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.
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.
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
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.
This past semester I had the privilege of spending a few months looking through a new collection donated to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, housed in the Milton Good Library at Conrad Grebel University College. The collection is a gift from Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Katherine Gingrich Brady. Thomas Brady, the Sather Professor Emeritus of History at UC Berkeley and his wife Katherine, an expert paleographer, have spent decades studying the history of the Reformation(s) in Strasbourg and Reformation-era politics more broadly.1 During that time, they gathered a wealth of early modern primary sources on microfilm, which they have now donated to Conrad Grebel University College. The collection promises to be a great resource for scholars interested in the late medieval/early modern history of Strasbourg and politics in the Reformation era.
city of Strasbourg is of particular interest to scholars of early
Anabaptist history, both for the number and diversity of Anabaptists
it attracted and the relatively mild punishments Anabaptists and
other religious dissenters faced there. While Strasbourg’s
Anabaptists alone numbered as many as 2000 in 1530—a substantial
minority of the city’s population—only two Reformation-era
non-conformists received a death sentence from Strasbourg’s
magistrates: Claus Frey, who practiced bigamy, and Thomas Salzmann,
who called Christ an imposter.2
As the spiritualist chronicler Sebastian Franck put it, “he whom
one hangs elsewhere, one drives out of Strasbourg with rods.”3
While some scholars have attributed Strasbourg’s relative tolerance
for dissent to the irenicism of its reformers—and Martin Bucer,
Wolfgang Capito, and Mathis Zell were certainly less quick to burn
bridges than many of their contemporaries—Brady has argued
convincingly that the primary impetus for toleration came from
Strasbourg’s magistrates, who sought peace and order more than they
While few of the documents in the collection deal directly with
Anabaptists, the primary sources the Bradys donated shed light on the
inner workings of Strasbourg politics and the history of the city
leading up to and during the Reformation era, all of which helps to
illuminate the context in which so many sixteenth-century Anabaptists
managed to survive and even thrive to some extent.
majority of the microfilms in the collection contain copies of
documents housed in the Archives
de la ville et de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the
Strasbourg municipal archives, which also house the Archives
de St. Thomas, dedicated
to Strasbourg church history), the Archives
départementales du Bas-Rhin
(the regional archives for the Lower Rhine), and the Bibliothèque
nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg
(the Strasbourg university library, which houses a substantial
collection of premodern manuscripts and rare books). Other microfilms
include copies of documents from a number of other European and North
American libraries and archives, including the Bibliothèque
Paris, the Weimar
the Danish Royal Library, the Newberry Library, and the Harvard
University Library. The contents of these documents include multiple
late medieval and early modern chronicles of Strasbourg history,
large amounts of sixteenth-century correspondence from Strasbourg’s
Reformation-era political and religious leaders (including the entire
a collection of nineteenth-century copies of the Strasbourg
reformers’ correspondence), sixteenth-century notes from Strasbourg
Senate meetings (particularly focused on the years of the
Schmalkaldic War), and many other treasures. For scholars interested
in Reformation-era religion and politics, the collection promises to
yield the raw material for several fascinating projects.
Among Professor Brady’s best-known books are Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520-1555 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995), and German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).↩
John David Derksen, From radicals to survivors: Strasbourg’s religious nonconformists over two generations, 1525-1570 (Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & de Graaf Pub., 2002), 53; Camill Gerbert, Geschichte der Strassburger Sectenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation, 1524-1534 (Strasbourg: Heitz & Mundel, 1889), ix. ↩
Cited in Bodo Brinkman and Berthold Hinz, Hexenlust und Sündenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007), 181.↩
This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions.
Expected Learning Outcomes
At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:
Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form
1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)
Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects.
2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)
Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.
3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)
Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices.
Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)
Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected.
C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
Other readings listed in course schedule below
Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes
Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5
Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11
4. Spread and Development
Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
Sept. 26 – Conversion
Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.
5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?
Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest
II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures
6. Authority and Gender
Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
Oct. 22 – Münster
Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9
8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”
Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest
9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence
Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings,92-99
Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345
10. Identity Formation
Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
Readings: Ausbund,number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
Reading: Troy Osborne, “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218
Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
Nov. 21 – New Approaches
Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6
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.
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.
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.
Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP. ↩
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. ↩
There are a very small number of extant objects that have direct connections with the stories of early Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs: the list of currently known items includes a part of a serviette owned by Thomas von Imbroich (1533-1558); a pear that Maeyken Boosers (d. 1564) gave to her relative (probably her son) Hans Booser in the time leading up to her execution; and a tongue screw, which was used on Hans Bret (d. 1577)1. The tongue screw is in private ownership, and the other two objects are a part of the collection of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam (VDGA), on loan to the University of Amsterdam2. The Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection also includes the only extant handwritten letter by Menno Simons.3
The pear, cloth, and the tongue screw are historical items that occupy a middle ground between artifacts and memorial objects. These are not only of interest for scholarly research, but also items that have been considered to be of emotional or even devotional importance within the centuries-long Mennonite story.
I recently had the chance to see Maeyken Boosers’ pear in the Zaal Mennonitica (Mennonite Room) at the Special Collections library of the University of Amsterdam. Withered, shrunken, and extremely delicate, the 455 year old dried pear does not look much like a fruit any longer (figure 1). The story of Maeyken Boosers is well preserved in Dutch Mennonite circles and in the Mennonite martyrological literary tradition. Boosers was executed in Doornik (present day Tournai, Belgium) following imprisonment and torture. Notes to her family describe these trials, while demonstrating her dedication to her faith. Her story circulated as a song, “Die op den Heere betrouwen” (Those who trust in the Lord), which made its way into the late sixteenth-century Dutch Mennonite martyrology, Offer des Heeren4. Seventeenth-century martyrologies, including the Martyrs Mirror include several of her letters to her family.5 Maeyken passed along the pear to a member of her family during a visit to her in prison before her execution.6 Since then, the object has been protected and passed down over the centuries by her Dutch descendants.7 In the nineteenth century the pear found its way from the Booser family (sometimes written Boosers/de Booser) to the related Van Geuns family, after which time it entered into the Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection in the twentieth century.8
At present, the pear is stored in a simple oval box with a hand written label indicating the contents (figure 2). However, up until the nineteenth century, it appears that the pear was kept in a silver casing. According to Samuel Cramer, writing about the “Mennonite relics” at the turn of the twentieth century, several of the older members of the Van Geuns family still remembered the silver container.9
A handwritten note, which has long accompanied the pear, offers a short account about the origins of the pear. The message is signed, “Jan de Booser.” He is thought to be the grandson of Maeyken – the son of Hans Booser, who received the pear from Maeyken in prison. Jan de Booser, who lived in Grossenfehn in East-Friesland, died around 1630, meaning that the note likely dates to the late sixteenth- or early seventeenth century.10 The note states, “[t]his pear was given by Mayke Boosers to our dear father [beste vader] Hans de Booser in Doornik in the prison to be honoured as an eternal memorial” for Maeyken who was “sacrificed on September 10, 1564” (figure 3).11
The text is transcribed again in later penmanship beneath the early modern hand, followed by addition instructions to see the account in Thieleman Jansz. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, volume II, p. 302. This is likely an inscription added by a later member of the Booser or Van Geuns family. The more modern hand also adjusts the death date to September 18, which matches with the date given in the Mennonite martyrs books.12 This handwritten note was briefly lost in the nineteenth century. Cramer details the rediscovery and reacquisition of the letter by Dr. J.B. Van Geuns, a member of the family then in possession of the pear.13
The careful preservation of this pear, together with the fact that it used to be kept in a fine silver casing certainly lends itself to the characterisation of the object as a “relic” in some respects. Furthermore, the pear is referred to as a relic in the existing literature on this object; namely, the articles by Cramer and the Mennonite Encyclopedia entry on “Mennonite relics.”14 In other ways, the term is perhaps not appropriate, given the historical Mennonite perspectives on relic veneration, and given the history of the pear as an object. In broader Christian tradition, relics are objects or physical remains thought to be from early Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, and even Christ. Since the origin and spread of Anabaptist movements around Europe in the sixteenth century, Mennonites have eschewed the veneration relics along with the veneration of saints, images, and the Host. These theological decisions have shaped the appearance of Mennonite churches, as well as the form of Mennonite worship. While relics housed in fine reliquaries have a long history of attracting pilgrims and generating a tradition of miracle stories in the Catholic tradition, Mennonite churches have not systematically kept or searched for “relics,” and Mennonites have historically excluded important heritage objects – whether artifacts or memorial items – from within the church sanctuary. The pear is very explicitly an object intended as a memorial for Maeyken Boosers – this is stated in Jan de Booser’s note. However, the known history and provenance of the pear suggest that it was treasured for sentimental and devotional reasons within the family sphere. In keeping with long engrained Mennonite theological practice, it was not placed within a Mennonite worship space as an object to be venerated. Now, the pear is stored among rare books, letters, and prints, in a library. The aim in this post is not necessarily to arrive at a definitive conclusion about how we should relate to Maeyken’s pear and the other objects that belonged to Mennonite martyrs – as artifacts, memorial objects, or indeed as “relics.” However, it is always interesting to check in on the question of how we as Mennonites relate to material culture that pertains to our socio-religious history. As a memorial object in a library setting the pear certainly continues to garner some attention (and spark some scholarly library pilgrimages) from within the global Mennonite faith community and the networks of Mennonite history aficionados.
Ibid. The pear is being housed within the University of Amsterdam’s Special Collections, and the cloth of Thomas von Imbroich is likely also there. See H.W. Meihuizen, Catalogus: Historische tentoonstelling achste doopsgezinde wereldcongres, Amsterdam RAI (Amsterdam: 1967), p. 25, cat. no. 40. ↩
This is also on loan to the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. See I.B. Horst, “De strijd om het fundament des geloofs: van melchioriten tot menisten,” in Wederdopers, menisten, doopsgezinden in Nederland: 1530-1980, S. Groenveld, J.P. Jacobszoon, S.L. Verheus ed. (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1993), p. 35, figure 21. ↩
Thieleman van Braght, Het Bloedigh Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen, Die om ‘t getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd of tot desen tijd toe. 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, etc., 1685), part II, 302 ff.; in English translation, Van Braght, The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660 (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1951), pp. 667-669.↩
Samuel Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode. Doopsgezind weekblad, P. Feenstra Jr. Ed., vol. 15 (1902), p. 79. ↩
Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarsrelieken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, vol. 38 (1898), pp. 115-116.↩
Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79↩
Original Dutch: “dese peere heeft Mayke Boosers/ an onse beste vader Hans de Booser binnen doornick int gevangenhuisz ver eert tot een eeuwyge gedachtenis/ geschiet Anno 1564 den 10 Septemb [sic.] op geoffert/ [signed] Jan de Booser”]↩
The early modern handwritten note reads “September 10.” Cramer is first to note the discrepancy in date. Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79.↩
When Samuel Cramer first wrote about the pear in his 1898 article, the note remained lost. He wrote only on the basis of the pear, the martyr accounts, and the family recollections. His 1902 articles on the pear note that the paper has been found once again, and he offers a transcription. See Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarszaken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen vol. 42 (1902): pp. 150-171 especually, 168-170, transcription in Dutch on p. 168.↩
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.
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. ↩
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.”↩
George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 732-734.↩
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”↩
Ibid., 2: “dat so alle vnnd jder [illeg.] sienn Mennonisten, Davidianen, Baterberger, vnd andere vordampn secten”↩
The history of sixteenth-century Anabaptists has occupied a privileged position in North American and European Mennonite historiography and self-understanding during the last century. The reasons for this are myriad. Most importantly, this history, and the theological writings associated with it, have offered these Mennonite communities legitimacy and a framework for determining a shared purpose.1
The role that early Anabaptist history has played in this context is undergoing reevaluation. Firstly, historical Anabaptist theology is diminishing in prominence as a resource for shaping Mennonite belief and practice. Secondly, as more North American and European Mennonite groups reflect to a greater degree the diversity of their societies and as distinctive Mennonite traditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shape a global church’s conception of itself–developments to be celebrated, surely–a history of origins rooted solely in early modern Europe is insufficient to the task of describing a common story. The question of whether the study of sixteenth-century Anabaptists is relevant to twenty-first century Mennonites requires continuous answering; a positive response should not be assumed.
Beyond these dynamics, a decentering of the sixteenth century in Anabaptist-Mennonite historiography–a trend represented in the content of this blog and one which I do not oppose–also coincides with a broader growth of doubts, in educational institutions and society more generally, about the value of studying a deeper past. Demand for pre-twentieth-century history (wars, presidents, and palace intrigue aside) is drying up, as indicated by class enrollments, hiring lines, and page views.
This colors the everyday experience of teaching, research, and writing for those working in fields of premodern history. When my colleague Cory Davis and I were recently approached to contribute to a fiftieth anniversary issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal entitled “Taking the Temperature of Early Modern Studies,” we wrote about the value of early modern history. Beyond questions of utility and origins, we argued, premodern historical scholarship retains relevance because of the habits of thought that it embodies and promotes. In the introduction to the piece, we highlighted two of these habits:
“First, early modern scholarship privileges empathetic understanding over judgment; while sharing with all good historical research the impulse to comprehend human subjects on their own terms, it is uniquely equipped to model this objective. Early modernists join historians of the ancient world and Middle Ages in noting the alterity of the values, worldviews, and modes of behavior of these eras’ peoples; the nature and quantity of early modern sources, however, make larger pieces of this foreign past accessible. We cannot claim to ever know what a person thought or felt in the past, even (or perhaps especially) when he or she recorded it. Nevertheless, our sources make it possible for us to practice and train others in the empathetic task of thinking with an enormous variety of people in radically different, and yet accessible, worlds.
Second, because of the period’s importance in shaping the structures that undergird modern life, early modern research reveals the contingency of both the past and present. Recognizing the circumstances in which world systems have come into being serves to denaturalize our own reality and provides alternative examples of how past communities have dealt with challenges comparable to those we face today. Thinking with early modern subjects requires us to set aside the privilege of hindsight in order to reconstruct their world and the possible futures they envisioned. Reducing the inevitability of the present in the minds of readers and students spurs us all to recognize that oppressive systems and ideologies are not destined to exist.
The promotion of these habits of thought, demanded by the practice of early modern scholarship, has taken on renewed import in present circumstances. By encouraging an impulse to understand the Other and by demonstrating possibilities for systemic change, the significance of early modern scholarship extends beyond its explanatory function and aids us to live better.”2
Scholarship on a deeper Anabaptist past epitomizes and encourages these same impulses. Engagement with the writings of early Anabaptists, and the search for traces of their existence in archives of the governments which repressed them, obligate us to wrestle with these people’s apparent strangeness. This encounter often confounds the assumption, or desire, that we will find ourselves in them. Attempts to overcome our basic difference from these subjects have at times led to projects of selective forgetting; better are efforts to reach across chronological distance to consider motivations and deeds of those who are inescapably foreign and to carry out the task of reconstructing environments in which their thoughts and actions made sense.
If thinking with early Anabaptists requires imaginative empathy, it also pushes us to take the contingency of their experience and legacy seriously. Early modern Anabaptist history is characterized by paths laid out and then diverted or blocked off, the result of moments of social and imaginative possibility punctuating generalized hostility. Recent scholarship has reinforced the notion that our understanding of Anabaptist phenomena is illuminated as much by the thoughts and actions of those figures and groups without a surviving tradition as by those whose link to the present is strengthened by shared convictions, organizational structures, or family names. These historical outliers too reasoned in ways worthy of consideration and demonstrated the capacity to temporarily construct alternative communities with geographical breadth and emotional and theological depth.3
When such an approach is taken, early Anabaptist history grows in its capacity to illuminate present questions and concerns rather than serving as a shibboleth.
This point could be demonstrated variously, but Albert N. Keim’s description of the role of Anabaptist historiography in the work of H.S. Bender and the “Concern” group provides an example. Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998), esp. 306-31 and 450-71.↩
Cory D. Davis and David Y. Neufeld, “Thinking with the Early Modern Past: The Relevance of our Scholarship,” The Sixteenth Century Journal (forthcoming, spring 2019).↩
Recent studies of instances of this phenomenon include Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).↩