• Germany's news in English
 
Expat Dispatches
Orgies and executions: It's mayhem in Münster
Jan van Leiden baptizes a woman in Münster in a painting by Johann Karl Ulrich Bähr. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Orgies and executions: It's mayhem in Münster

The Local · 28 Mar 2014, 12:33

Published: 28 Mar 2014 12:33 GMT+01:00

He not only thought that he'd be a better ruler than the squabbling Elector Counts of the Holy Roman Empire of the 16th century, but that he was also God's elect.

He considered himself a man chosen by the bloke upstairs to usher in a glorious new age of peace and godliness across Europe. 

Jan was an Anabaptist - one of the sects that sprouted like weeds once the Catholic Church was splintered by the Reformation.

His people believed that one could only come to the Kingdom of Heaven by willingly being baptized as an adult.

They also believed in some fairly-forward thinking ideas such as pacifism, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state - ideas that could get you killed in the early 1530s. 

Jan, from the Dutch city of Leiden, came to Münster in 1533 as a result of the danger these ideas had placed him in. He had heard that the city was friendly to Anabaptists and that he'd be able to make something of himself amongst a group of fellow believers. 

He heard correctly. 

Within months of his arrival, Jan, along with a few of his Anabaptist mates, had seized control of the city, kicking out the city's council and stacking it with fellow believers.

They achieved this mostly by running around the streets in a state of half-dressed religious zeal, singing about the End of Days and the glories that awaited God's chosen ones.  

Amazingly, this worked - you have to remember that this was an age of intense religious strife and hysteria. Anyone promising a little peace and prosperity far from the blood and muck of this world was considered worth hearing out.

A bishop strikes back

The fall of Münster to Jan and the Anabaptists did not go unnoticed.

The town's bishop, Franz von Waldeck had been expelled at swordpoint and he was understandably irked.

As the local military, as well as spiritual ruler of the region, he wasn't going to take this lying down.

Bringing in troops and foreign mercenaries, von Waldeck surrounded the city with large earthworks in an attempt to starve out the inhabitants. He also horribly mutilated anyone who tried to break through the blockade as a warning to those within. 

Inside the besieged city, Jan's ideas and proclamations became a little more sordid and earthy. Citing scripture, he announced to the good folk of Münster that every woman of marrying age should be hitched.

Never mind that there were less men than women in the city - the blokes would just had to take one for the team and take on a second (and third, and fourth) wife.

Polygamy became the order of the day and there is speculation that orgiastic behaviour started to take hold.

One can forgive Jan and his followers the odd team grope, even stomach his claims of divine wisdom. These hardly distinguish the Anabaptists from a hundred other groups in modern history. We're all guilty of letting power get to our heads at one stage or another. 

Where things started to go wrong - to go really quite awful, actually - was when Jan and his followers decided that they had the divine mandate to execute their fellow citizens without trial.

Off with her head

The victims were overwhelmingly women and capital punishment was meted out for some truly ridiculous offenses. 

You could lose your head for refusing to marry. Hell, you could lose your head for merely laughing at Jan and his mates. 

One of the strangest episodes of the Münster rebellion saw Jan lop the head off one of his sixteen wives, Elizabeth Wandscherer.

She'd had the nerve to call Jan out on his luxurious lifestyle and return the jewellery he'd given her - jewellery he'd looted. 

Jan responded by taking Wandscherer into the town's marketplace and executed her, making the crowd sing as he did. He then began to dance around her beheaded corpse, praising God. 

Like most crazed cultists surrounded by the forces of law and order, Jan and his Anabaptists couldn't hold out forever. Food, supplies and ammunition started to dwindle and morale sunk. 

On June 25th 1535, a disgruntled city refugee called Gresbeck led a large group of very well-armed mercenaries through the defences into Münster. 

Once the alarm was raised, the fighting was intense. The bishop's men had to fight their way, street by street until they reached the city square. No quarter was given after months of siege and the streets were slick with gore. 

Finally, the core of resistance was broken and the Anabaptists were caught. They were thrown in prison to await trial as von Waldeck consolidated his hold on the city and began to return things to normal.

Death by tongs

On a cold, bright day in January 1536, Jan and his two highest-ranking henchmen were led to a scaffold in the Münster marketplace in front of an audience of von Waldeck, his fellow bishops and a huge number of rubberneckers.

There, pairs of red hot tongs were used to tear pieces of flesh from the bodies of Jan and his colleagues whilst still alive. After a time, all three were dispatched with a dagger to the heart. 

Following their execution, the bodies of Jan and his sidekicks were suspended in large metal cages, a reminder to the people of the city not to get any ideas about their station in life. 

If you visited Münster, you could still see this reminder. After a time, the cages were suspended from the tower of St Lambert's church where all around could see. 

What have we learned? There's plenty to draw from this tale about the danger of cults and falling under the sway of a charismatic leader. 

For me, however, it's this - don't annoy a bishop. 

By Mike Stuchbery @Mike_Stuchberry

Mike is a teacher and writer originally from Australia and now living in Stuttgart.

Expat Dispatches is a weekly post from an English-language blogger or writer in Germany. It covers everything from lifestyle and food to history and culture. Email news@thelocal.com to have your blog considered for publication.

SEE ALSO: Headless and limbless: Germany's best saints

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Germans still love couch and TV in their free time
Sitting front of the TV - Germany's favourite pastime. Photo: DPA

Germans still love couch and TV in their free time

4 hours ago

A new study shows that Germans' best-loved activity is sitting in front of the idiot box - and when they're not doing that they're probably slumped in front of a computer.

This Week in History
The day that 'sealed East Germany's fate'
At 3am on August 23rd, MPs applauded as the People's Chamber set a date for reunification. Photo: DPA

The day that 'sealed East Germany's fate'

3 hours ago

After the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989, East and West Germany still had a long way to go before they could become one nation. But in August 1990, the date was finally set for the birth of reunified Germany.

Migrant crisis
Merkel: Austria tragedy a ‘warning’ for Europe
Forensic experts investigate a truck in which refugees were found dead as it stands by the Autobahn in Austria. Photo: DPA.

Merkel: Austria tragedy a ‘warning’ for Europe

3 hours ago

The "horrible" discovery on Thursday of between 20 and 50 dead migrants on a truck in Austria is a warning to Europe to get to grips with the migrant crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday. Other leading German politicians laid out their plans for handling the influx of refugees.

Facebook to meet gov on Internet hate-mongering
Are Facebook keeping a close enough eye on hate speech? Photo: DPA

Facebook to meet gov on Internet hate-mongering

10 hours ago

Update: Facebook on Thursday accepted an invitation from Germany's justice minister to discuss doing more to purge the social network of racist posts after widespread complaints from users.

Berlin orchestra angers Israel with Iran concert
Renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim is under attack by Israel's government. Photo: DPA

Berlin orchestra angers Israel with Iran concert

6 hours ago

Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim is hoping to take one of Germany's top orchestras to Iran to perform a concert there, the Berlin State Opera said Thursday, drawing angry protests from Israel.

Netzpolitik Affair
Merkel's office 'hid knowledge of probe'
The Chancellery. Photo: Heinz Albers

Merkel's office 'hid knowledge of probe'

7 hours ago

After digital rights blog Netzpolitik revealed that state prosecutors were investigating two of its journalists for treason, Chancellor Angela Merkel's office reacted with shock. Now Spiegel reports that the Chancellery knew about the investigation in April.

Internet surveillance
Spies 'traded Germans' data for US software'
Photo: DPA

Spies 'traded Germans' data for US software'

8 hours ago

Media reports on Thursday alleged that German spies traded access to information about the country to the US National Security Agency (NSA) in exchange for surveillance software.

Man City snap up De Bruyne for €80 million
Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: DPA

Man City snap up De Bruyne for €80 million

10 hours ago

Manchester City have signed one of the stars of last season's Bundesliga campaign. But he didn't come cheap.

NATO troops join in large German training exercise
NATO paratroopers training in Romania on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

NATO troops join in large German training exercise

11 hours ago

More than 1,000 NATO paratroopers jumped from aircraft above Germany on Wednesday in one of the alliance's largest airborne training exercises in Europe since the Cold War ended, the US army said.

Lightning strikes at least twice in Cottbus
Lightning over Germany. Photo: DPA

Lightning strikes at least twice in Cottbus

1 day ago

If you feel like you are an unlucky person by nature you probably want to avoid Cottbus. A study released on Wednesday shows that the old wisdom that lightning never strikes twice is far from true in the town near the Polish border.

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS

National
Weekend of anti-refugee violence shocks Germany
National
Half of Germans 'have had sex in their car'
Society
Deadly stew spooks home vegetable gardeners
Politics
The man who brought two Germanies together
Features
Where to get your culture fix in Cologne
Education
Fairytale world of Brothers Grimm brought to life
Rhineland
Thieves leave 1,000 open beers untasted
National
Way to some Germans' hearts is through their wallets
National
Germany's biggest challenge: European refugee crisis
Travel
Where to get your adrenaline pumping in Germany
Technology
Could thieves hack into luxury cars?
What to watch out for when snapping your lunch
National
German lefties through history
National
The fight over prostitution heats up
National
Merkel: migrants, not Greece, are the real challenge
Features
How I explained the Queen to the Germans
Education
Why Germany does 'back-to-school' traditions better
National
Germans are ‘not how foreigners think’
National
A mum and daughter reunite 70 years after WWII
Sport
Bra stops bullet in hunting mishap miracle
National
Cows trample German woman to death in Graubünden Alps
Business & Money
Start-up helps new Berliners short cut bureaucracy
National
The 1,000s of Germans massacred after the Second World War
Sport
Germany star scores own goal with PR gaffe
Features
'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?
Politics
Satire and reality blur in parody party's strife
National
13-year-old boy detained for trying to join Isis
Culture
Berlin restaurant serves up Greek Crisis Menu
Rhineland
Doctor on trial after woman wakes in morgue
Society
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Society
Police bust kinky Bavarian couple over painful love-making
Politics
Merkel brings Palestinian girl to tears
Hamburg
Amateur archaeologist finds Nazi gold hoard
National
Could Merkel learn a lesson in love from this doppelganger?
Travel
Why you should stay in Germany for the summer holidays
Sport
German press tell Schweinsteiger 'good riddance'
National
Hamburg gets a bouncing 100kg baby girl
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

7,032
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd