Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 42: The Anabaptists


If in the Sixteenth Century no religious movement endured as much combined hostility from the Catholics, the Protestants and the temporal authorities as Anabaptism did, this was because it added to the religious discourse of egalitarian theocracy the old social dream in which nostalgia for a golden age provided the weapons of hope to the desperate struggle against the exploiters and the destroyers of natural wealth.

In the premonition of the Third Age, the imminence of which fit in with the crisis of the birth of modern capitalism, the proletarian demands of the towns easily mixed with the peasants’ aspirations and the regrets of the old autarkic rural communes.

The specter of the millennium, whose agrarian fundamentalism brought the inhumanity inherent in the celestial mandate to the surface in the antithetical ideologies of Bolshevism and fascism, engendered among the partisans of the old order and the adepts of a new one a climate of endemic hatred and fear that was propitious for all the excesses of cruelty.

Close to the Waldensian tradition, the peaceful Anabaptists did not incur persecution any less than those who extolled armed struggle. The peaceful ones nourished such a calling for martyrdom that they practically solicited the executioner’s hand. In Münster, where their equality assured by divine right was instituted, the partisans of armed struggle showed that the God of the little fathers of the people hardly spared the children judged to be unworthy of his goodness.


Storch, Pfeiffer and Müntzer

Anabaptism (at least in the writings of its enemies) designated an ensemble of independent groups that were governed by prophets or apostles armed with the sword and word of God. Their common traits evoked the demands of the reformers of the Middle Ages. They rejected the imposition of baptism on infants because it was generally administered by unworthy priests and because it did not obey the choices consciously made by individuals in the community of the faithful. In practice, baptism played a role among the Anabaptists, and especially the Münsterians, similar to the one played by party-membership cards among the old Stalinists of the Twentieth Century. It was a sign of election that authorized access to the egalitarian kingdom of the saints.

The absolute authority that the Anabaptists recognized in God, whose ministers they were, freed them from obeying the spiritual and temporal authorities. In the German principalities, that authority expressed the nearly unanimous rejection of the prince-bishop and his allies. The collusion of the Catholic and Lutheran notables partook of the discredit of two religions that were judged to be irreconcilable with God’s designs. Anabaptism especially estimated itself to be the carrier of a new order. It needed to destroy the ramparts of the old tyrannies in order to impose the authoritarian reign of the saints. Such a project discovered its social ferment in the peasant wars and the insurrections of the miners, weavers and crowds of unemployed workers.

Peasant discontent was a constant factor in history ever since the era of Circumcellions and bagaudae.[1] The peasant uprisings led by Dolcino, William Carle and John Ball punctuated this constancy with an energy that was exacerbated each time that the economy, through the free circulation of goods, broke the closed system of the agrarian mode of production, which was the motherly paradise that was ruined by the sordid exploitation of terrestrial and human nature.

From century to century – like sparks from a forge in which a humanity devoted to Hell was active – there flew manifestoes, prophecies and pamphlets such as The Book of One Hundred Chapters, written at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century by the “revolutionary of the Upper Rhineland.”[2]

Inspired by John Ball and the radical Taborites, this work expounded the demands for equality and justice that animated the revolt of the Bundschuh[3] and breathed life into the idea of freedom that Luther had celebrated before repudiating.

Grouping together peasants, poor people from the villages and wandering mercenaries, the Bundschuh movement drew its name from its emblem, which was the peasant’s laced buskin. (According to Maurice Pianzola, their flag was painted by Jerg Ratgeb.[4]) Led by a man of the people, Joss Fritz, a forest ranger from the village of Lehen, this movement made an attempt to take Sélestat in 1493 and imposed itself in the region of Speyer in 1502. The insurrection was crushed, but Joss Fritz managed to escape the repression and, in 1513 and then again in 1517, organized new conflagrations in Swabia and Alsace. His millenarian program did not bother with theological considerations: he called for the extermination of the rich and the nobles, and for the establishment of an egalitarian and fraternal society. Except for the patrician caste and the lords, the majority of the towns were receptive, and the current of sympathy aroused by the peasant wars expressed itself so strongly among the artists of the time that the majority of the official histories of art have preferred to pass over them in silence. Only Pianzola has taken the pleasure of indicating these artists in his study, Painters and Villains.[5]

These artists were [Albrecht] Dürer, [Matthias] Grünewald, [the aforementioned] Jerg Ratgeb (who was a painter and military counselor to the armed peasants quartered at Pforzheim in 1526), the brothers Hans Sebald and Barthel Beham (already condemned for irreligion at a celebrated trial at Nuremberg), Lucas Cranach, Nicolas Manuel Deutsche, Urs Graf, Philippe Dietmar (decapitated at Wurzburg in 1525), and Tilman Riemenschneider (renowned for the never-equaled beauty of the hands of his figures and whose fingers were broken by the executioners at the time of the tortures in Wurzburg in 1526).

It fell to Müntzer and his friends to give to the movement a type of religious carapace, which was more apt to stifle than to protect it, because the spirit of sacrifice more predisposed the movement to martyrdom and expiatory defeat than to the victories of natural liberty.

Born in Stolberg (Thuringia) in 1488, Thomas Müntzer studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew in the course of several brilliant years at the university, which destined him for the priesthood. Soon thereafter he rallied to Luther’s party, but quit it no less rapidly when, having become the Pastor at Zwickau, not far from Bohemia, he met the weaver Nicholas Storch.

Influenced by the Taborite movement, Storch preached the imminence of the millenarian revolution. The saints or the Elect of the New Age would be the faithful who possessed in themselves the Spirit or the Living Christ. Müntzer adhered to Storch’s views and gave them a more theological and sacrificial turn.

Stripped of his own will, the adept exposed himself – in the manner of Christ – to ordeals and suffering, which Müntzer called “the cross.” Finally allowed a kind of resurrection, he received the Living Christ in himself, and the will of God manifested itself through its intermediary. Here the idea of the incarnated God, common to the free spirit, passed through the preliminary of the renunciation of life, along the access road to social purification without which there was no kingdom of the saints.

Like Savonarola, Müntzer rejected culture and erudition, and condemned reading, pleasure and lust. His preaching against the Lutheran notables and the lechery of the bishops attracted the sympathies of the weavers and the miners who were reduced to poverty by inflation.

In April 1521, the municipal authorities chased him from the city. Storch unleashed an uprising that was quickly crushed. Müntzer traveled through Bohemia, was expelled from Prague, wandered in Germany and in 1523 found himself the preacher of Allstedt in Thuringia, where – with the peasants, copper-mine workers and artisans from the town – he founded the League of the Elect, which prefigured the secular League of Communists that Marx dreamed was the iron lance of the proletariat.

Invited to preach before the Duke John of Saxony in July 1524, he predicted the return of humanity to Christ, to nature and to paradise in harmony and peace. Was the sovereign, an open and tolerant spirit, seduced by Müntzer’s eloquence and program? He took time to reflect before summoning the prophet to Weimar for a reconciliation, at which he simply asked him to abstain from all prophetic declarations.

Nevertheless, because Heinrich Pfeiffer, an old monk, had incited a revolt of the disinherited classes against the patrician oligarchy in Mulhausen, Müntzer hastened to join him and give him the League’s support. The failure of the insurrection chased Müntzer from the city and convinced him to bet upon the peasant movement. Through a second audacious act, Pfeiffer succeeded in reversing the municipal majority and instaurating working-class power.

In April 1525, at his church, Müntzer hoisted a white banner painted with a rainbow, which was the symbol of the divine law that haloes the earth. Müntzer then began an apocalyptic discourse whose hysterical ardor augured a great deficiency in the means required for such an enterprise: “If there are but three of you who, trusting in God, seek only his name and honour, you will not fear a hundred thousand. Now go at them, and at them, and at them! The scoundrels are as dispirited as dogs. . . .”[6]

Pfeiffer refused to leave Mulhausen. Storch, on the other hand, joined the peasant forces led by the messiah of the Third Age.

Joss Fritz conducted guerrilla operations with his skillful and rapid forces. As for Müntzer, he put the fate of his army in the hands of the same God that Luther invoked, from his side, to aid the princes and finish off the rabble. In Frankenhausen, five thousand peasants – hoping for a gesture from the Savior until the last minute – let themselves be massacred. The army of the princes and Luther lost eight mercenaries. Storch found death trying to escape from the vise that the masters of heaven and earth tightened upon him. On 27 May 1525, Thomas Müntzer and Heinrich Pfeiffer were decapitated after being subjected to the customary tortures. The repression fell upon all of Germany. But if revolutionary Anabaptism ebbed in the countryside, it did so only to be reborn with an increased rigor in the towns, where economic development progressed at the cost of a frenzied exploitation of the proletariat.


Hut, Hübmaier and Hutter

While the persecutions in the towns and countryside increased the visions of pyres, gallows and wheels [of torture], which the works of Pieter Brueghel held up like judicial charges against a completely besmirched humanity, the Anabaptist movement hesitated between the anemic pacifism of the Waldensians and the violence in which God (as usual) recognized his own.

A disciple of Müntzer, and also a native of Thuringia, Hans Hut did not hesitate to announce that, in 1528, Christ would descend to the earth and loan the sword of his justice to the re-baptized saints so that they could annihilate the parish-priests, pastors, nobles and kings. The Kingdom of God would be established in the shared community of goods and the freedom of love.

Captured in 1527, Hut died in prison, no doubt due to torture, leaving to others the care of bringing his program to completion: “Christ would return to earth and placed the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the re-baptized Saints. The Saints would hold judgment on the priests and pastors for their false teachings and, above all, on the great ones of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains.”[7]

Hut wasn’t the only one to substitute a God of resentment and great purification for the God of the dominant oppression. In 1528, the Anabaptists of Esslingen, on the Neckar River, and Ulm fomented social revolution under the flag of what the Twentieth Century calls “extremism.” (Note that the last monotheistic religion, Islam, rediscovered in extremism a similar clash between the decline of the agrarian system and the emergence of mercantile modernity.)

Unlike the doctrines of Hut and Müntzer, those of Balthasar Hübmaier (called Pacimontanus) professed an absolute pacifism and a great spiritual opening. The Pastor at Waldshut in Bavaria and a preacher at the Cathedral of Regensburg, he expounded the cause of Anabaptism in 1525. Shortly thereafter, he became uneasy and went to Zurich, from whence he was chased in 1526.

Taking refuge in Moravia, he rallied the sympathies of the inhabitants of Nikolsburg to his pacifist ideals. He gained the protection of the lords of Lichtenstein. He founded a print shop, from which came tracts that popularized the new faith. His adepts were estimated to number around twelve thousand people.

Around 1527, Hans Amon, the leader of the Anabaptists in Lower Austria, provoked a schism in Hübmaier’s community. Amon estimated that believers must not possess anything of their own, unlike the more moderate opinions that Menno Simons later adopted in accordance with the doctrinal line traced out by Hübmaier.

Nevertheless, Moravia soon experienced the backwash of the repressive wave that hit Germany. Since Vienna had summoned him to appear and answer for his religious options, Hübmaier –who refused to retract his remarks – was delivered to the Inquisitors by his protectors, the lords of Lichtenstein. He was burned on 10 March 1528.

Hans Amon took refuge with his disciples in Slavkov, better known as Austerlitz. There in 1523 he faced the dissidence of a faction – inheritors of the line of the Pikarti or Adamites – that intended to live in accordance with free sex, nay, even free love.

John Hutter, a native of Moso in South Tyrol, was invited to lead the community: he banished those who had enriched themselves. Threatened with arrest, he left Moravia for Tyrol, where he died, executed in February 1536.

Under the name “Hutterite,” the Moravian Anabaptist community known in Slovakia as the “Habans” – from the Hebrew ha banim, “the true children of God” – continued the fundamental teachings of the Waldensians that had been adopted by Anabaptism: the rejection of private property; the refusal to pay duties and taxes by arguing that the State used this money to finance armed conflicts; the [popular] election of the preacher who led the community; baptism submitted to the decision of adults; the refusal to bear arms; and the condemnation of war and the death penalty. Such was enough to arouse the permanent animosity of the temporal and spiritual authorities against them.

Around the middle of the Sixteenth Century, there were nearly seventy thousand adepts in Moravia. Incited by the Jesuits, the Catholic authorities chased them from the country. The adepts’ refusal to fight during the Thirty Years’ War ended up in their dispersal. They went to Transylvania, Poland, southern Russia and, starting in the Eighteenth Century, the United States.

Meanwhile, the doctrines of the Mennonites distanced the faithful from their ambition to establish the egalitarian kingdom of “each for God and God for all” on earth.


Melchior Hoffmann

The path taken by Melchior Hoffmann irresolutely traced itself out between the aggressiveness of Müntzer and Hut and the pacifism of Hübmaier. Born around 1495 in Schwäbisch Hall, Hoffmann was enthusiastic about the mystical works of Tauler and the writings of Luther, whom he defended at Valmiera until his expulsion from the town in 1523. At Tartu in Estonia, he preached against the use of images, in 1525 inspiring an iconoclast riot, in the course of which the crowd prevented his arrest.

Hoffmann’s obstinacy in predicting the end of time drew upon him the hostility of the Lutherans, one of whom (Tegetmaier) forced Hoffmann to leave Tartu. In Stockholm, where he got married, Hoffmann fixed 1533 as the advent of the era of the saints. Exiled by [King] Gustave Vasa, he fled to Lübeck with his wife and children. Then he went to Magdeburg, where the Lutheran Nicolaus von Amsdorf demanded his expulsion. Welcomed in Holstein, he was flushed out by the intrigues of Luther, whose zeal in persecuting dissidents was the envy of the inquisitors. Summoned by Duke Christian to present himself at a public confrontation in Flensburg, Hoffmann responded, not without arrogance, to the question of the identities of his partisans: “I do not recognize any adherents. I hold myself upright and only in the Word of God. Each one does the same.”[8]

Chased from Denmark, Hoffmann took refuge at Frise [in France], where he encountered Karlstadt, then went to Strasbourg. There, in 1529, he published his Dialogues on the quarrels of Flensburg. He associated with Caspar Schwenckfeld and produced many prophetic texts. Then Hoffmann joined the Anabaptists and intervened at the Council at Strasbourg so that a church might be assigned to them. This brought a torch to the fire of the repression. Once again he was forced into exile. In Frise, he founded an Anabaptist community, while Luther raged against those whom he (drawing upon Hoffmann’s first name) called “Melchiorites.” Luther’s words had the virtues of a guillotine blade. In 1531, Volkertszoon and eight [other] Melchiorites were decapitated at The Hague. Stirred by the ardor of their martyrdom, Hoffmann preached in Hesse and Frise where, around 1532, Obbe Philips became his disciple.

In the incessant blaze of the violence, Hoffmann suddenly proposed – in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans – a peaceful conception of Anabaptism that excluded all recourse to weapons, persuaded, as he now was, that the redemption of humanity proceeded from those who preached in the desert.

He had scarcely appeased the notables and the property owners when a pamphlet in which he addressed prayers, not to Christ nor to the Holy-Spirit but to God alone, displeased the Protestant clergy, who, like all priests and ministers, were quick to take offense that one might address oneself to the master of the heavens without referring to the masters of the earth. Bucer, the Pope of Strasbourg, provoked his arrest.

Hoffmann’s biographers have estimated that this was an error from the point of view of maintaining order, because his growing influence had little by little counterbalanced the directives of the insurrectional wing of Anabaptism which, growing in Holland, soon inspired a wave of urban revolts that ran aground in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Lübeck, but succeeded in Münster.

After the crushing of the Münsterites, among whom his disciple Rothman perished, the conditions of Hoffmann’s detention became more serious. Only the hope of dragging a public retraction out of him – which Bucer and Capito tried to do – saved him from capital punishment. He died in 1543, never having lost his eloquence, his naivety or his faith in the imminence of the terrestrial Jerusalem.

Ironically, the majority of Hoffmann’s disciples found themselves at the center of the Münsterian powder keg. But it is true that, for close to a century, Anabaptism expressed in theological terms an endemic insurrectional situation, the violence of which most often got lost in the countries dominated by Catholicism and its religious wars. Like Hans Denck, who ironically regretted that God had not permitted him to believe in God, the Anabaptists substituted for the God of the feudal lords a collectivist God who was elected by the members of the party. In this sense, Münster offered a beautiful example of the divine collectivism that was headed for a terrible future once God was deposed by the State, which, self-sufficient, no longer felt the need to invoke a heavenly phantom to perpetuate the reign of fear on earth.[9]


The Münsterites

“North-west Germany at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century consisted in the main of a number of petty ecclesiastical states, each with a prince-bishop as its sovereign. Usually such a state was torn by fierce social conflicts. The government of the state was in the hands of the prince-bishop and of the chapter of the diocese, which elected him and to a large extent controlled his policy. The members of the chapter were recruited solely from the local aristocracy – a coat of arms with at least four quarterings was commonly an indispensable qualification – and they often chose one of their own number as bishop. This group of aristocratic clerics was subject to no control by any higher authority; in the regional diet they were powerfully represented and could always rely on the support of the knighthood. They therefore tended to govern solely in the interest of their own class and of the clergy of the diocese. In the ecclesiastical state, the clergy were not only very numerous – in the Bishopric of Münster there were some thirty ecclesiastical centres, including four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, a cathedral and of course the chapter itself – but also highly privileged. Members of the chapter enjoyed rich prebends and canonries. The monks were permitted to carry on secular trades and handicrafts. Above all, the clergy as a whole were almost entirely exempt from taxation.”[10]

In 1531, Chaplain Bernt Rothmann was converted to Lutheranism at Münster. He enjoyed the support of the guilds and a rich textile manufacturer, Knipperdollinck. Seduced by the prophetic inspiration of Melchior Hoffmann, Rothmann preached the imminence of the “messianic sorrows” that announced the birth of a new era in 1533, the 15th centenary of the death of Christ.

Upon the death of the bishop, the guilds opened the town to Protestant pastors. Hunted everywhere, the Anabaptists came there as if to the Promised Land.

In 1531, Sebastian Franck summarized The Fifth Epistle attributed to Clement thus:

“A little later, Nimrod began to reign and then anyone who was successful there dominated his neighbor. And they began to divide the world and to quarrel about questions of property. Then one distinguished Mine and Yours. Finally, the people became savage, like wild beasts. Each one wanted to be more beautiful and better than the others, in fact hoping to become their master. But God had made all things to be held in common, as today we still enjoy the air, fire, the rain and the sun in common; a few thievish and tyrannical men cannot appropriate and jealously keep these things for themselves.”[9]

The theme of the Fifth Epistle was a favorite of Rothmann, whose popularity was growing with the influx of unemployed Dutch workers, whom the rich Lutherans could not see wandering the streets of the city, permeated by holiness, without experiencing fear.

The imprisonment of Melchior Hoffmann in Strasbourg weakened the pacifist faction and favored the efflorescence of the apostles and prophets who were more willing to brandish the torch of Münster. Among the latter, the baker Jan Matthys of Haarlem and Jan Bockelson (also called John of Leyden) set themselves up as the spokesmen for a crowd for which God was readying himself to set the table for a new egalitarian law.

In February 1534, a veritable hysteria for conversion seized the city; the streets were filled with ecstatic people who professed their obedience to the eternal Father, to whom they delivered the city hall without encountering any opposition. Lutherans and Catholics took flight while the voices of Rothmann, Matthys and Bockelson proclaimed Münster to be the New Jerusalem.

The goods of the banished Lutherans and Catholics were confiscated and used to enrich communal funds. While a decree promulgated the death penalty for those who balked at letting themselves be re-baptized, the Bishop of Münster organized the siege of the town and alerted the princes and municipal counsels so that the hordes that were converging upon the egalitarian millennium could be intercepted and massacred.

After the death of Matthys, who was killed during a sortie that a divine order enjoined him to attempt, Bockelson imposed a collectivist regime and a theocratic dictatorship by virtue of which all opposition was a crime of high treason.

Each person was paid by the municipal power; in the refectories, communal meals assured the needs of all under the auspices of fraternal communion. Since [private] property was a sin, it was mandated that the doors of the houses be kept open. The executions of “heretics,” presided over by “the King of the Final Days,” went on and on in an atmosphere of terror, to which famine was soon added. Like all paradises of heavenly or governmental obedience, the reign of the perfect ones turned into Hell.[12]

The millenarian revolution imploded into horror. After the town was recaptured, the great fear caused by Anabaptism effaced the dream and nightmare of the collectivists of God with even greater ferocity. Dismembered by red-hot pincers while still alive, John of Leyden, Knipperdollinck and their friend Krechting – who all died without crying out – condensed into an eternal silence the inhumanity of the [unity of the] oppressor and the oppressed that continues to reign under the deceptive name of human history.


Pacifists and Terrorists: Menno Simons and Battenberg

The annihilation of Münster enraged the hardliners at the same time that the pacifism of Hübmaier and old Hoffmann restored Anabaptism to the road of sweet resignation. God once again found the odor of holiness in the very fetidity of his carnivorous breath.

Although persecuted as much as the Münsterites, the disciples of Menno Simons (1496 to around 1560) or the “Mennonites” professed a resolutely nonviolent doctrine that was stripped of collectivist demands. In 1537, the tendency inspired by Hübmaier came under the control of Simons, who organized it and founded one of the many Protestant churches still in vogue today in Holland, the United States and Canada.

By contrast, the guerilla war led by John of Battenberg, born in 1495 in Guelders, marked a stage of transition between the disaster at Münster and the mass arrival of the iconoclasts in the southern Netherlands and northern France.

Abandoning his functions as the Mayor of Steenwijk in the Overijssel, John of Battenberg rallied the insurrectional wing of the Anabaptists and, in 1535 – during a tumult caused by the sect – seized Oldeklooster, a monastery in the Bolsward region.

That same year, he founded with the survivors of Münster the group called Zwaardgeesten, “The Spirits of the Sword.” Identifying himself with Isaiah, and tasked with preparing the return of Christ to earth, Battenberg called for the destruction of the churches, preached polygamy and the community of goods, demanded divorce when one of the partners in a couple refused to practice confession, and exhorted his followers to use their swords to exterminate anyone who didn’t share his opinions.

In 1536, the Congress of Bocholt tried in vain to reconcile the Münsterites, the partisans of Battenberg and the sectarians of David Joris. The pacifists carried the day and Battenberg’s appeal to armed struggle was judged to be premature.

Arrested in 1537 in Vilvoorde near Brussels, Battenberg died on the pyre in 1538, leaving Zeylmaker, Appelman and Mickers at the head of the Zwaardgeesten. Attacks against the monasteries and churches increased; pillaging was carried out in Alkmaar (1538), Utrecht (1541), the Overijssel, Frise, Brabant, Leyden and the surroundings of Münster, where the Battenbergian Peter Van Ork was burned in 1544. Despite the execution of Appelman in Leyden that same year, anti-clerical action intensified in Frise (1549), Alost (1550), where a group of insurgents practiced sexual freedom, Leyden (1552) and Courtrai (1553).

The sacking of churches and the assassination of their ministers had popular approval, “because there was no lack of people who did not like priests and they gladly applauded the priests’ troubles and disasters” and wanted to “hang their balls in the air,” as Marcus van Vaernewijck wrote in his Memoirs of a Ghentian Patrician on the Religious Troubles in Flanders.[13]


The Iconoclasts

Even after the disappearance of the leaders of the Battenbergist party, the Anabaptist uprisings did not cease inflaming the Netherlands and northern France. But their social and political motivations gained the upper hand over their religious character with a growing obviousness. The national struggle undertaken in the Netherlands against Spanish domination created a heterogeneous front in which the most diverse interests tried to unite within the general discontent, which lacked a shared program. The nobles uneasily tolerated the restrictions imposed on their regional privileges by the absolutism of Philippe II; the bourgeoisie balked at paying taxes for a war that hindered its growth; and even the clergy feared having its hands tied by the State power that the Inquisition wielded with a self-interested fervor. As far as that “dangerous animal called the people,” to use the words of [Antoine Perrenot de] Granvelle, the Governor of the Netherlands, it only had recourse to toppling those in charge and the symbols of their oppression, that is to say, nearly the totality of what surrounded it.

The social violence was doubly useful for the political designs of the contenders for power: [for example] it brought William of Orange to royalty and maintained his legend as the liberator of the northern provinces. Through the repression that the social violence incurred and, once victory was assured, he was legitimated in the eyes of the princes, who were impatient to cage the wild beasts after having let them roar for a while.

In 1566, discontent seemed to start up in Saint-Omer. (Note that, as early as 1562, two Calvinist weavers led to the pyre in Valenciennes were liberated by rioters. In 1564, the people forced open the doors of the prisons in Bruges and Brussels.) The troubles spread to the north. On 13 August [1566], in Bailleul, the crowd destroyed the cloister, burned the crosses and the sacerdotal habits, and brought down the tabernacles. The sacking lasted eight months and spread to Armentieres, Menin, Hondschoote (which was so constant in its resolution that, later, the commissars of the Duke of Alba – charged with [implementing] penal sanctions – stayed away), Tournai, where several magistrates embraced the party of the iconoclasts, a part of Artois, Brabant, Utrecht, Zeeland and Amsterdam. In Antwerp, the houses of the rich were pillaged on the third day.

On 8 April 1566, taking the surge of the iconoclasts as their pretext, Catholics and Calvinists made a remonstrance known as the “Compromise of the Nobles” to the Regent Marguerite of Parma and the “bad counselors to the King.” In it, the Catholics and Calvinists coupled their rejection of absolutism with their promise to restore order. They adorned themselves, as if it were an escutcheon, with the epithet “Beggars,” which a minister had applied to them in an insulting manner and which the destroyers of cathedrals adopted at every opportunity.

On 25 August 1566, Marguerite of Parma feigned to give in. She decreed the suppression of the Inquisition, freedom for the Protestant religion and amnesty for the nobles accused of conspiracy. The latter hastened to suppress the riots and intervened in the consistories to calm the peoples’ spirits. William of Orange marched on Antwerp and the Count of Egmont attempted to restore order in Flanders, where the number of rebels was estimated to be sixty thousand out of a total of two hundred thousand inhabitants.

Reassured by guarantees of freedom offered to their ministries, the Calvinist preachers condemned the iconoclastic party, whose ardor had not weakened. At first, those whom one called the “howlers” [hurlus] in northern France refrained from killing and carrying off ecclesiastical goods, which were generally destroyed on the spot. They prided themselves on the total destruction of some four hundred churches.

Having concentrated the Spanish troops, Marguerite went on the offensive in December 1566. She annulled the decisions that had dictated to her the necessity of playing for time and sent the army to Armentieres, Tournai and Valenciennes, where it brought the repression begun by the feudal lords to a good end.

William of Orange and [Hendrik van] Brederode fled to the northern provinces, where an open guerrilla war was being fought against Spain. The expeditious justice instituted by the envoy of Philippe II, the Duke of Alba, spared neither the iconoclasts, the Catholics, the Calvinists, nor the nobles who were judged to be disloyal. (The Counts of Egmont and Horn were decapitated in 1568.)

In the southern provinces, the “Beggars” engaged in harassment of the enemies on two fronts. Those in the forests fought in Hainaut and Artois under the leadership of Guillaume de La Marck,[15] and in Flanders under Jean Camerlynck, originally from Hondschoote, and the preachers Michiels and de Heule, the son of a rich family from Bruges. On their side, Jan Abels and the “Beggars” of the seas attacked Spanish ships with the aid of light, small boats. They profited from the benevolence of Elizabeth of England and the aid of William of Orange, who tried (in vain) to make them submit to his authority. On 1 April 1572, the seizure of the port of La Brielle and the subsequent occupation of Vlissingen marked a decisive stage in the liberation of Holland. Alba, who failed in his attempt to recapture it, was recalled to Spain the following year. The movement of the “Beggars” fell under the blows of William of Orange and, in the south, was only able to launch political conspiracies that had no results.

The last flare-up of revolutionary Anabaptism embraced the regions of Cleve and Wesel in Westphalia in 1567. A shoemaker named Jan Willemsen, leading three hundred adepts (among whom were survivors of Münster), founded the nth version of the New Jerusalem, to which Adamite practices gave a bit of piquancy. Polygamy was prescribed and the Messiah Willemsen married twenty-one chosen ones. The community of goods did not implicate an economy of production; the saints lived off of raids and pillaging, and attacked the homes of the priests and nobles. They lasted a dozen years before succumbing to punitive expeditions.[16]


[1] Translator: not discussed in the present work, the bagaudae were insurgent peasants in the Third Century.

[2] N. Cohn, Les fanatiques de l’Apocalypse, p. 255. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 250. Rather than translate Cohn back into English, we have quoted directly from the original.]

[3] Translator: German for “tied shoe,” the Bundschuh movement linked together a series of peasant revolts in Germany between 1493 and 1517.

[4] M. Pianzola, Peintres et vilains, Paris, 1962. [Translator: in 1974, Vaneigem adopted the name “Ratgeb” to publish De la grève sauvage à l'autogestion généralisée (Paris: Éditions 10/18).]

[5] Ibid.

[6] N. Cohn, op. cit., p. 270. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 267.]

[7] Ibid., p. 278. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 275]

[8] Mennonite Encyclopedia, Scottsdale, 1955-1959, article “Melchior Hoffmann.”

[9] N. Cohn, op. cit., p. 279. [Translator: though there is nothing on p. 275 of Cohn’s In Pursuit of the Millennium that would call for such a footnote on Vaneigem’s part, he is certainly supporting Cohn’s basic thesis.]

[10] Ibid., p. 280. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 276.]

[11] S. Franck, Chronica, GA.

[12] Barret and Gurgand, Le Roi des derniers jours, Paris, 1981.

[13] M. Van Vaernewijck, Mémoires d’un patricien gantois sur les troubles religieux de Flandre. [Translator: this book was first published in Dutch under the title Van die beroerlicke tijden in die Nederlanden en voornamelick in Ghendt 1566-1568 by C. Annoot-Braeckman, Gent 1872-1881.]

[14] Ibid., p. 23.

[15] Translator: there seems to some mistake here, for a number of other sources list Guillaume II de La Marck (1542-1578) as the admiral of the “Beggars of the Sea” in the Eighty Years War.

[16] Bouterwek and N. Cohn, Zur Literatur und Geschiscte der Wiedertaufer, Bonn, 1884, p. 306.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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