• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

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

Story continues below…

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
This Week in History
75 years since one of Holocaust's worst massacres
Photo: DPA

On Thursday, German president Joachim Gauck spoke in Kiev 75 years after the Nazis slaughtered 33,771 Jews during one of the worst single massacres of the Holocaust.

Six things you need to know about troubled Deutsche Bank

Shares in Deutsche bank plunged on Friday morning, dragging down other European banks and markets worldwide. Here are six things to know about Germany's biggest lender.

Deutsche Bahn jacks up prices for first time in 3 years
Photo: DPA

Germany's main rail provider, the state-owned Deutsche Bahn (DB), announced on Friday that it will raise prices on long-distance train travel.

Baby found alive in suitcase with skeleton in Hanover
File photo: DPA.

A baby has been found alive, along with the skeleton of another infant inside of a suitcase in Hanover, police reported on Friday.

Morocco to speed up repatriation of illegal migrants
Photo: DPA

Morocco has agreed to streamline the procedures for the repatriation of citizens living illegally in Germany, the royal court said late on Thursday.

890,000 refugees arrived in Germany last year - not 1.1m
Photo: DPA

Previous reports had suggested that around 1.1 million people entered Germany to seek asylum last year. But now the German government has confirmed the number was actually lower.

Racist attacks cast cloud over Dresden Unity Day planning
A police vehicle in Dresden. Photo: DPA.

As Dresden prepares to host Germany’s national Unity Day celebrations on Monday, the capital of the eastern state of Saxony is upping security after a mosque was targeted by a homemade bomb.

Sinking Deutsche Bank stock sends shock across Europe
Photo: DPA

Shares in Germany's biggest lender Deutsche Bank plummeted on the Frankfurt stock market on Friday, dragging other European banks and global markets down with it, after reports some customers were pulling money out.

The Local List
10 things you never knew about German reunification
Reunification celebrations in Hanover in 2014. Photo: DPA

With German Unity Day (October 3rd) happening on Monday, Germans are looking forward to a three-day weekend. But did you know these facts about reunification and German Unity Day?

Munich pharmacy’s nighttime porno show draws crowd
Photo: DPA

When a police patrol in Munich's Sendlinger Tor area noticed a crowd gathered outside a pharmacy window they went to investigate. But the onlookers weren't interested in a new line of flu medicine.

Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
Lifestyle
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
Lifestyle
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
National
Seven great reasons to stay in Germany this September
National
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
National
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
National
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
6,582
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd