Anabaptists and Jews in Emden, before Schutzgeld

In January of 1577, the mayor and city council of Emden drafted a letter to Count Edzard II.1 Complaining primarily about the boldness with which Anabaptists went about both their religious and secular business in Emden, the letter nevertheless began with condemnatory descriptors for both Anabaptists and Jews. Grouping together two religious communities that were variously tolerated in the city, council members noted their aim in the letter’s opening paragraph: “and particularly to report on the seductive sect of the Anabaptists, and the vile, blasphemous Jews.”

They certainly reported in detail on the behavior of local Anabaptists. Though they named no leaders or even members, the council accused them of living “in the noblest houses,” gathering indiscriminately in public, and joining together to create business associations (which must have been profitable, to buy or rent such prominent houses); indeed, the council seemed to identify open prosperity as the foremost offense. They quickly tied that charge to a parallel accusation of “public conventicles, holding and preaching their seductive false doctrine in great considerable numbers . . . by which they seduced many simple hearts, also honest people.” This was particularly problematic for the city council as these preachers also regarded all authority as suspect. The council characterized the reach of these condemnations as totalizing: “And they hold as a principal piece of their heretical doctrine that all authority is damned and cannot be saved, that the evangelical preachers of this and all reformed Christian churches, officers and preachers are devils.” Anabaptist preaching, in other words, had all the necessary ingredients to subvert the current social order. Fervor was increasing, and with it a distrust in authority.

This did not, the council argued, bode well for the general peace. Pointing to the examples of “Münster, Amsterdam in Groningen and West Frisia,” the council warned that enabling Anabaptists “brought forth well-identifiable fruit.”2 A later paragraph explicitly referenced the danger of repeating the “riotous” events of the Kingdom of Münster, but this admonition appears to have been stricken from the final copy.3 While frantic appeals to the specter of Münster were a common trope of anti-Anabaptist polemic across the empire, the historic connections between Emden and Münster – not least of which was the millenarian preaching and teaching of Melchior Hoffmann – added texture to a letter saturated with fear.

The council finally addressed their accusations against Jews in the second-to-last paragraph of this draft, one completed in a different hand and presumably added at a later date. The first author, then, had not managed to address the Jews he had slandered in his opening salutation. Furthermore, this late charge against the Jewish inhabitants of Emden was both brief and vague by comparison. The council complained about the presence in Emden of “daily more Jews, and their usury (which, like cancer, daily eats away and spoils everything).”4 Though the number of Jewish inhabitants of Emden certainly may have been increasing at this time, the lack of specifics is not terribly convincing. Moreover, the charge of usury was perhaps the most ubiquitous in Christian polemics against Jews. A more generalized anti-Semitic aside can barely be imagined.

So why were Anabaptists and Jews grouped together in this plea? Perhaps the council was attempting to condemn both communities by an association with the other. This letter and others written in January of 1577 would, over the course of the next year, convince Enno II that a disputation would be the best way to counter the spread of Anabaptist teaching and rid the city of unrepentant Anabaptist sympathizers. Yet the disputation of 1578 did not, in fact, convert or drive away the majority of Anabaptists or self-defined Mennonites. Their residence in the city would continue to be disputed – resulting, over two decades later, in the institution of a specialized protection tax (Schutzgeld) collected from both the Anabaptist and Jewish communities. It is clear from this letter that secular authorities in Emden had long been thinking about these two groups as connected, even as little evidence exists of meaningful connections between the communities themselves. The Emden city council had begun to populate its own imaginary of the marginalized, an imaginary which endured to structure the taxed toleration of both Anabaptists and Jews in Emden for over two hundred years.


  1. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 12-14.
  2. Ibid., 12-13.
  3. Ibid., 13.
  4. Ibid., 13.

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