Friday, July 20, 2012


Münster—July 20, 2012

We got on the train this morning and rode west for over 3 hours to Münster, Germany. I have looked forward to getting here. This city has a fascinating history. It also experienced the dark chapter of the Anabaptist story.

This is the story of the really radical Anabaptists—and not the good kind of radical. These are the guys who give everyone else a bad name. In fact, many scholars believe that if it had not been for the disaster in Münster, Anabaptists might have come out of the time of persecutions in a much better light. As it is, when most people hear the "Anabaptist", they immediately think of the crazies who took over Münster for a short time in the mid-16th century.

Melchior Hoffman of Strasbourg was an Anabaptist with a strong millennial eschatology in 1530. He influenced some Dutch pastors, Jan Matthys, Jan of Leiden, and a few others. Somehow, their belief that the kingdom was about to arrive became convoluted to the belief that they were the ones to usher it in and the New Zion, the “new Jerusalem”, was going to be in Münster.

In 1534, their enthusiastic preaching (and not a little manipulation of poor, desperate, ignorant peasants—maybe those guys back in Basle were right) resulted in 1,000 adult baptisms. Convinced they were unstoppable, blessed of God, and commissioned by some celestial signs, they proceeded with their plans to conquer the rest of the world--seriously. Unlike the Anabaptists in Switzerland and southern Germany, these guys were sure they were supposed to take up the sword and kill all unbelievers.

They threw out the Catholic bishop, von Waldeck, purged the city cathedral of all Catholic symbols, and demanded that the city be fully Anabaptist. In response, von Waldeck got an army together and lay siege to the city.

Jan Matthys was convinced he was Gideon and could defeat the Catholics like Gideon did in the Bible. He took 30 men out of the city, intending to destroy the enemy army. His contingent was immediately surrounded. They were all killed, Matthys was beheaded and mutilated and his head was put on a pole for all to see.

Inside the city, Jan of Leiden was installed as king. He thought he was the next King David. He created a lavish court life around him and claimed absolute power over the New Jerusalem. He claimed to receive visions, legalized polygamy (he took 16 wives) and declared community of goods. As a Dutch saying goes, "He knew how to become a king but he did know how to rule."

The city was finally defeated in June, 1535. The next January, Leiden and two other leaders were cruelly tortured and executed. Their bodies were put in cages and hung on the tower of the St. Lambert’s cathedral. The cages were left there as warnings to others.

This was a turning point for the Anabaptists. Suppression of the movement was increased all over Germany. This event also proved to be the impetus for the Dutch Anabaptists. Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who had joined the Anabaptists, arose as a leader of the movement. He attempted to get the movement back on track, hoping to reconcile disparate groups and, refuting Hoffman and the Münsterites, taught non-violence and love, not retribution, toward one’s enemies.

We really enjoyed Münster. It is a happening place. Lots of cafes, sidewalk music, wide, cobblestoned streets. Big churches—the mega-church movement in America has nothing on this city. Huge cathedrals seem to appear around every corner. We walked through several of them. We visited the castle, which also happens to be the home to Westphalia University—and today there was a graduation party. Not only that, but there was a food festival going on in the front grounds of the castle. We also visited the city museum which had several rooms dedicated to what they called the “Anabaptist Kingdom.” (The pamphlet we found in one of the churches referred to the “Anabaptist reign of terror.”) I had to buy a little book in the museum shop entitled "Das Drama der "Wiedertäufer" which contains the story as told by a local historian, complete with reproductions of prints, letters, and paintings from 1534-1535.

At least they have not simply dismissed this part of their history. Those three cages are still hanging up there on the tower of St. Lambert’s Cathedral.

Walking through downtown Münster toward St. Lamberti's cathedral. This site was used first around the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD). The parish was founded roughly around 1000. First recorded reference to the parish is about 1179.

The church is massive, darkened by age and soot, has many gargoyles and spikes--even though it is in the center of the market (three market roads meet here since antiquity), it is a glowering presence.

The market square just beside the church is filled with sidewalk cafes.

Winged altar piece dating from ca. 1500 with scenes of the Virgin Mary and the Infancy of Christ.

The interior is brighter than what one might expect. The great organ was actually hung in 1989. It is suspended freely with gallery or ground support.

The pointed-arch tracery windows. The three stained glass windows were installed after WWII (during which much of the cathedral was damaged.) They show, left to right, Resurrection, Crucifixion and Ascension.

Crucifixion grouping in St. Lamberti's, ca. 1550.

The streets radiating from the cathedral are lined with arched colonnades. Stores and cafes are found along the walk.

So, the cages are still there. Above the clock. Towering over the market place. As a warning?

This is the east side of St. Lamberti's.

The old Rat Haus . . . just inside the old city walls, in sight of that tower with the cages.

The cathedral from down the street. If you look closely, those cages are still there.

Another cathedral, St. Paul's . . . even bigger than the first one. Probably the main city church (ca. 1225). Under major restoration and construction so we did not get in.

Sausages on the street!

Down the street a little further: The Überwasserkirche, also Liebfrauen, also Marienkirche . . . it bears all these names and dates back to 1340.

For an old place, not looking too shabby.

Approaching the palace, which is now Westphalian University. (Remember, the treaty securing the Peace of Westphalia was signed in Münster. Well, sort of secured--the peace lasted a few years).

There is a food festival going on at the palace (along with a graduation ceremony going on inside. We crashed the party for few minutes.) A happening place. The name of the festival, according to the brochures we found lying around is "Münster verwöhnt"; i.e., "Discriminating (or possibly, "Spoiled") Münster". We're a long way from the cages here.

Also a line up of hybrid cars (including hybrid Mercedes and Smart Cars.)

Going back to town, the cages are still there. Do you feel like someone (something) is always looking over your shoulder? Does anyone else feel a chill in the air?

Dinner: I'll be back with descriptions . . . .

The tower keeps careful vigil over the vibrant nightlife.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.