Public Nudity and Prophecy in Early Anabaptism: The Cases of Lienhard Jost and the Naaktlopers

On the 10th of February, in 1535, the Melchiorite Anabaptist Hendrick Hendricks Snyder addressed a group of seven men and five women and prophesied to them of God’s impending wrath. Then he cast off first the weapons and then the very clothes he wore, and threw them into the fire.[1] The other men and women followed suit and burned all their clothing as well. The group then ran into the city, shouting “Woe, woe, woe! Divine wrath, divine wrath, divine wrath!” Unarmed and small in numbers, the naaktlopers or “naked walkers” were easily captured by the Netherlandish authorities. They refused clothing even as they were escorted to prison, citing their intention to proclaim the “naked truth.”[2] All the men involved in the incident, and some of the women, were sentenced to capital punishment as a result of their involvement, and the authorities in Amsterdam were motivated to enforce imperial edicts against Anabaptism more stringently than they had before.[3]

The naaktlopers’ demonstration provided ample fodder for polemicists who sought to warn their readers about the dangers and excesses of Anabaptism. A little more than a decade after the incident, in 1548, the Dutch humanist and Catholic priest Lambertus Hortensius published a scathing account of Anabaptism in the Low Countries. Hortensius’ account circulated in several editions well into the seventeenth century and in several countries. A Dutch translation appeared in 1667, and in 1702 a French adaptation was published. The Dutch and French editions came accompanied with a striking woodcut of the incident, intended to further shock the audience and convince them of Anabaptism’s ridiculousness, if not its nefariousness.

1702 woodcut
A woodcut featuring the naaktlopers from the 1702 French edition of Lambertus Hortensius’ anti-Anabaptist polemic, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=Ei-qGw_urRUC

For Hortensius and his translators, the naaktloper incident provided prime evidence of just how ludicrous Anabaptism was, and how deluded and unreasonable its followers were. Their descriptions of the event alternated between ridicule and pity for the persons involved. “Since these people were full of nothing but visions and each one considered himself a prophet, when the mood seized them, one could see them committing completely strange and ridiculous acts,” wrote Hortensius’ French translator. He went on to describe their decision to cast off their clothes and walk around Amsterdam naked as “one of the most ridiculous [ideas] that could befall the imagination.”[4] For these early modern polemicists, the naaktlopers, with their immoderate excess and their willingness to perform every strange idea that came into their heads, perfectly encapsulated the failings of Anabaptism. More recent histories of Anabaptism have largely recounted the story of the naaktlopers as part of the general uproar surrounding the establishment of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster, but have largely treated the public nudity aspect of the story as a curious but isolated incident.

The naaktlopers, however, were not entirely unique among their coreligionists. The third chapter of Strasbourg prophet Lienhard Jost’s visions reveals that he engaged in public nudity as a prophetic act, just as the naaktlopers did. Lienhard recounted that, one night, he felt the Spirit of God tell him to rise immediately, disrobe, and run through the streets of Strasbourg naked in order to sound the Mord Glock—the alarm bell located in Strasbourg’s cathedral. He rose immediately and ran through the streets of Strasbourg, shouting the following prophetic utterance: “Murder upon murder! The child in its mother’s womb must and will be terrified before the word of the Lord comes to pass . . . if the lords and rulers of the city only knew that their princely clothes will be removed from them before God and the world, that they might seek God again, they would all cry along with me…but after this the child in its mother’s womb will rejoice again, and all those who have been sad will find peace.”[5] Like the naaktlopers, Lienhard’s actions resulted in his capture. However, given the relative tolerance of Strasbourg’s magistrates toward religious dissenters, he met with a much lighter sentence—he was brought to Strasbourg’s hospital, where he was deemed insane and moved to an asylum. He remained there for a few months until his release.

This is the only incidence of public nudity in Lienhard’s visions, but it nevertheless is not out of place. In his 2015 article on Lienhard’s prophecies, Jonathan Green notes the prevalence of clothing-based imagery. Lienhard counsels his audience to throw off their stinking clothes in order that God might clothe them, although he quickly clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual, not physical terms.[6] Green also notes the performative nature of Lienhard’s visions in general. Lienhard was not content to merely share the words of God, but instead frequently contrived an object lesson. He chewed and then spit out bread in order to demonstrate his rejection of “idolatrous masses,” and he poured wine on his bed and watched it spread as a symbol of how a God-sent abundance of good things would soon spread across the earth.[7] Lienhard’s own experiences of God were multi-sensory. He not only saw and heard God’s messages, he felt and tasted them. Since his experience of divine revelation that was so arresting and all-consuming, it is unsurprising that Lienhard would attempt to replicate aspects of this experience for his audience.

It is impossible to establish with certainty whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and the rest of the naaktlopers were familiar with Lienhard’s prophetic career, but it seems distinctly possible, and perhaps even likely. Melchior Hoffman assiduously disseminated their visions and prophecies among his followers. In 1533, his associate Cornelijs Poldermann testified to Strasbourg’s Protestant preachers in a letter that the whole Netherlands were full of the Josts’ books—an obviously hyperbolic claim, but one that nevertheless speaks to the popularity the Josts’ visions enjoyed among Hoffman’s followers in the Low Countries.[8] Thus, Snyder and his compatriots may well have read Lienhard’s visions, or at least been apprised of their contents if they could not read them themselves. Their cries of woe even echo Lienhard’s cries of “murder upon murder,” although Lienhard went further and promised God’s eventual mercy after announcing impending judgment. He also tied nakedness to the casting off of superfluous wealth, and the historical record does not say whether any of the naaktlopers made a similar connection.

Whether or not the naaktlopers drew their inspiration from Lienhard, however, the practice of public nudity as a prophetic act has a long-established place in the Jewish and Christian canon. In Isaiah 20, God commanded Isaiah to remove the sackcloth and ashes he had previously worn to prophesy and instead to prophesy completely naked for a period of three years as a portent of God’s impending judgment on Egypt.[9] Isaiah’s display is the only divinely sanctioned instance of post-Garden of Eden public nudity in the Bible—Noah’s drunken exhibitionism in Genesis earned the patriarch and his son divine censure—but it is not, for all that, an aberration.[11] The Old Testament prophets frequently engaged in visually arresting, often shocking and bizarre displays as a means of reinforcing God’s message. Early modern Christians in search of a more recent example could point to Saint Francis of Assisi, who made a public display of his rejection of his parents and his upbringing by publicly casting off his clothing before the Bishop of Assisi. This incident had a powerful hold on the imaginations of medieval Christians; it was not only recounted in many of St. Francis’ vitae, but also became the subject of several different artistic depictions of the life of Francis in late medieval and Renaissance-era European churches and chapels.

It is difficult to ascertain just how much Lienhard Jost and the Amsterdam naaktlopers knew about the biblical and medieval prophets and saints who came before them. Lienhard Jost was an illiterate peasant labourer, and the educational status of Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers is not known. It is probable that they never had the opportunity to study the biblical text in much detail or read saints’ vitae for themselves. Nevertheless, they may well have become acquainted with some of these examples through preaching, ecclesiastical artwork, or oral tradition. Elements of Lienhard’s account suggest that he may have, consciously or unconsciously, drawn inspiration from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is true that he never mentioned Francis by name and he frequently derided the Catholic mass as idolatrous and clerical celibacy as an abomination. Even so, however, there are some striking points of similarity between the life of the Strasbourg prophet and that of the Italian mendicant. Lienhard’s motivation for running around Strasbourg naked bears a strong resemblance to the Francis’ motivation for disrobing in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi. For both men, the casting off of clothing represented an emphatic rejection of wealth and opulence. In Francis’ case, he rejected the wealth and opulence to which he had been born and which his family still enjoyed. In Lienhard’s case, though he himself was not endowed with much wealth to cast off, he physically enacted the spiritual renunciation he expected from Strasbourg’s ruling class. Another event in Lienhard’s life also mirrored that of St. Francis: in pondering the wounds of Christ, Lienhard received a physical reminder of these wounds on his right foot, which calls to mind Francis’ reception of the stigmata, a famous event that inspired many imitators—particularly women—well into the seventeenth century.[12]

The surviving accounts of the naaktlopers are far less detailed than Lienhard’s description of his visions, and make it difficult to say with certainty even what their motivation was for running into Amsterdam unclothed—whether it was a warning of God’s impending wrath, a reminder of humanity’s vulnerability, or a call to cast off worldly wealth and greed—let alone what people in biblical or church history served as their inspiration. Nevertheless, regardless of whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers consciously imitated Lienhard Jost or Francis of Assisi or the prophet Isaiah in their public display of nudity, their actions, while shocking (and purposefully so), were not an aberration. Lienhard Jost and the naaktlopers’ decisions to disrobe publicly form part of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of prophecy as a public performance, designed not only to share the word of the Lord, but also to communicate his message to the people visually through the use of striking physical displays and object lessons. The word had become flesh in Jesus, and, in a lesser way, it became flesh again and again through his messengers.


[1] Samme Zijlstra, Om de ware gemeente en de oude gronden: Geschiedenis van de dopersen in de Nederlanden, 1531-1675 (Leeuwarden: Fryske Akademy, 2000), 135-136.

[2] Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Amsterdam: Henricus Laurentius, 1636), 55.

[3] Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 148.

[4] Lambertus Hortensius and François Catrou, Histoire des Anabaptistes (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702), 106.

[5] Lienhard Jost, Ein Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey des Linhart Josten van Stroßburg, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. B3r.

[6] Jonathan Green, “The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions” in The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015): 324.

[7] Green, 324-325.

[8] Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 8. Elsass II. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1533-1535 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1960), 213.

[9] Isaiah 20:1-6.

[10] Genesis 9:20-23

[11] See Julian Gardner, “A Minor Episode of Public Disorder in Assisi: Francis renounces his Inheritance.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 68:2 (2005): 275-285.

[12] Jost, Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey, fols. E1v-E2r. On the stigmata in late medieval and early modern mysticism, see Stephen Haliczer, Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

1 thought on “Public Nudity and Prophecy in Early Anabaptism: The Cases of Lienhard Jost and the Naaktlopers

  1. Hi Christina Moss, Thanks for the interesting article, which tackles a phenomen which is not as ‘weird’ as it might seem to modern readership. I suggest to take yet another look at more ‘recent’ predecessors of Anabaptist ‘naaklopers’, by checking the well known stories of the so-called Adamites, celebrating masses in the nude, like for instance, in the ranks of the Hussite religeous strugles in Tabor, Moravia, around the 1420s. See f.i., GH Williams, RR, 318-319. Adamite heresies also showed up in early 15th-century Flanders. See on this: the new volume by Herman Pleij (2019), and Theun de Vries’ Ketters (1982) (both in Dutch, I’m afraid). In art history the famous ‘Garden of Earthly Delight’ (1490-1510) by the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch is sometimes considered as an expression of Adamitism. So, I gues there is still more to be done. Most sincerely en met vriendelijke groet, Piet Visser.

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