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THE PEASANTS AND THE ANABAPTISTS
 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."
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 Münzer, 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
mediævalism 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
Truchsess held a terrible court of justice in the city of Würzburg, 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
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 Münzer, 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 Münzer '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, Münzer went to Thuringia, and gained such control by his
preaching and his doctrines over the people of the town of Mülhausen 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 Münzer 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. Münzer 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 Münzer, who, foreseeing
danger to himself, did his utmost to awaken the fanaticism of his followers.
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 Münzer had promised would come to their aid. Not the glimpse of an
angel's wing appeared in the sky. Münzer 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 Münzer, 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 Münster, 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 Münster 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.
Münster 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.
OLD HOUSES AT MUNSTER.
 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 Münster 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.
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.
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
 Münster, where they were cruelly tortured, and at length put to death by piercing their hearts with red-hot
Their bodies were placed in iron cages, and suspended on the front of the church of St. Lambert, in the
market-place of Münster, 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 Münster's past history.
The Münster 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 Münster 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.