Why you should care
The Münster rebellion promoted community property, egalitarianism and polygamy, and its legacy is still with us.
Soldiers and citizens gathered at the central square of Münster, a small German city near today’s Dutch border, on Jan. 22, 1536. They’d come to see torture and killing. A drawing of the event shows one figure tied to a pole and being sliced apart with burning tongs. Two other prisoners watch from the sidelines aghast, knowing their fate will be the same. When the mayhem was over, they had all been cut apart, their tongues ripped out, and the mutilated bodies left to rot in cages hanging from the city church.
The three cages still hang from the church today, reminding Münster of their ill-fated rebellion. In 1534, a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation had taken over the city, ruling it in a violent, chaotic way for little more than a year. The group, called Anabaptists, instituted adult baptism, polygamy and communal ownership of property — leading some to label them proto-communists and early precursors to ISIS.
The movement still survives today: “After Münster, the ideas of the Anabaptists spread through the whole Netherlands, and parts of it continued in the Mennonite movement,” says James Stayer, a retired professor at Queen’s University and expert in the early modern history of the Reformation. “They didn’t give up on this peculiar ideology.”
So while the peaceful Quakers, Amish and Mennonites might be surprised to trace their spiritual ancestors to these 16th-century revolutionaries, the Radical Reformation has roots that date back even earlier — to a group of agitators who believed Martin Luther’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church weren’t radical enough. They wanted to return to a more authentic Christianity and rejected an organized church altogether, whether Catholic or Protestant. And where Lutherans tended to ally themselves with existing elites, the radicals championed the common man and attacked feudal lords.
Their anti-feudal fervor came to a head in a massive German peasant uprising in 1525 that was quashed by both Protestant and Catholic lords. The peasants had been whipped up by radical reformers like the fiery preacher Thomas Müntzer, shouting phrases like “omnia sunt communia” (everything should be held in common). Marxists including Karl Kautsky would later link these rebels to their own struggle for a classless society, branding them a type of proto-communists.
Several years later, against a backdrop of Reformation-fueled unrest, violence started brewing in Münster. Lutherans had seized the town from the Prince-Bishop of Münster, a powerful feudal lord. But by 1533, the Lutherans were losing control. “Apocalyptic Anabaptists flooded into the city,” says Stayer. “They took control in 1534 and things took a radical direction. The Anabaptists won the council elections; a few days later they expelled the Catholics and Lutherans.”
Over the course of the rebellion, the “rebaptizers” instituted adult baptisms and community of goods. One of their leaders, Melchior Hoffman, proclaimed in a 1534 pamphlet: “All that has served selfishness and possession, buying and selling, working for money, income and interest, misusing our neighbors by fattening ourselves by their labor, etc., has been completely done away.”
Were the Münster rebels apocalyptic fanatics, similar to modern-day jihadis, or early fighters for a better world … ?
Polygamy was made compulsory — partly from biblical inspiration, partly because there were simply far more women than men in the city. And Jan van Leyden, another rebel leader, “declared himself a new biblical David,” says Stayer, ruling over the new Jerusalem and battling against the Prince-Bishop as he continued to lay siege to the city.
The Anabaptists repelled several attacks, while using brute force to clamp down on internal dissent. “They even mobilized the women to fight off enemy attacks,” says Stayer. But by the summer of 1535, the rebels were starving and exhausted from the long siege, and the city eventually fell, leading to the gruesome execution of its three leaders.
And still, the movement forged on, with surviving Anabaptists proclaiming the end of the world and terrorizing the borderlands between present-day Germany, Netherlands and Belgium for years afterward. The Batenburgers were among the most ruthless, murdering and torturing anyone they considered a nonbeliever, while other strains began to repudiate violence, morphing over time into more peaceful spiritual groups like the Quakers and Mennonites.
Were the Münster rebels apocalyptic fanatics, similar to modern-day jihadis, or early fighters for a better world who believed all men were equal before God and all possessions should be shared communally? Opinion is split, though contemporary accounts were not: “The Anabaptists of Münster were denounced almost universally in contemporary pamphlet literature: for their community of goods, polygamy and presumption to be holy warriors,” says Stayer. But he is quick to note that most historical sources were written either by their enemies or as propaganda by the Anabaptists. Still, to tether the repressive 16th-century rebels to ISIS is a stretch for Stayer. “There was considerable intimidation needed to continue the resistance,” he says, “but not the brutality we associate with ISIS.”
However we classify the Münster revolutionaries, the three cages suspended from St. Lambert’s Church serve as a haunting reminder of a dark past — and evidence that the radicalism, inequality and fanaticism of our so-called modern age aren’t so new.