One of the more bizarre and tragic stories of the Protestant Reformation.
Spurred by the power vacuum cast over Europe by Martin Luther, and more immediately the unsuccessful German Peasants' War, radical Anabaptists seized control of Münster, Westphalia, Germany, from February 1534 to June 1535. Their commune was held together from within by force and personality cult and from without by constant siege. It ended more cruelly than Jonestown, and continues to be a black mark on Anabaptism and communalism.
Bernard Rothmann, originally a Roman Catholic priest, converted to Lutheranism in 1531. That he was able to near-singlehandedly absorb Münster into the Lutheran sphere of influence two years later is one of many fascinating things about city-states. Münster was under Rothmann's purview when he renounced infant baptism; Anabaptism is, most basically, the assertion that baptism on non-consenting humans is illegitimate. This was problematic for a Church whose influence/revenue depended on early involvement. Rothmann preached a version of Christianity centered around simple, communal living in a time when people in different generations could be killed building the same cathedral.
Radical Anabaptists--specifically "Melchiorites," adherants of firebrand preacher Melchior Hoffman--would exert force in several places in Germany that decade. They briefly took Lübeck in 1533, and stormed Amsterdam's city hall and siezed a monastery in Friesland in 1535. Among them was crazy fucker Jan Matthys.
Matthys, by all accounts strikingly grave and intense, claimed to be God's direct conduit. God often interrupted Matthys' sermons with not-at-all-metaphorical instructions for the possessions of others. Drawn by word of Rothmann's success, he incited a rebellion against the city's remaining Lutheran council members by running through the streets and weeping.
Jan Matthys' thousand disciples were baptized in Münster on January 5, 1534.
God wanted the remaining Lutherans to leave the city. He also wanted their abandoned things communalized, along with the possessions of new and remaining citizens. It was around this time that a blacksmith was stabbed to death during one of Matthys' sermons. A power structure bloomed around God's will to include most prominently Matthys, Rothmann, and the Münsterites who had facilitated Rothmann's soft takeover. Failure to comply with God's will was punishable by death.
Enough Anabaptists had gathered in Münster that the city's expelled Prince-Bishop, a Franz von Waldeck, was able to draw funds and muscle from surrounding territories. For their part, the Anabaptists deflected the Bishop's repeated raid-attempts with shocking efficacy. This bolstered Jan Matthys. Believing himself shielded, he led thirty men out of the city on Easter 1534 to squash von Waldeck. Von Waldeck's mercenaries disemboweled him with a spear and nailed his genitals to Münster's gates.
Enter Jan van Leiden.
Van Leiden had visited Münster some time previous, and had been the one to observe and relay Rothmann's progress in the city. Following Matthys' destruction, he inherited the ability to speak to God. After running nude through the city and praying for three days, he prophesied a new moral code, to be enforced by himself and twelve apostles. Van Leiden would preside over the Münster Anabaptist commune for its remaining days.
It's difficult to know precisely how iron-fisted van Leiden was, because all accounts come from the Prince-Bishop's side. We can be reasonably sure that food items were strictly rationed, while still available. We can be reasonably sure that Jan van Leiden and his cadre lived a better life than the people defending their walls, since they escaped starvation until the very end. The people stayed because Jan van Leiden promised them salvation, as in Zion, and because the Prince Bishop was killing everyone who escaped.
Sources disagree on van Leiden's motives for introducing and enforcing polygamy. The more circumspect ones remind us that the male-to-female ratio had been in steady decline; also, Old Testament. There is the more practical circumstance that he was in control of a lot of half-starved women with nowhere to go. The marriages were assigned, and compulsory. Van Leiden himself would take wives numbering in the teens.
One sign that van Leiden was at least nominally committed to his cause is that he made concentrated efforts to take down the Prince-Bishop. In one instance he sent a fifteen-year-old girl (her name has not come down to us) to seduce and poison von Waldeck (how she pierced the blockade was heroic, I'm sure). She was sussed out and killed.
Dogs and cats disappeared from Münster. Then rats, then insects. Münsterites were eating shoes while a comparatively vigorous Jan van Leiden delivered sermons from, we're told, a gold-covered throne.
Rebellion ensued, after a fashion. Near the end of the commune's life a group broke away and went for the blockade, meaning to surrender. We're told they were eating grass when von Waldeck's mercenaries found them. They killed the men, took the women and children. There is no way to know what became of millions of lives from that period.
Jan van Leiden decleared that Easter 1535 would be salvation day. Of course, it came and went.
Von Waldeck finally cracked Munster in June 1535, with the help of surviving residents. Bernard Rothmann died in battle; Jan van Leiden did not. Von Waldeck's men showed him around the city in a cage, first.
He, along with two apostles and influential Münsterites Bernhard Knipperdolink and Bernhard Krechting, were chained to posts in the city square on January 22nd, 1536. Someone who presumably slept at some point afterwards pulled their skin off in strips with heated tongs. We're told that Jan van Leiden did not scream, and that Knipperdolink, being the last, passed out beforehand, was revived.
The cages that displayed their corpses as a warning hang today from the same church steeple.
Dan Carlin, Hardcore History Podcast. "Show 48 - Prophets of Doom".
Wikipedia. "Münster Rebellion".
ExecutedToday.com. "1536: The Münster Rebellion Leaders".
Epic World History. "Münster Commune."
New Histories. "When Religious Belief Meets Social Movement: The Münster Rebellion".