• 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

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 stories about Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Spectator killed in Nürburgring crash
A section of the Nürburgring's north circuit

Spectator killed in Nürburgring crash

A man has been killed and several others injured in an accident at Germany's Nürburgring racetrack. READ  

Alps Plane Crash
Germany to hold April service for crash victims
Photo: DPA

Germany to hold April service for crash victims

Germany will hold a national memorial ceremony and service on April 17 for victims of the Germanwings flight that crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 aboard, regional authorities said on Saturday. READ  

Scientists aiming to redefine the kilogram
The world's roundest sphere. Photo: DPA

Scientists aiming to redefine the kilogram

The German Nation Metrology Institute (PTB) in Braunschweig has set itself the enormous task of finding a new formula for measuring a kilogram. READ  

Alps Plane Crash
Germanwings co-pilot 'hid illness' on crash day
Photo: DPA

Germanwings co-pilot 'hid illness' on crash day

Germanwings said on Friday that it had no knowledge of a doctor-signed sick note found by investigators at flight 4U9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz's flat. READ  

Varoufakis quells rumours of resignation
Yanis Varoufakis. Photo: DPA

Varoufakis quells rumours of resignation

Update: After German tabloid Bild reported that Germany's least-favourite Greek minister Yanis Varoufakis was considering resigning, the minister rejected the story on Twitter. READ  

Germany to expand disability rights
Photo: DPA

Germany to expand disability rights

A representative of the German Labour Ministry went before a UN Committee on Friday to discuss the government's plan for improved rights for disabled people. READ  

Alps Plane Crash
Germanwings captain's compassion goes viral
Photo: DPA

Germanwings captain's compassion goes viral

A Facebook post describing how a Germanwings pilot personally reassured his passengers of their safety on a flight on Wednesday has received over quarter of a million likes. READ  

Bundestag passes 'foreigner toll' for roads
Photo: DPA

Bundestag passes 'foreigner toll' for roads

The Bundestag (German parliament) passed a hugely controversial law on Friday which will charge foreigners for the use of German roads. READ  

Alps Plane Crash
Airlines agree two-person cockpit rule
Photo: DPA

Airlines agree two-person cockpit rule

The Federation of the German Air Travel Industry (BDL) confirmed on Friday afternoon that from now on two people must be in the cockpit at all times, in a bid to avoid a repeat of the Germanwings disaster. READ  

Germany urgently needs immigrants: study
Spanish immigrants in Germany. Photo: DPA

Germany urgently needs immigrants: study

A study by the Bertelsmann Institute found on Friday that Germany will need around half a million new immigrants every year until 2050 to maintain its work force. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Can the 'nightmare' of a pilot downing a plane be prevented?
National
LIVE: Co-pilot suspected of crashing plane
Pupils mourn lost classmates
National
Freed after 25 years on death row
National
Cologne Cathedral returns from space
Sponsored Article
What expat parents should ask before choosing a school
Features
Paddy's Day, Berlin style
Is your workload 'out of control'? You're not alone...
National
Why east Germans are happy to get it on on camera
National
What would you do with a 250-year-old pretzel?
Features
Just why is the German flag Schwarz, Rot, Gold?
Business & Money
Getting German workers and bosses thinking positive
National
Uplifting thoughts to get you through the last week of winter
National
Who wants the Olympics more - Hamburg or Berlin?
National
Last-minute drama of Germany's Eurovision 2015 entry
National
German photographer takes world's top prize
Features
Meet the woman getting Germans to drink more – and better – beer
Gallery
Get inspired for International Women's Day with German heroes
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Germany
Green party proposes first-ever cannabis legalization plan
Gallery
In pictures: Germany's seven most livable cities
National
Singapore canes Germans for train graffiti
Politics
Surprise! Germans love feeling like they run the EU
Politics
Anger over plan to show women what men earn
Travel
Munich tram fans bicker over new bell
Features
Kafka: puzzling translators 100 years on
Business & Money
France or Germany: Which country really is the best country to work in?
Photo: Police
Rhineland
Student driver crashes tank into family garden.
Photo: DPA
Politics
There was a notable absence at the Anti-Semitism Commission
National
How Dresden bombing still divides Germany, 70 years on
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Take a cute break with this gallery of baby animals
International
What's keeping UK expats from voting?
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
All you ever needed to know about Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
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

7,141
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd