April 16, 2018
The Taylor-King by Anthony Arthur centered around the short-lived Anabaptist kingdom of Munster Germany in the 1530’s. Jan van Leyden (Jan Bockelson) is the focus title character but not the focus of the book. The story of what happened in Munster is so detailed and intricate that any and all historical figures take a backseat to the story itself.
Coming off the heels of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525 Munster, Germany becomes autonomous from the Roman Church and prides itself in the fact that Lutherans and Catholics are working together on the town council to make the town work and thrive. In 1529 Emperor Charles V decrees for the removal of any re-baptized person or anyone holding to an Anabaptist theology. A Lutheran priest named Bernard Rothman, who studied with Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, begins preaching against infant baptism and idol worship in 1531. By 1532 it became evident that Rothman was not a Lutheran but a convert to a small violent faction of Anabaptism led by two newcomers to the area, Jan Matthias and Jan van Leyden (16). We can see the strong Zwinglian influence in this form of Anabaptist theology in regards to the symbolic explaining of the Lord’s supper (19). Co-mayor Bernard Knipperdolling, who supported Rothman, printed pamphlets and sermons from Rothman inviting other Anabaptists to Munster for the apocalyptic return of Christ was soon at hand. By 1533, thousands of newcomers arrived and in March were great enough in numbers to force a new election (23). All Catholics and Lutherans were voted out and replaced by hardline Anabaptists. By the end of the year, large-scale public baptisms began, and it is estimated by Arthur’s account that close to “one third [sic] of the population was sure that the apocalypse and Second coming were at hand” (25). On February 6th of 1534, Rothman terrifies the local convent with predictions of the worlds end and their need to repent and join the movement at Munster. A new council is made up exclusively of radical Anabaptists, and on February 27th Catholics and Lutherans are driven from the city with little more than the clothes on their backs in cold sleeting night. Those who wish to stay must convert and give all their belongings to the leadership via the implementation of communism. At this point, Matthias has established himself as a prophet and by mid-March has confiscated all wealth. With the attention and armies of the Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck outside the heavily walled city, Matthias has a vision that he is to defeat the armies and usher in the millennium on Easter day, April 5, 1534. He is banking on more Anabaptists arriving to help by then. None arrive, and he faces the army with twelve men, and all of them are cut to ribbons by 500 soldiers on horseback in a matter of minutes. In less than two months this town has been transformed by the “Prophet” and is under siege. With his death should come the end of the uprising. It would have if it were not for van Leyden. With the people disillusioned by what they just saw van Leyden, a charlatan with a flair for the dramatic, calls all to the church and addresses them by saying that, “It was God’s will that Jan Matthias died. His time had come” (71). He then claims that this was revealed to him by God in a dream eight days earlier which he shared with Knipperdolling, who vouched for him, as well as the revelation that he is to marry Matthias’ widow. Arthur now focuses on the next fourteen months in the life of Munster centered on van Leyden. His elevation to the king, institution of the draconian laws of communism, public executions, and forced polygamy with girls as young as ten (104). Jan van Leyden had sixteen wives but no children. He even publicly executed one of his wives while forcing the other fifteen to sing “In Excelsis Deo” while it took place (159). By May of 1535, Anabaptists are fleeing by the thousands to what they hope is the care of the Bishop only to find an army waiting to execute them. If they turn back, they will be executed by the Anabaptists. The night of June 22, 1535, Munster is overcome by the armies outside the walls, and many are captured and killed. On January 22, 1536, Jan van Leyden, Benard Knipperdolling, and Henry Krechting are executed slowly and horrifically. The night before, van Leyden was the only one of the three to agree to have a priest with him to confess and repent of his behavior. After they were executed, their bodies are then placed in giant bird cages and hung from St. Lambert’s Church just above the clock for everyone to see. The bodies were removed fifty years later, but the cages are still there to this day (183).
The story of what happened in Munster in less than a two year period shows us just how fast a radical movement left unchecked can destroy society. Arthur tells this story in a way that plays out like a movie. It is a thrilling and quick read at 201 pages, but the reality of this event is what captivates us. The final paragraph in the book lets the reader into the mind of the author as to why this book was written. “What makes them worth remembering is that they were the precursors and to some degree the progenitors of the political and religious violence that have become so much a part of our world today” (201). An interesting conclusion to come to, though not lacking in merit. The problems arise from the fact that the sources are not from the Munsterites, but from dissenters and those who wish to tell a good story. The general facts are there even if the details have been embellished for sensationalism. I do wish that more pages would have been dedicated to the political issues surrounding these events. The politics of the day are what allowed this uprising to have lasted as long as it did.
While many in the Anabaptist community truly believed that what was taking place was from God, it is doubtful in my estimation that van Leyden was one of them. I have heard this story and read its accounts before, and I can say that Arthur does a terrific job introducing the reader to the heart and humanity (also inhumanity) of what took place. What I take away from this historical event is the need within the Church for education and proper instruction of the Christian faith. The presence of those two concepts can stop another Munster from happening again. There is another reality to come forth surrounding this story, when you couple Martin Luther’s German Bible, that unified the German language, with Jan van Leyden’s forcing the Princes and leadership to work together, you have the start of what becomes a united northern Germany.