Christmas Miracles, Easter Resurrections

martyrs mirror
A 17th Century woodcut of an Anabaptist meeting his end, from the popular Protestant pamphlet “Martyr’s Mirror”.

By early winter, the city was truly feeling the pinch of the siege. While King Jan’s inner circle and the city’s guards continued to eat well, everyone else was running out of food. Hoping for a Christmas Miracle Jan opted to try his apostle’s trick a third time in December. Reasoning that numbers had just made it easier for his emissaries to be tracked by the Prince Bishop’s forces, only one small group of Dutchmen was dispatched. They were given another pile of coins, a new pamphlet from Rothmann entitled “Revenge”, and were ordered to spark a new uprising in the Netherlands.[1] All things considered the group met with success, given that they were betrayed within a week of leaving.

Shortly after the expedition left, Henry Graes had convinced Jan van Leiden that he was willing to raise a similar force elsewhere. After all, he had survived the last expedition, and it must have been to preserve him for this new divine mission. On January 2nd, Graes slipped out of the city and made straight for the Prince Bishop’s camp. Von Waldeck passed on the message, and the apostles were eventually caught and killed in Amsterdam. However to von Waldeck’s annoyance, before they were caught the preachers managed to toss together one final hurrah from the Anabaptists which kept the region’s lords hopping for another few months.[2]

As a kind of parallel to this bottom up revolution, Jan and Bernard Knipperdolling also tried appealing for a top down salvation. Reprinting his recent work “Restitution”, Knipperdolling smuggled out copies directly to Martin Luther and other leading Protestants like Phillip of Hesse.[3] Unfortunately if Rothmann had thought this would get a fair hearing he had badly misjudged Luther. Like the rest of Germany, Martin Luther had indeed been closely following the events in Münster. He had even commented that von Waldeck’s resort to physical violence was unfortunate. The Anabaptists were still heretical to Luther’s thinking, but he wished the Prince Bishop had used the “sword of the spirit” to teach them the error of their ways instead. Now glancing over the pamphlet that had been mailed to him with mounting rage, Luther reached for his own fiery spirit sword:

Since you are led astray by the devil into such blasphemous error, and are drunk and utterly captive to your delusions, you wish, as is Satan’s way, to make yourselves angels of light and to paint in brightness and color your devilish doings.[4]

To Luther, Münster had become a grotesque parody of everything he espoused. Nor was Martin Luther’s hate mail the only awkward response to arrive in Münster that January. Now safely back in von Waldeck’s camp, Henry Graes gave Jan van Leiden one final kick in the sensitives by nailing a denunciation of the Tailor King on one of Münster’s gates. While Jan had established some downright draconian penalties for anyone caught in possession of writings from the besiegers, he couldn’t keep the letter’s contents from getting out. Nor was there any denying the author, Graes sealed the message with his personal signet ring:

Dear fellow-citizens. God has opened my eyes so that I now see how what we wrought in Münster is false and poisonous; He has commanded me to hold up for you the mirror of your wickedness, as He has held it up for me. I beg you to open your eyes –it is high time!- and to see that what you have done is against God and His divine command. All the prophets are only men like me. You poor, stupid fools have been deceived, betrayed, and misled. I know everything. You may still save your lives if you will turn from your path and leave this Godless business behind. This is God’s command.[5]

By March, Graes’ defection and the state of the siege led the Münster revolution to devour its own, both literally and figuratively. The horses had long since been cut up and devoured, hooves and all.[6] The dogs, cats, and rats had been tossed into the pots. Every fish, snake, and animal found near the Aa river was consumed. Even the bark on the trees was stripped by April. Finally by May, even the bodies of the dead were exhumed from their mass graves and devoured by the starving citizenry.

The number of executions also began to increase sharply. When they still had cows, a cattle driver who attempted to herd the flock to the Prince Bishop’s siege lines was personally decapitated by King Jan. A boy was hanged for stealing an apple. Nicholas Snider was cut into thirteen pieces for conspiring with his wife to spy for the Prince Bishop in exchange for their lives. The list of dead goes on, and becomes almost numbing.

Vor_dem_Throne_Königs_Johan_von_Leyden Joseoph Stattler
“Before the Throne of Jan van Leiden”. Woodcut by Joseph Stattler

The schoolmaster Henry Graes was also far from the only spy the Prince Bishop had in the city, and others began to take their cues and flee. A Danish nobleman named Turban Bill[7] fled with a portion of the city treasury, leaving behind his Anabaptist wife and two other women for the leadership to torture and execute.[8]

Against the backdrop of daily horror and cannibalism, King Jan’s lies grew progressively more absurd. He began to appoint his inner circle another round of new honors to ensure their loyalty. Each man would now rule a different portion of the empire, becoming the Duke of Brandenburg and so on under the global King Jan. When the prophesized Easter of 1535 arrived on March 28th, Jan acted like a student on test day and announced he was ill. When he finally appeared six days later, he told the gathered assembly of human scarecrows that they had been saved. He apologized for the tiny miscommunication, but he really hadn’t meant they would be “physically” liberated by Easter. No, they were “spiritually” liberated. For the past six days Jan had been borne down by the collective weight of Münster’s sins, and now the Father had lifted them from him, cleansing the entire city of spiritual ills. That was the important part here, and

He told them to await external liberation with patience, since it was sure to happen if they did not relapse into sin and if they put their full faith in the Father, Who would never desert His people and Who would test their steadfastness with various adversities.[9]

While this may not have been the most convincing bit of theological weaselspeak the crowd had heard, most were likely too hungry to overthrow King Jan. Instead, by early May many people finally begged Jan’s permission to leave the city. For the most part these refugees weren’t hoping for salvation, but instead for a quick death from the guns of the Prince Bishop’s men. Jan agreed, but warned that they would not be allowed to return if they left the city. Over the next month, perhaps more than a thousand people found themselves in between the siege lines of Franz von Waldeck and the city. While the Anabaptists wouldn’t let them return, von Waldeck had no interest in taking them either. Through April, the mercenaries watched from their ramparts as human beings slowly starved in front of them. Finally, one of the Prince Bishop’s commanders couldn’t stand it any longer, and ordered that at least the women and children be spared. It was a dark stain even in the already brutal siege, and showed there were still a few thin lines the Catholic soldiers were unwilling to cross.

[1] Revenge is a lot less friendly and communistic than Rothmann’s prior work. This one is more a thesis for the bloodier sort of revolution.

[2] Incidentally, the ready and recurring response to Jan’s revolutionary call prompted a large amount of soul searching in the Anabaptist community that continues to this day.

[3] It’s unclear to the author how Rothmann was able to so effectively smuggle his articles over a siege wall. Somehow physical barriers never seemed to stop his writings from trickling out.

[4] Arthur 136.

[5] Arthur 142

[6] Starting, apparently, with a horse that had run into the city prior to the siege. Jan had declared the lucky steed to be a gift from God, but it ended up in the King’s pot like all the others in Gresbeck’s account.

[7] No, the author doesn’t know where the nickname came from either.

[8] One of them was Bernard Knipperdolling’s mistress. The enraged cloth merchant killed her personally in front of his five wives.

[9] Kerssenbruck 670.


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