1597: Anneke van den Hove, buried alive

Add comment July 19th, 2019 Thieleman Janszoon van Braght

(Thanks to 17th century Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janszoon van Braght for the guest post. It was originally an entry in his Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs Mirror, but although this doctrine did not emerge until the 1520s, van Braght was keen to deploy his hagiographies to connect his movement to a longer tradition of pre-Lutheran dissidents, and thus claims post facto for proto-anabaptism such figures as Waldensians, Albigensians, and Gerard Segarelli. -ed.)

At Brussels, under the reign of the archduke Albert, there was apprehended for her faith and following Christ, a young maiden named Anneken van den Hove (being the servant maid of Nicolaes Rampaert’s sister), having been betrayed, as it was said, by the pastor of the Savel church at Brussels.

This Anneken was imprisoned two years and seven months, in which time she suffered much temptation, from priests, monks, Jesuits and others, who thereby sought to make her apostatize from the faith she had accepted; but however great pains they took with her, in the way of examining, tormenting, fair promises, threats, long imprisonment, and otherwise, she nevertheless constantly remained steadfast in the faith in her Lord and Bridegroom, so that finally, on the nin[eteen]th of July, 1597,* certain Jesuits came and asked her whether she would suffer herself to be converted, for in that case she should be released and set at liberty. Thereupon she replied, “No.” They then offered to give her six months more time for consideration; but she desired neither day nor time, but said that they might do what seemed good to them, for she longed to get to the place where she might offer up unto the Lord a sacrifice acceptable unto Him. This answer having been conveyed to the judges, information was brought her about two hours afterwards, that if she wanted to die, prepare herself, unless she wished to turn.

Hence the justice of the court, and also a few Jesuits, went out with her about eight o’clock, half a mile without the city of Brussels, where a pit or grave was made, while in the meantime she fearlessly undressed herself, and was thus put alive into the pit, and the lower limbs having first been covered with earth, the Jesuits who were present asked her whether she would not yet turn and recant? She said, “No;” but that she was glad that the time of her departure was so near fulfilled. When the Jesuits then laid before her, that she had to expect not only this burying alive of the body into the earth, but also the eternal pain of the fire in her soul, in hell. She answered that she had peace in her conscience, being well assured that she died saved, and had to expect the eternal, imperishable life, full of joy and gladness in heaven, with God and all His saints.

In the meantime they continued to throw earth and (as has been stated to us) thick sods of heath ground upon her body, up to her throat; but notwithstanding all their asking, threatening, or promising to release her and take her out of the pit, if she would recant, it was all in vain, and she would not hearken to it.

Hence they at last threw much additional earth and sods upon her face and whole body, and stamped with their feet upon it, in order that she should die the sooner.

This was the end of this pious heroine of Jesus Christ, who gave her body to the earth, that her soul might obtain heaven; thus she fought a good fight, finished her course, kept the faith, and valiantly confirmed the truth unto death.

Since she then so loved her dear leader, Christ Jesus, that she followed Him not only to the marriage at Cana, but also, so to speak, even to the gallows-hill, there cannot be withheld from her the honor and name of a faithful martyress, who suffered all this for His name’s sake.

Hence she will also afterwards, when going forth as a wise virgin, yea, as a dear friend of the Lord, to meet her heavenly Bridegroom, be joyfully welcomed and received in the heavenly halls of immortal glory, together with all steadfast servants of God.

O God, be merciful also unto us that are still living, that continuing faithful unto the end, we may with her, and all the saints receive Thy blessed inheritance.

* July 9th by the old Julian calendar preferred by Protestants; July 19th by the updated Gregorian calendar preferred by Catholics.

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1550: Four Anabaptist martyrs at Lier

Add comment January 31st, 2016 Headsman

The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:

On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”

Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”

Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.

Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”

When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”

In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.

He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”

The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?

She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”

Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.

She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”

Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”

The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”

Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”

Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”

The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.

She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”

On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”

The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”

A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”

The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”

Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”

They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”

The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.

* A 1535 edict against Anabaptists, issued in the aftermath of the Muenster rebellion.

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1528: Leonhard Schiemer, Anabaptist pacifist

Add comment January 14th, 2016 Headsman

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.

1 Peter 4:1, a verse very dear to this date’s principal*

Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on this date in 1528 at Rattenberg.

Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.

In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?

Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.

[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”

He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

The Threefold Grace

It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.

* According to an essay on Schiemer in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity.

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1567: Four Anabaptists in Antwerp, after torture

Add comment September 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1567, four Anabaptists were burned at Antwerp as heretics.

Their sect furnishes many martyrs for these pages. That Christian Langedul, Cornelis Claess, Mattheus de Vick, and Hans Symons were sniffed out and clapped in prison for their faith is no surprise for the time and place they lived, and that they withstood torture and went joyfully to the stake is the script demanded for historical remembrance.

Letters in the hands of three of these men (all save Mattheus de Vick) were retained by their comrades and eventually published in the Martyrs Mirror chronicle of Protestant (especially Anabaptist) martyrs during the Reformation.

Hans Symons and Cornelis Claess wrote words of exhortation to faithfulness and steadfastness. Christian Langedul’s letter, however, catches our eye for its very direct exposition of the nature of the torture that he and the others were put to. In a letter to his wife, Langedul doesn’t sugar-coat his situation in the least — and she must have known full well what their arrest would entail. Centuries later, it’s a discomfiting first-person account of what a man suffers on and after the rack.

we were all examined today before the margrave, and of us six we four freely confessed our faith, for it had to be; either the soul or the body had to be sacrificed; the Lord had to be either forsaken or confessed. Thus, Hans Symons, Cornelis the shoemaker, and Mattheus, confessed as also, I unworthy one, and I hope to keep it to the praise of the Lord, but not through my own power or merit, but by the power and grace of God; for through weakness we are made strong, this I must confess. Eph. 1:19; II Cor. 12:9.

Hence be of good cheer in the Lord, and do the best with the children, of whom I dare not think, for they lie heavily on my heart.

When the margrave examined me today, concerning my faith he asked me about nothing but baptism, and I held out against him as long as I could, by saying that I knew but one baptism according to the Gospel and Christ’s own command and injunction; but his constant question was, “Say yes or no, whether you are satisfied with the baptism you received in your infancy, or whether you have received another?”

I replied that I knew nothing to say about infant baptism; but this did not suffice, I had to confess that I had received another, and thus I confessed it, the Lord be praised, and I have not regretted it yet, and I hope that I shall not regret it unto the end, for it is the truth.

Know, my beloved wife, that yesterday about three o’clock I had written you a letter, which I now send you. I could not send it then, for soon afterwards the margrave came here to torture us; hence I was not able to send the letter, for then all four of us were one after another severely tortured, so that we have now but little inclination to write; however, we cannot forbear, we must write to you.

Cornelis the shoemaker was the first; then came Hans Symons, with whom also the captain went down into the torture chamber. Then thought I, “We shall have a hard time of it; to satisfy him.” My turn came next — you may think how I felt. When I came to the rack, where were the lords, the order was, “Strip yourself, or tell where you live.” I looked distressed, as may be imagined. I then said, “Will you ask me nothing further then?” They were silent.

Then thought I, “I see well enough what it means, it would not exempt me from the torture,” hence I undressed, and fully resigned myself to the Lord: to die. Then they racked me dreadfully, twisting off two cords, I believe, on my thighs and shins; they stretched me out, and poured much water into my body and my nose, and also on my heart. Then they released me, and asked, “Will you not yet tell it?” They entreated me, and again they spoke harshly to me; but I did not open my mouth, so firmly had God closed it.

Then they said, “Go at him again, and this with a vengeance.” This they also did, and cried, “Go on, go on, stretch him another foot.” Then thought I, “You can only kill me.” And thus stretched out, with cords twisted around my head, chin, thighs, and shins, they left me lie, and said, “Tell, tell.” … Again I was asked, “Will you not tell it?” I did not open my mouth. Then they said, “Tell us where you live; your wife and children, at all events, are all gone away.” In short, I said not a word.”What a dreadful thing,” they said. Thus the Lord kept my lips, so that I did not open them; and they released me, when they had long tried to make me speak.

Thereupon two of them, the executioner and his assistant, bore me from the rack. Think how they dealt with us, and how we felt, and still feel. Then they half carried, half dragged me from the torture chamber up into the jailer’s room, where was a good fire of oak wood. There they, once or twice, gave me some Rhenish wine to drink, which revived me in a measure. And when I had warmed myself somewhat, they again half dragged me up over the porter’s room. There they had such commiseration for me; they gave me wine again; they gave me spices, and of everything you had sent me, all of which rendered me very good service. They had wine brought and helped me to bed. But the sheets were very coarse, and greatly hurt my shins and thighs; however, soon afterwards the sheets and pillow you sent me arrived, and there were also two or three pocket handkerchiefs. They then covered me with the sheets, which came very convenient to me, as did also the spices. Had the sheets not come, I know not how I should have passed the night; but so I slept tolerably well. But I am hardly able to stand yet, and the lower part of my legs is as though they were dead from racking; however, it is all well, as I trust by the grace of the Lord.

After me Mattheus was tortured; he named his house and the street in which we live, and said it was in a gate; however, I am of the opinion that there are no longer any gates in that street. Hence move away altogether, if you have not done so yet; for I think the lord will find his way there. Let therefore no one who stands in any danger go into the house. He also named R. T.’s house, and the street where F. V. St. lives. Do herein immediately the best you can. He is very sorry for it.

I wrote you yesterday that I hoped to write to you during the day, but I could not do it; Mattheus and I lay in bed until two o’clock, so greatly were we afraid, because the margrave came here to torture Cornelis again, and we feared that we should also be tortured a second time, of which we had a great dread, more than of death, for it is an excruciating pain. Cornelis was tortured and scourged to such a degree the second time, that three men had to carry him up, and they say that he could scarcely move a member, except his tongue. He sent word to us, that if they come again it is his opinion it will finish him. Thus the Margrave did not come yesterday, but we expect him today again; may the Lord help us, for it is a horrible pain.

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1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration

Add comment March 20th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.

While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.

To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.

This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.

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1527: Georg Wagner

Add comment February 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.

Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.

Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.

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1545: Cornelis Appelman and Willem Zeylmaker, Batenburgers

Add comment February 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.

We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.

Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.

Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.

Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.

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1538: Anna Jansz, Anabaptist

2 comments January 24th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch Anabaptist Anneke Esaiasdochter (better known as Anna Jansz; this was the surname of her husband*) was executed in Rotterdam on this date in 1538.

Anna (English Wikipedia entry | German) is a key martyr of the fragmented Anabaptist movement following the destruction of Anabaptis’s “New Jerusalem” in Münster.

This catastrophe hurled Anabaptism into the desert, where rival leaders pointed the way to different horizons. Would it double down on revolutionary political aspirations, along the lines of Münster? Would it become a pacificist, spiritual movement without secular aspirations?

Anna Jansz, at least as she appears in the readings others have given her, somewhat personifies these conflicting directions — and not incidentally, the also-open question of women’s role in the Anabaptist movement.

Though she appears in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a model feminine sufferer, the “Trumpet Song” she composed has in at least some versions a distinctly apocalyptic tone. One historian called it the Marseillaise of Anabaptist hymns:

Wash your feet in the godless blood

This is shocking imagery, but it’s also far from clear that it’s actually what Anna herself wrote — or if its surface interpretation is what the author intended to convey. Anabaptism’s fast-evolving strains published different versions of the “Trumpet Song” in the 16th century, whose slight alterations dramatically shade its meaning — especially so in view of the possible scriptural allusions. Here’s a version of the same line in which the verb wash (wascht) is replaced with watch, or mind (wacht), and it now advises the true Christian to leave punishment of the persecutors to God:

You true Christians be of good cheer
Mind dipping your feet in blood
Because this is the reward which those who
robbed us will receive

As Timothy Nyhof details in this paper (pdf), her image is ultimately quite elusive to us,** and filtered through the texts of interlocutors like the great Anabaptist fugitive David Joris, rumored to have been Anna’s onetime lover. Joris published the version of the “Trumpet Song” excerpted just above — the cautious one.†

In the end, a fixed conclusion as to whether Anna was a firebrand later softened for public consumption, or the reverse, or a more nuanced character entirely, is beyond the reach of posterity. In any guise, she was an exponent of the call to spiritual purity and anticipation of the Lord that fortified a proscribed faith in its wilderness sojourn.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Anna Jansz en route to her January 24, 1538 execution from the Martyrs’ Mirror.

* Anna’s husband Arendt Jansz fled to England to escape the persecution of Anabaptists, which is why he doesn’t figure in this story.

** Nyhof ultimately situates Anna Jansz among the Melchiorites. Although that philosophy’s namesake had gone down backing the Anabaptist commune, his post-Münster followers turned Melchior Hoffman’s eschatology towards personal redemption instead of political violence. (Source)

† I’m certain it must exist out there, but I have not been able to find online a complete version of any of the “original” versions of Anna’s famous song, either in Dutch or in translation. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers gives the last three of its 13 stanzas thus:

At Borsa and Edom, so the author has read
The Lord is preparing a feast
From the flesh of kings and princes.
Come all you birds,
Gather quickly
I will feed you the flesh of princes.
As they have done, so shall be done to them.
You servants of the Lord, be of good cheer.
Wash your feet in the blood of the godless.
This shall be the reward for those who robbed us.

Be pleased therefore, rejoice and be glad.
Play a new song on your harps;
Delight in our God
All you who foresee vengeance.
The Lord comes to pay
And to revenge all our blood.
His wrath is beginning to descend.
We are awaiting the last bowl.

Oh bride, go to meet your Lord and King.
Arise, Jerusalem, prepare yourself.
Receive all your children alike.
You shall spread out your tents.
Receive your corwn, receive your kingdom.
Your King comes to deliver.
He brings his reward before him.
You shall rejoice in it.
We shall see his glory in these times.
Rejoice, Zion, with pure Jerusalem.

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1535: Elisabeth Wandscherer, wife of Jan van Leiden

Add comment June 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1535, in the doomed Anabaptist commune of Münster, the dictator Jan van Leiden personally beheaded one of his 16 wives.

If it seems unfathomable from the standpoint of the 21st century to picture the famously pacific Anabaptists as millenarian theocratic polygamists, that’s in no small measure due to Leiden himself.

His kingdom of Münster lasted only a year, but its wreckage at the end led the successive strains of this Reformation movement towards very different forms of radicalism than Leiden’s sword-arm exercised.

The background preceding Anabaptist Münster was municipal conflict among Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Small wonder that when the Anabaptists — the wild-eyed radicals among these groups — got control of the place,* the Catholic Prince-Bishop put Münster under siege.

That cordon of enemy troops strangling the city shaped much that followed.

Münster’s leading Anabaptist theologian, Bernhard Rothmann, defended polygamy thus:

God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us. Marriage is the union of man and wife — “one” has now been removed — for the honor of God and to fulfill his will, so that children might be brought up in the fear of God …

Freedom in marriage for the man consists in the possibility for him to have more than one wife … This was true of the biblical fathers until the time of the Apostles, nor has polygamy been forbidden by God. (Source)

In the first place, it killed the Anabaptists’ original leader Jan Matthys when Matthys trusted his theology so far as to believe an Easter Sunday (1534) sortie against the Prince-Bishop’s men would enjoy divine favor. Instead, Matthys’s head wound up on a pike.

This decapitation — literal and figurative — dropped leadership onto the head of our man Jan, which got very big indeed over the subsequent 14 months. Or at least, so say Jan’s foes and eventual killers; as observed by the Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky, who mounted a late 19th century defense of the Anabaptists, we know these Münster rebels almost exclusively through the dark glass of their mortal enemies’ lurid propaganda.

The Anabaptist city council (which Jan soon dissolved) had already expelled all citizens who refused adult re-baptism, the movement’s signature (and namesake) tenet. Citizens, however, meant men: the wives didn’t get run off with their husbands and evidently were often left behind to tend households and property that the men expected to resume soon enough.

As a result, the gender imbalance in besieged Münster reportedly ran to 3:1, and Jan goggled at his good fortune like a 25-year-old would do. (He was actually only 25 years old, a former barkeep. He was also already on a bigamous second marriage.)

Having already declared himself king and basically the divine intercessor, and gotten the city to go along with it, Jan van Leiden promulgated polygamy on July 23 — directing men to seek out second and third brides as their first and second ones got pregnant. Barefoot and pregnant, ladies! Maybe it would have been a great plan for explosive population growth, if only that Catholic army under the walls had consented to just hunker down for a generation or two.(Introduction of polygamy triggered an immediate internal revolt led by a blacksmith named Möllenbeck, which Jan’s team crushed.)

There’s always been the assumption, though, that this move so alien to any other strand of the Reformation throughout Europe was more personal than political. Jan took sixteen wives. One was Matthys’s former wife, soon elevated to Queen; most of the rest were in their teenage years.

Many — who can say just how many? — were probably content to indulge his reputedly (reputed by his enemies!) voracious libido because

  1. the besieged city soon began starving; and,
  2. the guy didn’t take to dissension

In its last months, Münster’s people, faint with hunger, were fed dozens of public executions, of the morally corrupt or the politically unreliable. Considering that the withering city sheltered a mere 9,000 souls at the outset,** it was a positively Stalinesque pace, surely exacerbated by the fast-deteriorating strategic situation.

Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of those 16 wives, is supposed to have been beheaded in the market on June 12, 1535, by the very hand of her husband for her “disobedience.” By the account of a hostile Catholic chronicler, said disobedience consisted in remonstrating with Jan van Leiden over the luxury of his own household vis-a-vis the suffering city, and seeking leave to desert Münster.

Whatever added measure of loyalty, vigilance, or zeal might have been anticipated from such a scene was by this point far too little to preserve the city. Before the month was out, the Prince-Bishop had overrun Münster and held Jan van Leiden in chains — now bound in his own turn for the executioner.

Even to this day, Münster’s town hall has a slipper said to have once belonged to Elisabeth Wandscherer.

* By means of an entirely legal municipal election.

** Population figure per this biography of Jan van Leiden.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about it but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland,Torture

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