“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.

Considering Seventeenth-Century Schutzgeld

The collection of Schutzgeld, or ‘protection money,’ had begun in the East Frisian city of Emden shortly after the city’s revolt against Count Edzard II in 1595. The first extant records date to 1601 and detail the amount owed by each Mennonite and Jewish household within the newly autonomous (and predominantly Calvinist) jurisdiction. (For a bit more on the earliest Schutzgeld records in Emden, please see my post from November 27, 2018.) But only a few registers of this particular tax remain for the city of Emden. We have documentation from the years 1601, 1602, 1626, 1638, 1737 and 1749. There are a few additional documents from the eighteenth century in which Schutzgeld was recorded from both across the county and within the city of Emden, but only compelled from Jews – a development that illustrates the increasingly disparate paths made for Mennonites and Jews in this area of the empire. But even with those additional accounts, we can see the records that remain are the exception rather than the rule. Today, I’ll examine the two sets of records from the mid-seventeenth century.

The 1626 Emden Schutzgeld records [Fig. 1] were clearly functional, as owed amounts were crossed out and replaced, red scratches along the edge denoted fulfilled obligations, and the slim bound booklet generally displayed marks of use and wear.1 The obligations were divided among 22 different geographic sections, named companies, each with a corresponding responsible captain. These captains were not Mennonites, but the leaders of the city or night watch – a communal obligation that this tax exempted Mennonites from performing. The numbers in these ‘companies’ varied from as few as one man or household (Dirck Simons, in Hindrich Busert’s company, who owed 3 Emden gulden) to as many as 19. There are 175 names overall, of which 19 were noted as Jews. Another 3 names were stricken from the record; as two of the three names stricken were widows owing only 1 gulden, it seems likely that these were either the recently dead or the benevolently omitted. Unlike the Schutzgeld records from a quarter-century before, however, none are here designated as ‘paupers’ and thus exempt from payment.

That leaves 153 paying Mennonite households, 9 of which were headed by widows and 3 of which appear to have been headed by underage sons. The density and prosperity of the Mennonite community in Emden held steady in the quarter century between 1602 and 1626. The total amount remitted by that Mennonite community came to 654 Gulden and 5 Schap – an amount figured through an informal sum on the back of the well-worn booklet itself.

The 1638 Schutzgeld records [Fig. 2], by contrast, are much cleaner and show no evidence of their use as a working document – but also include no amounts at all.2 There is no indication of amounts owed, the vagaries of collection, or indeed that money exchanged hands at all. This, then, is a list that named Mennonites and Jews, but shares little else in common with the list from just 12 years prior. This lack of consistency could perhaps be evidence for haphazard or even intermittent collection within the city of Emden, but it is more likely that this document represented a different stage in the process than the worn document of 1626. Additionally, the helpful numbering along the left edge of this document drops off in the middle of the second page, after ‘40,’ which confirms further that this is merely a draft of a later, more useable register.

There are 21 companies in the 1638 record, and a total of 176 names – almost no movement in the overall number of marginalized residents sharing this tax. However, the number of Jews has dropped significantly for such a small population, from 19 to 11. That leaves a modest increase in the number of Mennonite households, now at 165 and up from 153 in 1626. Of those 165 households, a steady number – 8 now, in comparison with the 1626 count of 9 – are widows. For the first time, a ‘doctor’ appears in the register: a ‘Doctor Eilde’ residing in the company of Captain Eggo Hermans. Without amounts, however, it’s hard to tell how prosperous this Mennonite doctor was – or indeed, whether the fortunes of the community had changed in aggregate.

Four captains’ names remain the same from the 1626 collection to that of 1638, a comparison that allow us to consider the nature of community change. The company of Viet Hindricks grew from 5 to 10 in those twelve years, and only two of the names remained the same: Nonne Aggen and Johan Jacobs ‘Flet,’ neither of whom appear in the index of the city archive. In Herman Gerrits’s company the growth was more modest, from 11 to 13, but a full seven of the names remained the same. This was perhaps a younger set of taxed households, and an area of the city with more Jewish inhabitants (4 were designated as Jews in both 1626 and 1638). The company of Jeldrich Taken grew from 7 to 12, with 4 names remaining the same. The number of Mennonites shrunk in the company of Johan Horstman, from 7 to 5, and there are two instances of family name matches but no individual persons who appear on both records.

These comparisons are more suggestive than anything. Twelve years represents perhaps half of a generation, and the 1638 records leave open the question of economic growth, prosperity, or burden. Schutzgeld was presumably a yearly tax, as it replaced watch service that was continuous for other male adults, but the lack of sources leaves confusing caesura in the historical record. What the remaining Schutzgeld sources continue to attest to, however, was the bureaucratic grouping of Mennonites and Jews together within the city of Emden. These religious minorities were nameable, even when the names given by governmental authorities were imprecise, and they were thus taxable. These were communities who continued to live and worship despite a lack of official toleration documents, and it is in this way that economic instruments must be read as crude (and inherently unstable) religious settlements. Informal toleration through taxation and through other one-time compulsory payments – for dikes, for military expenses, or just to balance the books; what older historiography has rightly labeled ‘extortion’ – provided both plausible cover and continuing threat for both Mennonites and Jews in early modern Emden.

  1. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 45-52.
  2. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 95-98 and 101-103.

1577 in 1947

My dissertation focuses on the early modern period and addresses the economic experiences of nonconformists in the northwestern Holy Roman Empire. One piece of twentieth-century evidence, however, demonstrates how economic strength became a rhetorical pose necessary for later Mennonites—a pattern familiar to any minority group that must justify its continued existence to a wider community. This short nineteen-page pamphlet, The Cultural Achievements of the Mennonites in East Frisia and the Münsterland, written and published by Pastor Abraham Fast of Emden in 1947, began by explaining the common experience of Mennonites in what was now northwestern Germany: “In East Frisia and the Münsterland the Mennonites were, from the beginning, much less a segregated non-resident settlement community than later in the eastern part of the Empire or further in Russia.”1 This ‘integration’ was made easier by what Fast described as “blood and language,” common membership in a so-called “Saxon-Frankish-Friesian tribe” as those in the East Frisian and Westphalian communities to which they immigrated.

Predictably, in a publication dedicated to an elder of the Mennonite community in Gronau, Fast was effusive about the positive role Mennonites had played. This was both genuinely celebratory and an expedient means of justification; Fast argued that Mennonites had a small but nonetheless integral role as “economically and spiritually a good leaven for this region.” He dug into the archives to evidence this claim, pulling sources from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before turning to his main concern: the “most recent 150 years” of Mennonite history in the area (indeed, Fast gives quite a detailed industrial history of a number of textile firms). 2

My concern, of course, is his use of evidence from the early modern period. Fast highlighted the irony of sixteenth-century economic toleration: “This fact is simply appealing when one observes how the sharpest memories of the edicts against the Mennonites fade, while at the same time [they were] negotiating with these forbidden heretics over leases, money borrowing or even gifts for the princely court.”3 This ironic use of ‘heretic’ (‘Ketzer’) is striking. Most importantly for Fast, however, was the clear economic advantage to business dealings with Mennonites even as they were singled-out for religious nonconformity. Fast went on to argue that authorities recognized this advantage early on, and sought to bring Mennonites into these territories despite religious difference.

Fast, remarkably, harkened back to the same 1577 letter from the Emden council about which I wrote about a few months ago, and quoted from the complaint by Emden authorities that Anabaptists were taking up the most prominent houses and prominent roles in the wider business and merchant community. It is notable that Fast was here comfortable quoting from a letter that only ever referred this group as Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer) – and one in which their social position was made explicitly analogous to that of Jews. Fast went on to quote from a protection letter from 1688, in which authorities warned that the expiration of Mennonite protections would have a significant financial strain on the area, and to quote extensively from a 1708 petition by a governmental official in Norden who expounds upon the necessity of Mennonites for the larger community there – and especially for the poor.4

In his sparse use of early modern evidence, Fast meant only to set the stage for the more impressive economic achievements of Mennonites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the addition of the letter from 1577 does two unique things. First, it uses a hostile account as evidence for prosperity—the latter two pieces of early modern evidence appear to be neutral if not complimentary, while the 1577 letter was clearly pejorative. And secondly, it naturalizes the economic strength of the Mennonite community; it has always been so, and the community’s industriousness has paved the way for its inclusion.

Similarly, Fast listed a number of western Münsterland industrial concerns begun by Mennonites – most of which had been founded only during the nineteenth century, but which had grown out of a tradition of Mennonite weaving and cloth-trading that began in the early modern period.5 The relative wealth of Mennonites compared to wider society was a commonality amongst Mennonites in both East Frisia and the Münsterland, evidenced by the saying “only rich people belong to the Mennonites.”6 This pride in the relative wealth of the community is certainly a prominent theme of Fast’s pamphlet, and he noted that Mennonites gave generously to the poor of other confessions, as well as contributed significantly more to school taxes.

But Fast acknowledged some differences between the two communities, in a striking paragraph that closed his pamphlet:

“Worth mentioning, however, are the following peculiarities. In contrast to the families from Emden and Norden, the Münsterlanders did not appear on the political stage. But they built up all the more zealously as entrepreneurs that which gives public life its basis and its freedom of movement: the economy. On the other hand they revered, as did the East Frisian Mennonites, a religious inwardness and the free cosmopolitanism associated with it, as had always belonged to the tradition of these communities. Most of the above-mentioned, significant business founders in East Frisia and the Münsterland and their successes have put their forces at the service of local communities as church councilors and as deputies in the service of the Association of the German Mennonites, where the community in Emden shaped the spiritual center of the whole group and still shapes it until today.”7

But if Mennonites would eventually find themselves wealthy, and protected by that wealth – however reliable this ebullient pamphlet was – it took round and rounds of negotiation in the early modern period to establish their homes in communities such as Emden, Norden and Leer.

  1. Abraham Fast, Die Kulturleistungen der Mennoniten in Ostfriesland und Münsterland (1947), 3. An editorial note on the inside of the front cover indicated that the text had been prepared in 1939 but its publication had been delayed by the Second World War.
  2. That same editorial note indicated that he used a number of well-known nineteenth century works to gather this evidence, particularly J.P. Müller, Die Mennoniten in Ostfriesland.
  3. Ibid., 3-4.
  4. Ibid., 4-5.
  5. Ibid., 13.
  6. Ibid., 7-8.
  7. Ibid., 18-19.

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.

On the Emden Kirchenrat, and Naming Anabaptists

An important set of sources for understanding Anabaptism in Emden are the Kirchenrat records, which were edited by Heinz Schilling in the 1980s. Though the Kirchenrat itself was established in 1544, the records did not begin for another decade due to the interruption of the Interim.1 Looking for inhabitants called before the consistory and labelled as some variation of “Täufer,” we can identify Reformed community members flirting with marginal beliefs and navigating life in Emden as it assumed its full height as a refugee city. These records begin after the rapid expansion of the city in the mid-1550s, following the influx of Dutch Calvinist refugees, and demonstrate a need to police the edges of the reformed community–precisely because there were a variety of nonconforming believers in the city.2

A few examples will give texture to this source. Johan van Bellen first appeared in the records on 15 November 1557. Subjected to instruction regarding his nonconforming beliefs, the “doepers” were identified as a source of these errors.3 Moreover, and incriminatingly, he had at least three unbaptized children. Van Bellen was something of a troublemaker; he recurred repeatedly in the records of the consistory, and was admonished for both his beliefs and actions.4 Though he was not always identified as holding Anabaptist sympathies, he was clearly an outsider – and he expressed this in a rare bit of direct speech: “So Menno Simons’ sect does not want me and you do not want me and the papists do not want me . . . ”5 Lacking any true institutional affiliations, he was brought before the consistory in an attempt to bring his religious and lifestyle choices under the aegis of a stabilizing authority.

It is important to note that the consistory differentiated between generalized “Anabaptists” and those Mennonites, Jorists and others who were identifiable as belonging to a particular nonconformist community. On 26 July 1557, we see concern that one Severin Koperslager belonged to what must have been a small but persistent community of Jorists.6 Because David Joris himself, or some of his followers, had taken to announcing the coming of the “third David” by the later 1540s, the accusation was that Severin “knew another savior.” Severin is thus forced to gainsay David Joris and denounce him as a “spirit of the devil.” Most interestingly, however, no mention is made of “Anabaptists” or baptism at all, suggesting some separation between a larger understanding of Anabaptism and these individual charismatic groups. There are two later references to suspected Jorists; one mentioned as a “Davidiorismo” in February of 1559, and one who may be a papist or a libertine or belong to the “David-Joris” group.7 Again, neither of these accusations accompany anything like a denunciation of Anabaptism, and suggest a separate category has formed for the purposes of communal discipline.

In March of 1559, the two groups arose in conversation during the same day of consistory testimony8 In a discussion about bookbinding and publishing, Cornelis Benninck mentioned the need to address Mennonite writing in Holland, while Adrianus de Kuper presented two pamphlets he wrote against “de wederdopers.” Though representatives of these groups were not present to defend themselves, the separation of one from another seems significant. That the consistory would attempt to limit Mennonite publishing or publish treatises against marginalized beliefs is not surprising, but the careful deployment of these contested categories seems significant for decision making within the Reformed church court system.

These few pieces of the Kirchenratsprotokolle, then, might be read as merely the continuation of an increasingly sophisticated deployment of terms. The church council both took up and further populated the categories which we have seen in the official correspondences of the 1530s and 1540s, and it is certainly worth further study to determine how discourses between secular and religious authorities intertwined during this period. Yet the development of these distinctive categories proved operational for the Emden Kirchenrat, who associated particular beliefs or behaviors with certain Anabaptist groups and treated suspected individuals accordingly. That the church council found these categories to be meaningfully different may reflect a more intimate knowledge of these groups, or perhaps an increasingly codified understanding of exactly who these groups contained and what these groups believed. The creation of categories became useable knowledge, and altered the lives of individual nonconformists when authorities began to differentiate rehabilitation and punishment accordingly.

  1. Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP.
  2. A 2001 article by Samme Zijlstra examined some Anabaptists and spiritualists who came before the consistory, and focused on the theological differences that motivated conversions between members of the dominant Reformed church and these smaller, marginalized communities; Samme Zijlstra, “Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and the Reformed Church in East Frisia,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review (Jan. 2001, Vol 75:1), 57-73.
  3. KRP I:10.
  4. KRP I: 75, 80, 83, 115, 120, 126, 128.
  5. KRP I: 141.
  6. KRP I: 3.
  7. KRP I: 71; 125.
  8. KRP I: 78.

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.