The Peasants And The Anabaptists by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

Germany, in great part, under the leadership of Martin Luther, had broken loose from the Church of Rome, the ball which he had set rolling being kept in motion by other hands. The ideas of many of those who followed him were full of the spirit of fanaticism. The pendulum of religious thought, set in free swing, vibrated from the one extreme of authority to the opposite extreme of license, going as far beyond Luther as he had gone beyond Rome. There arose a sect to which was given the name of Anabaptists, from its rejection of infant baptism, a sect with a strange history, which it now falls to us to relate.

The new movement, indeed, was not confined to matters of religion. The idea of freedom from authority once set afloat, quickly went further than its advocates intended. If men were to have liberty of thought, why should they not have liberty of action? So argued the peasantry, and not without the best of reasons, for they were pitifully oppressed by the nobility, weighed down with feudal exactions to support the luxury of the higher classes, their crops destroyed by the horses and dogs of hunting-parties, their families ill-treated and insulted by the men-at-arms who were maintained at their expense, their flight from tyranny to the freedom of the cities prohibited by nobles and citizens alike, everywhere enslaved, everywhere despised, it is no wonder they joined with gladness in the revolutionary sentiment and made a vigorous demand for political liberty.

As a result of all this an insurrection broke out,–a double insurrection in fact,–here of the peasantry for their rights, there of the religious fanatics for their license. Suddenly all Germany was upturned by the greatest and most dangerous outbreak of the laboring classes it had ever known, a revolt which, had it been ably led, might have revolutionized society and founded a completely new order of things.

In 1522 the standard of revolt was first raised, its signal a golden shoe, with the motto, “Whoever will be free let him follow this ray of light.” In 1524 a fresh insurrection broke out, and in the spring of the following year the whole country was aflame, the peasants of southern Germany being everywhere in arms and marching on the strongholds of their oppressors.

Their demands were by no means extreme. They asked for a board of arbitration, to consist of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Elector of Saxony, Luther, Melanchthon, and several preachers, to consider their proposed articles of reform in industrial and political concerns. These articles covered the following points. They asked the right to choose their own pastors, who were to preach the word of God from the Bible; the abolition of dues, except tithes to the clergy; the abolition of vassalage; the rights of hunting and fishing, and of cutting wood in the forests; reforms in rent, in the administration of justice, and in the methods of application of the laws; the restoration of communal property illegally seized; and several other matters of the same general character.

They asked in vain. The princes ridiculed the idea of a court in which Luther should sit side by side with the archduke. Luther refused to interfere. He admitted the oppression of the peasantry, severely attacked the princes and nobility for their conduct, but deprecated the excesses which the insurgents had already committed, and saw no safety from worse evils except in putting down the peasantry with a strong hand.

The rejection of the demands of the rebellious peasants was followed by a frightful reign of license, political in the south, religious in the north. Everywhere the people were in arms, destroying castles, burning monasteries, and forcing numbers of the nobles to join them, under pain of having their castles plundered and burned. The counts of Hohenlohe were made to enter their ranks, and were told, “Brother Albert and brother George, you are no longer lords but peasants, and we are the lords of Hohenlohe.” Other nobles were similarly treated. Various Swabian nobles fled for safety, with their families and treasures, to the city and castle of Weinsberg. The castle was stormed and taken, and the nobles, seventy in number, were forced to run the gantlet between two lines of men armed with spears, who stabbed them as they passed. It was this deed that brought out a pamphlet from Luther, in which he called on all the citizens of the empire to put down “the furious peasantry, to strangle, to stab them, secretly and openly, as they can, as one would kill a mad dog.”

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There was need for something to be done if Germany was to be saved from a revolution. The numbers of the insurgents steadily increased. Many of the cities were in league with them, several of the princes entered in negotiation concerning their demands; in Thuringia the Anabaptists, under the lead of a fanatical preacher named Thomas Muenzer, were in full revolt; in Saxony, Hesse, and lower Germany the peasantry were in arms; there was much reason to fear that the insurgents and fanatics would join their forces and pour like a rushing torrent through the whole empire, destroying all before them. Of the many peasant revolts which the history of mediaevalism records this was the most threatening and dangerous, and called for the most strenuous exertions to save the institutions of Germany from a complete overthrow.

At the head of the main body of insurgents was a knight of notorious character, the famed Goetz von Berlichingen,–Goetz with the Iron Hand, as he is named,–a robber baron whose history had been one of feud and contest, and of the plunder alike of armed foes and unarmed travellers. Goethe has honored him by making him the hero of a drama, and the peasantry sought to honor him by making him the leader of their march of destruction. This worthy had lost his hand during youth, and replaced it with a hand of iron. He was bold, daring, and unscrupulous, but scarcely fitted for generalship, his knowledge of war being confined to the tactics of highway robbery. Nor can it be said that his leadership of the peasants was voluntary. He was as much their prisoner as their general, his service being an enforced one.

With the redoubtable Goetz at their head the insurgents poured onward, spreading terror before them, leaving ruin behind them. Castles and monasteries were destroyed, until throughout Thuringia, Franconia, Swabia, and along the Rhine as far as Lorraine the homes of lords and clergy were destroyed, and a universal scene of smoking ruins replaced the formerly stately architectural piles.

We cannot go further into the details of this notable outbreak. The revolt of the southern peasantry was at length brought to an end by an army collected by the Swabian league, and headed by George Truchsess of Waldburg. Had they marched against him in force he could not have withstood their onset. But they occupied themselves in sieges, disregarding the advice of their leaders, and permitted themselves to be attacked and beaten in detail. Seeing that all was at an end, Goetz von Berlichingen secretly fled from their ranks and took refuge in his castle. Many of the bodies of peasantry dispersed. Others made head against the troops and were beaten with great slaughter. All was at an end.

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Truchsess held a terrible court of justice in the city of Wuerzburg, in which his jester Hans acted as executioner, and struck off the heads of numbers of the prisoners, the bloody work being attended with laughter and jests, which added doubly to its horror. All who acknowledged that they had read the Bible, or even that they knew how to read and write, were instantly beheaded. The priest of Schipf, a gouty old man who had vigorously opposed the peasants, had himself carried by four of his men to Truchsess to receive thanks for his services. Hans, fancying that he was one of the rebels, slipped up behind him, and in an instant his head was rolling on the floor.

“I seriously reproved my good Hans for his untoward jest,” was the easy comment of Truchsess upon this circumstance.

Throughout Germany similar slaughter of the peasantry and wholesale executions took place. In many places the reprisal took the dimensions of a massacre, and it is said that by the end of the frightful struggle more than a hundred thousand of the peasants had been slain. As for its political results, the survivors were reduced to a deeper state of servitude than before. Thus ended a great struggle which had only needed an able leader to make it a success and to free the people from feudal bonds. It ended like all the peasant outbreaks, in defeat and renewed oppression. As for the robber chief Goetz, while he is said by several historians to have received a sentence of life imprisonment, Menzel states that he was retained in prison for two years only.

In Thuringia, as we have said, the revolt was a religious one, it being controlled by Thomas Muenzer, a fanatical Anabaptist. He pretended that he had the gift of receiving divine revelations, and claimed to be better able to reveal Christian truth than Luther. God had created the earth, he said, for believers, all government should be regulated by the Bible and revelation, and there was no need of princes, priests, or nobles. The distinction between rich and poor was unchristian, since in God’s kingdom all should be alike. Nicholas Storch, one of Muenzer’s preachers, surrounded himself with twelve apostles and seventy-two disciples, and claimed that an angel brought him divine messages.

Driven from Saxony by the influence of Luther, Muenzer went to Thuringia, and gained such control by his preaching and his doctrines over the people of the town of Muelhausen that all the wealthy people were driven away, their property confiscated, and the sole control of the place fell into his hands.

So great was the disturbance caused by his fanatical teachings and the exertions of his disciples that Luther again bestirred himself, and called on the princes for the suppression of Muenzer and his fanatical horde. A division of the army was sent into Thuringia, and came up with a large body of the Anabaptists near Frankenhausen, on May 15, 1525. Muenzer was in command of the peasants. The army officers, hoping to bring them to terms by lenient measures, offered to pardon them if they would give up their leaders and peacefully retire to their homes. This offer might have been effective but for Muenzer, who, foreseeing danger to himself, did his utmost to awaken the fanaticism of his followers.

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It happened that a rainbow appeared in the heavens during the discussion. This, he declared, was a messenger sent to him from God. His ignorant audience believed him, and for the moment were stirred up to a mad enthusiasm which banished all thoughts of surrender. Rushing in their fury on the ambassadors of peace and pardon, they stabbed them to death, and then took shelter behind their intrenchments, where they prepared for a vigorous defence.

Their courage, however, did not long endure the vigorous assault made by the troops of the elector. In vain they looked for the host of angels which Muenzer had promised would come to their aid. Not the glimpse of an angel’s wing appeared in the sky. Muenzer himself took to flight, and his infatuated followers, their blind courage vanished, fell an easy prey to the swords of the soldiers.

The greater part of the peasant horde were slain, while Muenzer, who had concealed himself from pursuit in the loft of a house in Frankenhausen, was quickly discovered, dragged forth, put to the rack, and beheaded, his death putting an end to that first phase of the Anabaptist outbreak.

After this event, several years passed during which the Anabaptists kept quiet, though their sect increased. Then came one of the most remarkable religious revolts which history records. Persecution in Germany had caused many of the new sectarians to emigrate to the Netherlands, where their preachings were effective, and many new members were gained. But the persecution instigated by Charles V. against heretics in the Netherlands fell heavily upon them and gave rise to a new emigration, great numbers of the Anabaptists now seeking the town of Muenster, the capital of Westphalia. The citizens of this town had expelled their bishop, and had in consequence been treated with great severity by Luther, in his effort to keep the cause of religious reform separate from politics. The new-comers were received with enthusiasm, and the people of Muenster quickly fell under the influence of two of their fanatical preachers, John Matthiesen, a baker, of Harlem, and John Bockhold, or Bockelson, a tailor, of Leyden.

Muenster soon became the seat of an extraordinary outburst of profligacy, fanaticism, and folly. The Anabaptists took possession of the town, drove out all its wealthy citizens, elected two of themselves–a clothier named Knipperdolling and one Krechting–as burgomasters, and started off in a remarkable career of self-government under Anabaptist auspices.

A community of property was the first measure inaugurated. Every person was required to deposit all his possessions, in gold, silver, and other articles of value, in a public treasury, which fell under the control of Bockelson, who soon made himself lord of the city. All the images, pictures, ornaments, and books of the churches, except their Bibles, were publicly burned. All persons were obliged to eat together at public tables, all made to work according to their strength and without regard to their former station, and a general condition of communism was established. Bockelson gave himself out as a prophet, and quickly gained such influence over the people that they were ready to support him in the utmost excesses of folly and profligacy.

One of the earliest steps taken was to authorize each man to possess several wives, the number of women who had sought Muenster being six times greater than the men. John Bockelson set the example by marrying three at once. His licentious example was quickly followed by others, and for a full year the town continued a scene of unbridled profligacy and mad license. One of John’s partisans, claiming to have received a divine communication, saluted him as monarch of the whole globe, the “King of Righteousness,” his title of royalty being “John of Leyden,” and declared that heaven had chosen him to restore the throne of David. Twenty-eight apostles were selected and sent out, charged to preach the new gospel to the whole earth and to bring its inhabitants to acknowledge the divinely-commissioned king. Their success was not great, however. Wherever they came they were seized and immediately executed, the earth showing itself very unwilling to accept John of Leyden as its king.

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In August, 1534, an army, led by Francis of Waldeck, the expelled bishop, who was supported by the landgrave of Hesse and several other princes, advanced and laid siege to the city, which the Anabaptists defended with furious zeal. In the first assault, which was made on August 30, the assailants were repulsed with severe loss. They then settled down to the slower but safer process of siege, considering it easier to starve out than to fight out their enthusiastic opponents.

One of the two leaders of the citizens, John Matthiesen, made a sortie against the troops with only thirty followers, filled with the idea that he was a second Gideon, and that God would come to his aid to defeat the oppressors of His chosen people. The aid expected did not come, and Matthiesen and his followers were all cut down. His death left John of Leyden supreme. He claimed absolute authority in the new “Zion,” received daily fresh visions from heaven, which his followers implicitly believed and obeyed, and indulged in wild excesses which only the insane enthusiasm of his followers kept them from viewing with disgust. Among his mad freaks was that of running around the streets naked, shouting, “The King of Zion is come.” His lieutenant Knipperdolling, not to be outdone in fanaticism, followed his example, shouting, “Every high place shall be brought low.” Immediately the mob assailed the churches and pulled down all the steeples. Those who ventured to resist the monarch’s decrees were summarily dealt with, the block and axe, with Knipperdolling as headsman, quickly disposing of all doubters and rebels.

Such was the doom of Elizabeth, one of the prophet’s wives, who declared that she could not believe that God had condemned so many people to die of hunger while their king was living in abundance. John beheaded her with his own hands in the market-place, and then, in insane frenzy, danced around her body in company with his other wives. Her loss was speedily repaired. The angels were kept busy in picking out new wives for the inspired tailor, till in the end he had seventeen in all, one of whom, Divara by name, gained great influence by her spirit and beauty.

While all this was going on within the city, the army of besiegers lay encamped about it, waiting patiently till famine should subdue the stubborn courage of the citizens. Numbers of nobles flocked thither by way of pastime, in the absence of any other wars to engage their attention. Nor were the citizens without aid from a distance. Parties of their brethren from Holland and Friesland sought to relieve them, but in vain. All their attempts were repelled, and the siege grew straiter than ever.

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The defence from within was stubborn, women and boys being enlisted in the service. The boys stood between the men and fired arrows effectively at the besiegers. The women poured lime and melted pitch upon their heads. So obstinate was the resistance that the city might have held out for years but for the pinch of famine. The effect of this was temporarily obviated by driving all the old men and the women who could be spared beyond the walls; but despite this the grim figure of starvation came daily nearer and nearer, and the day of surrender or death steadily approached.

A year at length went by, the famine growing in virulence with the passing of the days. Hundreds perished of starvation, yet still the people held out with a fanatical courage that defied assault, still their king kept up their courage by divine revelations, and still he contrived to keep himself sufficiently supplied with food amid his starving dupes.

At length the end came. Some of the despairing citizens betrayed the town by night to the enemy. On the night of June 25, 1535, two of them opened the gates to the bishop’s army, and a sanguinary scene ensued. The betrayed citizens defended themselves desperately, and were not vanquished until great numbers of them had fallen and the work of famine had been largely completed by the sword. John of Leyden was made prisoner, together with his two chief men,–Knipperdolling, his executioner, and Krechting, his chancellor,–they being reserved for a slower and more painful fate.

For six months they were carried through Germany, enclosed in iron cages, and exhibited as monsters to the people. Then they were taken back to Muenster, where they were cruelly tortured, and at length put to death by piercing their hearts with red-hot daggers.

Their bodies were placed in iron cages, and suspended on the front of the church of St. Lambert, in the market-place of Muenster, while the Catholic worship was re-established in that city. The cages, and the instruments of torture, are still preserved, probably as salutary examples to fanatics, or as interesting mementos of Muenster’s past history.

The Muenster madness was the end of trouble with the Anabaptists. They continued to exist, in a quieter fashion, some of them that fled from persecution in Germany and Holland finding themselves exposed to almost as severe a persecution in England. As a sect they have long since vanished, while the only trace of their influence is to be seen in those recent sects that hold the doctrine of adult baptism.

The history of mankind presents no parallel tale to that we have told. It was an instance of insanity placed in power, of lunacy ruling over ignorance and fanaticism; and the doings of John of Leyden in Muenster may be presented as an example alike of the mad extremes to which unquestioned power is apt to lead, and the vast capabilities of faith and trust which exist in uneducated man.

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