Münster in detail

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Feature: The Anabaptists

Anabaptism was a religious movement that swept through Europe in the early 16th century. Starting in Zurich, Anabaptists spread through much of Germany and beyond. But like many cultish groups, their true believers had sharp disagreements among themselves. The name alone was cause for strife as it referred to the core tenet that adults should be 'rebaptised' into the faith. However, many claimed that any original baptism as an infant hadn't counted because non-Anabaptist religions were not valid, thus your Anabaptist baptism was the first. And so it went. They did like to argue.

Other beliefs included polygamy and community ownership of goods. The movement reached its apex at Münster in 1534, when a Dutchman named Jan van Leyden and a crew of followers managed to take over the town. Soon they had baptised more than 1000 new followers.

Some rather extreme personalities also emerged: Jan Matthys marched out to confront a vast army of besiegers from the Catholic church who planned to retake the city. He was promptly beheaded and his genitals nailed to a town gate. Meanwhile, van Leyden proclaimed himself king and took 16 wives, which worked out to be about one for each month he was in power; besiegers overran Münster in 1535 and had van Leyden and many Anabaptists tortured and killed. Three of the bodies ended up in the cages you can still see today in St Lambertikirche.

After the defeat at Münster, the movement was never the same. It had managed to bring both Catholics and Protestants together as both mercilessly tortured and killed Anabaptists. Splinters of the old faith eventually formed what later became the Amish and Mennonite faiths, among others.