It’s 300 steps from the street up the ancient spiral stone stairway to the tower keeper’s room of St. Lambert’s Church in Münster, Germany. The stone steps are worn from centuries-long use by the tower keepers, city-appointed watchers for fires and enemies, a tradition since the 1300s.
Two-thirds of the way to the top is a large landing, giving climbers a reprieve. A large warning bell claims the center of the landing. Of more interest to me are three iron cages hanging on the outside of the tower, close enough to touch through an open window.
There they are — the infamous cages (there are replicas in the City Museum) that once held the tortured, lifeless bodies of three leaders of the wildly violent Kingdom of the Anabaptists, 1534-35. The body of Jan van Leiden, the autocratic “King David of the New Israel,” was in the highest cage. Bernard Knipperdolling, the king’s swordbearer and father-in-law, and Bernard Krechting, the chief minister, were side by side on a lower tier.
Looking down between the lower cages I can see the Principal Marketplace, where the king held court on a raised throne adorned with brightly colored silk. Van Leiden, a Dutch tailor, actor and playwright, had been rebaptized by the charismatic “prophet” Jan Matthys.
In the tragic drama of Münster, van Leiden, Knipperdolling and Krechting claim leading roles.
When Matthys dies in a rash attack against the enemy, van Leiden quickly fills the leadership vacuum and marries Matthys’ wife, Divara. After mandating polygamy, van Leiden marries 14 (or 15) additional wives. There are more women than men in the city, and the new kingdom needs all the babies they can make.
The story gets worse. Dissenters are ruthlessly beheaded or hacked to pieces. In an enforced community of goods, van Leiden’s deacons collect all the money, clothing and food. The king and his court eat well as the people starve while the prince-bishop’s mercenaries wait them out.
After 16 months, the kingdom is betrayed from within. The besieging army becomes the plundering, marauding horde that slaughters the rebaptizers and captures their leaders, who are later tortured and executed.
We’ve wanted to forget this story, but the city of Münster keeps it alive. Claiming the bad history with the good is an act of integrity, they say.
Martja Saljé is Münster’s current and first female tower keeper. In the company of six historians, who have been granted special permission by the city, I follow Saljé up the 300 steps to her tiny room. Six nights a week she climbs the tower to sound the “all is well” by tooting an ancient brass horn.
As the ringing of the 9 p.m. bells dissipates, the tower keeper steps through her door onto a narrow enclosed ledge and blows the horn over the city — nine toots to the north, nine to the west, nine to the south.
Then she steps up to lean over the decorative stone balcony and waves to her city. Across the way, the windows of the retirement complex are open; the residents wave back.
On the half hour, it’s two toots in each direction. At 10, 11 and 12, she blows 10 times, 11 times, 12 times. Then her work is finished, to be repeated five more nights, as tower keepers have been doing since before the Anabaptist uprising.
When I ask, Saljé says she knows that Menno Simons helped to rescue the Anabaptist movement from the stain of Münster’s violence.
John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.