The Anabaptist kingdom of Münster

Between 1534 and 1535, the Westphalian city of Münster became the headquarters of a radical experiment in revolutionary millenarianism. Identified as the New Jerusalem by followers of Melchior Hoffmann, it was transformed into the capital of an Anabaptist kingdom ruled over by a Dutch tailor and visionary known as Jan of Leiden. Rebaptism was made compulsory, goods were held in common, polygamy was legalised, and there was an orgy of iconoclastic destruction. The regime came to an end after the city was besieged and its leaders were captured and executed. Their corpses were displayed in iron cages hung from the steeple of St Lambert’s church. Its spire can be seen to the right of the skyline in this hand-coloured illustration from the Cologne Catholic cleric and cartographer Georg Braun’s famous set of city maps and prospects. The accompanying text on the preceding page recalls how Münster’s fortified walls, gates and churches were destroyed by the Anabaptists and celebrates that they are now fully restored to their former beauty and glory. The picture itself was an attempt to forget an aberrant episode that rapidly became etched in European collective memory as a byword for religious and political anarchy. The spectre of Münster haunted mainstream Protestants and provided Catholics with a convenient stick with which to beat their confessional enemies for more than a century. AW

Georg Braun, Civitates orbis terrarum ([Cologne: s.n., 1572]–1618), bk 1, plate 22, ‘Monasterium’.

CUL: Atlas.4.57.2–3

Further Reading

Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of ‘Savage Wolves’: Anabaptist Munster and the German Reformation during the 1530s (Boston, 2000).

Ralf Klötzer, ‘The Melchiorites and Münster’, in John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (ed.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 (Leiden, 2007), pp. 217-56.

Hermann von Kerssenbrock, Narrative of the Anabaptist Madness: The Overthrow of Münster, the Famous Metropolis of Westphalia, 2 vols, trans. Christopher S. Mackay, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 132 (Leiden, 2007).

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