“Narrating the dispossession of an early modern community”

Mennonites experienced dispossession throughout the early modern period, including a late, violent, and dramatic expropriation in 1694. The noble von Bylandt family had favored the Mennonite community in the city of Rheydt, which lay within the duchy of Jülich and was ultimately ruled over by the Elector Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate. The situation became tenuous, however, after a fire destroyed approximately fifty houses within the city in May 1694. The Mennonite community, relatively rich and stable due to their success in the local textile industry, was accused of starting the blaze. In 1705 Johan Scheiffart, an official involved in the dispossession, was “asked if he knew that this Sect had the teaching to make secret blazes [heimliche Feuersbrünste], in such a way that it would burn the goods of their neighbors?” He was forced to concede that this had been reported to him by others in Rheydt, but could not recall why.1

The expelled Mennonites of Rheydt narrated their own story more clearly. An extraordinary document, known as the Instrumentum Publicum, was presented to a notary on the evening of February 9, 1696, in the house of Peter Janssen within the city of Krefeld.2The Mennonites had prepared the document themselves and then presented it to the imperial notary public, Herman Marthens, and some “Gentleman witnesses.”3 These men confirmed and attested to the contents of the document, a species facti that allowed Mennonites to tell their side of the story. The document covered events between July 16, 1694, and August 28, 1694, and the Mennonites began by asserting their absolute innocence and civil obedience within the city of Rheydt. Their own coexistence within Rheydt had been exemplary, which they supported with descriptive words of obedience (“peace,” “tranquility”) and evidence of their consistent payment of taxes and fees.4

According to the Instrumentum Publicum, the violence of the Elector’s commissioners broke both this peace and their longstanding economic settlement. Those explicitly in the service of Elector Johann Wilhelm were Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf, Doctor Heyden and Doctor Scheiffart; others, however, such as “Captain of Horse, Mr. Wedding” and Paulus Katz of Jüchen lent their aid to the violent dispossession despite the fact that they were not electoral agents. These leaders arrived in Rheydt with “large number of armed peasants,” clearly ready for a fight.5 The unnamed peasants interrogated the inhabitants of Rheydt about the Mennonites and where they lived. They pounded and broke down doors, and even struck a Mennonite man with a pistol: he was “so severely wounded that blood streamed over his clothing.”6 The peasants dragged Mennonite men, women and children together and left them to be “guarded” by the Commissioners’ forces, with the exception of a few nursing infants allowed to remain with servants or neighbors. While this group of Mennonites huddled together, four peasants from within Rheydt tried to shake them down for any valuables on their person or in their pockets.

Lord Doctor Scheiffart then interrogated prominent members of the community, and focused specifically on any “money or bonds” that they may have owned.7 This line of questioning went on all afternoon and into the evening, while, simultaneously, the rest of the Commissioners dealt with the issue of Rheydt Castle. Baron von Bylandt was absent but the “fortress” appeared impassable, as it was “fortified with ramparts and moats and the gates of which remained closed.”8 The commissioners convinced Herr Gangelt to appear before them, and then compelled him to lower the bridge and allow the Elector’s forces access to the area inside – access to those Mennonite homes that had been particularly protected by von Bylandt’s favor. After this chaotic day of invasion and interrogation, the commissioners split the community into two main groups. About thirty of those within the city who had been interrogated, and who had their valuables pillaged by the Commissioners and their followers, were put in restraints and marched from Rheydt to Jüchen, a distance of about ten kilometers.9 Of those within the castle compound, many of the men appear to have escaped during the delay; the women and children left were threatened by peasants and commissioners for another week or so, at which point thirteen or fourteen of them were chosen to be marched and held in Jüchen along with the others.10

Imprisonment in Jüchen lasted for two weeks. Guarded and detained, the Mennonite community was first interrogated by Scheiffart within a few days of their arrival. He accused them of possessing “an accursed and damnable faith,” and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Catholicism. Further interrogations followed, largely individually, in the Jüchen home of Paulus Katz and in the presence of multiple of the Elector’s Commissioners. Mennonites were threatened with the 1529 mandate proclaimed at Speyer which specified death by fire or, in special circumstances, by the sword. Moreover, it was not just Mennonites threatened with the outstanding imperial ban; others associated with the Rheydt Mennonite community were similarly rounded up and intimidated. Johann Floh, a local textile merchant who had possessed a special letter of protection for nearly fifty years, had married a non-Mennonite woman who had a child from a previous marriage. This child, Peter Schloter, was now 43 years old and mostly likely worked in the same bleaching business that his stepfather had fought to protect decades earlier. This association, however, gave the Elector’s forces the pretext to arrest him outside of Gladbach and bring him to be imprisoned and interrogated alongside the Rheydt Mennonites in Jüchen, despite the fact that he was “of the reformed religion.”11 Another man, Peter Tomps, was also reportedly part of the Reformed faith, but this did not spare him from either threat or interrogation.12 These interrogations were repetitive and often nakedly avaricious. In one instance commissioners questioned each member of the community, and asked on “whether they still had outstanding money, cotton thread and pieces of linen on the looms and where the weavers lived.”13

Indeed, while these ordeals played out in Jüchen agents of the Elector were hard at work converting Mennonite possessions into cash. The houses, initially pillaged on July 16 for cash and small valuables, were in the next twenty days “stripped” of all furniture and “the floors, ceilings and tiles were destroyed and the boards carried away.”14 The commissioners made detailed lists of possessions for each family, with expected values totaled. Everything of value was sold at markets in Jüchen, Rheydt and Gladbach. The loss of possessions was swift, but this was not the end of the Elector’s attempt to squeeze money out of the Mennonite community. In the course of the interrogations, the attitude of the commissioners hardened into an explicit extortionate threat: pay 12,000 imperial Thalers or face execution.15

It is unclear whether the Elector and his commissioners demanded such a sum because they believed the Mennonites to have hidden some of their own money elsewhere, or if they had prior knowledge of the communication networks that existed among Mennonites in the area – and that therefore the Rheydt Mennonites might be able appeal to the nearby the Dutch Mennonite community.16 In any event, this was an exceedingly large sum of money, even for a community whose goods and property had not just been confiscated by the same extorting power. Smaller sums were suggested by the imprisoned Mennonites (1,200 Thalers as a first offer, then 4,000) before the still exceedingly high price of 8,000 Thalers was agreed upon.17 Yet, when the Mennonites agreed to this sum they believed themselves to have been granted access to any of their own furniture or goods still remaining, and this did not come to pass. They had no personal assets at all, and a bill of 8,000 Thalers due to preserve their lives. The imprisoned Mennonites hoped to write to their Dutch co-religionists, they claimed, but before the money could be collected they were threatened again. Baron von Bongart, a commissioner involved since the beginning, returned from the Electoral seat of Düsseldorf with two orders of execution. Two men of prominent families, Jan Klaasen van Aachen and Godschalk van Elten, were to be put to death.18 This did not immediately occur, however, and instead the whole of the community was moved again on August 1, 1694. Roughly bound together, the Mennonites were marched to Paffendorf, about twenty-one kilometers away from their former place of imprisonment in Jüchen.

In Paffendorf, events turned violent. Peter Schloter was “found…dead with his head cut off; …the dead body was dragged out like a dead carcass (or carrion) to the place of execution and left under the gallows under the blue heavens until the [next] day and was kept with a guard, but was afterwards hanged like a dog with the limbs aloft on the gallows standing there.”19 This gruesome scene was used to further intimidate prominent Mennonite men; three of them were brought to the gallows, threatened with similar treatment if any of them tried to escape, and then again threatened with this punishment if they did not recant their faith or pay the 8,000 Thaler within three days. The gallows were also used to intimate Gertrude Fieten, “of the Reformed religion” and a servant who had been imprisoned in an effort to gain information on her rich Mennonite master’s property.20

The conditions in Paffendorf were dire for everyone, however, and stretched on for weeks despite the fact that both William III of England, in his capacity as the Duke of nearby Mörs, and Lord Bildebeq of the Dutch States General were petitioning forcefully throughout August.21 Yet these outside intercessions bore no immediate fruit. On August 28 the Mennonites were compelled to pay those 8,000 Thaler – plus 800 Thaler in “expenses” related to their own imprisonment – with the threat that the fee would double to 16,000, and the imprisonment conditions worsen, if this payment did not come through.22

By September of 1694, then, the Mennonites of Rheydt had lost their property, all savings and anything of value, and had been officially exiled from the territory: “the prisoners were finally set free and conducted to the frontier of the country [where] they were banished and exiled with forfeiture of person, life and property should they return.”23 Though negotiations over the property, debts associated with the property, and their restitution continued for years, the Instrumentum Publicum ends here. Many of the impoverished and exiled Mennonites ended up in the city of Krefeld, forty-eight kilometers north of their last place of imprisonment; a city where much of the money for their release had been raised, and where a group of formerly-Rheydt Mennonites would come together two years later to produce this extraordinary document. The names of these twenty-six Mennonites close out the document. Though the Mennonites now residing in Krefeld printed their side of the story in early 1696, it was not until the latter half of 1697 that they won any recompense.


1 Quoted in Karl Rembert, Die “Wiedertäufer” im Herzogtum Jülich (Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899), 410, in a footnote beginning on 409 (fn. 2).

2 The original document was printed in Krefeld in 1696. A Dutch copy was made in 1771 by Godschalk Godschalks, and the original version was “found by an unknown person in an old library” in Krefeld and printed in 1803; Ernst Weydmann, “Über die Vertreibung der Mennoniten aus Rheydt und deren Einwanderung in Crefeld im Jahre 1694,“ in Mennonitische Blätter(1891): 21-6. All quotes here are taken from the English translation, made by N.B. Grubb, and checked against the German version printed as an addendum to Ludwig Schmitz-Kallenberg, Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt (1887). I use the names found in the German version, however, as the English version was translated from the Dutch and has retained names modified for a Dutch audience. N.B. Grubb, Pro Copia Instrumentum Publicum, Concerning That Which was Considered in Facti, by the Lord Commissioners of the Palatine Electoral Prince in Reference, To the Protestant Mennonites at Reijdt in the Year 1694, and what Transpired (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1909). German: Franke, “Instrumentum Publicum wegen desjenigen, was bei denen Churfl. Pfaltzischen Herren Commissarien gegen die Protestante Menoniste zu Rheydt in Anno 1694 in facta vorgenohmen und sich zugetragen,” edited by J. H. Franke; in Ludwig Schmitz (-Kallenberg), Rheydter Chronik. Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt, Erster Band (Rheydt: Verlag von D. Rob. Langewiesche, 1897), 265ff.

3 Grubb, 23; Franke, 275.

4 Grubb, 5; Franke, 266.

5 Grubb, 6; Franke, 266-267.

6 Grubb, 6; Franke, 267.

7 Grubb, 7; Franke, 267.

8 Grubb, 8; Franke, 268.

9 Grubb, 8; Franke, 267.

10 Grubb, 9; Franke, 268.

11 Grubb, 15; Franke, 271.

12 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271.

13 Grubb, 11; Franke, 269.

14 Grubb, 9-10; Franke, 268.

15 Grubb, 12; Franke, 269.

16 It seems probable that, as Elector Palatine, he would have been aware of the efforts of Dutch Mennonites on behalf of expelled Swiss Mennonites who settled in the Palatinate in the 1670s. For a general overview of that period, see Rosalind J. Beiler, “Dissenting Religious Communication Networks and European Migration, 1660-1710,” in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215-216.

17 Grubb, 12; Franke, 270.

18 Grubb, 13-14; Franke, 270. They were to be executed by the sword and the rope respectively. The meaning of these execution methods is unclear, but perhaps reflected differentiated status.

19 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271-272. The death of Peter Schloter is a bizarre episode that hangs in the middle of the story without much explanation. Much remains unclear, but his death was used by the commissioners to put fear into a population that they had detained for economic reasons. A report from the Elector to his commissioner Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf mentioned another Mennonite death while in prison, this time in November 1694. It was reported to be a suicide and they released the body to the family to be buried. See LNW-Rheinland, Jülich-Berg Nr. 257, 107r: “Ihr sollet den Jenigen Menschen, so Juengstens in der gefangnuschaff in seiner kranckheit sich selbsten ermordet, vnd ein Menonist zue seyn vermeinet worden, dessen bey euch derentwillen sich angebanden befreunden: oder anderen ohn verlangt außfolgen, vnd Ihne gleich wolen nach ihrem belieben begraben zulaßen”

20 Grubb, 19-21; Franke, 273-274. Her employer, Cornelius Floh, lived within the castle walls of Rheydt and had presumably been one of the men who escaped and left women and children behind. Floh was eventually compelled to pay 150 imperial Thalers to free Gertrude, who was kept in Düsseldorf for weeks longer than the rest. Floh’s account books were also part of this deal.

21 Grubb, 18; Franke, 273.

22 Grubb, 19; Franke, 273.

23 Grubb, 19; Franke, 273.

1 thought on ““Narrating the dispossession of an early modern community”

  1. Interesting story! I am especially intrigued by the accusation of being secretive fire starters. I have a very vague memory from when I was back in high schools reading about accused practices of arson among Doukhobors in Canada. If memory serves, the accusation was that it was inner directed, as a kind of enforced asceticism, rather than outer directed again group enemies. Nonetheless, I wonder if this were a wider spread trope directed against nonconforming religious groups?

    Like

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