Charisma and History


The Case of Münster, Westphalia, 1534-1535 
The violent attempt by the Melchiorite Anabaptists in
1534/35 to establish the "New Jerusalem" in the city of
Münster represents one of the most bizarre events of the
Reformation. The whole crisis is often construed as an
extreme outworking of some latent tendencies within
Reformation thought. Luther's widespread influence had
greatly diminished the role of the priest as a mediator
between the layman and God, thereby increasing the
importance of the Bible and personal conscience in
directing the layman's spiritual journey. The outcome of
this change was that many laymen gave birth to radical
interpretations of scripture interpretations which often
carried dangerous social and political implications.1 The
prophetic claims of the two principal prophets at Münster,
Jan Matthys and Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden, support this
view. Both men drew an enormous amount of prophetic
authority from scripture and wielded it with disastrous
social and political consequences. 
I intend to investigate the means by which Matthys and
Bockelszoon established their prophetic authority among the
citizens of Münster. I will focus specific attention on
their leadership roles during the turbulent period of 1534
and 1535. However, the narrative given here is also an
attempt to redress some of the shortcomings of previous
interpretations of these two prophets. There has been a
tendency among scholars to employ Max Weber's categories of
"charisma" and the "routinization of charisma" in order to
understand the leadership styles of Matthys and
Bockelszoon. The initial leadership of Matthys so goes the
argument -- reflected a dominant charismatic style, while
Bockelszoon only represented the routinization or
bureaucratization of this charisma, which culminated in the
oppressive legalism of his messianic reign.2 A closer
examination of the actual events at Münster, however,
reveals that such Weberian distinctions are largely
unjustifiable. The classic Weberian devolution from
charisma to bureaucracy does not clearly appear in the
succession from Matthys to Bockelszoon. Rather, each
prophet manifested extreme bureaucratic, even
authoritarian, tendencies -- they only perhaps worsened
under Bockelszoon.3 

Attempts to over look this and retain a strict Weberian
terminological framework overvalue the conceptual utility
of charisma and clouds historical perception. By presenting
Matthys and Bockelszoon without Weberian conceptual
support, I aim to highlight the shortcomings of charisma as
a conceptual category, and thus call attention to the
disadvantages which such theoretical devices, when not
judiciously employed, often bring to the discipline of

As recent scholarship points out, identifying the origins
of Anabaptism is a notoriously complicated matter. Previous
disputes have centered around whether Anabaptism began in
Zurich with the initiation of believers' baptism in January
of 1525, or in 1521 and 1522 with Luther's confrontation of
the Wittenburg radicals, whom he labeled Schwärmer
(enthusiasts). Recently, the disputed nature of
Anabaptism's origins has led scholars, instead of trying to
establish a single moment of origin, simply to accept a
plurality of possible origins and to engage the complexity
of Anabaptism.4 For our purposes, I only mention the spread
of Anabaptism throughout Southern Germany and into the
Netherlands, a process largely traceable to the fiery
apocalyptic sermons of Melchior Hoffman, who independently
initiated adult baptism in Strasbourg in 1530 and later,
after much traveling and preaching, won a following in the
Low Countries.5 It was his strand of Anabaptist faith,
characterized by eschatological fervor (once encountered by
Jan Matthys and later transmitted to Jan Bockelszoon van
Leiden) that laid the intellectual foundations for the
events at Münster. 

In 1533, Hoffman's eschatological prophecies were perceived
as a social threat by the authorities at Strasbourg (the
city he originally had prophesied as the future "New
Jerusalem") and he was imprisoned despite his refusal to
employ violence to achieve his ends. After his
imprisonment, his ideas began to assume an aggressive life
of their own in the Netherlands. Soon after hearing of
Hoffman's fate, the Haarlem baker Jan Matthys, in the
presence of the Low Country Melchiorites, professed to be
driven by the Spirit, and he told how God had revealed to
him that he was Enoch, the second witness of the apocalypse
(Hoffman had claimed to be the first witness, Elijah). This
caused considerable confusion among the Melchiorite
Anabaptists in the Low Countries who did not know how to
respond to Matthys's sudden claim of prophetic authority.
When Matthys learned of this confusion, according to the
Confession of Obbe Philips, he resorted to threats and
terror; Philips writes, "he carried on with much emotion
and terrifying alarm, and with great and desperate curses
cast all into hell and the devils to eternity . . . who
would not recognize and accept him as the true Enoch."6
Gradually, however, he won a small following of disciples,
one of whom was Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden, the future king
of Münster's theocracy. Matthys immediately began sending
his disciples out in pairs as emissaries for Christ.
Bockelszoon and a man named Gerard Boekbinder were sent to
Münster.7 They returned and reported to Matthys that they
had found Bernard Rothmann, the leading preacher in
Münster, openly teaching Anabaptist doctrines similar to
their own. The conditions in Münster, Matthys reasoned,
seemed to coincide with Hoffman's eschatological hopes for
Strasbourg. A major revision in Melchiorite apocalyptic
thought took place. The New Jerusalem, Matthys reasoned,
would now be Münster. The political and social climate
there seemed to confirm this.8 On January 5, 1534, other
emissaries from Matthys's camp entered Münster and began to
initiate adult re-baptism. As they had expected, the
citizens were receptive to their message. The initial steps
toward Münster's tragic fate had been taken. 

With this scant historico-intellectual backdrop bearing
upon Matthys and Bockelszoon, we must now turn from our
narrative in order to examine the nature of the
sociological interpretations which these two prophets have
As mentioned before, scholars have liberally applied the
Weberian categories of "charisma" and the "routinization of
charisma" to both men in order to illuminate the means by
which they established their leadership positions and
transmitted their religious ideas to their followers.10 The
concept of charisma is of central importance in both
Weber's philosophy of history and his sociology of dominion
(Herrschaftssoziologie). In his monumental fragment
Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, charisma appears in his
tripartite division of pure types of legitimate authority:
the traditional, the rational- legal, and the charismatic.
Weber defined traditional authority as order resting on "an
established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions
and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising
authority under them." Rational or legal authority, on the
other hand, he defined as "a belief in the 'legality' of
patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated
to authority under such rules to issue commands."11 Unlike
charismatic authority, traditional and rational forms of
authority (also described as patriarchal and bureaucratic)
share a significant characteristic: permanence. In this
respect they are both institutions of the daily routine,
providing for the recurrent and normal needs of daily life.
As Weber himself put it, "The patriarch is the 'natural
leader' of the daily routine. And in this respect, the
bureaucratic structure is only the counter-image of
patriarchalism transposed into rationality."
Charisma,on the other hand, represents a radically
different form of authority that appears in periods of
social distress. Unlike traditional and rational authority,
where ultimate power resides in impersonal entities (i.e.
institutions, constitutions, hereditary lines), charismatic
authority appears in the leadership characteristics of
specific individuals, or perhaps more accurately, in the
dialectical interplay between leaders and their followers.
Weber writes, "Charisma shall be understood to refer to an
extraordinary quality of a person, regardless of whether
this quality is actual, alleged, or presumed. 'Charismatic
authority,' hence, shall refer to rule over men . . . to
which the governed submit because of the belief in the
extraordinary quality of the specific person....
Charismatic rule is not managed according to general norms,
either traditional or rational, and in this sense it is

This passage touches on several noteworthy aspects of
charisma. First, the leader-follower relationship is
characterized by a complete personal devotion. Second, the
devotion of the followers often leads to the formation of a
charismatic community (Gemeinde) in which the followers
exist in an emotionally charged environment in which each
is committed to the leader. Third, and most importantly,
there is the hint in this passage that authentic charisma
acts as a revolutionary force, disrupting social norms.
Elsewhere Weber writes, "charisma, in its most potent form,
disrupts rational rule as well as traditional altogether
and overturns all notions of sanctity . . . [it] is indeed
the specifically creative revolutionary force in
history.... The bearer of charisma enjoys loyalty and
authority by virtue of a mission believed to be embodied in
him: his mission has not necessarily and not always been
revolutionary, but in its most charismatic forms, it has
inverted all value hierarchies and overthrown custom, law,
and tradition."14 

The essence of genuine charisma is thus its revolutionary
nature. Weber documented various historical manifestations
of genuine charisma in such figures as Christ, Mohammed,
Joseph Smith, Napoleon, and many others whose personal
appeal somehow revolutionized their respective social

The concept of charisma especially invites application to
religious figures. In fact, Weber derived the term from the
church historian Rudolf Sohm, who in turn borrowed the idea
from St. Paul's epistles to the Corinthians, where it had
originally meant "gift of grace." In his Kirchenrecht, Sohm
used the term to explain how the early church legitimated
itself as a durable institution in antiquity.15 While Sohm
speaks of charisma principally from a religious point of
view, Weber expanded the term to apply to a multiplicity of
social contexts, both religious and secular. He wanted his
concept to be value-neutral: to be a charismatic leader is
not necessarily to be an admirable individual. Thus, one
could, with good conscience, apply the term to a religious
figure like Francis of Assisi as well as to a secular
military leader like Napoleon without deviating from the
general spirit of the conceptual framework.16 Moreover,
Weber recognized that his three types of legitimate
authority were "ideal types," that is to say, that nowhere
in history did he expect to find a political or religious
order established purely on one means of authority alone.
In perhaps all cases, legitimate order is a conglomerate of
the three types of authority complexly related to one

Despite the frequent employment of charisma throughout his
oeuvre, Weber devotes more space to its routinization than
to charisma itself. Routinization refers to the means by
which a charismatic movement becomes infused with everyday
social institutions. It is also a process of the
de-personalization and derevolutionization of genuine
charisma. Since charisma depends on a period of social
distress in order to flourish, its life is necessarily
short-lived, because its revolutionary drive becomes
mitigated by the more resilient forces of tradition and
rationality.18 As Weber himself put it, "As domination
congeals into a permanent structure, charisma recedes as a
creative force.... However, charisma remains a very
important element of the social structure, even though it
is much transformed . . . after its routinization its very
quality as an extraordinary, supernatural, and divine force
makes it a suitable source of legitimate authority for the
successors of the charismatic hero".19 

Though charisma is superseded by stabilizing forces, it
still remains within the fabric of the ascending structures
of tradition and/or rationality. It serves these structures
by acting as a point of reference from which they derive
Until now,, I have been discussing charisma and its
routinization in a broad and theoretical manner. Though
Weber largely speaks in similar terms, he also pinpoints
specific historical personalities and social situations in
order to demonstrate the value of his theory, including the
example of a religious prophet.20 Weber believed that
charismatic prophet inspires from the resources of his own
personality; resources which his followers believe are
somehow "in touch" with a spiritual or extra-mundane realm
which confers "a unified view of the world derived from a
consciously integrated meaningful attitude toward life"21
upon the person who accepts the leadership of the prophet.
Such a prophet leads simply because of the compelling
characteristics of his nature; he is able to "win over" his
followers with the apparent realism of his world view, and
compel them to act accordingly. 

Of course, the charisma of the prophet is subject to
routinization. This takes place, according to Weber, after
the death of the prophet when he is succeeded by a
"legislator" -- one who continues the leadership role of
the prophet but does so by institutionalizing or
bureaucratizing the charismatic drive of the former leader.
Incapable of generating the "crowd-response" like his
charismatic forebear, the legislator appeals to rational
and/or traditional means of authority to sustain the
momentum among the followers which the prophet had
inspired. The devolution in early Christianity from Christ
to Paul is an oft-cited example of this process, though
Weber notes many other examples. The procedure can take
many forms, ranging from a simple codification of the
accepted moral behavior set down by the prophet to the
imposition of cruelty and force. Both forms may be seen as
efforts to maintain a sense of control in the absence of
the charismatic leader. Weber does not view this change in
leadership styles as a radical dichotomy, but often as a
fluid and inevitable transition. The death of the prophet
leads to the rise of the legislator. The structure which
the latter imposes represents a compensation for the loss
of charisma in the former.22 

Since Weber, the concept of charisma has witnessed a
bewildering variety of applications, often of a
contradictory nature. Because of the perceived abuse (or
perhaps, overuse) of the concept, one must wonder whether
the concept remains serviceable for sociological
investigation. Weber himself is at least partly to blame
for this problem, for he frequently left the term vague, in
spite of many attempts to clarify himself. His original
opacity is compounded by the fact that such sweeping
concepts as charisma do not fit harmoniously into the
multiparadigmatic character of modern sociology. Scholars
who attempt to appropriate Weber's vocabulary often end up
obfuscating his intent while producing a revised conceptual
framework of questionable value. In the final analysis, the
opacity of Weber's original formulation coupled with the
diverse character of contemporary sociology has produced a
conceptual quagmire in which, as has been repeatedly
argued, terms such as charisma have become "sponge words"
easily employed for multiple and often contradictory
purposes. The question no longer is, What does charisma
mean? but, What does it mean for whom and when applied to
which circumstances? This state of conceptual anarchy has
led some scholars to argue for the elimination of its use
in sociology.23 

But this is an extreme position. Weber's canonical status
in modern sociology has led many scholars to endeavor to
rescue charisma from the entropy which its applications
have generated. A principal strategy has been to subdivide
the concept into categories and then to resolve the
residual ambiguities with copious qualifications. Since the
literature which this enterprise has generated is too
massive to take account of here, I will only touch on a few
developments which charisma has undergone as it
specifically relates to prophecy. 

Robert Tucker's study of Lenin's leadership style (1968)
argues that "prophetic charisma" should be understood as
the centerpiece of Weber's entire work on charisma. Tucker
makes a sharp distinction between prophetic charisma and
routinized charisma, and argues that the latter should be
given another name, since forces of routinization are
completely contradictory to charisma as he defines it. In a
1977 study, Margrit Eichler calls for a limited
understanding of charisma in which she concludes that the
idea of charisma is not useful for the study of social
movements, but rather should be confined only to
understanding the legitimacy of leadership. Guenther Roth
(1975), on the other hand, argues for an expansion of the
conceptual boundaries of charisma to encompass the genesis
and development of a wide range of social movements. He
generally speaks of groups rather than individuals as
charismatic, and he calls the members of these "inspired"
groups "ideological virtuosi" who espouse single minded
convictions about certain absolute values.24 

Even from this brief glance at attempts to clarify or
improve upon Weber's idea of charisma, we can see that the
concept is a bit too pliable to be practical: attempts at
clarification only result in further obfuscation. I contend
that charisma from a macrosociological standpoint has
entered a state of severe questionability. The promise of
conceptual clarity which the idea seems to offer has been
lost in the manifold attempts to effect this clarity. 

This is true in both a macrosociological and
mircosociological context: the problematic nature of
charisma seen in a purely theoretical context also appears
when it is applied to specific historical settings. The
Weberian treatments of leadership during the Münsterite
kingdom is an apt example. The social turbulence at Münster
coupled with the presence of self-proclaimed prophets makes
for an appropriate setting to use Weberian concepts.
However, as mentioned above, the Weberian reading applies
only by excessively tampering with historical detail. 

An example of such an endeavor is Otthein Rammstedt's 1966
Sekte und soziale Bewegung: Soziologische Analyse der
Taüfer in Münster (1534/1535). Rammstedt depicts Jan
Matthys as a radical charismatic leader (charismatischen
Herrscher). The reasons for this, according to Rammstedt,
are based on the fact that Matthys claimed to be directly
led by God in his actions. He possessed the gift of
exorcism and categorized peoples imply as saintly or
ungodly. His actions were sanctioned by his pneuma and
could not be controlled, criticized, or subjected to set
regulations or traditions (Ordnungen oder Traditionen), but
were dependent solely on his spontaneous revelations.
Finally, the nature of his chiliastic expectations made it
possible for his followers to identify with him.25 

The death of Matthys, only months after the "New Jerusalem"
had gotten under way, led to the leadership of Jan
Bockelszoon van Leiden who, according to the Weberian
scheme, fits the role of a "legislator." Rammstedt claims
that Bockelszoon lacked charismatic authority and could
only establish his legitimacy by authoritarian control.
Unlike Matthys, whose authority radiated from charismatic
appeal, Bockelszoon was forced to depend on two of
Münster's leading officials, Rothmann and Knipperdolling,
to help him bolster his position of leadership. Though he
did prophesy, his prophecies were unsatisfactory to the
Münster congregations because they lacked the spontaneous
and irrational elements characteristic of Matthys's
visions. Moreover, the spontaneity of Matthys's leadership
style was replaced by organization, as seen in
Bockelszoon's decision to end Matthys's former spontaneous
group meetings and to institute a system of organized

Rammstedt's chief argument for the institutionalization
hypothesis is based on the cruelty and terror of
Bockelszoon's reign. Violence increased when he came to
power; in one case he summarily executed someone, without
definite cause, simply to inspire dread in the people. In
sum, to quote Rammstedt, 

Formerly spontaneous, extraordinary events became ordinary
phenomena, became ritualized, and all that remained was
fear for one's own life. To preserve their power positions
and to prevent the disintegration of the congregation, the
ruling minority regulated the life of the Anabaptists

Rammstedt's argument has been criticized by Margrit
Eichler, who argues that the succession of the Münsterite
prophets may be apprehended in a Weberian framework only if
that framework is modified. She argues that in certain
contexts, a charismatic leader may be succeeded by another
charismatic leader as in the case of Matthys and
Bockelszoon. She divides charismatic leaders into two
types: prophets and saviors, and argues that saviors
(Bockelszoon) often follow prophets (Matthys). The
archetypal example she gives of this process is found in
the succession from John the Baptist to Christ, where the
charisma originating in the former culminates in the
latter. In her scheme, the classical 

Weberian notion of the routinization of charisma does not
appear and Matthys and Bockelszoon are both depicted as
charismatic.28 Rammstedt and Eichler's approaches present
several problems. Granted, Rammstedt's "charisma
legislator" devolution in some respects is genuinely
observable, and a certain conceptual insight may be gleaned
from Eichler's modified approach. However, the paradigmatic
nature of both arguments yields insights at the expense of
significant historical detail. To remedy this problem, in
the narrative of Matthys and Bockelszoon presented below, I
have consciously abandoned Weberian constructs in order to
suggest that both prophets operated simply by employing
manipulation and brute force to accomplish their goals.
This process originated with Matthys, who captured and
maintained the devotion of his followers not by charismatic
personal authority, but by the fear and dread which he
inspired. Bockelszoon's rule by intimidation and his Old
Testament monarchy therefore represents only the natural
outworking of authoritarian tendencies already embodied in
Matthys. Again, it is my contention that, though the
Weberian approach does offer a hermeneutic for
understanding this historical situation, it is not without
its limitations. The paradox and price of insight is often
an accompanying blindness. 

During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in
Münster increased dramatically. On February 8, Jan
Bockelszoon van Leiden and the guild leader Bernard
Knipperdolling, whom Bockelszoon had befriended, ran wildly
through the streets, screaming that everyone must repent of
their sins.29 This ignited much emotional turbulence,
especially among the women Anabaptists, who, as former
nuns,had recently left the convents and fallen under the
influence of Rothmann's preaching. Some began to see
apocalyptic visions in the streets of such intensity that
they would foam at the mouth and throw themselves upon the
ground . In such a charged atmosphere, the Anabaptists made
their first armed rising and took the Town Hall and market
place. The Lutheran majority in the town offered little
resistance, and soon the town council recognized the
Anabaptists as legal citizens of Münster. Thereafter, many
Lutherans fled the city and the Anabaptists grew in number
and power. Messengers and manifestos were sent out urging
Anabaptists in other towns to come with their families to
Münster. The rest of the earth, it was announced, was to be
destroyed, but Münster would be spared to become the New

Into this volatile situation Jan Matthys entered: a tall,
gaunt figure with a long black beard.31 His imposing,
physical presence allowed him to gain power quickly, but
the attempt to realize the New Jerusalem was not without
authoritarian measures. Unlike Hoffman, he did not hesitate
to employ violence to accomplish his purposes. On February
25, 1534, he preached a sermon at the house of an
Anabaptist near a fish market. Afterwards, he proclaimed to
the crowd that God 's grace had allowed the city to have a
favorable beginning, but in order to build the republic of
Christ on earth, it was necessary to purify the city of all
uncleanness (Unsauberkeit), whether the impure be papists,
Lutherans, or others who dissented from the prevailing
Anabaptist teachings. To achieve this goal, Matthys
advocated the execution of all remaining Lutherans and
Roman Catholics.32 However, Knipperdolling, one of the town
leaders, disagreed with Matthys, saying that the bloodshed
would cause the outside world to be enraged against
Münster. A compromise was reached and they decided to expel
all the "godless" ((Gottlosen)) from the city and make
those who chose to stay behind receive compulsory baptism. 

This task of expulsion and compulsion took place several
days later. On the morning of February 27, armed men, urged
on by Matthys, ran through the streets yelling: "Get out
you godless ones, and never come back you enemies of the
Father." In bitter cold, in the midst of snow, rain and
wind, droves of the "godless" (including the old and
invalids, small children, and pregnant women) were chased
from the town by Anabaptists who beat and laughed at them.
They were forced to leave their belongings behind, their
food was confiscated and they had no choice but to beg in
the countryside for food and lodging. As for those who
decided to remain in town, they received compulsory
re-baptism in the marketplace. The entire process lasted
three days.33 

By eliminating the Lutherans and Catholics from the city,
Matthys and his cohorts not only heightened the sense of
chiliastic expectation but they also came to realize that
the outside world was growing intolerant of the
developments within Münster, and that they were soon to be
besieged. The Catholic Bishop of the city, Franz van
Waldeck, had been at work some time in recruiting
mercenaries to confront the Anabaptist threat. The
expulsion of the Lutherans and Catholics prompted him to
accelerate his efforts.34 Soon thereafter, earthworks were
erected around the town and the siege began. Many
Anabaptists were surprised and confused to find themselves
at war, but under the leadership of Knipperdolling they
soon recovered confidence and began responding to the
threat. Men, women, and children were assigned various
duties. Small skirmishes took place outside the walls.35 

The war atmosphere led to a veritable social revolution.
Matthys seized the opportunity to consolidate his power
over the property and money of the townspeople. He preached
that it was the Father's will that all the goods of the
recent exiles be confiscated. Moreover, all the account
books and contracts found in their homes were burned. Their
clothing, beds, furniture, tables, weapons, and food were
placed in a central area 36 and, after praying for three
days, Matthys announced that God had given him a sign to
appoint seven deacons to distribute the goods to the

This trend toward common ownership culminated in an
institutionalized communism. Under the leadership of
Matthys, the town preachers and council members decided
that all goods should be shared in common. Matthys employed
Rothmann to promulgate this new vision of society in his
sermons. "Dear brothers and sisters," Rothmann proclaimed,
"afterwards we shall be one people. Brothers and sisters,
indeed it is completely God 's will that we bring our
money, silver, and gold together. One person should have
just as much as another."38 At first this order was met
with considerable opposition. The people who had recently
received compulsory baptism were assembled and told that
unless they relinquished their money they would perish.
They were then locked inside a church in a state of mortal
fear for several hours. At length Matthys entered the
church with a group of armed men. His victims implored him
to intercede to God for them, which he did, saying that if
they complied, God would allow them back in the community.
Ultimately, they complied.39 

Yet not everyone acceded to Matthys's authority: some
defied him unto death. A blacksmith, for instance,
unconvinced by Matthys's prophecies, accused him of being
possessed by the devil. Matthys had him arrested and thrown
in the tower.40 Later he was brought to the market place
where many of the citizens were also summoned. Matthys gave
a speech in which he declared that God was outraged at this
man's evil actions because he had defiled an otherwise pure
town. He was sentenced to death, but before execution, was
stabbed repeatedly with a halberd and thrown back into the
tower. Later he was placed against the town wall and
Matthys himself shot him in the stomach, causing his
eventual death.41 The gathered crowd was told to profit
from the example of the blacksmith and they dutifully sang
a hymn before dispersing.42 

A final instance of the authoritarian control exercised by
Matthys may be seen in his decision to regulate
information. On March 15, 1534, Matthys proclaimed that all
books except the Old and New Testaments (which were deemed
solely sufficient for conducting a holy life) were to be
brought to the cathedral-square where they were burned to
ashes.43 This anti-intellectualist act represents a
complete break with the past, and it allowed Matthys to
gain a complete monopoly in the interpretation of

On Easter Sunday of 1534, Matthys received what he believed
to be a divine command to make a sortie against the
besiegers of the city with only a few men to help him. The
result was a miserable failure. He was pierced with a pike
beheaded, and his body hacked to pieces. His head was later
raised on a pole outside the city.45 Thus, the
authoritarian reign of Jan Matthys came to an end Summing
up the character of this prophet years later, Obbe Philips
wrote: "He was so fierce and bloodthirsty that he brought
various people to their deaths; yea he was so violent that
even his enemies for their part were terrified of him, and
finally in a tumult they became too powerful for him, they
were so incensed that they did not just kill him . . . but
hacked and chopped him into little pieces".46 

The death of Matthys allowed for his disciple Jan
Bockelszoon van Leiden to assume leadership. Under
Bockelszoon, the previously- established authoritarian
measures of Matthys continued, reaching a crescendo in his
decision to anoint himself king. The kingdom which he set
up is legendary in German history, so here I will touch
upon only its most salient features. 

Bockelszoon began his messianic reign by running naked
through the streets of Münster in a wild religious frenzy;
he then fell into a silent ecstasy for three days. When his
power of speech returned, he announced that God had told
him to restructure the town government immediately, which
he did by appointing twelve men whom he called the Elders
or the Judges of the Tribes of Israel (Ältesten der Stämme
Israels) who were placed in charge of all the public,
private, spiritual, and worldly affairs of the citizens of
Münster the "Israelites."47 The twelve published a new code
of moral law 48 which provided for strict military
organization and a tighter communism of goods. Some
workers, for instance, previously employed for money, were
forced to continue in their trades without pay, simply as
servants of the community.49 The code also had a very rigid
stance on sins committed after (re-)baptism, and all
citizens were subjected to demanding laws: 

If we are God's sons and have been baptized in Christ then
all evil must disappear from among us.... Every one is
under the authorities, who have power over all. Because
there is no authority outside of God.... If you do evil,
fear the authorities. They wield the sword not in vain;
they are God's servants, the avengers to punish the

Sins punishable by death included blasphemy, seditious
language, scolding one's parents, adultery, lewd conduct,
backbiting, spreading scandal, and even complaining!51 

Bockleszoon's most controversial innovation was polygamy.
It was introduced at least partly to emulate the Old
Testament patriarchs 52 and also (perhaps) to compensate
for the rapid attrition of male citizens due to their
military efforts.53 Bockelszoon established polygamy on his
own authority by announcing that all who resisted it would
be considered reprobates and therefore in danger of
execution. Persons of marriageable age were ordered to
marry; unmarried women had to accept the first man to ask
them. This often led to disorder in the competition to see
who could acquire the most wives, and thus this latter
regulation was ultimately rescinded.54 Bockelszoon himself,
beside remarrying Matthys's widow Divara,ultimately
accumulated 15 wives.55 Bernard Rothmann received second
place with nine.56 

It was not as an ordinary king that Bockelszoon established
himself, but as the Messiah of the Last Days. One day a
goldsmith declared that the Heavenly Father had revealed to
him that Bockelszoon was to be king of the whole world,
holding dominion over all kings, princes, and great ones of
the earth. He was to inherit the scepter and throne of his
forefather David and was to keep them until God should
reclaim the kingdom from him. Bockelszoon accepted this
man's prophecy and soon enlisted the town preachers to
deliver one sermon after another, explaining that the
Messiah foretold by the prophets in the Old Testament was
indeed none other than Jan van Leiden Bockleszoon.57
Bockelszoon himself called a town meeting in which he gave
a speech to proclaim his new identity, "Now God has chosen
me to be king over the entire world. What I do, I must do,
because God has ordained me. Dear brothers and sisters, let
us now give thanks to God."58 After the sermon, Bockelszoon
led the crowd in singing a psalm, and then everyone
returned to their homes.59 

Bockelszoon did everything possible to represent tangibly
the importance of his new position. While the siege
continued outside the city, the streets and the gates
within were given new names. Sundays and feast days were
abolished and the days of the week were renamed on an
alphabetical system. Even the names of infants were decided
upon by the king according to a special system. Gold and
silver coins were minted with inscriptions that emphasized
Bockelszoon's unique role: "One King Over All."60 A special
emblem was devised to symbolize Bockelszoon's absolute
claim to spiritual and temporal dominion: a globe,
representing the world, pierced by two swords and
surmounted by a cross inscribed with the words: "One king
of righteousness over all ." The king himself wore this
emblem modeled in gold as a necklace, his attendants wore
it as a badge on their sleeves, and it was accepted in
Münster as the official emblem of the state.61 

Bockelszoon set up a throne in the marketplace. Draped with
cloth and gold, it towered above the surrounding benches
which were allotted to other dignitaries and preachers.
Often the king would come there to sit in judgment or to
oversee the proclamation of new regulations. Heralded by
fanfare, he would arrive on horseback wearing a crown and
carrying a scepter. In front of him marched officers of the
court, behind him came Knipperdolling, who was now chief
minister; Rothmann, who was now the royal orator; and a
long line of lesser servants. On either side of his throne
stood a page, one holding a copy of the Old Testament, the
other a sword.62 Both symbolized the absolute control which
Bockelszoon exercised over the citizens. 

Though the king indulged in a life of excess, he subjected
his citizens to austerity. Harsh regulations of dress went
into effect; for God, Bockelszoon had said, abhorred all
superfluity in clothing. Every house was searched and
anything that was considered surplus was confiscated. To
justify the disparity between his lifestyle and that of the
people, he explained that luxury was permitted him because
he was completely dead to the world and the flesh.63 

Finally, though Bockelszoon maintained his grip on power
through prophetic outbursts and appeals to Scripture, his
primary means of controlling the populace was terror and
brute force. Two instances suffice to demonstrate this. The
first one came in the wake of Bockelszoon's decree of
polygamy when a group of citizens, led by Henry
Mollenhecke, attempted to stage a coup and depose him Their
efforts failed, however, and Mollenhecke, with forty-eight
of his followers was brutally tortured and ultimately
beheaded in a macabre process that took four days.
Afterwards, two mass graves were dug in the marketplace
where all the dead bodies were placed a solemn reminder of
Bockelszoon's authority.64 Another example of Bockelszoon's
tactics of intimidation was his decision to execute several
women for their sins. One was beheaded simply for denying
her husband his marital rights, another for bigamy (the
practice of polygamy was solely a male prerogative), and a
third for insulting one of Bockelszoon's preachers.65
Indeed, the king would tolerate no transgressions. It was
thus announced that all sinners in the future would be
immediately brought before the king and sentenced to death.
They would be extirpated from the Chosen People their very
memory would be blotted out, and they would find no mercy
beyond the grave.66 

While Bockelszoon was busy with his power and prestige
within the city, outside the city walls, the siege of
Münster, spearheaded by Bishop Franz von Waldeck,
continued. By careful diplomatic action, the Bishop had
managed to involve both Catholic and Protestant rulers, as
well as imperial representatives in support of his cause.
Even Philip of Hesse, one of the staunchest supporters of
Protestantism, was a faithful supporter. Almost constantly
out of funds, the Bishop wrote letters pleading for help to
a host of potential patrons: King Ferdinand, elector of
Mainz, Trier, Saxony, and Brandenburg; the dukes of
Braunschweig, Luneburg, and Saxony; and the bishop of
Liege. Although most declined, the bishop raised enough
support to maintain the mercenary force which he had
gathered and to continue the siege and the occasional
skirmishes against the city. Despite political and
financial support, the actual military enterprise proved
largely unsuccessful throughout 1534 and for the first few
months of 1535. Endeavors to blockade the city, to drain
the moats, and even to take direct military action
ultimately failed. 

However, by April of 1535, signs of success began to
appear. The elderly, women, and children began trickling
out of the city due to food shortages. In order to prevent
escape, four of the escapees were beheaded on April 26 by
the besieging forces and their heads placed at the gate as
an example of what would happen to others who tried to
leave. Overall, between April 22 and June 15 at least
fifteen hundred citizens attempted to escape the misery of
the city. All but a few were immediately killed by the
Bishop's forces. 

On May 25, Heinrich Gresbeck abandoned his post at one of
the gates of Münster and surrendered. His life was spared
because he volunteered information which led to the final
defeat of the Anabaptists. On June 24, he and Hans Eck, who
had escaped with him, led the bishop's army into
The final showdown had begun. In accordance with the
bishop's policies of war, there was to be no mercy for the
conquered except for pregnant women and priests. The gaunt,
surviving Anabaptist army suddenly faced three thousand
soldiers who had been waiting sixteen months for this
occasion. The killing lasted for two days. According to one
report of the armed Anabaptists were killed during the
fighting and an additional 200 afterwards when the cellars
and attics were searched. On June 27 Count Wirich von
Dhaun, commander in chief of the Bishop's forces, gave
orders to stop the killing. At that time, the surviving men
and women were gathered at the cathedral square where they
were tried, condemned, and executed. The bodies of those
killed and starved to death were buried in the cathedral
square by peasants recruited from the surrounding
countryside. The stench was unbearable.67 

Bishop Franz came personally to the city to assess the
situation and to receive his share of the booty. He claimed
half of the total goods, which included all the property of
the Anabaptists, while the mercenaries received the movable
goods as payment for their services. The bishop also took
charge of the leaders of the Anabaptists (their lives had
been spared for interrogation purposes). The preacher
Bernhard Rothmann probably perished somewhere in the city,
but no definite information about his fate is known.
Bockelszoon and Knipperdolling, on the other hand, as well
as a prominent figure named Krechting, were kept alive.
These three men were subject to intensive interrogation
carried out in several different locations in an effort to
understand the origins and nature of their theological
positions. Philip of Hesse was especially interested in
these interviews in the hope of better understanding the
international threat of the Anabaptist faith. Ultimately,
after much interrogation, Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden
recanted, stating that the kingdom of Münster was a vain
and dead structure and that he had become king only because
of a prophecy he had heard by a man named Dusentschuer.
Furthermore, he admitted that every one must obey the
government for all governments are ordained by God. 

On the 20th of January 1536, Bockelszoon, Knipperdolling,
and Krechting were transferred to Münster and interrogated
for the final time. Once again, the examiners were
particularly interested in finding out about underground
international Anabaptist connections, but the answers they
received yielded little valuable information. Predictably,
each one tried to minimize his responsibility. The day
before the executions, Bockelszoon, in the spirit of his
previous recantation, was said to have admitted that he
deserved to die ten times. 

The next day they were brought to an elevated stage for the
execution. Hot glowing coals and pincers were present for
purposes of torture. The death penalty was verbally
proclaimed against all three since they had sinned against
"God and the government." Bockelszoon fell to his knees and
prayed. The victims were strapped against wooden posts and
iron rings were placed around their necks. Bockelszoon was
the first to be tortured. When Knipperdolling witnessed how
the hot pincers were used to burn Bockelszoon's body, he
attempted to end his life by hanging his head over the iron
ring around his neck. The executioner tied his head against
the post with a rope through the mouth in order to prevent
his attempts. After the final act of torture, which
consisted of pulling their tongues with the pincers, they
were put to death by piercing their hearts with a glowing
hot dagger. Their bodies were then put into large iron
cages and hung on the tower of a nearby church, and the
pincers were attached to a column of the city hall. This
was done so that "all insurrectionists who refuse to obey
proper authorities would see in this an example and
Understandably, the nature of this paper -- its sharp
division into theoretical and historical sections --
presents problems as one approaches a conclusion. My intent
could be seen as an effort to set up the theoretical only
to have it "knocked down" by the historical, i.e. to show
the triumph of narrative historical knowledge over
conceptual handiwork. Yet this is only partially true, for
I grant the heuristic value of concepts in making history
apprehensible. My principal aim, rather, has been to
redress an imbalance, by arguing that conceptual schemata,
when not carefully monitored, often end up displacing
history instead of informing it. Weber construed sociology
as the handmaiden to history. Unfortunately, the reverse
has often become the case. This is especially true with the
concept of charisma. 

Scholars in the past have often dealt with the events at
Münster as if the entire crisis was simply one hermetic
laboratory for sociological experimentation. If one avoids
this error, however, and is willing to think of the chain
of ideas leading up to Münster, i.e. the thought of
Melchior Hoffman, the Weberian mold is perhaps
illuminating. For it is Hoffman, and not Matthys, who is
the prophet that most clearly manifests Weberian
charismatic characteristics. The masses attracted to
Hoffman's prophecies in the Low Countries and his refusal
to use violence to effect his message attest to the fact
that he established his authority simply by personal appeal
and the content of his message. Matthys, on the other hand,
represents a devolution into authoritarian measures. His
use of violence, his tactics of information control, and
the opposition which he received from the citizens in
Münster testify to his inability to maintain a sense of
authority in the basis of charisma alone. He simply drew
from the charisma generated by Hoffman and sanctioned it in
himself by force. Finally, if one indulges my revision,
Bockelszoon represents only the extreme propulsion of
authoritarian tendencies already originating with Matthys. 

Yet my revisionist reading should seem self-evidently
problematic, for it is the very flexibility of charisma
which has made it such a troublesome concept. My revised
appropriation of charisma, like similar enterprises,
represents only a recasting of historical detail to endorse
a shaky conceptual framework. Thus my quick dismissal of
this account is an admission of the impracticality of
charisma altogether. Lumping figures like Christ, Napoleon,
Hoffman, Matthys, and Bockelszoon under the same
terminological umbrella indeed presents many problems. As
much of this paper demonstrates, the employment of such
terms easily sinks into mere semantic wrangling. Historical
detail becomes a pawn in an increasingly complex
theoretical language game that distances itself from
historical knowledge as it increases the sophistication of
the conceptual tools which are supposed to promote this
knowledge. In the final analysis, instead of cajoling
history to serve theory, we should perhaps tame our theory
in order that it may better serve history. 

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