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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1536: The Münster Rebellion leaders

10 comments January 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Bernhard Krechting, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and Jan van Leiden were chained to stakes in the Münster public square, tortured with flesh-ripping tongs for more than an hour, killed with daggers thrust into their hearts, and their remains hoisted in cages in the city cathedral as a warning against any kindred misbehavior in the future.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jan van Leiden et al being put to death in Münster. In the background, the Lambertuskirche spire shows the three cages in which the victims’ remains were gibbeted.

And the point was taken: the appalling deaths of these men also marked the death of early Anabaptism’s pretensions to secular political power.

These three unfortunates were the top surviving leaders of the Münster Rebellion, a revolution that turned that city into an Anabaptist commune for more than a year.

Just a few years before, southern Germany had been shaken by an apocalyptic peasant rebellion led by Thomas Muntzer, a sort of proto-Anabaptist.*

Though northern Germany was spared that particular maelstrom, that same religious tension and social discontent soon blew a hyperborean wind.

In the early 1530s, “Melchiorites” — Anabaptist followers of radical preacher Melchior Hoffman — proliferated rapidly among workers of the long-prosperous but now-waning Hanseatic territories in northern Germany and the Low Countries.

And these converts did not intend the meek example of evangelical martyrdom. They meant to rule.

In 1535, Democratic-Anabaptist types stormed the Amsterdam city hall; in a separate action, others seized and fortified a Friesland monastery before being overrun. An allied movement, less theologically distinct, won temporary control of Lübeck in 1533, before being expelled by force of arms.

Only in Münster did the Anabaptists realize the full flower of their project, albeit for a very brief period of time. Winning power over the course of the year 1533 by dint of internal politicking, energetic recruitment, and fortuitous imperial distraction, Münster Anabaptists booted out the 1% and started turning the place into a visionary “New Jerusalem.”

Among those visions, the most notorious was polygamy (pdf), introduced by Jan van Leiden when he inherited leadership after the charismatic firebrand Jan Matthys died in a sortie against a siege in April 1534. The story has it that van Leiden wanted to marry Matthys’s attractive widow Divara, though whether motivated by considerations of the loins or legitimacy is up to the reader’s good conscience.

There’s quite a controversial historiography surrounding their polygamous turn: while contemporary enemies were pleased to ascribe it to libertine devilries, German Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky vociferously defended the Münster Anabaptists — arguing that they resorted to polygamy for social stability when the gender disparity in the city had fallen past 3:1 owing to the vicissitudes of war.

And war, as Kautsky noted, was the commune of Münster’s essential condition, just like that of Paris.

Community of goods was the basis of the whole Baptist movement. For its sake the great fight was waged at Münster. It was not, however, the chief factor in determining the character of the Münster Baptist government, that factor being the siege. The town was a great war-camp; the demands of war took precedence of all other matters, and sentiments of freedom and equality were active only in so far as they were compatible with military dictatorship.

After a year and more under siege, Munster finally succumbed to Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck.

Jan van Leiden, by this time dignified the “King of Jerusalem”, was taken along with two of his chief aides and designated for this superlative punishment (many others less exalted faced less exalted executions, too).


For decades after the execution, the Anabaptists’ remains rotted publicly in cages on the tower of St. Lambert’s — like these still displayed there to this day. (cc) image from Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.

For Anabaptists as a whole this catastrophe commenced a long period of persecution and reckoning. But from such travails would the movement leave its mark. Indeed, it was also in January 1536 that a young Dutch priest named Menno Simons accepted adult baptism … and began a religious career that would make him the founding namesake of the Mennonites.

Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast treats the Münster rebellion here.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Torture

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