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The Pursuit of the Millennium

 by Norman Cohn

Chapter 13 / The Egalitarian Millennium (iii)


The Lutheran Reformation was accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect inevitable. As against the authority of the Church of Rome the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men took to reading the Bible for themselves they began to interpret it for themselves; and their interpretation did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther's influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God and an indispensable spiritual guide. But once the layman began to feel that he himself stood face to face with God and to rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy...

The [Anabaptist] movement spread from Switzerland into Germany in the years following the Peasants' War. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly the majority had no idea of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from peasants and artisans; and after the Peasants' War the authorities were desperately afraid of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed. This persecution in the end created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order -- they interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those 'messianic woes' which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed by imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movement of earlier centuries. The bulk of the Anabaptist movement continued the tradition of peaceful and austere dissent which in earlier centuries had been represented by the Waldensians. But alongside it there was growing up an Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut - a former follower and disciple of Muntzer's and like him a native of Thuringia. This man claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. The Saints would hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teachings and, above all, on the great ones of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterized by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died, or was killed, in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany.

In the professions of faith of Hut's followers one recognizes the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Taborites, repeated almost word for word: 'Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments; communize all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised.' And again: 'The government does not treat the poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want to punish and wipe out the evil. . .' And if Hut himself expected all this to take place only when Christ 'came on the clouds', not al his disciples were so patient: at Esalingen on the Necar Anabaptists seem in 1528 to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Amongst these militant millenarians the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; and it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nuremberg warned those at Ulm that Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But a few years later it was to reappear elsewhere, in Holland and the extreme north-west of Germany, and this time with results that gripped the attention of Europe. . .

Melchior Hoffmann, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys (Matthyszoon) of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the second coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys on the other hand was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In this teaching the spirit of the Pikarti, of Thomas Müntzer and Hans Hut rose to new life.

From the Netherlands Matthys sent out to the various Anabaptist communities apostles who believed that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them as upon the original Apostles at Pentecost. In each town that they visited they baptised great numbers of adults and appointed "bishops" with the power to baptise. Then they moved on, while from the newly converted town new apostles set out on similar missions. In the first days of 1534 two apostles reached Münster, where their arrival at once produced a veritable contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised; and they were followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and in the end by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on but they were replaced by two more; and these -- most significantly -- were at first taken to be Enoch and Elijah, those prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two 'witnesses' against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson (Bockelszoon, Beukelsz), better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been converted months before and who was to achieve in Münster a fame which has lasted to the present day. For here as so often -- as in the case of hte 'Master of Hungary' and many another in the Middle Ages and indeed at all times --- the messianic leader was to be the stranger, the man from the periphery. It was Bockelson, at first together with his master and later alone, who was to give to Anabaptism in Münster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism even more startling than that at Tabor a century before.


During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased rapidly. Bockelson had at once established relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck, whose daughter he was shortly to marry. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all people to repent of their sins. No more was needed to release a flood of hysteria, especially amongst the women Anabaptists, who from the first had been Rothmann's most enthusiastic followers and whose numbers had latterly been swollen by the many nuns who had broken out of their convents, put on secular attire and undergone rebaptism. These women now began to see apocalyptic visions in the streets, and of such intensity that they would throw themselves on the ground, screaming, writhing and foaming at the mouth. It was in this atmosphere, charged with supernatural expectations, that the Anabaptists made their first armed rising and occupied the Town Hall and market-place. They were still only a minority and could certainly have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had their sympathizers on the Council; and the outcome of the rising was the official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience.

The Anabaptists thus won legal recognition for their already large and powerful community. Many well-to-do Lutherans, alarmed at the prospect of ever-increasing pressure from their opponents, withdrew from the town with all their movable belongings. The majority of the remaining population was Anabaptist; and messengers and manifestos were sent out urging the Anabaptists in nearby towns to come with their families to Münster. The rest of the earth, it was announced, was doomed to be destroyed before Easter; but Münster would be saved and would become the New Jerusalem. Food, clothes, money and accommodation would be ready for the immigrants on their arrival, but they were to bring arms. The summons met with a vigorous response. From as far afield as Frisia and Brabant Anabaptists streamed to Münster, until the number of newcomers exceeded that of the Lutheran emigrants. As a result, in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected, with Knipperdollinck as one of the two burgomasters. On the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures and paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed.

Meanwhile Jan Matthys himself had arrived, a tall, gaunt figure with a long, black beard; and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. Rothman and the other local Anabaptist preachers could not compete for popular support with the 'Dutch prophets' and were soon being borne along by a wild movement which they no longer had any power to influence, let alone to resist. They functioned merely as obedient propagandists for a regime in which all effective power was concentrated in the hands of Matthys and Bockelson. The regime was a theocracy, in which the divinely inspired community had swallowed up the state. And the God whom that theocracy was supposed to serve was God the Father -- that jealous and exacting Father of overwhelming power who had dominated the imagination of so many earlier millenarians. It was the Father, not the Son, whom Matthys and Bockelson encouraged their followers to invoke. And it was in order that the Children of God might serve the Father that in unity that they resolved to create a 'New Jerusalem purified of all uncleanness'. To achieve this pure and uncontaminated community Matthys advocated the execution of all remaining Lutherans and Roman Catholics; but Knipperdollinck having pointed out that this would turn the whole outside world against the town, it was decided merely to expel them.

attach:janmatthys.jpg On the morning of 27 February armed bands, urged on by Matthys in prophetic frenzy, rushed through the streets calling: Get out, you godless ones, and never come back, you enemies of the Father. In bitter cold, in the midst of wild snowstorm, multitudes of the 'godless' were driven from the town by Anabaptists who rained blows upon them and laughed at their affliction. . .Mostly they came from the more prosperous part of the population; but they were forced to leave behind all their belongings and money and spare clothes, even their food was taken from them and they were reduced to begging through the countryside for food and shelter. As for the Lutherans and Roman Catholics who remained in the town, they were rebaptised in the marketplace. The ceremony lasted three days; and once it was finished it became an offence to be unbaptised. By the morning of 3 March there were no 'misbelievers' left in Münster; the town was inhabited solely by the Children of God. These people who addressed one another as 'Brother' and 'Sister', believed that they would be able to live without sin, in a community bound together by love alone.

In eliminating the Lutheran and Roman Catholic elements from the population, the prophets were moved not only by fanaticism but also by the knowledge that Münster was about to be besieged. . .On the following day, 28 February, earthworks were thrown up around the town and the siege began. . .

The terror had begun and it was in an atmosphere of terror that Matthys proceeded to carry into effect the communism which had already hovered for so many months, a splendid millennial vision , in the imagination of the Anabaptists. A propaganda campaign was launched by Matthys, Rothmann and the other preachers. It was announced that true Christians should possess no money of their own but should hold all money in common; from which it followed that all money, and also all gold and silver ornaments, must be handed over. At first this order met with opposition; some Anabaptists buried their money . . .

Propaganda against the private ownership of money continued for weeks on end, accompanied both by the most seductive blandishments and by the most appalling threats. The surrender of money was made a test of true Christianity. Those who failed to comply were declared fit for extermination and it seems that some executions did take place After two months of unremitting pressure the private ownership of money was effectively abolished. From then on money was used only for public purposes involving dealings with the outside world -- for hiring mercenaries, buying supplies and distributing propaganda. Artisans within the town, on the other hand, received their wages not in case but in kind; and it would seem that they were paid no longer by private employers but by the theocratic government.

Steps were also taken to establish communal ownership of commodities. At each town-gate there was set up a communal dining-hall where the men who were on duty on the walls dined together, to an accompaniment of readings from the Old Testament. Each of the halls was in charge of one of the deacons appointed by Matthys. The deacon was responsible for providing the rations. . .

All of these measures were of course favoured by the conditions of the siege. Nevertheless it is certainly mistaken to suggest -- has has sometimes been done -- that 'communism' at Münster amounted to no more than requisitioning to meet the needs of war. The abolition of private ownership of property, the restriction of private ownership of food and shelter were seen as first steps towards a state in which -- as Rothmann put it -- everything would belong to everybody and the distinction between Mine and Tine would disappear; or -- as Bockelson later expressed it -- 'all things were to be in common, there was to be no private property and nobody was to do any more work, but simply trust in God.' Rothman after all had been holding up community of goods as an ideal for the elite long before the siege was though of; now, in the service of the 'Dutch prophets', he demanded that the same ideal be translated into a social institution and accepted by all alike. The familiar blend of millenarianism and primitivism emerges quite clearly from the following passage in the propaganda pamphlet which he produced in October 1534, for distribution to the Anabaptist communities in other towns:

"Amongst us God -- to whom be eternal praise and thanks -- has restored community, as it was in the beginning and as befits the Saints of God. We hope too that amongst us community is as vigorous and glorious, and is by God's grace observed with as pure a heart, as at any time before. For not only have we put all our belongings into a common pool under the care of deacons, and live from it according to our needs: we praise God through Christ, with one heart and mind and are eager to help one another with every kind of service. And accordingly, everything which has served the purposes of selfseeking and private property, such as buying and selling, working for money, taking interest and practising usury -- even at the expense of unbelievers -- or eating and drinking the sweat of the poor (that is, making one's own people and fellow-creatures work so that one can grow fat) and indeed everything which offends against love -- all such things are abolished amongst us by the power of love and community. And knowing that God now desires to abolish such abominations, we would die rather than turn to them. We know that such sacrifices are pleasing to the Lord. And indeed no Christian or Saint can satisfy God if he does not live in such community or at least desire with all his heart to live in it."

The appeal of the new social order was by no means wholly idealistic. Already the year before, swarms of homeless and propertyless people had been attacked to Münster by the prospect of social revolution. But now the revolution was taking place; and the propaganda which the leaders sent out to other towns was sometimes couched in purely social terms and aimed specifically at the poorest classes. The poorest amongst us, who used to be despised as beggard, runs one letter, now go about dressed as finely as the highest and most distinguished. . . . By God's grace they have become as rich as the burgomasters and the richest in the town. There is no doubt that the poorest classes over a wide area did indeed look towards the New Jerusalem with a mixture of sympathy, hope and awe. From Antwerp a scholar could write to Erasmus of Rotterdam: 'We in these parts are living in wretched anxiety because of the way the revolt of the Anabaptists has flared up. For it really did spring up like fire. There is, I think, scarcely a village or town where the torch is not glowing in secret. They preach community of goods, with the result that all those who have nothing come flocking.' How seriously the authorities took the threat is shown by the repressive measures which they adopted. Anabaptism was made a capital offense not only throughout the diocese of Münster but in the neighboring principalities. . .During the months of the siege countless men and women in the towns were beheaded, drowned, burnt or broken on the wheel.

By then end of March Matthys had established an absolute dictatorship; but a few days later he was dead. . .This event gave an opening to Matthys's young disciple, Jan Bockelson, who so far had played no great part but who was in every was fitted to seize such a chance and use it to the full. . .

Bockelson's first important act was -- characteristically -- at once a religious and a political one. Early in May he ran naked through the town in a frenzy and then fell into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days. When speech returned to him he called the population together and announced that God had revealed to him that the old constitution of the town, being the work of men, must be replaced by a new one which would be the work of God. The burgomasters and Council were deprived of their functions. In their place Bockelson set himself and -- on the model of Ancient Israel -- twelve Elders. . . This new government was given authority in all matters, public and private, spiritual and material, and power of life and death over all inhabitants of the town. A new legal code was drawn up, aimed partly at carrying still further the process of socialization and partly at imposing a severely puritanical morality. A strict direction of labour was introduced. . .At the same time the new code made capital offenses not only of murder and theft but also of lying, slander, avarice and quarreling. But above all it was an absolutely authoritarian code; death was to be the punishment of every kind of insubordination -- of the young against their parents, of a wife against her husband, of anyone against God and God's representative, the government of Münster. . .

Sexual behaviour was at frist regulated as strictly as all other aspects of life. The only form of sexual relationship permitted was marriage between two Anabaptists. Adultery and fornication -- which were held to include marriage with one of the 'godless' -- were capital offenses. This was in keeping with the Anabaptist tradition; like the Waldensians in earlier centuries the Anabaptist in general observed a stricter code of sexual morality than most of their contemporaries. This order came to an abrupt end, however, when Bockelson decided to establish polygamy. That such an undertaking was possible at all was due to the fact that many of the emigrants had left their womenfolk behind in the town, so that there were now at least three times as many women of marriageable age as there were men. . .The path along which Bockelson now led the Anabaptists in Münster was in fact that which in earlier centuries had been trodden by the Brethren of the Free Spirit and by the Adamites. . . Bockelson, who had left a wife in Leyden, began by marrying the beautiful young widow of Matthys, Diever or Divara, and before long he had a harem of fifteen wives. . .

Bockelson . . .[had] himself proclaimed king.


It was not as an ordinary king but as a Messiah of the Last Days that Bockelson imposed himself. In order to do so he invoked yet another divine revelation -- in which he may or may not have believed -- and in a manner even more dramatic than usual. At the beginning of September one Dusentschur, a goldsmith from a neighbouring town, set up as a new prophet. One day, in the main square, this man declared that the Heavenly Father had revealed to him that Bockelson was to be king of the whole world, holding dominion over kings, princes and great ones of the earth. He was to inherit the sceptre and throne of his forefather David and was to keep them until God should reclaim the kingdom from him. Thereupon Dusentschur took the Sword of Justice from the Elders and presented it to Bockelson, anointed him and proclaimed him King of the New Jerusalem.

Oxford University Press, 1957, 1961, 1970 Excerpted from Chapter 12 and 13: pp. 254-

Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press

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