The 16th century was a turbulent time for Europe. The all bounding and all powerful Catholic Church got hammered by the Protestant Revolution and shattered into a million pieces. Some of those pieces disappeared, but others took root and grew, and soon new flavours of Christendom were popping up left and right. It was like a new wave of psychedelic drugs, everybody wanted to try one, or even better, more than one.
One of these pieces spawned a new movement, or a sect, called Anabaptism. They were not such a bad group of fellas. They believed that all men were created equal before God and only He could rule them, not some schmuck like a king or a governor. That only adults can be baptized, as only adults can understand what they are doing. They also believed that all possession should be communal, which made them the original communists. Of course very few monarchs who accepted their views and a lot of Anabaptists were shunned, killer or purged.
That is where the German city of Munster comes in. Back in those days it was a somewhat independent town, rules by a Prince-Bishop, and was quite tolerant of any type of faith, as long as it had Christian origin. As you can guess, it attracted a lot of people who decided to switch from good old Catholicism to something spicier. For the most parts they were Lutherans, but many others sought safety behind the city walls, as they were allowed to pray in peace and spread their gospels.
But a barrel of apples could not go without a rotten one, and in this case it was a pastor Bernhard Rothman. Even though he was a Lutheran, his views quickly became quite radical, very similar to those of Anabaptists, and soon he became one of them. Equality for all, especially to those who are with us. In 1532, Bernhard and his friends drove out the Munster city council, kicked out Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck, and pretty much took over the city. And the fun began, mass convention, looting, taking over homes and possessions of non-believers and so on. You know the usual good stuff.
While this was all going on, a new leader of this ruckus emerged, a well-known and respected Anabaptist Jan Matthias. At the beginning he did quite good, food and supplies were shared equally, everyone had a roof over their heads, everyone was treated fairly (as long as they converted), and everyone was happy.
And there would be a happy ending if not for the pesky Prince Bishop von Waldeck, who came back with an army and surrounded once-upon-a-time his city. Like with any other sieges, soon the people of Munster started run out of any tasty food and second guessing their latest decisions. Jan Matthias could not let his followers to turn away from God and run free, so he did one thing a real messiah would do, he went to fight the threatening army. He did it single-handedly, mano-o-mano as they say. For some unknown reason it did not work out well for him, he was quickly beheaded and his head put on a pike near the city gates.
It did not take a long for a new Anabaptist leader to emerge. He was Jan van Layden, an apprentice tailer from far away Holland. He shared his religion with his predecessor, but his regime was quite different. He disbanded the Anabatitan council that ruled Munster and declared himself the new King of the World. Any sense of equality went out of the window and strict, oppressive rule was implemented. While the city starved, Jan wine and dine with his goons, wore gold and jewels, and lived well in his own heavenly Zion. To make things more interesting, he made polygamy mandatory and forced every woman to take a husband, and every man to take a number of wives. Jan personally settled for sixteen spouses, minus one who was beheaded when she spoke up against his ungodly lifestyle.
Time kept on slipping, a year went by and Munster suffered. Starvation, desperation, oppression, violence, rape and all other nasty things that people like to do in a besieged city. But Jan and the rest of Anabaptists did not want to give up and continued to believe that they were right, and the whole world was wrong, or more specifically Bishop von Waldeck who surrounded their city with his damn army. But good times could not go on forever, and one day the Bishop’s men managed to break through the city walls, thanks to some unhappy citizens, defeat the Anabaptistic forces and liberated the city from their rule.
Munster went back to normal. Got re-Catholized, cleaned up, patched up and brought back to order. As for the culprits, Bishop had a special surprise for them. Jan and his two main fellas, Bernard Knipperdolling and Bernard Krechting, were arrested and tortured in rather gruesomely medieval style. Then they were put to death, shoved in three different cages and hanged from St Lambert’s church. If you ever visit the beautiful city of Munster, you can still spot the cages decorating the church’s walls.