“the adepts of the Free Spirit did not form a single church but rather a number of likeminded groups, each with its own messiah and each with its own particular practices, rites and articles of belief.” It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless . . . Whatever their individual histories, collectively these people formed a recognizable social stratum — a frustrated and rather low-grade intelligentsia . . .
And what followed then was the formation of a group of a peculiar kind,a restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission . . . A boundless, millenial promise made with boundless, prophet-like conviction to a number of rootless and desperate men in the midst of a society where traditional norms and relationships are disintegrating — here, it would seem, lay the source of that peculiar subterranean fanaticism.” ( Norman Cohn )
The end of the Anabaptist revolution at Munster was grim.The blockade and siege became more and more severe, and the miserable people were driven to have recourse for sustenance to the most unaccustomed food. They ate the flesh of horses, dogs and cats, dormice, grass, and leather; they tore up books and devoured the parchment. Half the population of the town, it was said, died of starvation. These fanatics had trusted in the word of their king and prophet, and had awaited with confidence the succor which he promised them; but, as this succor did not arrive, murmurs began to be heard from some of them, and others appeared to go mad. The king, Jan of Leyden,had told them that, if it were necessary for saving his people, the stones would be turned into bread. Consequently, some of these votaries might be seen stopping in the streets, biting the stones and attempting to tear them to pieces, in expectation of their being converted into nourishment. At length, despair, madness, and inhumanity proceeded to the bitterest extremities.
”The wife of the senator Menken, one of the working men raised to this dignity by Bockhold, killed her three children, salted their bodies, and placed the parts thus cured in jars, in this way making abominable provision for her own subsistence, and on this she fed day by day. The wretched inhabitants of this ill-fated town wandered with tottering steps about the streets, the skin wrinkled over their fleshless bones, their necks long and lank, hardly able to sustain the head, their eyes haggard and opening and shutting with sudden jerk, their cheeks hollow and emaciated, with lips which death seemed to be about to close, corpses in appearance rather than living beings. In the midst of this appalling spectacle which recalls the greatest distresses recorded in history, even the destruction of Jerusalem, there was, it is said, in the king’s palace abundance, feasting, and debauchery.”
The end of Jan of Leyden, the self proclaimed Anabaptist king and king of all the world was grimmer still. Essentially, despite some bizarre behavior, he followed the credo that 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. Captured by the bishop, he was led about the empire for a time, exhibited on a chain. In january, 1536, he was returned to Munster, branded and clawed by pincers, and forced to sit on a blazing iron throne.
”Reflection, however, wrought a change. Bockhold was not a fanatic, but an impostor; and he felt that the only way to save his life was to abjure his errors. He asked for a second conference with the two Hessians and feigned conversion. ‘I confess,’ he said to them, ‘that the resistance I have offered to authority was unlawful; that the institution of polygamy was rash, and that the baptism of children is obligatory. If pardon should be granted me, I pledge myself to obtain from all my adherents obedience and submission.’ He likewise acknowledged that he had deserved to die ten times over. This was the behavior of a knave, willing to abandon even his imposture, if, by so doing, he might save his life. Knipperdolling and Crechting, on the contrary, persisted in their views, and asserted that they had followed the guidance of God. Cruelty of various kinds was inflicted on these wretched men. They were led about publicly, during the month of their detention, like strange animals, as a spectacle to the several princes and their courts, to whom they and their pretended king were made a subject of rile. Bockhold did not derive from his confessions the advantage which he expected.”
The bishop’s power and the Catholic faith were restored in Munster. Everything was as before. Until this century, the bones of Jan of Leyden swung in their cage from the tower of the Church of St. Lambert’s in Munster. The Anabaptist movement, in its militant wing, was stamped out. The direct survivors of the Anabaptists today are found among the peaceful Mennonites and Amish of the Pennsylvania countryside.
In the long history of man’s savagery to man, there can be no more brutal episode than the drama of the Anabaptist revolution played out in the small city of Munster in northwest Germany in 1534-35. There, as the medieval world was dying and the modern age dawning, as an ancient social order disintegrated and a new proletariat was born, starving and desperate men conceived a utopian kingdom of eternal goodness and eternal peace, and ended by creating the forerunner of the modern totalitarian state.” The Age of the Spirit was to be the sabbath or resting-time of mankind. In it there would be no wealth or even property, for everyone would live in voluntary poverty; there would be no work, for human beings would possess only spiritual bodies and would need no food; there would be no institutional authority of any kind.” ( Joachim of Fiore )
But the impulse that drove the Anabaptists to rebellion did not die. The vision of the Earthly Kingdom of justice, and the tradition of taking the millenium by assault, survived underground; among the poor, desparate, and degraded, wherever one social order died and a new one struggled for birth. Norman Cohn notes, in his ” The Pursuit of the Millennium” that, throughout the six centuries under consideration, millenarians actually did refuse to work for relatively long periods of time. The flagellants of Thuringia in the 1360s; the Beghards of Colonge in the 14th century; the radical Taborites in 1419-1420 — all of them refused to work, even if or precisely because it meant becoming destitute and having to beg for bread “for God’s sake.” Indeed the story of the Anabaptists of Munster is an antecedent of what Carl Jung called the ”psychic epidemics of our time”.
The extent to which medieval heresy as such was a social protest by the unprivileged has been much debated and certainly subject to an over-simplification. In interpreting voluntary poverty as specifically a movement of the oppressed, Marxists of the past, giving their ideology a religious veneer, have distorted the facts to suit the context. Yet, Thomas Muntzer was essentially preoccupied by mystical nature and substance with a somewhat general indifference to the material welfare of the poor. Yet it may be suggested that this point of view too can be over-emphasized. Munzter was indeed a prophet obsessed by eschatological phantasies which he attempted to translate into reality by exploiting social discontent. Ultimately, and politically it was a sound instinct that led Marxists to claim him for their own.There is a political expediency in exploiting social discontent, while remaining totally unconcerned, despite their grand-sounding pronouncements, with eradicating its underlying causes. Indeed, Marxists actually need social discontent to continue uninterrupted, for, without it, there is nothing to recommend their “Communism,” their “heaven on Earth.”
”As for the Communists, they continue to elaborate, in volume after volume, that cult of Thomas Muntzer which was inaugurated already by Engels. But whereas in these works the prophetae of a vanished world are shown as men born centuries before their time, it is perfectly possible to draw the opposite moral — that, for all their exploitation of the most modern technology, Communism and Nazism have been inspired by phantasies which are downright archaic. And such is in fact the case. It can be shown (though to do so in detail would require another volume) that the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, dissimilar though they are in many respects, are both heavily indebted to that very ancient body of beliefs which constituted the popular apocalyptic lore of Europe.” ( Norman Cohn )
Moreover the baptism practiced by the enthusiasts of Munster, was not that of the sect of Baptists; it was a proceeding which denoted adhesion to the fanatical system the triumph of which they pretended to insure, a ceremony such as is adopted in many secret societies. The essential characteristics of their system were their alleged visions, their unquestionable licentiousness, the confusion which they brought upon the institutions of social life, their tyranny and their cruelty.