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False Prophets and Preachers. Henry Gresbeck's Account of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster.

False Prophets and Preachers. Henry Gresbeck's Account of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster. By Christopher S. Mackay. [Early Modern Studies Series, vol. 18] Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press. 2016. Pp. x, 317. $ 65.

The book reviewed here is a careful, idiomatic English translation of Henry Gresbeck's eyewitness account of the Anabaptist rule in Munster in Westphalia, February 1534-June 1535. Gresbeck's property was confiscated by the Bishop of Munster in the aftermath of his restoration to power in 1535. Christopher Mackay reasons that the probable reason for Gresbeck's account was his hope for the restoration of his property, hence "one would imagine that the work was written sooner rather than later." Mackay refers to his companion volume that edits Gresbeck's Low German text and is likely based on Gresbeck's original manuscript, and is clearly superior to the later manuscripts that C. A. Cornelius used in the prior publication of Gresbeck, Berichte der Augenzeugen uber das munsterische Wiedertauferreich (Munster, 1853). Cornelius first exposed the insufficiencies of the history of Munster Anabaptism produced in Hermann von Kerssenbrock's Anabaptistici Furoris Ennarratio, completed in 1573, and published in a Latin critical edition in 1900. In 2007 Mackay published an accurate English translation edition of Kerssenbrock, Narrative of the Munster Madness: The Overthrow of Munster, the Famous Metropolis of Westphalia (Leiden: Brill). As he observed, Kerssenbrock has had vast significance for the historiography of Munster, was an eyewitness of the events that preceded the Anabaptists coming to power, and preserved pertinent documents that would otherwise have been lost.

Mackay identifies Gresbeck as a carpenter who returned to Munster at the time of the Anabaptist takeover. Gresberck claimed that he was previously employed as a Landsknecht (mercenary), a matter about which Mackay expresses doubt. Gresbeck himself explained his return to Munster as motivated by the need to look after his mother's property. Mackay reasons that since most non-Anabaptist men were either leaving Munster to avoid the Anabaptists, or expelled by them in February 1534, Gresbeck was probably at first sympathetic to the Anabaptists, especially to their ideal of abolishing money and equalizing wealth. He married after his return to Munster; the marriage was to a patrician woman probably left behind in Anabaptist Munster to secure family property. Gresbeck's aversion to the institution of polygamy in July 1534 seems very genuine. Also, as a Munster burgher, his account blames the entire Munster debacle on the "Hollanders and the Frisians." Even for Gresbeck, it was impossible to blame the whole Anabaptist regime in Munster on outsiders--prominent among the "rebaptizers" were Bernard KnipperdoUing, a Munster patrician who was elected burgomaster in February 1534, and "Stutenberent," as he named Bernard Rothmann, the pastor who led the trend to radicalization of the Munster Reformation.

Mackay demonstrates that Gresbeck is not always correct on matters of fact or sequence. From this he concludes that Gresbeck wrote entirely from memory, without the opportunity or disposition to rely on others for "fact checking." Gresbeck's inability to remember the name of John Dusentschuer, whom he referred to as "the limping prophet," is taken as evidence that he had no one with whom to discuss what he was writing. Nevertheless, Mackay can use Gresbeck to correct the narrative of Anabaptist Munster. For instance, he shows that it is highly unlikely that the Haarlem prophet John Mathias was killed exactly on Easter Day 1534. The numerous ecstatic outbreaks that Gresbeck attributes to the Munster Anabaptists, high and low, document the feverish excitement that continued from the beginning to the end of the siege. He shows a great deal of sympathy to the Landsknechts who found their way into Munster, presumably normal people ill-suited to survive in an apocalyptic realm.

Although Gresbeck provides striking vignettes of episodes that occurred in Munster under Anabaptist rule, it is easy to understand why Kerssenbroch has had greater influence on the historiography. A great part of Gresbeck's description of events is, incorrectly, depicted as subsequent to Easter 1535, before which King Jan van Leiden had promised divine deliverance for Anabaptist Munster. Since King Jan had promised his subjects that they could behead him if God did not rescue Munster before Easter, this arrangement of the narrative provides Gresbeck with occasion for incessant mockery of King Jan and his inner circle. Gresbeck witnessed, but appeared not to understand, the rivalry between King Jan and Bernard Knipperdolling, the former Anabaptist burgomaster. Clearly, Gresbeck was totally confused by Munster Anabaptist teaching about the relation between Christ and his mother Mary, one of the most distinctive doctrines of the city's religion; indeed, his summary of the "Articles of the Anabaptists" demonstrates his clumsiness with religious doctrine. Gresbeck's resentment against polygamy and the polygamous Anabaptist elite, as well as the striking inequality of suffering in the last days of the siege, is the main theme of the chronicle. Certainly from the summer of 1534 onward he regarded himself as an outsider, disgusted by the "buffoonery" of the "rebaptizers," but compelled to silence for self-protection.

The Gresbeck chronicle reproduces the brutal atmosphere of an early modern siege with little pretense of humanitarian mercies for the besieged. For their part the Munster Anabaptist leadership orchestrated the most extreme anticlericalism, removing saints' names from city gates and streets, referring to church edifices as "stone quarries," and conducting parody masses in which cat's heads and mouse tails were eaten in place of the consecrated host. Recent revision of the history of Anabaptist Munster has questioned whether the Anabaptist rulers had any genuine illusions of world conquest, arguing that they wanted only for the besieging army to go away. However, that may be, Gresbeck provides evidence that repeated declarations that they would soon "march around the world" were an important part of the rhetoric with which Anabaptist Munster's rulers pacified their suffering subjects.

The Gresbeck chronicle provides a good account of the surprise attack on Anabaptist Munster in late June 1525, that led to the fall of the city, and that Gresbeck helped to plan after defecting from the defenders. Other sources verify his important role in the fall of Anabaptist Munster. Although Gresbeck certainly enriches our understanding of what occurred from February 1534 to June 1535, his is the statement of an uninformed and unsympathetic outsider, which needs to be treated with caution.


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Author:Stayer, James M.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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