What was the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster, and why is it important today?

Gray church steeple against a blue sky. Saint Lamberti Catholic Church as seen from Muenster Prinzipalmarkt. The cages in which the corpses of three Anabaptists rotted are visible. — 89matthias on Wikimedia Commons

What was the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster?

The Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster refers to the Anabaptist Reformation in Münster, which lasted from spring 1534 to summer 1535. However, I always have problems with the term Anabaptist “Kingdom” of Münster. For this immediately leads to images in the mind of an “empire” extended in time and territory. It is better to speak of “reign,“ which originates in legal processes. After the elections in February 1534, the council of the city of Münster was purely Anabaptist; this formed the basis for the Anabaptist reign.

Bernhard Rothmann, the Anabaptist preacher in Münster, was a follower of Melchior Hoffman, who preached a very apocalyptic faith. Hoffman believed that Jesus Christ would return to Münster on Easter 1534. This attracted many end-time believers to the city; Münster became the “Heavenly Jerusalem” described in Revelation 21. When the second coming of Jesus Christ, prophesied for Easter 1534, failed to materialize, the near-expectation nevertheless continued. Some claimed to have seen visions that Jan van Leyden was the second King David – again, awaiting the second coming of Jesus Christ.

The Anabaptists established a theocratic rule, oriented toward the Old Testament. Twelve elders were responsible for the defense of the city and for the jurisdiction. The basis for the latter were the Ten Commandments. The fact that the Anabaptists did not shrink from the death penalty and the expulsion of all dissenters from the city always seems disturbing in the context of the general Anabaptist story. But the reign of Münster is not comparable to other Anabaptist movements. Anabaptists in Münster had to shape policy, and they sought to make Münster a purely Anabaptist city. This was accompanied by measures that Anabaptists themselves had experienced in other regions: expulsion and capital punishment—both quite normal for the time.

And yet another aspect of the Anabaptist period in Münster seems difficult in retrospect—the oft-cited polygamy. Recent research, however, puts the peculiarity into perspective. There was a surplus of women in Münster, and since it was not common in the 16th century for women to remain unmarried, one solution was seen in polygamy. Scholars believe many of these polygamous marriages were never consummated, but merely served to provide for single women. This strips polygamy of the sensational images of licentiousness, orgies and gluttony.

Why was the reign so short-lived, and why does it still matter in the 21st century?

The time of the Anabaptists in Münster was short-lived because the bishop Franz von Waldeck was able to reconquer his city after one and a half years. He gathered troops and besieged the city for several months, making the situation increasingly difficult for the Anabaptists. Famine set in, and the Anabaptists had to organize the defense of the city. Finally, in May 1535, one of the Anabaptists fled Münster and revealed the weak points of the defenses to the bishop’s troops, heralding the end of the Anabaptist reign. The bishop’s troops captured Münster; the Anabaptist leaders were executed.

Münster became a warning beacon for all other Anabaptist groups. The events in the city seemed to provide proof to the authorities that all Anabaptists ultimately had only rebellion and sedition in mind. A reference to Münster was still enough to defame Anabaptists in the 18th century. Thus, Münster developed a long culture of remembrance, which, however, was always shaped by the image that others drew of the Anabaptists. We actually know very little about and from the Anabaptists in Münster itself.

Also, the three cages in which the corpses of the Anabaptist leaders were displayed, and which today still hang on the St. Lamberti Church in Münster, have contributed to the long culture of remembrance. Moreover, after 1535, the victors kept alive the memory of the Anabaptists’ “atrocities,” including regular days of prayer, thanksgiving processions, polemical writings, and theatre plays. Then, in the 20th century, Münster’s city tourism discovered the Anabaptists. Anabaptists adorned emergency banknotes, chocolate wrappers and postcards. Even to the present day, the image of the Anabaptists is shaped by all the images, stereotypes and exaggerations that foreigners have ascribed to the Anabaptists, even into television documentaries, films and popular science literature.


Astrid von Schlachta

Astrid von Schlachta of Weierhof, Germany, is head of the Mennonite Research Center and lecturer at the University of Regensburg. Read More

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