“Owning” Muenster

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women (part 5 of 8). Introduction. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

At dinner on the evening before our Mennonite Heritage Tour’s visit to Muenster, one of the people in our group remarked that we needed to “own” Muenster even as we “own” Auschwitz (where we would stop later).

By Auschwitz, of course, he meant the Holocaust, and by Muenster, he meant the historical events of 1534-35 in that city – the “rebellion” of radical Anabaptists in which they tried to establish the “New Jerusalem” there, complete with a king (Jan van Leiden), polygamy, extreme violence, a long siege, eventual victory by a Bishop’s army on the outside, and the killing of hundreds, with the leaders’ bodies displayed as a warning in three cages that still hang on the city’s Lamberti Church.

His comment gave me pause. If “owning” history means to look at what happened, to enter into its achievements or horrors, whatever the case might be, to engage with it morally as well as mentally, then I had certainly done that with Auschwitz over the years.

But it had not occurred to me to do the same with Muenster. I knew only the sketchy details, as above. I’d supposed our Muenster stop might be like viewing a pickled frog in a lab: necessary, perhaps, but just for a quick look, an “ugh!” and on to more palatable things.

After our dinner conversation, however, I resolved to — at the least — pay attention in Muenster. Which I tried to do the next morning as we wandered along brick sidewalks and through a market colourful with flowers and fruits and vegetables, in and out of a church and past famous buildings, craning our necks to see those three cages, way way up… And then, in the museum where the Anabaptist period of the city is also on display, I was grabbed into the history of Muenster by a painting.

“Jan van Leiden verstoesst seine Gemahlin Elisabeth Wandscherer” by Caspar Goerke, 1852 (internet image)

The painting tells the dramatic story of Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of sixteen wives of (King) Jan van Leiden. We see her on her knees, dropping her jewelry in front of him. She begs to leave. It can’t be God’s will, she says, that people in Muenster are starving [because of the siege] while the king and his court live in luxury. We see that the king’s hand is fisted. We learn that in the next, unpainted, scene he will have her dragged out and beheaded for her resistance — wielding the sword himself — and that afterwards, he and his other wives and the crowds will dance and sing “To God on high be glory.”

Yes, it’s stories with their personalities, complexity, and drama that lead us into “owning” the past. They force us to interact with human dilemmas, sorrows, failures, and courage. This is what the story of Elisabeth Wandscherer did for me and Muenster.

7 thoughts on ““Owning” Muenster

  1. That scene has just about everything in it that would cause the first Anabaptist historians to DIS-own it. Violence, licentiousness, polygamy, patriarchy (this objection comes later, of course). What accumulated deviations from the first reformers created such a terrible theology–almost the antithesis of Schleitheim?

    Reminds me of Dominionism, a radical eschatological group gaining influence in the US. Have you heard of it?

  2. Shirley, I share your strong reaction. You know how blogging is, but I’m thinking now that I might have articulated more clearly how I can “own” Muenster through such a story, or how I’d like to own it, at least. It’s the resistance that Elisabeth expresses to “such a terrible theology,” as you put it, of course, that gives me a small space to stand within that city nearly five centuries ago. At least, I hope I might have stood there. Who knows, though, how I might have been caught up in those terrible times and reacted? That’s the trouble with stories too; where in that painting might I have been. But it begins, at least, that mental and moral wrestling, the kind one is more familiar with, perhaps, from engaging with the fact and events of the Holocaust.

    I’ve just barely heard of Dominionism, but I’m off to Google to learn a little more!

  3. Yes, I understood the sense of needing to “own” the story. The holocaust analogy made that clear. Historian H. S.Bender just conveniently wrote out the Muensterites, as I understand it.Munsterites were called Anabaptist, so there must be something to learn here. That’s why I asked my question about small differences that might have become twisted in the hands of a megalomaniacal leader. I’m actually out of my element–know just enough to be dangerous.

    • Oh, I know you did, and as for your question, I’m asking it along with you, knowing just enough to be dangerous on the subject myself! I’ve been reading in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht’s book, “Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers,” which also considers women in these events that feel so fringe — events that must have made Bender and his Vision simply shudder. The apocalyptic longings and assumptions, the role of “prophecy” and visions (also allowed women), the wider tumult of the time, the printing press, the megalomaniacal leaders… Another fascinating character is “Judith of Munster” or Hille Feicken (Feyken), a “committed Anabaptist” who attempted to emulate the biblical Judith, who felt she’d been given the assignment, and kill the bishop outside the walls. — Thanks for your interest, Shirley, it deeps pushing me in, or in all directions perhaps!

  4. One pattern in religious movements. Women OFTEN play crucial roles in the beginning of them. When they claim direct messages from God, for example, they are believed. The more emphasis on the Holy Spirit (rather than soverign God or even suffering Savior), the more women are likely to lead. After the movement settles into a church or even a sect, male leadership solidifies and women once again go to the margins. I noticed this while studied American religious history. Aimee Semple McPherson, Ann Hutchinson. Even the WMSC had some of this pattern before it was taken in, under the umbrella of male church leadership.

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