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Anabaptist Radicals Declare Muenster the "New Jerusalem" (February 27, 1534)
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When Easter came, Matthys seized the goods of the exiled citizens and placed them in warehouses to be distributed to the poor, then insisted that everyone in the city bring forth their wealth so that it could be evenly divided amongst the populace. A few people resisted; they were locked in a church and given the option to die, rather than give up their goods. They were released once they agreed to comply, but a blacksmith who had questioned Matthys's authority to redistribute the city's wealth was declared to have been possessed by the devil. Matthys had him imprisoned, and then murdered him.

On Easter Sunday, the day Matthys had identified as the beginning of the End, the Bishop mounted an attack. While Knipperdolling, ever reasonable, stayed inside to comfort Matthys's panicked congregation, Matthys himself strode forth, assuring the people that God had given him special powers, so that the enemy could not harm him. He swept down upon the Bishop, but met his end, when the Bishop's guards impaled him and then decapited him. His head was hoisted on a pike and displayed for his followers inside the city.

The rising might have ended then, had Jan van Leyden not taken up Matthys's role. Overcome by religious ecstasy, he ran naked through the streets, foaming at the mouth and speaking in tongues, before collapsing into a three-day coma. After he recovered, he called the people together to tell them that God had revealed the new order to him. The laws of the city were to be replaced with a more godly regime. A number of new capital offenses were declared, and Knipperdolling was given the "Sword of Justice" and the title of Executioner. Money became illegal, although new coins were issued so that the people could buy commodities which could not be locally produced, and communal ownership was mandated. In July, van Leyden announced that the Old Testament mandated polygamy, and proceeded to execute anyone who did not agree. Furthermore, marriage was made compulsory for women, although divorce was allowed for men, and the marriage ceremony itself was abolished. Marriage could now be accomplished by simply telling a woman to marry you, and moving her into your house. Since domestic discord was punishable by death, the women were not likely to complain.

In September, one of van Leyden's followers declared that he had received a vision; van Leyden was to be King of the World. He accepted the Sword of Justice, and the title of Prophet-King, and assured the populace that Muenster would be delivered the following Easter. To commemorate his new position, he renamed all of the streets in Muenster, as well as renaming the days of the week and the children, too, just for good measure. He took Divara, Jan Matthys's widow, as his chief wife (he had 15 others) and made her his queen.

During this time, the Anabaptists inside Muenster had been managing to bring in some supplies, and to smuggle copies of Bernhard Rothman's treatises out to encourage Anabaptist risings in Gelderland, West Frisia and Minden. But the Bishop had not been idle. In January 1535, he and his supporters completed the blockade of the city. Muenster was now entirely cut off from outside assistance. Starvation doubtless contributed to disillusionment. When Easter came and went, and there was still no sign of God's Army, van Leyden's support began to crumble. In June, the Bishop mounted a surprise attack. Perhaps assisisted by treason from within the city, he broke through the resistance and captured the town. Anabaptists who surrendered were promised leniency, but the Bishop was not in a charitable mood. The killing continued for two days. The bodies were stacked inside the cathedral. Jan van Leyden himself was captured, and tortured to death with hot irons. The cages in which the bodies of van Leyden and two other leaders were displayed still hang from the tower of the church.

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Portrait of Jan van Leyden by Heinrich Aldegrever taken from The Donajskis' Digital Gallery

The Daily Bleed
Historical Committee and Archives of the Mennonite Church
Anabaptists, at infoplease
Loose Canons: Jan van Leyden
The Radical Reformation, from the University of Warwick
Christian History: Munster's Monster

More about Jan van Leyden and the Anabaptist Movement:
The Tailor-KingThe Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Muenster, by Anthony Arthur.
A well-researched, highly entertaining account of Jan van Leyden's ill-fated reign.



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