One of the more notorious memories of my childhood are the cages in Münster Germany. Three of them hang from the spire of the St Lamberti church, and are visible from all corners of the city, but they also turn up in my family’s photo albums. It seems like every time we visited Germany, we would take that photo… the long view down the Principalmarkt with Lambarti and the cages in the background. I got older, but the cages never changed. When I asked, I always got a brief answer… the Wiedertaufer (Anabaptists) were put there. But why were they hung there? And why, nearly 500 years after the Anabaptist rebellion, do these man-sized metal cages still hang from the church spire?
Creative Commons photo by Rüdiger Wölk
Then one day I was browsing a used book store, and this book just jumped out at me. “The Tailor-King” by Anthony Arthur, sub-titled, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster’. I had to read it! Anthony Arthur chronicles the two year event that put a group of religious fanatics up against the powerful Church and State.
The Anabaptist Rebellion in Münster is an astonishing bit of history, and a bit difficult to summarize in just a few sentences. Still, it’s a story worth reading. Let me set the stage for you, so you can understand how Jan Matthias and Jan van Leyden were able to take over a city and hold it for 2 years.
Setting the Stage for Rebellion
The story begins with a rebellion. Not the Anabaptist Rebellion, but a rebellion by a monk who had 95 questions for the Mother Church, and nailed them to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Although he only wanted to reform the Church, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Revolution, giving rise to the idea that maybe the Catholic Church wasn’t the only answer. He went on to translate the Small Catechism (book of worship) into German, so that the common people could understand. Later, he translated the Bible from Greek to German, so everyone could read the word of God.
By questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church, Luther opened the door for many others to do the same. People came from far and wide to hear his ideas and teachings, and many took these ideas and split off into their own direction. By 1523, Conrad Grebel founded the Anabaptists, according to a core belief that Baptism is only valid if the person is old enough to understand what they are doing, and intentionally chooses to be baptized. Anabaptist or Wiedertaufer means “one who baptizes again.”
The problem started when Anabaptist groups began to reinterpret the Bible (because now that everyone could read it, everyone could decide on their own interpretations). A core tenant for the group was to take the Sermon on the Mount literally. In their eyes a believer belongs to God’s kingdom, so must not fill any office nor hold any rank under government, which is to be passively obeyed. This means… the government and the church have no power over you, only God, because earth is God’s Kingdom. They also believed that all men were equal before God. Naturally, these ideas didn’t sit well with the Church or State officials of the day.
By 1524, these ideas of equality had spread far enough through Germany to cause a Peasant Rebellion. Many thousands of people died, and buildings and farms were destroyed. It only lasted a year, and in the end, the Peasants were subdued. But hostile feelings remained. In 1529, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered the death of every Anabaptist person “over the age of reason”, but not everyone followed orders. And the promise of equality was too tempting, so the Anabaptist movement spread.
Who were the Münster Anabaptists?
Historical view of the German town of Münster by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg (between 1572 and 1618). Big churches seen on the picture (from left to right): Liebfrauenkirche (Überwasserkirche), St. Pauls-Cathedral (in the center), Lambertikirche, Ludgerikirche. In the center in front of the cathedral the “Neuwerk” as part of the citywall where the river Aa crosses the city border. Image is Public Domain
Münster had an interesting position in Germany because it was independent from the Church and had a degree of self-rule. The city was overseen by an appointed Prince-Bishop, who ultimately had to answer to Charles V, but was basically in charge of the city by himself. When Franz von Waldeck was appointed Prince-Bishop in 1532, Lutherans had already started pushing the Catholics out of the city. Mobs led by ex-Catholic Priest, now Radical-Lutheran Pastor, Bernard Rothmann attacked the Catholic Churches and destroyed idols.
Jan Matthias, Dutch Baker and Anabaptist leader photo Public Domain
Spurred on by the success of Rothmann’s actions, Protestants, including Anabaptists, moved into Münster. Once the gates opened, the balance of power shifted radically. First they raided the Bishop’s residence, and only declared truce when they were put on the City Council. But that wasn’t enough, the Anabaptists decided to force a new election to put a far more radical Council in place. By 1533, Jan Matthias, a Dutch Baker and Anabaptist, assumed leadership of the movement, and promoted violent rebellion.
The Prince-Bishop left the city, and retreated to safety. Unfortunately, the rest of Münster’s citizens weren’t so lucky. Mass conversions and re-baptisms began. Catholics and Lutherans fled the city, and their homes were taken over by the Anabaptists. By 1534, the Bishop initiated a blockade around the walled city hoping a siege would bring the rebellion to a quick end.
Inside Münster, under Jan Matthias’s leadership, the Anabaptists restructured their society. All clothing, food and supplies were stored in depots, and overseen by appointed guardians. Supplies were meant to be doled out equally. Everyone was considered equal, men and women, so it’s not surprising that there were 2-3 times more women than men left in Münster. (An interesting side note about this; early Communist leaders look back on the rebellion for ideas to support communist doctrine).
The Bishop’s siege was making things difficult for the city, and the Anabaptist leadership needed to find a way to keep their followers believing in the cause. On April 5, 1534, Easter Sunday, Jan Matthias had a vision…. he declared that God had told him to fight the Bishop’s army single handed.
But not surprisingly, he failed, miserably, and was beheaded, and his head nailed to the city gate.
Jan van Leyden (Leiden), note the crest he designed for himself
A new leader, the Tailor’s apprentice from Holland, Jan van Leyden (aka. Jan Bockhold) declared himself the new leader. He disbanded the council, and set up 12 Elders to rule Münster as in ancient Zion, with him as their head. Jan van Leyden’s first orders were to destroy church towers and steeples, and use the parts to strengthen the city walls. Although Münster was a prosperous city before the siege, supplies began to run low. (Anthony Arthur points out the parallels between van Leyden and other cult leaders like David Koresch or Jim Jones… it’s spooky how they mirror each other). Maintaining leadership and strict obedience would happen at all costs. Jan even called himself King of the World, the ruler of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Then he decreed that Polygamy was mandatory (he himself took 15 wives, including the beautiful widow of Jan Matthias). Anyone who opposed his rule would be imprisoned or killed. (He even had one of his dissenting wives killed, and supposedly danced around her body).
The new King of the World quickly adapted to his new role. His portrait was done immediately with a crest he designed… a globe with two swords (symbolizing revenge) and a cross. He wears gold chains and holds a scepter that was made from the gold taken from his followers for the Anabaptist treasury. Although the rest of the city went hungry, Jan and his immediate circle feasted daily, and had more than the allotted one or two changes of clothes.
God’s new kingdom in Munster under King Jan Bockhold (van Leyden) in 1534
All the while, the Bishop’s Army was camped outside the city walls. They set up large tents to disguise their numbers… and to give them shelter from the damp cold of Northern Germany. Why didn’t the Bishop just storm the gates? The Peasant Rebellion left him with fewer troops than he would have liked, also, he was hoping to avoid another blood bath. The cost of maintaining an Army was taxing, and he ended up borrowing from other Princes (who were so worried that rebellions would crop up in their city, that they happily sent money). Still, Münster held fast. It had double walls being watched over by Anabaptists who had nothing to lose. And somehow, other Anabaptist groups from surrounding kingdoms were finding their way into Münster to help.
(An interesting side note- the Anabaptists pleaded with Luther for his support, but he denounced them. Still they ended up using the hymn he wrote “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as their anthem.)
Munster under Siege in 1534- image public domain
After a year, starvation began to break the Anabaptist followers. People ate whatever they could, even rats, and there were rumors of cannibalism. Still, the Anabaptists leaders thought they could win. They even built an early version of a Tank, a heavily reinforced Wagon, that might have actually broken through the Bishop’s lines, if they hadn’t already eaten the horses needed to pull it. Thousands tried to escape the city, only to be cut down by the Bishop’s army. Finally, one rainy night, there was a break through, and the Bishop’s troops took back the city. The siege was over.
So, What about the CAGES in Münster, Germany?
Execution of the leaders of the Münster Rebellion, image via the Münster City Archives
There’s an old saying that goes “you can only kill a man once”. But, according to the laws at the time, you can torture him for a long time. The Bishop-Prince had Jan van Leyden, Bernard Knipperdolling (a prominent Münster businessman who was not only one of van Leyden’s Father-in-Laws, but also his chief executioner) and Bernard Krechting (King Jan’s chief of staff) brought before him and tortured for hours. (side note- the Spanish Inquisition learned from and used these German Torture techniques). Finally, he allowed the release of death to end it. The bodies were then placed in the cages, and hoisted to the top of St Lamberti for all to see and remember what happens when you rebel against the Church and Crown. The bones were left in the cages for 50 years before they were finally removed, but the cages themselves remained there for over 400 years.
Cages in Münster Germany Today
During WW2, the Lambarti church was bombed, and the cages came crashing down. Workmen repairing the church later commented on the fine craftsmanship that went into these cages, barely a scratch on them. It was debated whether they should be put back on the spire… and ultimately, it was decided that they should hang again. A reminder of a dark chapter in Münster’s past.
Was it mass-hysteria? was it a cult? or just madness?
There is a new theory that the rebellion may have come as a result of Ergot poisoning… Ergot is a fungal growth that spreads on wheat and rye when it’s stored in damp places. The result can be as mild as convulsions or sores, but as extreme as hallucinations… sort of a natural LSD.
500 years later, it’s interesting to speculate.
Another Reminder of the Anabaptist Rebellion
“Water in Muenster” Scupture- image wikipedia creative commons- photo by Dietmar Rabich
The “Water in Muenster” sculpture was designed by architect Adolph W. Knüppel in the year 2000. It’s stuck into the paving stones on the Prinzipalmarkt, and points at the house numbers 29 and 41, former homes of Anabaptist co-Mayors of Muenster, Gerhard Kibbenbrock and Bernhard Knipperdolling. A metal cylinder at the center of the cross contains water from a well that existed at the time of the Anabaptists which may have had water in it from the River Jordan.
Today, people walk by the church and under the cages every day. “Those are the Anabaptist cages,” they say, whenever someone asks… A reminder of a long ago rebellion.
The Tailor King by Anthony Arthur
If you would like to read a more detailed account of the Anabaptist Rebellion in Münster, I suggest The Tailor-King. The book is written in a scholarly, but not unreachable style. And at 200 pages, it’s not too long. (Also, there are images, a who’s-who list, and a nice chronological timeline)
There are other books, perhaps more scholarly, and a bit more expensive, should you want to dig deeper into the subject. The book by
The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists: A Socialist Reading of the Anabaptist Kingdom of God in MünsterNarrative of the Anabaptist Madness: The Overthrow of Munster, the Famous Metropolis of Westphalia (Studies in the History of Christian Thought) … the History of Christian Traditions) (v. 1&2)