shot back and forth arguing whether the precedent of men like Abraham and David, who had multiple wives, was predated by Adam and Eve’s marriage.[6] Regardless of which piece of biblical precedent was cited, it was clear that polygamy was not winning the Münsterites any friends.

[1] A line from John Trevisa, Cornish historian writing in the 1380’s of Edward II’s death, “sleyne with a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posteriale”.

[2] Arthur 97

[3] Arthur 100

[4] Kerssenbrück 594

[5] For those curious about historical polyandry, the author would suggest looking up Draupadi, a famous character of Hindu legend who had five husbands.

[6] Shockingly, no one considered the slogan “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Divara and Mary Hecker, and Catherine Milling and Anne Laurentz and Angela Kerckering and Anne Averweg and Elizabeth Wantscherer and Catherine Averweg and Elizabeth Dregger and Anne Kibbenbrock and Christina Roede and Margaret Moderson and Elizabeth of Busch and Margaret Grolle and Bernard Knipperdolling’s Daughter”.


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