In Munster, three cages are hanging on the cathedral tower

Anabaptist Rebellion in Munster
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Every time I visit that beautiful German city of Munster I take some time to walk around in the old inner city. Standing before the somewhat menacing St. Lambert’s church tower I gaze upward. Up there, close to the top, are three cages, approximately six feet high. These cages are reminders of a short and strange period, when Munster was designated “The New Jerusalem” by a couple of Dutch con men with a taste for religious madness and fanaticism.

I first heard about this strange story on the excellent podcast-episode Prophets of Doom by Dan Carlin. In it, in his inimitable way, he painted a picture so vivid and colorful, that I had to read about it. It is also the reason that we have the book Anabaptists: Apocalypse Sex and Violence in our Notoir collection.

During the years of 1534 and 1535 a group of Anabaptists, under the fanatical leadership of Dutchmen Jan Matthijssen, and later Jan van Leyden, took control of the city of Munster. During their time in power, these men transformed Munster into a theocratic city-state, where they reigned in a weird mix of strict moral codes for the masses, and extremely lax mores for the all-mighty. Alcohol, gambling, and prostitution where forbidden, while at the same time polygamy, wife-swapping and other pleasures of the flesh where allowed, even encouraged, for the chosen ones at the top.

The Anabaptists established a brand of religious proto-communism, where all property, goods, and other forms of ownership were shared by the community. Food was brought to a tightly controlled warehouse. The leaders estimated who needed to eat, and who could do without.

Heaven on Earth

This led to power struggles, where preachers tried to out-holy each other. Biblical apparitions where commonplace. Not a day or night passed by, or some nutjob ran around yelling about his personal talk with the maker. Women had religious fits, took of their garments, and frolicked around in mud puddles, ogled and applauded by the curious and bemused city folks. Everybody knew somebody who had a hotline with God. Expectations where high. Miracles happened constantly, it seemed. The city was temporarily drenched in liquid holiness. As is often the case, this endorsed irrational, irresponsible, and downright stupid behavior in some members of the leadership.

Anabaptists: apocalyticism sex and violence

The most important Anabaptist leader at that moment, Jan Mathijssen, was a big beautiful guy with massive shoulders, long black hair and a wild beard. He strolled around town in black leather, flanked by his gorgeous favorite wife, who was clad entirely in white satin. You could say they truly looked the part. This eye-blinding couple exuded an aura of power and invincibility. During these walks he brandished his sword, ready to help out is somebody needed some holy retaliation. Mathijssen took every chance he had, to let the people know that he was truly the god-chosen leader.

High on himself and his connection with the almighty eternal, there came the moment that Mathijssen, with a some comrades, overplayed his hand. He rode out of the gate, while the Anabaptist people of Munster gathered on top of the city wall, chuckling, waiting in breathless anticipation, to see how he would destroy the overwhelming enemy.
Thinking that God would help him decimate the vast army that surrounded the city wall, Mathijssen marched through the gates towards the flabbergasted enemy soldiers, who, in a matter of minutes, hacked him and his cronies to pieces.

This was the moment Jan van Leiden was waiting for. All of a sudden, he had a vision, and took over as the new messiah. From there on Helter Skelter was coming down fast on the people of Munster. Van Leiden collected a harem of twenty of the most astonishing ladies of the city, and paraded them around. He wore the finest clothes, while the plebes were rotting in poverty, and started to get a bit hungry.
Sometimes people started to get unruly. On these moments van Leiden had to show them who really was the boss, for instance by spontaneously beheading his favorite wife, who started to question his reign a bit too openly.

Rude awakening

Near the end, unrest and mutiny were brewing. At a certain point a deal was reached. The top of the Anabaptist movement was taken into custody. Jan van Leiden was paraded around in Germany in a cage, like a sideshow freak, and as proof that he was a false messiah.
Meanwhile the misled people of Munster wanted to see him pay. So on a fateful day Jan van Leiden, and his cronies Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were brought back to Munster to undergo the death sentence.

It were their bodies, that ended up in the cages on the tower of the St. Lambert’s cathedral. But not before they where literally torn apart, piece by piece, under the watchful eyes of the Munster mob. The remains where put in the cages, and hung up, as a grim reminder for what happens when people start to question the consensus religion-du-jour.
Fifty years later, the bodily remains where removed. Today, the cages are still there.

The next time that you visit Munster, ask a Munsteraner about them. Chances are, that they don’t know. And if they do know the story behind it, they will thank you for your curiosity.