On Naming Early Modern Anabaptists

What ‘Anabaptism’ means in an early modern document is often ambiguous – a problem which is only compounded when looking at secular bureaucratic sources. Who did early modern authorities think they were dealing with, or talking about, when they issued mandates or negotiated tolerance?

The study of early Anabaptism in Emden is stymied by a paucity of documents. More thorough record-keeping, or record-storing, coincided with the later influx of Dutch Reformed refugees in the 1550s.1 One of the earliest extant documents is a letter dated 12 May 1534, in the midst of the crisis of the Kingdom of Münster but concerning baptisms happening within Emden itself.2 Sent by East Frisian Count Enno II and addressed to the chief magistrates of Emden, it offered an “admonishment” against the continued existence of Anabaptists in the city.3 The letter uses the catch-all term of “wider doper,” but does not identify any leaders of, or even adherents to, this movement. This general reprimand thus suggests either that the leaders’ identity should have been obvious to the magistrates, or that perhaps Enno had only a vague understanding of the matter.

A hybrid document concerning the nearby city of Oldenburg, however, indicates that individual charismatic leaders were indeed traveling through the surrounding area during the 1530s, even if they were not immediately identifiable to authorities. A nineteenth-century excerpt and copy of an eighteenth-century edition of a text, this document was originally assembled by seventeenth-century theologian Gottfried Arnold. This nesting doll-like document nevertheless presents “David Joris’s singular life,” described in the nineteenth-century introduction as originating from a “very old Dutch-language written manuscript.”4 Arnold’s work was undoubtedly some sort of pastiche, as the excerpt included in this document is actually the sixteenth-century “Anonymous Biography of David Joris,” available in translation and edited by Gary K. Waite.5 Waite suggests in the introduction to this piece that the author may well have been Joris himself.6

Joris’s biography describes an Oldenburg still in turmoil following the violence and upheaval of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. A number of refugees from Münster had found some toleration in Oldenburg, which Waite attributes to an ongoing feud between the Bishop of Münster and the rulers of Oldenburg.7 Joris was ministering to the local Anabaptist and spiritualist congregation, and pushed his claim on authority through an interpretation of signs and mystical interventions that occurred during their discussions – including an incident where a Bible belonging to the Münsterites fell off a table.8

Joris’s reputation would certainly grow in East Frisia. A letter from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, again addressed to the chief magistrates and city council of Emden, directly addressed the disruption and unrest that imperial authorities expected from Anabaptists in general and Jorists in particular.9

Dated 15 October 1543, it began by greeting the relatively recently widowed Countess Anna von Oldenburg, who assumed the regency of East Frisia following her husband Enno’s death in 1540. The imperial letter expressly demanded the “confession of Anabaptists and other agitators,” which the emperor believed Anna had the power to arrange and compel. Charles identified the ‘ringleader’ as David Joris himself, and requested Joris’s writings, along with the names of other prominent members and journeymen.10 This letter thus establishes the fragmenting groups of ‘agitators’ under charismatic leadership as a phenomenon legible to authorities. Although shielded by official inaction, the followers of Joris as well as other Anabaptists and dissenters existed on the margins of legal residence.

The specifics of naming and differentiating amongst these marginalized religious groups became almost immediately important. Menno Simons arrived in Emden in late 1543 or early 1544 and advocated on behalf of his followers in front of the newly appointed Zwinglian pastor, Jan Łaski. Menno and Łaski had a number of “semipublic” discussions and debates over theological points, and despite significant differences Menno and his followers continued to enjoy some sort of toleration in Emden. Łaski was the first to use the term ‘Mennisten,’ in 1545, apparently as part of a larger scheme to separate these more moderate Anabaptists from their potentially violent brethren.11 When his attempts to debate and persuade these ‘Mennonites’ failed, however, Menno and his followers were ordered out of East Frisia – though many remained.12

By 1556, however, perhaps not coincidentally corresponding with the largest influx of Dutch Calvinist immigrants and the pressures of the Interim, Countess Anna found herself at least performing an insistence on tighter residential controls. In an edict dated 10 January 1556, Anna identified both David Joris and Menno Simons as leaders within the larger frame of Anabaptism.13 Within the text of the edict itself she separates out the “Mennonites, Davidites, Batenburgers, and other damned sects” who were ordered to leave within fourteen days or face punishment.14 The inclusion of the Batenburgers – a violent remnant of the Münsterites who most probably were no longer extant – is curious, and again highlights the problem of bureaucratic knowledge. The boundaries between these groups were recognized by authorities, but only in so far as they cohered as outsiders who were variously tolerated in the city of Emden.


  1.  For secondary reading on Emden, see especially Andrew Pettegree, Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), as well as a recent chapter by Timothy G. Fehler, “Coexistence and Confessionalization: Emden’s Topography of Religious Pluralism,”in Topographies of Tolerance and Intolerance: Responses to Religious Pluralism in Reformation Europe, ed. Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Victoria Christman (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 78-105. 
  2.  Stadtarchiv (StA) Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 1-2.
  3.  StA Emden, Nr. 415, 1: “wir offtmals ein vermanu[n]g doen latenn als der wider doper halben” 
  4.  Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv (NLA) Oldenburg, Slg. 10, Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 1r-3v.
  5.  Gary K. Waite, The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris:1535-1543 (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1994). The section that is reproduced in the Oldenburg manuscript runs from pp. 66-70.
  6.  Ibid., 32: “Joris clearly played a major role in the formulation of the anonymous account.”
  7.  Ibid., 302, fn. 94.
  8.  NLA Oldenburg, Slg. 10 Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 3r; Waite, The Anabaptist Writings, 69.
  9.  StA Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 3-4.
  10.  Ibid., 3: Wir schreiben hieneben der Edler unserer lieben Andechtigen Anna gebornen zu Oldenburg und Grauin zu Ostfrisen wittib Das Sy uns die vrgicht der widerteuffer vnd anderer Anfruerischen […] Aber volgendenen widerums auskomen sein mit sambt amer verzaichnus der Namen Irer Mitverwandten vnd gesellen, desgleichen Ires Haubts vnd Redelfuerers Joristen Glaßmachers Buecher zuschicken solle Inhalt vnsers schreibens.”
  11.  George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 732-734.
  12.  Pettergree, 33. 
  13.  NLA Aurich, Rep. 4 BII d Nr. 1, 2: “Vnnd wi dan befindenn, dat bouen alle vnnse vorigenn Mandata vnnd vtgegangene gebot breue, der Wedderdoperie also Menno Simons vnnd David Joris vnnd anderenn secten anhegiche”
  14.  Ibid., 2: “dat so alle vnnd jder [illeg.] sienn Mennonisten, Davidianen, Baterberger, vnd andere vordampn secten”

Searching for Anabaptists in Emden

At the risk of appearing preoccupied with Emden and its Schutzgeld, I write today about another aspect of these seventeenth-century registers. When I began researching in the summer of 2016, I assumed the example I found in Emden to be one of a readily available type of bureaucratic document. A simple list of Mennonite believers, with names and sums – surely these are widespread! Sadly, no. Although Schutzgeld structures were in place in a number of cities in the Holy Roman Empire, and presumably were collected regularly within those cities, sparse records remain. The Emden city archive itself holds only the registers from 1601, 1602, 1626, 1737 and 1749.  For today, then: a short note on my research and its many dead ends.

As the Schutzgeld registers fueled my earliest research and writing, names were on my mind. What could I do with names? My initial instinct was to amass a database of individuals mentioned as Anabaptists in the northwest corner of the Empire. I could use static official documents to infer movement – where Anabaptists were taxed, where they were disciplined, where they were expelled. I had hoped that, by tracing who left where, and why, I might be able to reconstruct patterns of itinerancy and find new civic sources to flesh out the lives of these religious refugees. This was my big-picture goal, but I began in Emden with my lists of names and a wonderful, digitized archival finding aid courtesy of the friendly archivists in Emden.

I was immediately confronted with problems common to genealogists and historians alike. To begin with, only the most unique of surnames provided any hope of a definitive match. The many iterations of ‘Jacobs/sen,’ ‘Jans/sen’ and ‘Peters/sen’ proved too numerous to hope for success. I found a Johan Janßen in the notarial records – perhaps related to the Johan Janßen who paid a Schutzgeld of 15 thaler and six schap in 1602 – petitioning the court for the release of his father in 1568.[1] Yet, Johan Janßen? A more common name can hardly be found. More likely the connection was a coincidence of popular naming.

Yet, despite these setbacks, I hoped that these Schutzgeld records might have more to teach me. Perhaps the most useful aspect of these lists is the notation of ‘vertrocken,’ – rendered in modern Dutch as ‘vertrokken’ – those who departed, or emigrated. This was a smaller subset of names to investigate, and promised some sort of movement.

Those who are noted as ‘departed’ throughout the 1602 register, seventeen in all, largely do not leave a mark elsewhere in the Emden archives. One small exception is Hanß Kock. Obligated to pay two thaler, he had by Easter remitted one thaler five schap, and “thereby departed.”[2] He received his letter of safe conduct from Henrica Ripperda, the widow of the Lord of Dornum, on 30 June 1602. As a boatman, Kock provided the means of transport to Hamburg for two brothers bearing a load of butter and cheese.[3] The timing suggests that this Hans Kock is the same as found in the Schutzgeldlists, as does the von Dornum’s long history of Anabaptist sympathy.[4] But that’s about all it suggests.

I’ll keep Hanß Kock in my database, and check for him in Hamburg if my research ever takes me there. But this methodology, of names and lists and cross checking, has become just one of many tools I use to find Anabaptists wherever I can in the archive. I have benefitted greatly from the recommendations of my mentors, the suggestions of fellow grad students, and the inventions that arise out of necessity – as I keep searching to find those who largely did not want to be found by early modern authorities.


[1] Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Registratur, Nr. 712c.

[2] Ibid., Nr. 415, Bl. 80: Hanß Kock Ad 2 {dhr} soluit vp Oisterenn darmitt vertrockenn

[3] Ibid., Nr. 176a.

[4] The lords of Dornum and Oldersum fueded in the early seventeenth century. Ibid., Nr. 824.

Suspended Movement

It was originally my intention to study Anabaptists as religious refugees during the first few decades of the Reformation. Though the notion of early modern religious refugees is well-developed, for a long time it was largely a reference to the itinerant ‘Calvinist international’ that Calvin himself wrote into existence from his position in Geneva.1 Though recent works have advocated for an expansive and inclusive re-imagining of the term, the traditional tripartite structure of Reformation scholarship still lingers–and narrows our focus to those identifiable as Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists. I wanted to think about what it would mean for “Anabaptists” (broadly construed) to be included in this expanding concept of early modern religious refugees.

Yet in seeking to capture the movement of groups who are visible, in the early modern bureaucratic sources that I use, which reflect only in moments of stasis, it was pointed out to me that I was thinking more about the meaning of potential movement rather than movement itself. As I sorted through evidence in the archives of Westphalia and East Frisia, I often found Anabaptists immersed in legal negotiations about economic conditions–resisting or contesting their own dispossession, and negotiating the extra taxes they bore. Though these are often hostile sources, they illuminate the precarities and practicalities of material survival for marginalized religious groups during the early modern period.

I took my first archival trip in the summer of 2016 to visit Emden, in East Frisia, and to follow the work of Timothy Fehler.2 Dr. Fehler had included a reference to Mennonites paying Schutzgeld (literally “protection money”) in Emden, and I was eager to see what I might glean from these registers of “Mennoniten.” To give a brief glimpse into the scale of these documents: in 1601, there were 166 individuals or families who paid Schutzgeld.The total amount collected is given as 943 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten. A later entry indicates that an additional sum of 400 gulden was paid for the Mennonites’ share of the protection of the city, and sent directly to the city treasurer–bringing the final amount remitted to 1343 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten.4 In comparison, the chief preacher of the Große Kirche, Menso Alting, had received a generous annual salary of 600 gulden in 1595.5

Of those listed in the 1601 account, seven are Jews–denoted by the simple appellation “the Jew” after each of their first names. The seven Jewish men are scattered throughout the various collection groups, and pay obligations which appear to be calculated in the same manner as those of the Mennonites. If the collection units denote neighborhoods, then the possibility of Jews and Mennonites living together is certainly intriguing. Yet, as both were required to pay this extra protection money to live within the city, it is possible that this relationship was more of a bookkeeping convenience than anything else. In any event, the fact that these two groups were combined on bureaucratic lists speaks to a developing sense of a religious ‘other’ in the minds of Calvinist city leaders.

Of course, Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire had been subject to violent expulsion campaigns for hundreds of years. Michael Driedger has emphasized the need to think about commonalities between early modern Anabaptist and Jewish experiences during the upheaval of reform, and much work remains to be done.6 As I continue to work on Schutzgeld, the idea of suspended, potential movement continues to animate my thinking, especially as I consider the Mennonites and Jews in East Frisia who needed to negotiate, and pay, to stay in their Emden homes.

  1. Heiko Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” in The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, trans. Andrew Colin Gow (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); Heiko Oberman, “Europa Afflicta: The Reformation of the Refugees,” in John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A., 2009). More recent studies advocate for, or operate on, an expansion of terms: Geert H. Janssen, The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Timothy Fehler, Poor Relief and Protestantism: The Evolution of Social Welfare in Sixteenth-Century Emden (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing House, 1999).
  3. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 54-72.
  4. Ibid., 66.
  5. Fehler, Appendix, 292.
  6. See Michael Driedger, “The Intensification of Religious Commitment: Jews, Anabaptists, Radical Reform, and Confessionalization,” in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, edited by D.P. Bell and S.G. Burnett (Leiden: Brill, 2006), and “Crossing Max Weber’s ‘Great Divide’: comparing early modern Jewish and Anabaptist histories,” in Radical Reformation Studies: Essays presented to James M. Stayer, edited by Werner O. Packull and Geoffrey L. Dipple (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999), 157-174.